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It’s an utmost certainty the Devils will select a forward if they don’t trade the sixth overall pick. The depletion of New Jersey’s offensive depth reached unprecedented lengths this year, and with little to no assuring talent coming through the pipelines, the need for immediate scoring help is dire if Lou Lamoriello wants to elude the conventional rebuilding process. Instead of jumping on the best player available, Lamoriello has an opportunity that he shouldn’t take for granted with the Devils’ early draft selection, in being able to determine what forward position he can improve the most efficiently through the draft: center or wing?
With the exception of the 2011-2012 team, New Jersey hasn’t had a solid group of centers since the days of Scott Gomez’s first stint with the team. Travis Zajac was expected to inherit the top center role but has continually proved incapable of taking that initiative, particularly when he doesn’t have star-caliber talent playing alongside him. Scott Gomez had a remarkable comeback season in his second stint with New Jersey, out-producing Zajac while playing less games and at a fraction of the cost. Despite his remarkable turnaround, he’ll be 36 come December, making him an incompatible long term piece to build around. Jacob Josefson made significant strides this season after he started playing regularly. He primarily centered the Devils’ third and fourth lines with Stephen Gionta and both were key components on the penalty kill.
When Adam Henrique actually played in the middle, he and Zajac were the only two Devils centers with a greater than 50% turnout in the face-off circle. Although Henrique led the team with 43 points, his production was significantly hindered by his periodic shifting between playing center and left wing, along with succumbing to the widespread underachieving that consumed the rest of his team. After Henrique (52.0%) and Zajac (53.4%), no center fared better than 49% in the face-off dot, which contributed immensely to the Devils being the 27th-ranked team in face-off percentage (47.3%).
Simply put, the Devils lack a true top line center.
On the wing, Mike Cammalleri practically scored 27 goals by himself in an injury-riddled season, the first of his five-year deal he signed last summer. While his output was a bright spot in this disastrous season, age (like with Gomez) is a looming factor in the future consistency of Cammalleri’s production. He’ll be 33 next season and should be a reliable source of scoring for the majority of his contract’s term. He helps the Devils presently, and could be a good role model for the younger guys to look up to. After Cammalleri, there is a severely steep drop in talent ont he depth chart with regard to wingers projected to return next year. Patrik Elias (39), Dainius Zubrus (37), and Tuomo Ruutu (32) combined for 24 goals and 57 points this year. We likely won’t see any of these three players back after next season, all of whom played regularly and were issued top-nine forward minutes this year.
From a team whose offense once featured marquee threats like Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, and a David Clarkson that could score 30 goals,the Devils presently lack any true components to form an identifiable top-six corps with the forwards they currently have at their disposal, let alone a first line.
Center or wing, the benefits of drafting an NHL-ready forward this coming draft will have resonating effects throughout the lineup. Positional stability is the first that comes to mind, especially if next year’s offense has chemistry right out of the gate. This is derivative of the redundant flip-flopping between Patrik Elias and Adam Henrique, something fans have lamented about and that previous articles on here have covered. Assuming the Devils don’t implement this kind of positional shifting on any NHL-ready forward they draft as they’ve done with previous prospects like Mattias Tedenby (left wing to right wing) and Stefan Matteau (center to left wing), it could eliminate the need for the continual experimentation of rotating Elias, Henrique, or any other forward and let them play their natural positions.
The Devils as we all know, desperately needs to incorporate a more youth in their roster. Hopes are still high better opportunities await prospects Reid Boucher and Stefan Matteau for them to both stick with next season’s team. Neither player has produced enough or develop enough chemistry to warrant top-nine playing minutes let alone secure a regular roster spot. It’s ultimately hit or miss when you insert an inexperienced youthful player (like Boucher and Matteau) in a lineup comprised of lethargic low-quality veterans, mostly on the downside of their careers that fail to develop any chemistry amongst each other. How are they supposed to act as catalysts in developing the play of up and coming forward prospects that need to be in a nurturing playing environment to reach their projected potential? Boucher and Matteau could thrive playing alongside another emerging NHL-ready forward, particularly an NHL-ready forward the Devils could reap with the sixth overall pick. Playing rookies and young forwards together has been successfully implemented, and worked with several teams that are currently competing in the playoffs. Alex Galchenyuk and Michael Gallagher of the Montreal Canadiens found chemistry together, along with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames, and forwards like Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat on Tampa Bay.