General manager Ray Shero made it explicitly clear he wouldn’t dabble in the free agent market for the sake of making a move. He appears committed to letting the youthful players within the organization replace the gapes on the roster that were previously occupied by a barrage of underperforming veterans. One of the biggest annoyances of how prospects (particularly at forward) were handled in the organization in the years prior to Shero’s hiring, has been their restrictive ice time. Examples date as far back as Petr Vrana, Mattias Tedenby, and Vladimir Zharkov, to more recent examples like Joe Whitney, Stefan Matteau, and Reid Boucher.
This brings me to my next point of what a youth-saturated Devils lineup could look like next year, with a particular focus on the top two lines. Right wing Paul Thompson and left wing Reid Boucher are two prospects, believably capable of bringing much-needed scoring to the team; based on expectations. 26-year old Paul Thompson enjoyed a breakout year in Albany, where he amassed 33 goals and 55 points in 73 games. The undrafted veteran AHLer earned his first NHL contract (two years, two-way), and will be given a long look in training camp. 21-year old Reid Boucher, the former 2011 fourth round pick, has made a solid transition from the OHL and is developing at an according pace. In 34 NHL games played over the past two seasons, Boucher has three goals and eight points, while averaging around 11 minutes of ice time. Both players can potentially establish themselves as top-six forwards and will have every opportunity this fall. Regardless if the Devils stand pat through the summer or make additional moves, however, there might not be enough room for both players on the Devils’ top two lines.
If that’s the case, who would head coach John Hynes more likely to award a top-six spot to?
Left wing Mike Cammalleri is a no-brainer to be in the first two lines. Right wing Kyle Palmieri was acquired with the specific purpose of playing a larger and more consistent role as a top-six forward, which he couldn’t accomplish in Anaheim. Since recent draftee Pavel Zacha will probably return to the OHL, the Devils’ first two options at center are Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique. Despite his age and declining production, it remains to be seen how left wing Patrik Elias will factor in the composition of the Devils’ top two lines. Concerns are high on how the career Devil will mesh with the younger faster team Ray Shero envisions New Jersey being next year.
21-year old Reid Boucher has been in the organization since 2012 and played 130 games in the AHL. He’s got 40 goals and 73 points over that span (.56 PPG). With Cammalleri and Elias as the only viable left wings in the organization, Boucher has a chance to finally establish himself after being surrounded by so much hype following his 62-goal season in Sarnia (2012-2013). It’s worth noting that although he’s considerably smaller than Thompson, Boucher possesses a speedy element in his game, which is a highly welcomed attribute in the organization.
With three goals and 8 points in 34 NHL games, it would have put Boucher on pace for seven goals and 19 points over his first 82 games. When you consider how Boucher attained these totals while averaging around 11:15 of ice time and 15.5 shifts a game, there’s room for potential if he was given a longer leash. Last year, the average ice time and shifts of the Devils’ six most played forwards was 17:49 and 23.3. If Boucher played at that rate on a gamely basis over his first 34 games, his totals would have risen slightly to about four goals and 12 points, which equates to nine or ten goals and 29-30 points over 82 games. When you put those totals in perspective, they wouldn’t be deemed top-six forward numbers, but would have been welcome contributions to this and last year’s offensively starved Devils teams.
Former Devil Zach Parise posted numbers in his rookie campaign (14 goals, 32 points) that were eerily close to the numbers Boucher was projected to have under the conditions mentioned above.
Paul Thompson on the other hand, attained his recognition after one successful season. As previously mentioned, Thompson has 273 games of AHL experience under his belt, over which he’s produced 72 goals and 127 points. He scored 61 of those goals since 2012-2013 (200 games played). I mentioned in an article I wrote about Thompson over the winter that he could very well be a late bloomer, which shouldn’t make his age negatively factor in his chances. Granted he has no NHL experience whatsoever, he was coached by John Hynes over parts of four seasons he spent in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, which could give him a slight edge over Boucher if only one of them had to get a crack in the top two lines. Like Mike Cammalleri, Paul Thompson has a shoot-first mentality. With the abundance of pass-first forwards that could feed Thompson along with being one of the lowest-shooting teams in the league last year, he has a real opportunity to thrive as a Devil. Thompson isn’t the most intimidating player standing at 6’1, but does play with a physical edge and has been known to drop the mitts if it’s warranted.
Overall, Paul Thompson’s productive season in Albany gave the organization no choice but to award him the opportunity to finally make the jump to the NHL. Considering how the Devils currently have just two natural right wingers signed for next season, there’s plenty of space on the roster for Thompson to establish himself on the Devils roster.