by John Fischer
1. A fresh start.
The New Jersey Devils were a team in need of a rebuild and they’ve done so throughout the organization. Lou Lamoriello stepped away from the GM position before heading to Toronto, leaving Ray Shero in charge. There’s a brand new head coach, there are brand new assistants, a brand new director of scouting and a whole lot of roster changes within the summer. Even the marketing department has been candid that this is a new era, with the tag line "New Heart, Same Soul."
Most fans understand and have accepted that this is a necessary rebuilding effort. Shero, head coach John Hynes and the rest of the new staff has the leeway to make changes to their roster, their playing philosophies and their tactics as they look to make the Devils competitive in the future. There won’t be a massive struggle within the organization to accept that some drastic changes are needed -- many have been made -- and the fans aren’t going to be shocked that this won’t be a good team. The Devils have a fresh start, and so they won’t have the pressure to claw their way to the postseason like in recent seasons. Just being more watchable than last year’s team will be a good start.
If there’s one area the Devils won’t be struggling or suffering growing pains, it will be at godltending. Cory Schneider had one of the best seasons in the NHL last season. In 69 games, he posted a 93.3 even-strength save percentage and a 89.2 penalty kill save percentage. Among all NHL goalies that played at least twenty games last season, those percentages ranked sixth and ninth, respectively. While those percentages may dip in 2015-16 just because they were so fabulous, Schneider’s past seasons suggest it won’t dip by much. Like last season, Schneider will be primarily responsible for dragging the Devils closer to respectability than they may deserve.
Joining Schneider will be Keith Kinkaid. He demonstrated that he had solid fundamentals in nineteen appearances, putting up a 93.3 even-strength save percentage like Schneider and a 83.1 penalty kill save percentage. He will be a fine backup to an excellent starter. It is primarily because of this position that the Devils will not be a complete doormat in 2015-16.
3. The first defensive pairing.
Andy Greene has been the leader of the defense in good times, bad times and times in between since 2010. He’s one of the more under-the-radar defensemen in the league in that he doesn’t post gaudy production or have any exceptional skill. What he does do is be able to play over 23 minutes per game on average, play in all situations, play against the toughest competition and make plenty of smart plays regardless of the forwards in front of him.
His partner will likely be the one who joined him last season: Adam Larsson. The 22-year-old finally played up to his potential last season and made quicker decisions on defense, which led to being able to make more of them, which helped the Devils’ defense and penalty kill. Together, they’re a formidable pairing on the back end and will get a lot of minutes in case one isn’t aware of how good each of them are. Together, like the goaltending, they will help make the Devils competitive.
by John Fischer
1. The top six forwards.
As opposed to just writing "offense" three times, I’ll offer three more specific weaknesses related to the offense. As of right now in camp, the Devils have five players likely to fill in the top two lines for the season. There’s Travis Zajac, who absolutely is a top-six worthy player in most aspects except in producing points. There’s Mike Cammalleri, who scored a whole lot (27) last season with a 17.3 shooting percentage that’s bound to fall for the 33-year-old. There’s Adam Henrique, who doesn’t drive possession particularly well, doesn’t produce consistently and doesn’t necessarily excel, though he does a bunch of things well. There’s Kyle Palmieri, who hasn’t been a top-six player before but will get a bigger opportunity in New Jersey than he would have in Anaheim. There’s Jiri Tlusty, who did it alongside at least one Staal in Carolina but didn’t exactly own the big spot as his role shifted throughout the lineup with the Canes.
Outside of Palmieri, there’s not a lot to get excited for on the top two lines. And, again, that’s only five players. The sixth may either be someone better suited for a third-line role moved up out of necessity, a prospect like Reid Boucher or Stefan Matteau thrown in there to see if he’ll just fit in or a 39-year-old Patrik Elias, who has been losing to Father Time since 2014. The lack of offensive talent on these two lines undercuts the general offensive production of the team and it’s a reason why the Devils’ rebuild will take more than a season to fix. Short of some fantastic chemistry and luck, this is not a good group of top-six forwards.
2. Shot generation.
The Devils have been one of the lowest-shooting teams in the league for seasons now. It doesn’t help that the scorer at the Prudential Center under-counts shots, but the Devils have just struggled to make shots happen. That absolutely undercuts the offense and makes the Devils easier to play against. If a team is not attacking, then often the other team has the puck and they’re attacking instead.
Last season, the Devils had issues with breakouts at both even strength and power play situations to just gain the zone on offense. Too many dumps, too many denied entries and too few carry-ins that would allow them options to move the puck. Passing was spotty at times and too often their defensive exits were just clearances to make some space, get a line change and then go back to being pinned in their own end. The general coaching tactics and puck possession has to improve for this team to improve. With a new head coach in John Hynes and plenty of new players entering the roster, there could be strides taken in 2015-16. But as long as this team remains entrenched at shooting fewer than 25 pucks on net on average, this is a definite weakness.
3. Defensive depth.
After Andy Greene and Adam Larsson, the Devils’ blueline becomes notably weaker. To be fair, Damon Severson has shown a lot of promise last season and he could become a good defenseman sooner rather than later. It’s just that he kind of has to be one really soon.
There are also Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas and John Moore – all defensemen under the age of 25. The problem is that all three of them have been in the league long enough such that they aren’t young prospects just learning the game. They should be nightly contributors in some way or form; that remains an open question at best. Merrill played enough to be called a second-pairing defenseman last season, despite getting hammered in possession worse than Bryce Salvador last season. He’s not a particularly offensive player so one can’t even claim he provides that despite defensive issues.
Yet, his defensive acumen is miles ahead of Eric Gelinas. Gelinas has demonstrated he has a fantastically dangerous shot. However, when forced to skate quickly, make passes going forward and make quick decisions on defense, he’s been the opposite of fantastic – except maybe to opposing forwards. Moore may end up being somewhere in between. He’s got some offensive skills and handles the puck better than Gelinas, and he does have his shifts where he looks quite solid. But like Merrill and Gelinas, he can get in over his head and just struggle in his own end. While the defensemen are in better shape than the forwards, opponents may be able pick on the second and third pairings.
What’s worse is if/when injuries arise and the Devils need to go deeper into their roster. David Schlemko is a perfectly acceptable seventh defensemen, but the options from Albany are slim: Seth Helgeson, who’s a defense-only defenseman; Raman Hrabarenka, who’s got some offensive game but not much else; Marc-Andre Gragnani, who hasn’t cracked the NHL since one appearance in 2012-13; and Vojtech Mozik, who’s young and unknown at this point. While plenty of teams are in trouble when they go nine or ten deep on defense, the Devils’ issue is that their No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 guy has issues that, if they are not addressed and they do not improve, will slow the rebuild down.
1. Who’s playing at right wing this season for the Devils?
2. With new staff and new players, how will they approach special team situations?
3. What will it take for this season to be a success in the bigger picture?
BEST CASE SCENARIO
by John Fischer
The Devils win the lottery for the 2016 NHL Draft. Note that I didn’t say they’ll finish dead last and be able to pick high in every single round. In the larger context of the rebuild, being able to select the most talented forward available is the best thing that could happen in this season. It will almost immediately address their issues up top, add another reason to keep watching in 2016-17 and provide the cornerstone forward the Devils don’t really have any more (Elias was it, but he’s old; Parise became it, but he signed with Minnesota).
Outside of having the right lotto balls, the best-case scenario is that while the Devils have a poor record, they start to generate more shots, their possession game shows signs of improvement, Shero and company better knows who they count on for the future and the team is kind of fun to watch -- especially compared to the 2015 portion of last season.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
by John Fischer
Shero did a lot of work to remake the roster, coaches, management and other staff members. Rather than be patient, he and the players believe their own preseason press clippings that they can really surprise some people. Instead of rebuilding and using this season to make small improvements and evaluate for the larger picture, the Devils try to win now. They’ll push really hard, make some unwise moves to add players that won’t help them in the long-term, don’t really make many necessary changes to how they perform and end up missing the playoffs anyway. Their prospects may get some good additions, but not the great additions that they need that often comes with higher draft picks.
This effort essentially elongates the rebuilding effort and it gives one pause as to whether Shero was really the right choice to lead this new era of Devils hockey.