One of the most intriguing teams in the NHL for this coming year has to be the New Jersey Devils, insofar as they are impossible to predict right now.
There are plenty of ingredients here that would lead one to say, “This is a team that could be pretty good.” Good young forwards, some solid blue liners, and a goalie with a long track record of success. And yeah, they just picked first overall in the coming draft, but they’ve also undoubtedly improved in this offseason and there’s a good core there.
With free agency having already calmed down, one imagines there aren’t going to be too many big, impact-type signings league-wide. The pickings are fairly slim and most of the guys you can get at this point (with one or two notable exceptions) are going to be value adds who help fill out your depth.
Not that the Devils couldn’t use some valuable veterans to take up space at the bottom of the roster. With Marcus Johansson now in the fold, it’s tough to see where they haven’t already locked down their top-six forwards: some combination of Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, Johansson, Adam Henrique, Pavel Zacha (hopefully?), Travis Zajac or Nico Heschier. It’s not great but it’s solid. Same goes for their top-four on defense: It’s pretty much set with some division of labor between Andy Greene, Damon Severson, Ben Lovejoy, and John Moore.
The thing is, apart from those 10 players — plus Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid, whom we’ll get to in a second — the Devils currently only have a few forwards and defensemen who are fairly clear NHLers. Stefan Noesen and Brian Boyle are locked in up front, but after that it’s more of a guessing game.
Miles Wood? Steve Santini? Mike McLeod? Michael Kapla maybe? These are guys for whom there’s a limited set of data about what they can do at the game’s highest level, and the information we’ve gleaned on Wood and Santini in particular aren’t necessarily encouraging.
But again, that’s why you have a vast untapped market of depth NHLers sitting there as free agents, right? There’s no reason in the world for the Devils to not-sign, say, Jaromir Jagr, a clear top-six winger even at his advanced age. He pushes a few of the other wingers down the depth chart, and is absolutely a short-term solution if being competitive is even remotely in the cards. Kick the tires on Jiri Hudler, maybe. See what PA Parenteau can give you on some real short money.
The same might be true if you can find a bottom-six role for Drew Stafford or, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, Jimmy Hayes or Daniel Winnik. Brandon Pirri is almost guaranteed to be a solid pickup for filling a deeper roster spot.
And on the back end, does a guy like Cody Franson seem like a guy worth targeting? The Devils already have some familiarity with Eric Gelinas if they want to go that route.
Not all these guys are necessarily great or anything, but they offer obvious upgrades over what the Devils have in their depth roles, which is to say, “a bunch of question marks.”
But the biggest question mark for the Devils absolutely has to be in net. Schneider was famously terrible last season, going .908 in all situations with a heavy workload; it was the kind of thing for which the Devils were killed when they kept playing Martin Brodeur every night while Schneider labored as a significantly better backup. But with Schneider you have to say the decline came quickly: He’d never fallen below .921 in a full season, and since coming to New Jersey he’d been a .924 netminder.
Mathematically, Schneider cost the team about nine goals — three points in the standings, give or take — by being so bad. This compares rather starkly with his average goals-saved number, which averaged out to almost 15 goals above the league average per 60 starts. Effectively, he cost the Devils eight standings points versus his usual output.
Maybe you chalk the apparent struggles up to the thinned-out roster in front of him. Maybe you think he had a bad year. Maybe you say both those things came together at the same time, horrifically. Hey, it happens. Point is, unless the Devils are striving to be one of the worst teams in the league again this year (they finished 27th with just 70 points, and were eight points behind the Sabres for 26th) they probably want Schneider to be better. Which is probably why they hired his old goalie coach this week.
And given the moves they’ve made so far this summer you have to think they’ll score more goals than their bottom-of-the-East 183 from last season.
How many can they score? Tough to say. Again, that top-six isn’t exactly world-beating but Johansson certainly helps and they need to add a few extra pieces anyway. If they do it smartly they can improve.
That probably shouldn’t be the goal though. This is a season more wisely spent trying to be bad again — or at least hoping Schneider isn’t so good as to keep you away from another top-five pick — because even if you can get a point total pushing the low-80s, what’s the purpose? You’re still a mile out of the playoffs, and this is in a division where you’re playing the Penguins (still excellent), Capitals (a top-10 team despite their losses), Rangers (who knows?), Blue Jackets (due for regression but still clearly average-at-least), Hurricanes (ever-improving), and Islanders (also who knows?) four times each.
The Devils have undoubtedly improved but hopefully they’re smart enough to recognize that they’re probably still the eighth-best team in their own division and need to keep building toward something more meaningful. One imagines the only way they make the playoffs, or even threaten to do so, is a PDO bender — driven in part by Schneider’s high talent level, just like Columbus’s was driven by Sergei Bobrovsky’s — that leads to a first-round bounce-out.
Not sure who that serves, really. Maybe the good news is that they can still totally try and finish outside the playoffs, rather than outright tanking and selling off their useful players.
But at least they’re moving in the right direction. Getting the No. 1 pick and having a relatively smart front office will do that for you.
Ed. Note: Edited to reflect Simon Despres’s current injury status.
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