The New Jersey Devils played with an enormously large chip on their shoulders last season. Nobody believed they were going to be competitive, let alone a playoff team. Many predicted they’d end up at the very bottom of their division. And no one saw the spectacular, Hart Trophy-winning play by Taylor Hall coming by any means.
Fast forward 82 games, and the Devils squeezed into the second wild card spot (albeit thanks to Hall dragging them there), and all the prior expectations surrounding them were obliterated. Unfortunately, and much to the fanbase’s future dismay, it doesn’t seem like repeating the 97 points they gobbled up is very likely.
New Jersey has little depth down the middle...
Beyond the top line of Hall, Nico Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri (easily one of the best lines in the NHL), there is little firepower once you get to the Devils’ second, third, and fourth lines. In fact, all three fall below the average skill level of other non-top lines around the league, and it isn’t particularly close.
And when you consider that Hall was roughly 95-percent of the reason why New Jersey made the playoffs in the first place, expecting him to repeat the performance of his life in consecutive seasons is a little far-fetched. While Hall will still be an extremely impactful player and without a doubt in the top-five or top-10 conversation in points accrued, a slight drop-off in production is the most likely avenue for the reigning MVP. If he’s still able to carry the team on his back once again, all the power to him.
With Hall on the wing, that top line is quarterbacked by rookie standout Hischier and rounded off by Palmieri, two play-driving guys that can easily rack up a lot of points if put in the right situations. Hischier was excellent in drawing penalties, and his scoring rate matched up almost identically to Hall’s at even-strength. Is that to say Hall was low-key responsible for those points? Maybe. But this incoming sophomore is a stud, and he’ll undoubtedly increase his productivity with a bump in minutes this year. Both he and Palmieri will be seen on the power play to tally up special teams points as well, and Palmieri’s regular success with the man-advantage is a huge element to the Devils’ offense.
However, I find it odd that New Jersey’s three best players are all slotted onto the same line. Many coaches like to evenly distribute their roster’s talent to hopefully strike a balance and get the lower-level guys better chances to be effective. The Devils’ top line is a really tough matchup league-wide, and I can respect wanting to get the best out of what you’ve got because the best players on the team may easily regress next to lesser guys, but once their shift ends, and you get Marcus Johansson, Pavel Zacha, and Jesper Bratt replacing them to go up against the NHL’s second-best lines, you’ve got a recipe for disaster. If you look even further down to New Jersey’s bottom-six replacing them — woof.
...And the defense isn’t much better
The defensive pairings are a similar story to the issues seen with the forwards. Will Butcher had a great rookie season, and the trade for Sami Vatanen was a super smart move by GM Ray Shero, but the depth as a whole at that position leaves much to be desired.
Considering what the defense actually looks like, Butcher should receive significantly more playing time than what he’s getting right now. His 2017-18 statistics, led by a 53-percent overall Corsi, proved that he’s the most productive, playmaking defenseman the Devils have, yet he still isn’t trusted with top-pair minutes and gets smashed between two unskilled pairs. Imagine if he boosted their top line.
Goaltending has to take a leap forward
What is perhaps the Devils’ biggest question mark is the two goaltenders they’ll be starting again this season. Neither Cory Schneider nor Keith Kinkaid has shown lately to be a capable starter for the full 82-game slate. Schneider managed a .907 save percentage before he got hurt and didn’t win a single regular season game afterwards, while Kinkaid was only slightly better at .913 — an average of only .908 as a team. That simply isn’t good enough for the strength of the Metro’s snipers. There is the chance that, if Schneider returns to form, and Kinkaid carries over his late-season numbers, the Devils can work with the output by each of them, much like they did in the latter half of last season.
The Devils are still playing with that same chip on their shoulders, but it may carry more weight this year
As a relatively middle-of-the-pack team, New Jersey has the chance to be good, but it requires a lot of things to go right. Hall needs to stay in MVP form, the defense needs to avoid costly errors and blunders, and goaltending to sharpen up and be more consistent. Luckily, the Devils still possess some of the fastest skaters in the league, and that speed is what has made them — and will continue to make them — a hard team to match up with. We all experienced that with the Penguins’ struggles against them.
It goes to mention, too, that New Jersey has the assets and cap space to make a big, in-season splash during the trade period. If all goes right, the Devils may just squeeze their way into the playoffs once again.