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At first glance, it’s hard to find many positives in the Devils season. It’s a glass half-full/half-empty scenario, and when you dive further into the turbulent course the Devils season took, you may find two things: They gave their fans plenty of reasons to follow the team throughout this dumpster fire of a year, and as Lou Lamoriello and Co. have reiterated, their future isn’t as bleak as the consensus of the hockey world makes it out to be.
The traditional approach to building a team starts from the goalie out. Nearing the completion of his first season as the Devils starter, Cory Schneider has been the backbone of what little success this team’s achieved. He finished with the ninth-best goals against average (2.26), fifth-best save percentage (.925), and five shutouts. This affirms how Schneider’s 26-31-9 record isn’t indicative of his play, but sheds light on how the Devils would probably be in the mix with the likes of the Sabres, Coyotes, and Oilers if it weren’t for him. Simply put, Schneider facilitated a seamless transition into the post-Brodeur era, which the subpar play of the team in front of him grossly overshadowed. The seven-year extension he signed, along with the impressive rookie campaign of backup Keith Kinkaid makes the foreseeable future of goaltending, the Devils cornerstone for success over the past 20 years, look very assuring.
Lou Lamoriello has been subject to a lot of scrutiny for his drafting and development of forwards in recent years. The Devils offensive woes have magnified this issue, but just like Schneider’s play, overshadow how Lamoriello has quietly rebuilt the Devils defense, and established a homegrown blue line corps that made tremendous strides this season. Among the most notable of this bunch is Adam Larsson, who finished the season leading the defense with a career-high 24 points in 64 games after starting the first 18 of the season with one goal and four points. He’s appeared in all 43 games, producing two goals and 21 points under the new coaching regime. That pace in a full season equates to over 40 points.
Larsson is only the tip of the fruitful bounties the Devils blue line has displayed. Sophomore Eric Gelinas continues to take the mold of the power play quarterback it was hoped he would become. Although his defensive play has plenty of room for improvement, his cannon-like shot and value it brings to the power play gives him a lot of leverage to maintain regularity in the lineup. Since the departure of Marek Zidlicky, Gelinas became the most-played defenseman on the power play. He led the defense with 135:35 of power play time this season and averaged a team-leading 2:13 of power play time on ice per game.
The focus on Gelinas and Larsson derives from their constrained play under DeBoer’s regime, how the ice time of these two would change under the new coaching staff, and after the departure of veteran players at the trade deadline. The results have been all what we hoped for, and make us look forward to seeing a full season of these two if they continue playing at this rate of efficiency. Despite being the brunt of some highlight-reel plays (See Ovechkin goal, Hagelin open net), Jon Merrill showed flashes of his reliable play in his own end, and the capability to contribute in the offensive zone. Merrill and rookie Damon Severson have played more regularly throughout the season (when healthy) than Larsson and Gelinas because they both grasped the concept of Devils hockey a lot quicker, while Larsson and Gelinas needed more time to incorporate certain qualities of the Devil’s style of play into their game. If these four build on their play from this year, it will contribute immensely to their team’s success next season.
Offense has, by all means, been the Achilles’ heel all season. Their returning assets in their top-nine failed to come close to their respective goal totals from last year, which obviously made a massive difference in where they could have finished. I have enough audacity to say that despite pulling the carpet out from under the team, there were a few bright spots worth pointing out amongst the Devils forward corps. The biggest breath of fresh air has been Mike Cammalleri, who’s turning out to be the most worthwhile signing Lamoriello has made in years. You can argue he practically scored his 27 goals on his own, which begs the question what those totals could have been if the Devils had a more supportive offensive cast (even with his time missed to injury). His signing was a step in the right direction for an offense that’s been depleted in recent years by free agent departures, unexpected retirements, injuries, and players simply not working out.
The three biggest turnarounds that were overshadowed (and would have otherwise made remarkable side stories) by the Devils abysmal season was the play of Jordin Tootoo, Scott Gomez, and Steve Bernier. When Lamoriello re-signed Bernier this offseason, he wanted to give the former first round pick an opportunity to redeem his career. He took advantage of that opportunity and produced career numbers in goals (16) and points (32) after starting the season in the AHL. Tootoo addressed two big needs the offense lacked: speed, and intensity. Granted his ten goals and 15 points aren’t much to rave about, he succeeded in getting under his opponent’s skin, helped facilitate plays in the offensive zone, and capitalized on chances to throw his body around and drop the gloves, especially when it comes to sticking up for his teammates (See Jagr/Bortuzzo incident). Tootoo was recognized enough to become nominated as the Devil’s Masterson Trophy candidate, and his individualized style of play quickly made him a fan favorite.
Between the lopsided production of Travis Zajac (New Jersey’s penciled in “No. 1 center”), and the constant positional shifting of Adam Henrique and Patrik Elias, the incorporation of Scott Gomez into the lineup as a natural center was a breath of fresh air. Not only did he out-produce Zajac, the Devil’s highest-paid player at a fraction of the cost, but he did it in 16 less games (52) than Zajac (76). While age is a considerable factor with Gomez, he’s done enough, along with Tootoo and Bernier, to warrant a new contract this offseason. It’s also worth noting how much of an uproar Devils fans made when Ryan Carter signed with the Wild, who Lamoriello picked keeping players like Gionta, Bernier, and Tootoo over. Granted Carter and the Wild are en route to the playoffs after this week, Carter had three goals and 13 points with Minnesota, and was out-produced by Tootoo (ten goals, 15 points), Bernier (16 goals, 32 points), and was marginally outscored by Gionta (five goals).
It’s nothing you can use to justify how this season went, but these few positives in the Devil’s offense identify a few building blocks they can use going into next season. They’re riddled with bottom-six depth to go into next season with, which further reiterates how big of a difference getting those one or two scoring forwards that Lamoriello said he will be in the market for, could make next season.