The Halfway point of the 2015-2016 has passed and I’m sure I can speak for everyone when I say it’s been a season full of bountiful surprises for the Devils faithful. Although the team stumbled into the midpoint of their season with an injury-riddled team that’s lost two straight contests, they occupied the top wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference and are within reach of further ascending in the standings. The writing staff at Devils Army Blog has collectively submitted their input on how the different aspects of this Devils team factored into their remarkable bounce-back campaign. Staff writers Sam Britt and Alex Chauvancy evaluated the three different parts of the roster, while Brett Minieri and Mike Luci weighed in on three big questions for the Devils going into the 2016 half of their season.
Editor’s Note: All team and player stats are as of 1/6/16 (41-game mark)
Halfway in the season the Devils offense sits at 94 goals, which leaves them tied for 11th in the Eastern Conference. Though the Devils remain in playoff contention, they haven’t improved from last season. Through January 6th 2015 when the Devils were 3rd to last in the conference, they also had 94 goals. This is weird because it seems like the Devils have improved offensively. Henrique, Palmieri, and Cammalleri have led the way, followed closely by Zajac and Stempniak. The problem after that is the lack of secondary scoring. With an offense as bad as the Devils it is no wonder Bobby Farnham is 7th on the team in goals. The Devils have looked much better as a team that one would assume the offense has improved, while in reality they are on the same pace from last season production-wise. This team is still very thin up front and is winning due to defense and goaltending. The offense is lacking a real elite weapon even with Cammalleri, Palmieri and Henrique playing the way they are this year. The Devils will need to address this in the coming years whether it be via trades, free agency, or the draft.
Aside from goaltending, defense is (and continues to be) a large reason why the team finds themselves in a playoff position halfway through the season. After 41 games, the Devils’ GAA is 2.27, which is fourth-best in the NHL. While they don’t have a Karlsson-caliber defenseman, low-risk signings like John Moore and David Schlemko are paying off for the Devils as both of them are enjoying bounce back seasons. Youngsters like Adam Larsson and Damon Severson continue to make strides in their development as top 4 defensemen. The Devils are also the top team in the league in shot suppression. Their Corsi Against per 60 minutes is 47.3 (via War-on-Ice). That’s the best mark in the NHL. They’ve given up the second-least amount of scoring chances in the league and gave up just over 21 scoring chances per 60 minutes. Even with Schneider, if the Devils weren’t as sound defensively, this team would be in a big hole, considering their scoring woes.
Cory Schneider has undoubtedly been the team’s best player through 41 games and was the Devils’ lone selection to the All-Star Game. In 34 starts, Schneider is 17-12-5 with a .927 SV and 2.06 GAA. His .927 save percentage is 3rd amongst goalies that played 1500+ minutes. Only Braden Holtby and Roberto Luongo have better save percentages. Schneider’s save percentage is also .937 at even strength. That’s fifth amongst NHL for goalies with 1000+ this season. His numbers are among the best in the league, firmly putting him in the Vezina race with Braden Holtby and Roberto Luongo. Where he finishes remains to be seen, but he will certainly be in the Vezina discussion as the season progresses.
Three Big Questions for 2016
Who needs to step up most in the second half?
Without a doubt, Travis Zajac. He had six goals in his first 12 games of the season, but hasn’t scored in 22 games. If he potted in six more goals through the Devils’ first 41 games (although Zajac missed 7 due to injury), it would have made a profound difference for a team who’s lost 13 games in the first-half of the season by one goal. We all know Zajac is the team’s best center at faceoffs, plays in all three ends of the ice, and in any type of situation.
His defensive prowess and versatility is the only thing that makes the value of his $5.8 million cap hit somewhat arguable. It’s been widely believed Zajac needs to piggyback off better players (like he did during the Parise/Kovalchuk days) to put up points. He has shown chemistry with Kyle Palmieri, but that line’s absence of a compatible left wing is reflecting in (mostly Zajac’s) their stats. If Travis starts finishing on his chances and shoots the puck more to create those said scoring opportunities, he can help get this team farther than we probably imaged they would this year.
Are the Devils a playoff team?
If you asked me (or pretty much anyone in the hockey blogosphere) at the start of the year if they though they Devils would be holding the first wild card spot in the East by the season’s midpoint, you might get a laugh or three. Alas, here the Devils are with a 20-16-5, 45-point record, while this time last year they were 10 points out of a final playoff spot. There’s a lot of credit to go around—Ray Shero has made some savvy moves, John Hynes and his staff have done an admirable job installing a new system and getting the players to work hard despite limited talent,and Cory Schneider has come into his own as an elite goaltender in the NHL.
Despite what Shero calls a “good story so far”, injuries are mounting and their lack of scoring depth is a growing issue. The Devils being currently 27th in 5-on-5 scoring says it all. However, many teams without a Kane, Ovechkin, or Seguin are looking for more goals, too. So can the Devils make the playoffs? They will likely have to play much better than they have to stave off the teams behind them in order to find a playoff spot after Game 82, but I believe they can. Shero himself said the keys for a successful 2nd half (per Tom Guliti) are to “continue playing the way we’re playing defensively as a group with the goaltending and, secondly, we need to get timely scoring like we were earlier.” That’s no small task and I hope it’s that simple. There’s a lot of hockey left this season and with #35 between the pipes, anything’s possible. I think it will come down to the wire, and regardless of the outcome it’s going to be fun to watch.
How should the Devils handle themselves at the trade deadline?
The best move the Devils could make is the one they don’t. It’s always tempting for front offices and fan bases alike to get sucked into the deadline hype and lose focus on the bigger picture. Shero, as we previously mentioned, has put together a solid young group of players thatseemingly put the rebuild ahead of schedule. The Devils have established a solid core identity in players like Henrique, Cammalleri, Palmieri, Larsson, Greene, Severson, and Schneider. The jury is still out on youngsters like Matteau, Kalinin, Gelinas, and Merrill, who are some popular names that pop up in trade discussion. Let’s keep in mind Merrill and Gelinas are both under 25 and in their third NHL seasons. Matteau doesn’t even have 50 games under his belt and this is Kalinin’s rookie campaign after spending the last four seasons overseas.
Regardless of where the Devils are in the standings, the only deals I’d like to see Shero make are shedding dead weight like Tlusty and Ruutu(maybe send Elias to a contender if he’s willing and able) to anyone willing to take these players off his hands. I know the past few years have been rough and Devils fans are anxious to see their team get good again, but the best thing for the Devils is to see how far this core could carry the team, which will give Shero a clearer image on how to improve this team in the offseason. Even if they reach the playoffs, getting a taste of postseason hockey can do wonders for the team’s younger players moving forward.