It’s finally here.
Tonight, the New Jersey Devils are set to begin their 2016-2017 regular season campaign and are out to prove a lot of doubters wrong. Another transformative offseason has led to the formation of a roster that’s barely recognizable from the team that skated in last year’s regular season finale. New Jersey goes into the season with a refurbished offense, a retooled defense, and replenished prospect pool that’s making the future of the organization look more promising than it’s been in years. The Devils Army Blog staff writers Mike Luci, Alex Chauvancy, Brett Minieri, and Sam Britt have collectively submitted their input on different aspects of the team, organization, and how they’ll impact the upcoming season.
The Devils had quite the active offseason. Let’s start with the biggest transaction: Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson. The Devils were desperate for scoring and got one of the best even-strength point producers in the league in Taylor Hall. He averaged 2.38 points per 60 from 2013-16, which put him in the top 10 among NHL forwards. The Devils were the worst 5v5 scoring team in the league last season, so to say Hall will improve that is an understatement. In replacing Larsson, the Devils signed Ben Lovejoy to a 3-year deal from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Lovejoy had a successful playoff run with the Penguins. There’s not much offensive upside with him, but he can eat minutes and replace Larsson on the penalty kill. At worst, he’ll be a solid third-pair defenseman who can play top-four minutes if necessary. Lovejoy was not the only defenseman the Devils signed this offseason. After a strong showing at the World Championships where he tallied 5 points in 10 games, the Devils gave French defenseman, Yohann Auvitu, a one-year contract. He had a strong showing in camp and made the team’s opening night 23-man roster. He showed offensive ability and was quarterbacking the Devils power play unit during the preseason. He’ll get a chance to show he deserves a regular spot with Jon Merrill out of the lineup.
In addition to acquiring Taylor Hall, Ray Shero made two moves to add some scoring depth up front. The first of which was acquiring Beau Bennett for a 3rd round pick at the draft in June. Bennett had been plagued by injuries in his time in Pittsburgh, but the talent is there. He’s averaged 28 points per 82 games, which isn’t overwhelming. But if he can stay healthy and chip in 30-35 points, he’ll provide the Devils with some much needed depth on their bottom lines. The second move was signing Vernon Fiddler to a one-year deal when free agency opened on July 1st. Fiddler has been a career fourth liner, but an effective one at that. He spent the last five seasons in Dallas and scored more than 20 points in every season but one. Over the last two seasons, he’s scored 13 and 12 goals. He’s not going to light it up any time soon, but he’s a big improvement from what the Devils had last season and will give them much needed scoring depth from their fourth line.
Returning players (BM)
While there’s much excitement about the incoming crew of new players, The Devil’s success, in my opinion, hangs largely in the balance of what their returning players do. Will Henrique and Palmieri maintain their 30-goal status? Can Mike Cammalleri stay healthy for 65+ games? Will Zajac, despite his solid two-way play, finally put up some points commensurate with this contract? Those are somewhat reliable bets. Core players aside, Shero gave a bunch of guys 1-year “prove it” deals and that’s what they’ll need to do. Can the likes of young players like Boucher and Kalinin finally show that they belong in the NHL? Will Blandisi (already assigned to Albany) prove he can be a regular on the big club? Is Pavel Zacha ready to showcase his ability as the #6 overall pick and make a significant impact? Can DSP be counted on for 15 goals? Will Damon Severson finally become a top-4 puck-moving defenseman the Devils have seen flashes of? These are the real questions that will determine the outcome of New Jersey’s season. The most important of these are Zacha and Severson. Zacha isn’t just their best FWD prospect, he’s their best prospect overall and represents the future of the club. While still only 19, his development is essential to the Devils future success. Same for Damon Severson. With Larsson gone, Severson (22) represents the best defensive prospect (thought not technically a prospect any more) in the Devils organization and given how thin they are on D, they’ll need him to realize his potential sooner than later.
David Schlemko…Led Devils defensemen in goals (six) and finished second in points (19). He was one of many pleasant surprises for the team last season, and played a fundamental role in the successes of last year’s team. 12 of his 19 points came on the power play, where Schlemko led defensemen in ice time with at least 60 games played. He signed a four-year deal with the San Jose Sharks over the summer.
Adam Larsson…He was involved in one of the biggest trades this offseason when Ray Shero shipped him to Edmonton in exchange for left wing Taylor Hall. Larsson was the centerpiece of the Devils defense last season, leading the blue line in hits (163), and had the second-most blocked shots (148). Him and Greene co-led the team in five-on-five and shorthanded ice time, so his departure was the most significant out of the ones New Jersey suffered this offseason. he will certainly be missed.
Tyler Kennedy…He was the epitome of New Jersey’s shortcomings in 2015-2016: an undersized underachieving forward who failed to contribute offensively in the Devils bottom-six. Kennedy only scored three times in 50 contests, and wasn’t a particular force in any kind of playing situation. Needless to say, Kennedy’s departure won’t be missed.
Stephen Gionta…Out of New Jersey’s forward departures, Gionta’s might have been one of the most significant. He was one of four players on last year’s roster to appear in all 82 contests, despite registering just one goal and 11 points. Although Gionta was part of the undersized underachieving bottom-six New Jersey deployed, he was utilized frequently on the penalty kill, and his 113 hits were third-most among Devils forwards. His tenacity and grit are two things that you can’t necessarily replace, but the Devils needed a significant upgrade among their 7th-12th forwards.
Bobby Farnham…Despite being a fan favorite for his rowdy speedy play, the Devils opted not to renew their relationship with Farnham (popularly known as “Wild Thing”). While luck might have been the dominating factor in this category, Farnham had the second-highest shooting percentage (16.7%) among Devils players with at least 30 games played, which earned him eight goals in 2015-2016. Despite signing with the Montreal Canadians this summer, Farnham failed to make the final cuts in training camp, and will start the 2016-2017 season in the AHL.
Jordin Tootoo…Like Farnham, Tootoo was a fan favorite for his fast-paced rugged style of play. He led the team in penalty minutes (102), despite missing out 16 games primarily due to injury. Tootoo was part of that bottom-six forward corps that failed to substantiate the offense’s output after the depth the offense’s top-six provided. In 66 contests, Tootoo only posted four goals and nine points while going -26, despite getting countless opportunities as a bottom-six regular throughout the season. Tootoo’s story is certainly an inspiring one, and he’ll continue his NHL career with the Chicago Blackhawks this season.
Rookie Outlook (SB)
Pavel Zacha…The Devil’s top prospect has finally reached the big leagues. After 2 years in the OHL he is finally ready to make the leap to the NHL. He has the size and skill to be a productive 3rd line center who can also plug into a top 6 position if needed. Look for Zacha to be a force this year.
Steve Santini…Santini battled in camp to gain a roster spot and has earned himself a place on the opening night roster. The bruising defenseman is known for his defensive and hitting abilities but surprisingly contributed a lot of shots throughout the preseason. Santini will probably see time in the AHL at some point to gain a little polish but is very close to becoming a regular NHL defenseman.
Miles Wood…After a very productive year with Boston College, Wood has used his size and speed to make an impression in the preseason. Wood is one of the hardest working players in the organization, plays at a constant high speed, and has a lot of offensive upside. He probably will benefit from a larger role in Albany at some point but for now he will provide speed and energy on the bottom two lines.
Blake Speers…The biggest surprise in camp this season has been Blake Speers. Nobody expected the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound to make it past the first round of cuts. Yet he has been able to show off his speed and playmaking ability throughout the preseason and has impressed Hynes enough to garner a roster spot. Speers will almost certainly play less than 9 games and be sent back to the OHL but it is reassuring to see him playing so confidently at the NHL level.
Players on the Rise (SB)
Pavel Zacha…Pavel Zacha comes into this season as the Devil’s 3rd line center. Zacha is a larger center with copious amounts of offensive creativity and scoring prowess. He has demonstrated this throughout his career with the Sarnia Sting and in his one NHL game last season where he had 2 assists. Look for Zacha to potentially put up 40 plus points this season.
Damon Severson…Another young Devil Severson has shown flashes of brilliance at the NHL level. His sophomore season was filled with inconsistency but Severson continued to contribute offensively. This season he slots into a top pair role alongside Andy Greene. Hopefully Severson can reignite the chemistry the pair exhibited at the beginning of his career.
Taylor Hall…The new jewel of the Devils franchise (Schneider withstanding), Hall looks to bring a ton of offense into a team that desperately needs it. He is playing motivated and hungry alongside former junior line mate Adam Henrique. If Hall stays healthy, he could potentially put up the best offensive numbers of his career.
On the Hot Seat (ML)
One of our recent articles covers the three main Devils with the most pressure on them. Although their roles might not be as significant as others, the three players (Keith Kinkaid, Jon Merrill, and Jacob Josefson) have been given paramount opportunities by Devils coaching and management over the years to prove their worth and become regularly established members of the Devils lineup. This season will undoubtedly be a make or break campaign for these three players, whose performances should be watched very closely.
Season Outlook (BM)
They Devils are a much improved squad from a year ago (it’s hard not to be). They’ve added some significant scoring up front (Hall, PA Parenteau, Bennett) and Henrique and Palmieri are coming off respective 30 goal seasons. Add a healthy campaign by Mike Cammalleri and we could have another 25 goal scorer in the mix. Most importantly, the Devils are much more balanced through their bottom 6. New faces like Fiddler and Zacha, youngsters like Speers and Wood and DSP returning to a more suitable role off the top-line, will surely spread the talent around and with it, the offensive wealth.
Despite the additions of Lovejoy and Quincy, replacing the steady minutes of Adam Larsson is a tall order. I think they’ll realize how valuable he was soon enough. Their D is still suspect, but Cory Schneider is all-world, should be in the Vezina conversation and can steal games by himself. The Metro division is a tough one unfortunately, with most team improving over the summer. That said, I believe if the Devils can stay healthy, play smart and perhaps make a savvy move at the deadline, they will squeeze into the 8th (WC) spot and end their 4-year playoff drought.