Let me the first to acknowledge how I may seem hypocritical at first before divulging into this topic. If anyone read my earlier article from this week, I voiced a lot of concern on how the departures of Adam Larsson and David Schlemko set the team back on defense, where there already was a dire need for improvement. Larsson could have eventually become the two-way top-pairing defenseman they needed, but trading him straight up for Taylor Hall was a no-brainer. Just to reiterate, the gain in Hall and consequential loss of Adam Larsson is a sobering reminder the Devils are still on their way back to contention.
Having said that, the sections of the Devil’s roster are all on different levels of readiness for top-end contention. While the Devil’s defense might not be in the right state to man the workload of a playoff run, it feels weird saying that might not be the case up front. For the past few years, the belief has always been the Devils were one or two scoring forwards away from getting over the hump. Their offensive core consists of Adam Henrique, Mike Cammalleri, Kyle Palmieri, and Travis Zajac before the acquisition of Hall. He not only automatically becomes the best forward in that group, but adds enough scoring-caliber depth to evenly distribute that talent throughout their offensive lineup.
The Devils can have three of their top forwards anchor each of their top-three lines, while forming a checking line on their fourth unit. Looking back at the past few Stanley Cup champions, this is the exact model they’ve all used. The Pittsburgh Penguins anchored each of their top-three lines with Sidney Crosby (L1 with Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist) Phil Kessel (L2 with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino), and Evgeni Malkin (L3 with Chris Kunitz and Bryan Rust). Their fourth unit consisted of grinding forwards Matt Cullen, Eric Fehr, and Tom Kuhnhackl. The 2015 Chicago Blackhawks followed the same model with Jonathan Toews (L1 with Brandon Saad and Marian Hossa), Patrick Kane (L2 with Brian Bickell and Brad Richards), and Patrick Sharp (L3 with Antoine Vermette and Teuvo Teravainen). That team’s checking (fourth) unit consisted of Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger, and Andrew Desjardins. The Los Angeles King’s 2014 Stanley Cup roster used Anze Kopitar (L1 with Marian Gaborik and Dustin Brown), Jeff Carter (L2 with Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli), and Justin Williams (L3 with Dwight King and Jarrett Stoll), while their fourth checking unit had Kyle Clifford, Mike Richards, and Trevor Lewis.
The boost in talent that Taylor Hall brings and how the offensive roster is shaping out is slowly starting to paint an image of what the Devil’s main forward units will look like (bearing any further player transactions). In addition to Hall, wingers Kyle Palmieri and Mike Cammalleri could anchor the Devil’s second and third lines with the remaining players forming a promising fourth checking line that could prove to be the team’s most effective since the early CBGB days.
With Taylor Hall anchoring the top line on the left side, he could be reunited with his old Windsor Spitfires center Adam Henrique, which almost seems like an inevitability at this point. The only indistinct slot on the Devil’s roster is the right side of their top line in this scenario, in which they previously had last year going into training camp. The Devils sorely lack NHL-ready (or any for that matter) right wing depth coming up the pipeline. With over $14 million in remaining cap space (including Ryan Clowe’s salary), it’s not out of the question that Shero could make another player acquisition. I could also see him take the same approach as last year, and look for a diamond in the rough via late-season signing or tryout invite.
Considering the chemistry they developed in the latter-half of last season, Kyle Palmieri could anchor a second unit with his old line mates Travis Zajac (center) and Reid Boucher (left). The trio played the bulk of their time together starting around March, which covered the Devil’s last 19 games of the season. Over that time, each player on that line posted considerable numbers with Zajac tallying five goals and 11 points in 19 games, Palmieri racking seven goals and 17 points in 19 contests, while Boucher had three goals and nine points in 17 matches over that span.
Objectively, Mike Cammalleri could very well play left wing on the Devil’s second line, but for the sake of this article will anchor his own (third) line. It might be hard to agree with at first, but Cammalleri has had scoring success with anyone he’s played with during his time in New Jersey. The third line minutes in five-on-five situations will cater to his fragile health, but still enable him and his line to remain an effective scoring unit. With the remaining players, I could see Jacob Josefson centering Cammalleri’s line and Devante Smith-Pelly on the right. A player like Cammalleri could be perfect to help a player like Josefson tap into his offensive upside, and help a player like DSP pick up where he left off after the Devils acquired him at the deadline.
A Devils checking line as their fourth unit has the perfect types of players suited for the role. The recently re-signed Sergey Kalinin brings size and a physical edge if he plays the left side, having led Devils forwards in hits last season. Vernon Fiddler will be a much better face-off taker than Stephen Gionta, and will put up more points as well. Acquired during the draft weekend, Beau Bennett would round this line out as their right wing. Like Cammalleri, the tentative playing time Bennett would get on a checking unit compared to top-six playing time, will cater to Bennett’s volatile health, while enabling him to become adjust to his new surroundings at an accommodating pace.
Although there are still some holes to fill and uncertainties to keep an eye on, the Devil’s offense has undergone a considerable makeover this offseason. the Devils were the lowest-scoring team in the league last year, but their newly acquired assets and how they (along with the Devil’s returning forwards) shape out the roster could wind up carrying next year’s squad farther than we’ve ever seen a Devil’s offense factor into the team’s success in recent years.