Friends, I have just one thing to say: HOCKEY IS BACK! It’s been a long, crazy summer but the time is here again for another NHL season and I could not be happier. Tonight at 7 P.M. the season kicks off with the annual all-Canada matchup, this time seeing the Leafs battle the Senators. We also get some other great division rivalry contests with the Blues/Hawks, Flames/Oilers and Sharks/Kings all squaring off tonight. Unfortunately we have to wait until tomorrow night to see our beloved New Jersey Devils take on the Florida Panthers, but at least there are four terrific games to entertain us this evening.
Focusing on the Devils, last season was a pretty bittersweet year for Jersey’s Team. On one hand, the Devils battled all season long and showed a ton of promise for the future. On the other, they missed the playoffs yet again for a fourth straight season. With a record of 38-36-8, there is room for hope but also plenty to improve upon. Finishing 7th out of 8 teams in the division isn’t anything to write home about, however considering they were dead last in goals per game it seems like that position could easily rise with the offseason trade to bring in elite forward Taylor Hall.
Let’s take a full look how Ray Shero changed the roster over the summer.
Taylor Hall, LW, traded from EDM
Vernon Fiddler, C, free agent from DAL
Beau Bennett, RW, traded from PIT
P.A. Parenteau, RW, claimed off waivers from NYI
Luke Gazdic, LW, free agent from EDM
Ben Lovejoy, D, free agent from PIT
Yohann Auvitu, D, free agent from HIFK Helsinki
Kyle Quincey, D, free agent from DET
Stephen Gionta, C, signed with NYI
Bobby Farnham, LW, signed with MTL
Jordin Tootoo, RW, signed with CHI
Tuomo Ruutu, LW, free agent
Mike Sislo, RW, signed with COL
Adam Larsson, D, traded to EDM
David Schlemko, D, signed with SJ
Right off the bat, it’s quite clear that Ray Shero’s priority this offseason was to upgrade the overall depth on the roster. At forward, Shero got rid of virually the entire bottom six who had a putrid season and replaced them with more established NHLers and players with far more offensive and defensive upside. On defense, the team did take a big hit with the loss of Larsson – who was their most important defender along with Andy Greene. Also, I didn’t quite understand letting Schlemko walk, but I’m guessing Shero wanted to give a kid like Steven Santini a shot on the blueline.
Here’s what the lines will look like to start the season remembering Jon Merrill, Sergey Kalinin and Luke Gazdic are all on injured reserve:
Taylor Hall – Adam Henrique – Devante Smith-Pelly
Mike Cammalleri – Travis Zajac – Kyle Palmieri
Reid Boucher – Pavel Zacha – Beau Bennett
Jacob Josefson – Vernon Fiddler – P.A. Parenteau
Extras: Miles Wood, Blake Speers
Andy Greene – Damon Severson
John Moore – Ben Lovejoy
Yohann Auvitu – Steven Santini
Extra: Kyle Quincey (expected to be activated off IR)
Obviously these lines will change at some point, maybe even by tomorrow, but this gives you a general sense of how the Devils will line up at least to start the season. Hall and Henrique will be playing together and it’s likely the RW on that line will fluctuate until somebody completely gels with the two stars. Henrique had his first 30 goal season last year and it’s only logical to think that he can repeat his success, probably getting even better now that he has an elite winger next to him. And oh yeah, he and Hall are good friends who played together in Juniors. Immediate chemistry is never a bad thing.
The second line is probably the most sure thing to be together for a long time this season. There are no more excuses for Travis Zajac. My explanation for his dip in offense over the last few seasons has been because his wingers were less than ideal. Well, now that’s over. He has 30 goal scorers Mike Cammalleri and Kyle Palmieri flanking him. If he can’t put up 50+ points with those two snipers on his wing, then it’s definitely time for him to drop down a line.
All of that also depends on the devlopment of stud rookie Pavel Zacha. If Zacha shows the offensive skill we all know he has and Zajac struggles on that side of the puck (he’ll always have his defense), then a switch will have to be made. The one thing that should really help Zajac produce more offense is Vernon Fiddler. Fiddler is a terrific defensive center and strong in the faceoff circle. Last season, Zajac was the only center on the team that could be relied upon to win a defensive zone faceoff. With the addition of Fiddler, that will take some of the burden off of Zajac and allow his line to get more offensive zone starts.
What many people don’t realize is that the Devils’ top six wasn’t their main issue last year. When you hear a team can’t score, you just assume it’s their top players not producing. However, it was the Devils’ bottom six that really hurt them. Henrique and Palmieri scored 30 goals. Cammalleri was virtually a point per game player before he got hurt. The top six did their job on both sides of the puck, but the bottom six was a total tire fire. They produced absolutely no offense and were a complete liability defensively. This season should be totally different with much more skill on the bottom two lines – Bennett, Parenteau/DSP, Boucher, etc. – and the veteran defensive presence of Fiddler.
On defense, there’s no doubt the loss of Adam Larsson will sting. He ate up all the big minutes against the opponent’s top players and shut them down. The Devils really need guys like Damon Severson and Steven Santini to take a step forward this season. Both RHD have huge potential and they need to tap into it sooner rather than later. I’m guessing both will see time playing with Andy Greene which will help their development massively. Ben Lovejoy is to the defensemen what Fiddler is to the forwards. He adds a veteran to the D corps and will play in a variety of roles. It also doesn’t hurt that he has playoff experience, wink wink.
The wild card of the unit is Yohann Auvitu. You never know what you’re getting when you sign a player from Europe, but if preseason is any barometer, Auvitu could be critical to the success of the Devils this season. He had six assists during the preseason and looked like a huge weapon on the power play. The Devils have been aching for an offensive defenseman. It’s another reason they struggle to score as they don’t get much production from the back line. With Greene seeing a more offensive role this season and Severson likely getting more important minutes, those three should be able to spark the blueline into being more offensive.
In goal, the Devils have their rock Cory Schneider. The man is arguably the best goalie in the league (no offense Carey) and always keeps the Devils in games they have no business being in. That should change this season as his teammates should be able to provide far more support in terms of goals. He may face a few more shots, but I think he’ll take that trade-off if the team is scoring for him. His backup will be Keith Kinkaid who beat out Scott Wedgewood for the job. I personally would have gone with Wedgewood – THANK GOD HE DIDN’T GET CLAIMED OFF WAIVERS – but Kinkaid has shown he can be a capable backup. With Wedgewood and Mackenzie Blackwood in the minors, Kinkaid knows he has to play well so that should help him be more consistent.
Can the Devils make the playoffs? Absolutely. Will they? Only time will tell. The Devils could finish anywhere in a wide open Metro Division. After the Caps and Pens, it’s really anybody’s guess who will make the playoffs. The Devils didn’t get eliminated until the very end of last season and it was largely due to the fact they couldn’t score. They have much more depth this year and that will result in more goals. Will it be enough to push them into the postseason for the first time since 2012? Nobody knows, and that’s the fun of it. You have to watch and find out!