In the offseason, the Devils were a team in need of a one thing more than anything else: scoring. Back-to-back seasons of elite shot-suppression were squandered, in part, due to an inability to generate shots as well as an inability to finish on the ones they did get. The Devils had a relatively complete set of top-9 forwards signed up for 2014-15, so the hope was that they could find a player who could move the needle enough to nudge the offense toward something resembling "competent." Enter Mike Cammalleri, who scored more goals than any player on the Devils last season, despite playing on a crummy Calgary team and appearing in only 63 games on the season. He was the Devils big splash in the offseason, being signed to a 5-year, $5M AAV deal, and the Devils were banking on him to be the difference maker they needed. Thus far, it looks like he just might be that guy. So what to think of Cammalleri's first month in the black and red?
He's Putting Up Numbers
Starting with the obvious, Cammalleri has produced. He has put up 10 points in his 10 games with the team, putting him behind only Jaromir Jagr, who has played in all 16 games, in output. His six goals lead the team by two, in spite of his injury woes. He has been a difference maker when he's been on the ice and he's been the exact type of player I think the Devils were hoping he'd be, particularly at evens (he is tied for team lead with 7 ES points), where the Devils have struggled. Even with the early injury trouble, he could still put up 30 goals scoring at the pace he's been while playing 5 of every 8 games on the schedule. That pace won't necessarily keep up as he's been shooting hot, but it just illustrates his impact in the early going.
His early output isn't necessarily just propped up by percentages, either. With 33 shots in 10 games, he is putting up shots at a pace comparable to any of his best goal-scoring seasons. His 3.3 shots per game are more than an entire shot per game better than any other forward on the team (Damon Severson is actually second, with 2.7 per game). Yeah, he likely won't stay up around an 18% shooting percentage, but even shooting his career average over the remainder of the season while missing another 10 games due to injury puts him in the 30-goal range. When he's on the ice, he is just what the doctor ordered for an anemic New Jersey offense.
Contributing All Around
Cammalleri has been effective beyond the box score as well. He has been getting favorable zone starts, but has one of the highest relative Corsi% numbers on the team. Part of that is a function of playing with Jagr and Zajac a lot of the time, but Jagr and Zajac both benefit from his presence as well, as they each only have one 5v5 point away from him on the season. His abilities as a finisher, coupled with a fairly well-rounded game make him an ideal third piece of that top line to take it to the next level.
Cammalleri has been strong on a PK that has struggled at times, too. He has the lowest attempts against per 60 among forwards and lowest GA per 60 among all skaters on the Devils PK. Obviously we're not talking about a vast amount of data, but early returns show he is a capable penalty killer. His speed helps him get into passing lanes, recover on plays, and disrupt things and he seems to have good sense and awareness when he is out there on the ice. For a team with a lot of very old penalty killers, it's good to add a guy who can make an impact while only being sort of old.
Beyond the Numbers
Speaking generally now, Cammalleri has just looked dangerous whenever he is out there so far. Last night was a perfect example of the types of things he brings that the Devils have struggled with at times. He only registered a single shot, but he hit two posts and his goal on a blink-of-the-eye rebound showed something that most of the Devils have lacked in the recent past. You can picture a number of Devils fumbling with or straight up whiffing on that play, as so many pucks seem to go wanting on the doorstep for this team, but Cammalleri took no time to settle the puck, just a quick whack and it's in the back of the net.
He has also proven adept at deflecting shots early on in the season (got the post with one last night). Considering the the Devils now have a host of defensemen unafraid to bomb away from the point, this skill should be a valuable one as the season progresses. For a team that struggles mightily to create offense at times, having a guy who can deflect pucks and clean up in front - score the proverbial dirty goals - can be immensely important.
The big "if" for Cammalleri, as we knew coming into the season, is whether he can stay on the ice throughout the season. It's hard to plan for taking an elbow to the jaw, but, fair or not, missing 6 of the first 16 games won't dispel the worries of him being injury prone. Him missing time forces a lot of Devils to play in spots that are probably one or two notches over their abilities, so he is a crucial piece for this team. Case in point (small sample, I know), the Devils are scoring 3 goals per game with Cammalleri in the lineup and 2 goals per game with him out. For him to make the impact he is capable of on this team, he can't be showing up on IR too often.
Prior to last night's win, it was a rough week for the Devils and their fans, but I think most would have to admit that what they've seen from Cammalleri when he is on the ice so far has been encouraging. He has been a presence to be reckoned with in front of the net on offense and I've felt his effort and awareness on defense have been generally strong as well. His contract may not be great 4 years down the road, but right now, I would rank him among the most important skaters for this Devils team. If they are going to force their way back into the playoffs this season, Cammalleri will have to have a significant hand in it.