2017-18 Bench Life NHL Previews: 27. New Jersey Devils

Part 5 of 31 in our NHL previews where Ballantyne, Waind and I rank each NHL team 1 through 31 and give you an outlook on their season. Starting from the worst, we’ll be giving you the reasons why we ranked each team where we did. It might not be perfect, but that’s never stopped Don Cherry before.

Check out the other parts to this series:

#31. Colorado Avalanche

#30. Vegas Golden Knights

#29. Vancouver Canucks

#28. Detroit Red Wings

2016-17 Recap

Record: 28-40-14 (70 points) 8th in Metropolitan division (28th overall)
GPG: 2.20 (28th)
GAPG: 2.94 (25th)
PP%: 17.5% (22nd)
PK%: 79.6% (23rd)
Corsi For %: 47.1% (29th)

The 2016-17 season for the Devils was not a good one. They’ve always been known for playing a boring style of hockey, but in the past it’s worked for them. Unfortunately last year, even that didn’t work for them. Long gone are the dynasty days where they featured a blueline of Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski. Not to mention the fact they had arguably the best goalies of all time between the pipes for them in Martin Brodeur. To put into perspective just how far they’ve fallen, the Devils blueline now features a top pair of Andy Greene and Ben Lovejoy…

There poor 2016-17 showing certainly wasn’t helped by Schneider posting some of the worst numbers in his career. In 60 games he managed only 20 wins, while putting up a .908 SV% and 2.82 GAA. However, a lot of this has to do with some poor special teams play. He actually played well at even strength, evident by his .921 SV%. But his .843 SV% while the Devils were on the powerplay was awful, giving up 8 goals against (per Hockey Reference). Giving up a goal while on the powerplay completely kills any momentum that you’ve been building, and trying to come back from it can be almost impossible at times. While Schneider’s numbers dropped last season, this could certainly have to do with the team in front of him. Without much help in front, even the best goalies in the NHL would have a tough time trying to win games on their own.

But New Jersey’s biggest issue has to be their inability to score goals. The Devils have very few scoring options up front, and despite the addition of Taylor Hall last offseason, they struggled to score goals all season long. Hall did add a boost to a lackluster Devils offense, contributing 20 goals and 33 assists in 72 games and finishing tied for the team lead in points with Kyle Palmieri. But 53 points last year had the Jersey duo tied for 72nd in the league. If the Devils want to be taken seriously, they need someone to step up and be relied upon to carry the team.

2017-18 Outlook

List of Key Additions: Brian Boyle, Marcus Johansson, Nico Hischier, Drew Stafford, Will Butcher

List of Key Departures: Mike Cammalleri, Devante Smith-Pelly, Beau Bennett

The Devils 2017-18 season looks like it could be almost as bad as last year, but there seems to be a bit more hope around the team this season. Taylor Hall has had a full season to adjust to his new team and will be expected to improve on his point totals from last year. Cory Schneider should be able to bounce back after an uncharacteristically poor season. And the addition of Nico Hischier is likely to provide another scoring option up front. He’s projected to start the season on the second line, but depending on his performance and the play of Adam Henrique, it’s possible that the Devils could move Hischier to the first line before the end of the season. The Devils were also able to acquire Marcus Johansson for a relatively low cost, and coming off a 58 point season (24 G, 34 A) he provides another scoring option on the second line. Drew Stafford will likely find himself lined up to the right of Hischier, but probably won’t provide a huge scoring boost on the line after notching just 21 points while splitting time between Winnipeg and Boston last season.

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The Devils still have what could be called an atrocious blueline. Hopefully Will Butcher can help fix that. The University of Denver standout put up 37 points last season while helping his team on their way to the 2017 NCAA Championship. If he can play the way that the Devils are hoping he’s capable of, he’ll find himself getting some major ice time this season, and could become one of New Jersey’s top defensemen very soon.

 

Honestly, the Devils didn’t really lose much, and added some players that will hopefully provide a boost up front. Cammalleri, Smith-Pelly and Bennett combined for 59 points last season. Johansson had 58 on his own. The Devils also added depth in Brian Boyle and Drew Stafford. The biggest problem with their offseason is that they didn’t do anything to really improve their biggest weakness. Of course with elite defensemen being such a hot commodity in the NHL, it’s not easy to find one. They’re taking a chance on Butcher, but if that doesn’t pan out then it’s likely going to be another tough season in New Jersey.

X-Factors

Team MVP: Taylor Hall

When the Devils traded for Taylor Hall, he came to the team with everyone expecting him to be their star player. Despite tying for the team lead in scoring, Hall put together a very mediocre season by his standard. It left Devils fans wanting more, and after having a full season to adjust to his new team, the expectations of Hall are higher than they were before. His high-octane skillset gives New Jersey their best chance of being competitive, and he’s one of the top left wingers in the league. If he stays healthy, he should be able to put up some better numbers than last season.

Team’s Strength: Cory Schneider

It’s a good thing that the Devils have Schneider, otherwise they’d find themselves looking at an even worse season than the one that potentially already lies ahead of them. When he’s on his game he’s one of the best goalies in the league. But unfortunately he’s playing on a team that doesn’t offer him much help. They can’t score, they can’t defend, and a team can only rely on their goalie to do so much (unless it’s Montreal, who let’s Carey Price carry them to the playoffs every year, but that’s for a different article). Schneider is only a year removed from a 2.15 GAA and .924 SV% and 4 shutout season, proving that he’s capable of bailing his team out when he needs to. For a team that has weak defense but relies on playing a defensive-minded game, it’s a good thing they have Schneider standing in the blue paint.

Team’s Weakness: The entire blueline

Just look at this real quick and try to tell me it’s not the worst defensive group in the NHL…

Screen Shot 2017-09-14 at 12.15.22 AM

Devils Defensive Pairings from: http://www.dailyfaceoff.com/teams/new-jersey-devils/line-combinations

If I’m Cory Schneider looking at this, I’m already mentally preparing for a tough season. It’s hard to predict a season that’s anything better than last year when looking at this group of defensemen. While the offense has improved, I don’t know if they’ll be able to make up for the amount of scoring chances given up. Honestly, the fact that Andy Greene was only a -16 last season is kind of impressive.

Rookies/Farm: 

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After being selected 1st overall in the 2017 Entry Draft, Nico Hischier could be the player that finally turns the Devils around. While he’s going to go through his growing pains as a rookie, he’s likely to get a lot of ice time this season on a team that lacks depth. Last season he scored 86 points (38 G, 48 A) in just 57 games with the Halifax Mooseheads. Clearly he’s capable of producing, we just have to wait and see how this translates to the NHL. When comparing him to Nolan Patrick, the other player that many were expecting to go 1st overall, Hischier seems to be more prepared to make the jump to the NHL at this time. While he’s no McDavid or Matthews and can’t be relied upon to carry a team just yet, he should be able to provide some secondary scoring on a team that desperately needs it.

Key Player: Marcus Johansson

After becoming an offensive threat in Washington, Johansson will be expected to carry that over to the Devils. Easier said than done. In Washington, there were so many other scoring threats that Johansson wasn’t often matched up against a top D-pairing. If he’s able to step up to the task of putting up the same kind of numbers against the opposing team’s top defensemen, then the addition of Johansson will pay off for the Devils. If he gets shut down and can’t find a way to produce, Devils fans may begin to question why they traded two draft picks when the team is clearly in need of a rebuild.

Our Rankings

C. Burgess: 26th

T. Waind: 26th

B. Ballantyne: 28th


 

Looking at this upcoming season, it’s shaping up to be a tough one for fans in New Jersey. Except for this lucky Devils fan who had absolutely no trouble getting himself some season tickets.

A bright spot for the Devils? The team is trending in the right direction, and once they find a solution to their defense they could actually turn into a decent team. But that’s a BIG if. For now, they’ll likely be a bottom feeder in the Metropolitan division, considering some of the best teams in the entire league and division rivals in Washington and Pittsburgh will be beating up on them all season long. The Devils seem to be stuck between trying to add to the core that they’ve already established, or blowing it up and going for a total rebuild. With a group of talented players who are still in their prime, it’s tough to give up and dedicate to a rebuild. But depending how this season goes, it’ll be interesting to see what the Devils do at the trade deadline and next offseason.

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