New Jersey’s offense has been trending downward since their 2012 playoff run. Having bottomed out this year, the Devils scored the fewest goals of any team in the NHL. Lack of proper scoring depth was the obvious key component behind the Devil’s barren scoring output, however injuries, an undersized roster, and lack of shots also factored immensely. Not all was entirely bad about the Devil’s forward corps this season, and there are some hopeful aspects that emerged as positives out of what has otherwise been a disastrous year. The negatives have obviously outweighed any positives to take into consideration, but like with the defense, there is a foundation that is coming to form the team can hopefully build from.
The youth commitment…Between the housecleaning that general manager Ray Shero orchestrated to the opportunities Coach Hynes gave to the team’s prospects (that they capitalized on), the Devils had a new look, especially up front. The Devils had six forwards on their roster that were 26 or younger this year that appeared in at least 30 contests, while not having one player older than 33 appear in as many. Especially when the Devils were playing their best hockey before the all-star break, it would have been very tempting for Ray Shero to go out and acquire a veteran scorer to supplement his forward depth in anticipation for a playoff run. That would have come at the expense of prospects and draft picks, which are integral parts of any rebuild. Instead, Shero stayed on course and despite missing the playoffs, the moves he didn’t make by keeping the big picture in mind, young forwards like Henrique, Palmieri, Boucher, Blandisi, Kalinin, and Josefson gained more valuable ice time to further their development.
An effective power play…This had to have been one of the most celebrated accessories of the 2015-2016 New Jersey Devils. Despite finishing 30th in goals this year, the Devils had the 9th-best power play in the league (19.9%). They scored 51 power play goals, which accounted for 27.7% of all goals the Devils had this season. Between the blast from the point they got from Palmieri, the brilliant half-wall play of Jacob Josefson, and having prolific shooters and buriers around the net like Henrique, Cammalleri, and (to a lesser extent) Blandisi and Devante Smith-Pelley, the team’s system-oriented power play that gave a specific role to every player involved, played its part this season.
Face-offs…The Devils had the second-worst face-off percentage in the league (46.4%), with only Vancouver doing worse by a mere one percent (45.4%). For the majority of the season, New Jersey’s centers primarily were Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, Jacob Josefson, Sergey Kalinin, and Stephen Gionta. Out of those five, only Zajac won more than half his draws this season (51.6%). Josefson was their second-best performer (48.4%), while forwards like Gionta and Kalinin were complete mishaps, respectively winning just 42.1% and 41.6% of their draws. This provides some strong insight on why the Devils struggled with getting the puck out of their own zone, or keeping it in their opponent’s. While Zajac’s lackluster offensive production counteracts his effectiveness in the face-off dot, the case is the opposite for someone like Adam Henrique, whose struggles to post effective face-off numbers are fiercely overshadowed by his offensive contributions to the team this season.
An incomplete top-six…When the Devils were at their best this year, the offense largely relied on the top line of Cammalleri, Henrique, and Stempniak, as well as the chemistry between Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac for scoring. The drop-off was very apparent after that, since Coach Hynes couldn’t find a compatible left wing to form that firm top-six forward corps he needed to get the Devils over that bend. While Reid Boucher eventually became a compatible left wing to play with Zajac and Palmieri, the discovery came too late into the season, well after the Devils started their final descent from playoff contention. The five aforementioned forwards (Cammalleri, Henrique, Stempniak, Palmieri, Zajac), accounted for 56.5% of the whole team’s scoring, which is to be expected from a team’s top-two lines. This puts into perspective however, how much that production could have increased or stayed more stable if a sixth scoring forward was actually thrown into the mix at any point. While this contradicts my comments on how Shero committed to the rebuild this season, it also puts into perspective how close this team may actually be to becoming a postseason-compatible team again.
Hopes and Needs
That top-six forward…For the past few seasons, the Devls always seem to be one top-six scoring forward away from reaching the playoffs. After reformatting the youth-replenished Devils roster over the summer, the team has a foundational core set of forwards (mentioned above) in place that general manager Ray Shero can surely build upon this offseason. The Devils could benefit from either obtaining a top-two center or wing, especially since Lee Stempniak is no longer with the team and it’s only been speculated that he’d re-sign with the Devils this offseason. While newer options have emerged to further supplement the Devil’s top-six like Reid Boucher (who’s appeared to finally found his way), Joseph Blandisi, and Devante Smith-Pelley, another veteran top-six forward can put the Devils over the top. Especially with Mike Cammalleri’s getting up in age and his spotty health record, having that additional scoring depth could make the team better handle the potential loss of a player like Cammalleri midseason. In addition, acquiring a top-two center could help the Devils improve in the faceoff department, if they can come across one with an above-average face-off percentage.
Boucher and Blandisi coming to form…Currently preparing to help the Albany Devils in their Calder Cup run, the two young left wings made impressionable bouts in the NHL this season. Blandisi (despite his goal and point drought), had five goals and 17 points in 41 games. He made a name for himself with his feistiness, speed, and tenacious play in the offensive zone. Reid Boucher, who has had previous bouts in the NHL, finally stuck this season, and turned out being the more consistent producer out of the two. He registered eight goals and 19 points in 39 games, and became a regularly used asset on the Devil’s power play after his mid-season call-up. With so many letdowns in offensive prospects over the years like Mattias Tedenby, Nick Palmieri, and Andrei Loktionov (just to mention a few), Boucher and Blandisi have showed a lot of promise, and were one of the few reasons why the rest of the season was worth watching for Devils fans. While Blandisi would benefit from another start in the AHL next season, both forwards will be given long looks in training camp next season, and will have roster spots for them to lose on the big team next season.