The New Jersey Devils are trapped in limbo. They have a few good players on their roster right now that form the beginning of a group that you could go into the playoffs with, but there isn’t enough there to push them to that level. Also, after years of being competitive, they have virtually nothing in terms of prospect depth in their system that could make a difference.
But the Devils have been granted a couple pieces of good fortune that could actually help turn this ship around. First, they moved from fifth overall to first overall thanks to the new NHL Draft Lottery system, and second, their old pal Ilya Kovalchuk apparently wants to make an NHL comeback, and the Devils hold his rights.
It isn’t Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid kind of golden ticket, but the Devils are looking a hell of a lot better off than they did a few weeks ago.
Officially adding “NHL lottery ball specialist” to my hockey resume.
— Taylor Hall (@hallsy09) April 30, 2017
Like I said, this roster has a good start but there isn’t all that much to get excited about.
Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri tied for the team lead in scoring with 53 points and only three players had more than 20 goals. The Devils boasted the second worst 5-on-5 Goals For percentage (43.6) in the league, ahead of only Colorado, and were dead last in the league shot attempts for per 60 minutes at even strength. One thing they did pretty well, though, was suppressing offence, as the Devils were ninth in shot attempts against per 60 minutes. Unfortunately, Cory Schneider had the worst season of his career, posting a .908 save percentage in all situations.
Taylor Hall is the shining star on this team. He was acquired in a surprising deal, one-for-one for Adam Larsson last summer, and was easily the team’s best player in his first year in New Jersey. Hall missed 10 games, but was still second on the team in goals and tied for the lead in points, and put up a very impressive 52.2 Corsi For percentage (+7.6 rel) despite being fed fewer offensive minutes than he ever was in Edmonton.
The other bright spots up front? Palmieri put up another good offensive season, leading the team in goals with 26 and finishing tied with Hall in points with 53. He was buried in a depth role in Anaheim and has really come into his own as a solid player since being given a chance to thrive in New Jersey. More of an under-the-radar performance was Beau Bennett, who only scored 19 points in 65 games, but had the best possession numbers on the team.
Travis Zajac did what he always does, which is put up 45 points in a two-way role, but at $5.75 million annually, that production is a little disappointing. Speaking of disappointing, Adam Henrique and Mike Cammalleri were expected to produce at a high level and drive New Jersey’s offence, but both dropped significantly from the numbers they had put up in the past. The Devils also likely expected for more from their young group of forwards, Pavel Zacha, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Stefan Noesen, but none of them had seasons to remember.
On the blue line, Andy Greene continued to do the heavy lifting, logging 22 minutes a night in the most difficult situations possible. Larsson’s absence left a hole beside Greene, which was filled by Ben Lovejoy and Damon Severson. Lovejoy was thrusted into a bigger role than he’s ever seen and was guttered, but Severson really held his own, and is emerging as the future of New Jersey’s defensive core. And, like I said earlier, Cory Schneider, who’s usually excellent, wasn’t himself this season, which played a big role in New Jersey’s disappointing finish in the standings.
Conclusion: This is a team with some good pieces, but not much to get excited about. There’s a star goalie, an elite play-driving forward, a very good shut down defenceman, and some middling players who can produce, but not a hell of a lot after that. New Jersey was very good for a very long time, and they’re paying for it now.
There isn’t much to talk about when it comes to the Devils’ cap situation. They have a truck load of free cap room to work with and don’t really have any bad contracts to worry about. Their longest term investment is Schneider, who’s singed for another five seasons. Otherwise, Hall, Zajac, Henrique, Greene, and Palmieri are all inked for at least the next two seasons.
They have roughly $52 million tied into eight forwards, six defencemen, and one goalie heading into 2017-18. Beau Bennett, Stefan Noesen, and Jacob Josefson are restricted free agents, but won’t break the bank to sign. Damon Severson, who I mentioned earlier as being a major bright spot on the team, just finished his entry-level deal. I doubt he’ll get anything other than a bridge deal, but the Devils could explore signing him to a long-term deal akin to what they gave Adam Larsson a few years back.
Conclusion: There’s a lot of room to work with here, and judging by their putrid prospect group and core of players in prime ages, the Devils are in a reasonable spot to make a big free agent splash. You have to think New Jersey wants to make something happen before Taylor Hall’s contract expires, and they only have three years left to do so.
Offseason Game Plan
The Devils will fill a hole this summer with their first overall pick. I have no idea whether they’ll opt to choose Nolan Patrick, who came into the season as the obvious No. 1, or the riser, Nico Hischier, who dominated the QMJHL in his first season in North America. Either of them is a good pick. Hischier seems to have more flare and offensive upside, while Patrick has a more well-rounded game and is more likely to be able to step into the league and make an impact right away.
The next big thing is more of a wild card. Ilya Kovalchuk says he wants to come back to North America, but he’s said that a few times before and has stayed in Russia. If Kovalchuk comes back, it would be to win a Stanley Cup, and New Jersey isn’t doing that any time soon. A return to New Jersey would be odd, but the Devils could cash in by doing a sign-and-trade with another team closer to contention, either filling an immediate hole on the team or adding to their thin prospect depth. Like with the first overall pick, either situation is a good one, and wasn’t something the Devils expected a few weeks ago.
The Devils figure to have a fine situation at the expansion draft, and aren’t in a position to lose an important player. Then finally, there’s free agency. The Devils, like I said, have a lot of cap room to work with, likely want to take a step forward next season, and don’t have many assets to bring in a good player on the trade market. Add that all up, and New Jersey is a prime candidate to make a big free agent splash.
Kevin Shattenkirk is this summer’s big free agent prize. He’s made it weirdly clear that he wants to sign with the New York Rangers, his childhood team, but they don’t seem to have the cap room to make it happen. New Jersey kind of, like, Diet New York, right? I mean, playing in Newark isn’t the same as Madison Square Garden, but it’s close to home, and the Devils can actually throw that massive contract at Shattenkirk that the Rangers can’t.
Still, though, this isn’t a great free agent market, and just because you have a lot of cap room doesn’t mean you have to spend it. I said earlier the Devils clearly want to make something happen during Taylor Hall’s contract, but signing a good-but-not-great player to an inflated deal out of desperation probably won’t help. The Devils might be better off adding low-key players on shorter term deals, because if it doesn’t work out, they’ll at least be able to sell them off at the deadline for futures.
Conclusion: The Devils were granted a excellent gift at the draft lottery, and will add a key piece to their long-term puzzle in Nico Hischier or Nolan Patrick. Ilya Kovalchuk also presents an interesting opportunity for the Devils to improve through a sing-and-trade. The team has a lot of cap room, but they’ll need to be cautious about handing out a bad contract on the player-friendly market.
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