New Jersey's Anemic Offense Looks A Lot Better, But Its Defense Needs Reinforcements Sooner Rather Than Later

By Steve Lichtenstein
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The hot take immediately following the Devils’ acquisition of Edmonton left wing Taylor Hall in a trade for defenseman Adam Larsson on Wednesday was that New Jersey general manager Ray Shero engineered another heist.

A year after obtaining 30-goal scoring right winger Kyle Palmieri from Anaheim for draft picks, Shero again looked to the west to boost his club’s anemic attack.

MORE: Devils Acquire Former No. 1 Overall Pick Taylor Hall From Oilers For Adam Larsson

The 24-year-old Hall, the first overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, is a swift and skilled playmaker who is signed for the next four years at an affordable $6 million AAV.

For a team that struggled to put the puck in the net last year (a league-low 182 goals), Hall would appear to be a godsend. He registered 26 goals and 39 assists last season and has averaged .86 points per game over his six-year career.

The Devils’ leading point producer last season was Palmieri, who averaged .7 points per game.

While I won’t deny that the Devils got the better end of this deal, I don’t believe it will turn out to be as one-sided as some analysts have suggested.

If Shero doesn’t have more moves up his sleeve, all he really did was the equivalent of filling in a hole in his front lawn by digging up his backyard.

Larsson was immensely valuable in New Jersey’s surprising playoff chase last season. Paired mainly with team captain Andy Greene, Larsson averaged 22:30 of ice time and was plus-15, tied for 18th highest among the league’s defensemen.

While regularly matched against the oppositions’ top scoring lines. While playing for a team that was dreadful five-on-five (when the Devils were outscored, 133-109).

The 23-year-old Larsson was also a high draft pick, chosen fourth overall a year after Hall. Though he experienced more trials and tribulations than Hall early in his career, Larsson started to get it during the 2014-15 season.

Larsson, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 205 pounds, was by no means a cruncher and his shot was average at best. He was more a master of the subtle plays. The smart pass, the poke check, the stick tie-up in front.

It’s not like the Devils have a line of qualified candidates to replace Larsson on the top pair to Greene’s right. Remember how often their goalies faced onslaughts from the opposition when Greene and Larsson left the ice last season? Despite a stringent defensive-oriented system installed by coach John Hynes, the Devils’ second and third pair numbers were not pretty.

Shero tried to cut and paste last season by giving Hynes substandard parts such as David Schlemko, John Moore, David Warsofsky, Seth Helgeson and, most incompetently, Jon Merrill to hold the fort during shifts when his top pair needed a breather.

Only 21-year-old Damon Severson showed any semblance of potential, and that was mostly limited to his play in the offensive zone.

Maybe Steven Santini, the 21-year-old, 2013 second-round draft choice who was called up to play in the Devils’ finale last season, will eventually be groomed for the shutdown role.

That still leaves Shero with a void for this season, and it won’t be easy to fill in the marketplace either.

Quality right-handed d-men are at a premium these days, which is probably why the Devils were able to pluck the talented Hall from Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli.

Shero does deserve credit for the way he has overhauled the team’s identity in a little over a year on the job. With the addition of Hall, a junior teammate of New Jersey center Adam Henrique, the Devils may not be the putt-putt mobile they’ve been the last few seasons.

There’s some pizzazz on the roster. Hall, Henrique, Mike Cammalleri, Palmieri (a restricted free agent of whom Shero said has agreed on the new deal’s AAV dollars but not its length, per’s Tom Gulitti report Wednesday), Joseph Blandisi and — if he makes it out of training camp — 2015 sixth overall draft pick Pavel Zacha are all major threats on the rush.

Though the Devils have taken on about $9 million in dead money, including the approximately $4 million owed to injured Marc Savard after the June 10 trade with Florida, Shero will still have about $25 million in salary cap space to play with when the free agent market opens on Friday.

In addition to the nice raise Palmieri will receive, Shero will likely first re-sign his own free agents such as Devante Smith-Pelly, Beau Bennett, Sergei Kalinin, Reid Boucher and Jacob Josefson.

I’m guessing that will leave around $10 million in cap space. If Shero can use it to rebuild the Devils’ defense corps, then he truly is the Willie Sutton of NHL GMs.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1


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