Without question, the New Jersey Devils have vastly improved with training camp only a few weeks away. General Manager Ray Shero did a tremendous job in retooling the offense, giving the Devils their best look up front in years. The blue line remains a bit of a question mark, and we can take New Jersey’s skill in net for granted at this point. Shero also did a great job in maintaining his “fast, attacking, supportive” model while staying committed to the youth movement he instated last offseason. Between trades and free agent departures, the Devils lost a lot of faces that regularly played in last season’s lineup. While most of these players were fan favorites, parting ways with them was largely a necessity for the organization since most of them occupied the 7-12th roles up front, and provided meager offensive numbers throughout the entire season. In spite of the significant improvements and changes that occurred this offseason, the current roster sorely lacks a component that was fundamental in the successes of last year’s squad, which this year’s team could have built on…
While the Devils had the 19th-most hits out of all 30 NHL teams last season (1840), 778 of those hits (42.3%) came from Devils players no longer with the team (appearing in at least 30 contests). Last season’s Devils were the 12th-most penalized team in the NHL, and received the 13th-most major penalties (combining fights and other infractions). Granted these numbers strongly personify the glaring lack of discipline last year’s group had, it’s a strong testament to the degree of physicality, feistiness, and tenacity this team played with, despite being as under-skilled as they were.
To break it down further, the Devils lost three of their top-five hitters from last season (Larsson (163), Gionta (113), Tootoo (99). Larsson we all know was the expense that came for the Devils to attain left wing Taylor Hall. In addition to Gionta and Tootoo, the departure of Bobby Farnham (Wild Thing) will be strongly felt in the locker room and lineup in next year’s squad. Although these three were undersized forwards that largely played an 8-12th role most of last season, they were among the team’s grittiest forwards. While contributing to the lineup’s strong promotion of speed in their game last year, Farnham, Gionta, and Tootoo were also among the first players to stick up for their teammates, wreaked havoc in the corners, and in front of the net. Granted the NHL is trying to phase fighting from the modern version of professional hockey, there’s still a demand for players that can make a difference on a physical scale in game situations, and your team from being one that others can push and muscle around to a victory. Yes, players like Tootoo, Farnham, and Gionta weren’t the most-skilled, but they kept the Devils from being that type of team.
There are some current Devils capable of addressing this void, however their effectiveness remains to be seen in that department. Returning to next year’s squad are forwards Kyle Palmieri and Sergey Kalinin, who respectively finished second and third in hits last season. Ben Lovejoy was third on the Penguins in hits (154), leading Pittsburgh’s defense as well. Joe Blandisi exhibited some flashes of physicality, and very much like Farnham, could play the role of an instigator to get under the skin of the other team’s players. If he makes the team out of training camp, rookie defenseman Steve Santini is reputed for his thunderous game-changing hits that could further help address the void left by the departures of Larsson, Gionta, and Tootoo in that department. The Devils also have forward prospects like Pavel Zacha and Blake Pietila that have also displayed that element of feistiness and physical play last season’s squad contained that this year’s team might presently lack among their projected lineup regulars.