There was probably no bigger surprise last year than the New Jersey Devils making the playoffs. Or it would have been if anyone outside of Newark and maybe Hoboken remembered the Devils existed for more than eight consecutive minutes. And looking it over, the Devils might be the most unlikely team to make the playoffs in years. They basically had a guy and a half scoring. But one of those guys was Taylor Hall, who put up 93 points with the half-guy, Nico Hischier. They only had two other players break 40 points. The top line of Hall-Hischier-Palmieri accounted for a full third of all the goals the Devils scored. Which seems sub-optimal.
So you’d probably think that Cory Schneider freaked the fuck off in net and that’s how they goofed their way into the last wild card spot. Well tough noogies, shithead, because that’s not what happened at all. The Ginger was awful last year, and was replaced by Keith Kinkaid who wasn’t even league-average over the whole season. Kinky went off in March to the tune of an 8-2-1 record with a .923 SV% and then basically spotless in three April starts that locked it down for the Devils.
But yeah, needless to say this was a really weird team that probably can’t be weird in a good way again. They have fully transferred from the aggressive interrogation method era under Nosferatu Lamiorello to an up-tempo, exciting team under John Hynes. But there are still many steps for this team to take.
Let’s get into it.
Goalies: Well, this would have been a murkier question, given that Schneider has struggled for two seasons now, matching a .907 SV% last year with a .908 from the year before. But The Ginger had hip surgery in May, and it’s unclear if he’s going to make an appearance in camp or preseason. He may not be ready for the season. The Devils have to hope that hip’s health was the reason that Schneider’s peak was lost to the abyss. On the other side, “hip surgery” is to goalies what “shoulder surgery” is to pitchers. Sure, you can come back from them but the likelihood of being the same is not all that high, especially when you’re 32 as Schneider is. This is dicey, dicey stuff for the Swampside Hockey Club.
The contingency plan again is Kinkaid, who spasmed something of a career season at 28. And even that overall was a .913, and without that incredible March it’s a lot worse. A hot month-plus is not something you’d call a foundation, so the Devils can only have more questions than answers about their goalie situation. And in case it all goes to pot, Eddie Lack is next in line. That’s a sentence you’d see scrawled on the wall of a rubber room.
The best case for the Devils is that Schneider is back early. But even that could be anything. This is not a good start.
Defense: This is a more intriguing unit than it appears at first glance. It’s led by longtime-servant and oh-that-dude Andy Greene, and including him the rest of the likely group is pretty nimble. That doesn’t mean that they’re any good, but they can get around the ice and given how the Devils want to play now, that fits perfectly. John Moore has departed just before he was egged and TP’d by Devils fans, which should see Will Butcher slide up the lineup. I still contend Sami Vatanen only helps you on the power play and gets utterly mullered at even-strength, but he looks to be serving out the top pairing with Greene.
Butcher is the one to watch, as last year he was able to dominate as a third-pairing bum-slayer while bum-dragging Ben Lovejoy over the ice every night. Damon Severson, while not making really doing anything that you’ll remember, is a huge upgrade in partner. Mirco Mueller and his hilariously long neck will now be on the third-pairing with Steven Santini, who are both pretty mobile themselves. Santini was thrown into the deep end at the beginning of last year with Greene, and the results were so horrific he was exiled to Binghamton, truly a hellish fate, in January and never heard from again. He’s much better suited for the third pairing, and this unit could actually be more dynamic than you’d think, and is clearly the big hope the Devils can surprise again.
Forwards: It starts and ends with Hall. When you beat out that season from Nathan MacKinnon (which he shouldn’t have but it’s hardly scandalous) to win the Hart, you’ve really done something. Hall dragged this team by the dick into relevance, even though he was the only threat anyone had to pay attention to. It mattered not. It’ll take that season again for the Devils to come anywhere near the playoffs again.
Hischier could improve in his second season, though that’s a mark that has seen some stumble. There won’t be any hiding this time, as he’s the #1 center from jump street. He’ll be flanked by Palmieri again, who I’m fairly sure I can’t identify what he does and yet he keeps ending up with 25 goals, so what do I know? Also, a guy named “Palmieri” playing in New Jersey is just about as perfect as it gets. HEY! GABBA-GOUL!
You could look for a breakout year from Marcus Johansson, as it just so happens to be his walk year. The Devils are going to need it, because it gets awfully thin awfully quick. Pavel Zacha is the #2 center, and his name has been a definition of flattering to deceive since he walked into the league. Jesper Bratt flashed at times last year but found consistency hard to come by. You can throw Blake Coleman, Stefan Noesen, Miles Wood, and Joseph Anderson in a bag, toss them around, and empty it in any order and none of you would be able to tell which is which.
Whatever the skill-level here, the Devils have packed this lineup with speed everywhere. So they could overwhelm some teams simply by putting cayenne pepper on their balls and turning up the volume to a point where the opponent couldn’t live with it (they did it to the Hawks twice). More teams are trending this way and the Devils won’t be able to catch as many by surprise. They’ll have to hope they catch enough napping in the doldrums of January and February to rack up the points they’ll need.
Outlook: Well, the Devils are kind of in between the different strata of the Metro. They’re not really all that close to the Penguins, Caps, or Jackets (as long as Bob is interested). They’re far better than the Rangers, Islanders, and almost certainly the Hurricanes if they continue to try and turn themselves into rock people.
That leaves them with the Flyers in the middle, possibly the Canes if they find goaltending. With the Panthers expected to compete hard for a wild card spot as well, there might be only one wild card spot for the Metro. A lot went right for the Devils, but given their youth and that growth is not always linear, along with the questions in net, it could be a lot rockier trip for them this time around. Likely they miss out while still taking steps forward in their development. Which could make things ultra-tricky, as Hall enters the last year of his deal next year, and he’s going to want proof that it’s worth sticking around New Jersey. Otherwise, next summer could be filled with Hall trade rumors, which would definitely set the Devils back a ton.
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