By Steve Lichtenstein
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If the axiom that you need to crawl before you can sprint can be applied to a hockey team, then the Devils should be expecting to take baby steps this season.
With the second year of the franchise’s rebirth under general manager Ray Shero and coach John Hynes commencing Thursday night in Florida, the Devils will look to improve upon their 38-36-8 record from 2015-16.
While that mark was 12 points shy of what was necessary to gain entry into the postseason — the organization’s fourth consecutive failing — there was no denying the signs of growth that materialized over the course of the campaign.
Goaltender Cory Schneider was deserving of all the accolades he received, including his invitation to play for Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey in September, following an outstanding season during which he finished among the top five of the league’s goals-against average and save percentage leaders.
Winger Kyle Palmieri matured into a 30-goal scorer, earning a new five-year contract. Center Adam Henrique also potted 30 goals. Both specialty team units ranked in the NHL’s top 10 and their overall work ethic was well-regarded around the league — testaments to how much the team bought in to Hynes’ new systems.
However, the Devils were figurative crawlers on the ice. It seemed that every night they faced a glaring speed disadvantage.
The result was a dead-last ranking in both goals and shots on goal per game. It more than offset a disciplined defensive performance that yielded an eighth-best 202 goals allowed.
Management’s game plan this past offseason was to infuse the organization with more speed and skill. Shero traded for Edmonton’s explosive left wing Taylor Hall while Hynes has made room on the roster for young talents such as 2015 first-round pick Pavel Zacha.
Will it be enough for New Jersey to break through in a highly competitive division to reach the playoffs? Here’s a more in-depth look followed by a prediction.
Schneider is as technically sound a netminder as one can find in the league. He’s not super athletic or monstrously huge, but he does a wonderful job of keeping his team in games.
However, I found it interesting that the Devils experienced little drop-off in goal when he injured his leg and was lost for most of March. New Jersey went 6-5-1 in that stretch, which included its three-game California road trip and three other matchups with the high-flying Capitals and Penguins.
It could be that the Devils are so abundantly rich in this area — they seriously contemplated whether to risk exposing Scott Wedgewood through waivers before sending him down to Albany after he lost his battle with Keith Kinkaid for the backup job — or maybe Schneider isn’t as valuable as the basic statistics suggest.
While you can argue that the Devils’ inadequate sniping ability has contributed to Schneider’s dismal 5-17 shootout record over the past three seasons, you can’t whitewash his well below-average .589 save percentage in these skill competitions that are super critical for a team that plays so many close games.
I’m not suggesting that Schneider is due for a subpar season — no one should be concerned over his admittedly lackluster performances in meaningless exhibition games — but I do question whether he can similarly carry a Devils team that is expected to play a more open style when compared to prior years.
You have to give to get, and Shero decided top-pair defenseman Adam Larsson was a fair price to pay to land Hall.
Many are quick to downplay plus/minus numbers, but go take a look at how much Larsson’s plus-15 last season differed from the rest of New Jersey’s D-men crop. It can’t be that much of a coincidence. The Devils have a huge hole to fill.
For captain Andy Greene’s new partner, Hynes has been rotating his right-handed defensemen, with third-year pro Damon Severson getting the nod in the final preseason game. I believe the more offensively minded Severson is a better fit with John Moore on the second pair, especially if the Devils still intend to expand Greene’s duties to include quarterbacking one of the units on the power play.
As much as the Devils want to get Greene involved on both ends of the ice, he is more needed to replicate the shutdown role he mastered a year ago with Larsson. To that end, Ben Lovejoy, who signed with New Jersey as a free agent in the summer after winning a Stanley Cup ring in Pittsburgh last season, should eventually be promoted as Greene’s full-time partner.
The third pairings last season tended to be nightmares on ice, with the Devils often running around in their own end on gassed legs. Moore and departed defenseman David Schlemko also had dips in defensive performance in the final third of the season.
Shero added veteran Kyle Quincey to the roster during training camp to shore up the position’s depth and to provide tutelage to rookies Steve Santini and Yohann Auvitu. Quincey will begin the season on injured reserve with a lower-body ailment, which could mean that Hynes will mull whether to split his two inexperienced defensemen.
Auvitu, who excelled in the Finnish League last season, showed off his innate feel for the game during the preseason. He made some superb passes on the power play and led the team with six assists. Santini is more of a traditional stay-at-home defenseman, a bent that the Devils do not possess in large supply.
For some inexplicable reason, Shero opted to re-sign restricted free agent Jon Merrill after an atrocious 2015-16 campaign. Merrill is currently sidelined for about three more weeks with a broken finger, but it would be a travesty if he re-enters the lineup in place of a more capable player when he gets healthy.
Again, if the Devils plan to send more bodies to their attack than a year ago, the defense could be even more vulnerable. Greene will turn 34 years old this month. Lovejoy (32) and Quincey (31) may have also lost steps.
This area is one big question mark, and it will be up to Schneider to cover for excessive mistakes.
Shero and Hynes gained experience in the Penguins’ system, where that championship organization accrued enough assets to be able to roll out four threatening lines every night.
The Devils look like they will get a little bit closer to that this season.
Devils fans should be giddy at the prospects for the top trio of Henrique, Hall and (as of the last preseason game) Devante Smith-Pelly. Shero stole Smith-Pelly from Montreal prior to last season’s trade deadline, and now it appears he will provide a natural fit as a puck retriever and net crasher alongside the more gifted Hall and Henrique, who were teammates in Canadian juniors.
Before anyone suggests that recently claimed wing P.A. Parenteau should immediately usurp Smith-Pelly on the top line, maybe the Devils should figure out why the Islanders placed him on waivers after about 15 minutes on the job.
Parenteau could be useful on the Devils’ power play, and he would fill an urgent need for an accomplished shootout scorer. But he’s more crafty than swift on his skates, and he has never been known as a big winner of 50/50 puck battles. As a depth scorer, he could well become another great Shero bargain.
The return to health of left wing Mike Cammalleri gives a jolt to the second line. With Palmieri on the opposite wing, opponents will now have a hard choice as to which line to commit their top defensive resources.
The Devils’ problem, however, is that Travis Zajac is not a top-six center on a good team. He is a tremendously diligent player, above average on faceoffs and very responsible in his own end and on the backcheck.
Coaches find it very tempting to play Zajac a lot, which is why he led all Devils forwards in average ice time per game (19:51) last season. But he doesn’t scare anyone with his skating or playmaking. Zajac is coming off a year in which he recorded just 42 points while playing next to a 30-goal scorer and on power play units.
The Devils need someone more dynamic in this spot. Zacha is the heir apparent, and it is apparent that it’s time to move Zajac down a line.
Though only 19 years old, Zacha is physically mature at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds. His skill with the puck is obvious, and Hynes has been testing his IQ without the puck all preseason, even playing him on the penalty kill. He belongs with Palmieri and Cammalleri.
Zajac should play on a pure checking line with Beau Bennett and Reid Boucher, two capable wingers who are due (though not guaranteed) for breakout years. Bennett’s issue has always been staying healthy while Boucher needs to trust his plus shot more as opposed to his average handle.
Unfortunately, I’m fairly confident that Hynes won’t break up the chemistry between Zajac and Palmieri this soon, which would mean that Zacha will probably center a line between Bennett and Parenteau.
For the fourth line, Hynes has a jumble of players depending on the team’s need on a given night. In addition to Boucher, Sergey Kalinin and Miles Wood have size and speed on the wings. Vern Fiddler is the defensive-oriented center while Jacob Josefson is more of a playmaker (although not a very good one). When he returns from an injury, Luke Gazdic could be used as an old-school enforcer. Nineteen-year old Blake Speers impressed Hynes with his ability to work in tight spaces, but I doubt he remains on the 23-player roster after his nine-game allowance.
The elephant in the locker room is 40-year old left wing Patrik Elias. An unrestricted free agent, Elias has been skating on his own at Prudential Center hoping he can successfully rehabilitate a right knee that required surgery in May.
Elias seems to want to play a 21st season as a Devil, though it is unclear where he would fit. It would be unfair to expect him to keep up with the faster game being played on rinks these days.
Unless one or more of the bottom-six forwards makes a leap in production, the depth up front isn’t quite what it needs to be in order for New Jersey to compete with the big boys in the Eastern Conference. Hynes is also very concerned that the organization parted ways with many of the muckers who made playing against the Devils last year a hellish chore. I believe the Devils will be exponentially more watchable this season, but it is uncertain whether Hynes can play the same close-to-the-vest system with this roster mix. New Jersey was committing way too many penalties for Hynes’ liking during the preseason, leading to punitive measures during some of the more recent practices.
The prediction: More goals for, more goals allowed. The Devils will be incrementally better than a year ago. They will finish with 88 points, which will place them sixth in the Metropolitan Division and on the outside of the playoff tournament.
There’s still more growing up to do.
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