Unless you haven't paid any attention, the New Jersey Devils are not a good team whatsoever. They are a bad team and they have had many more bad performances than decent much less good ones. Their record of 12-17-6 puts them at the foot of an incredible metaphorical mountain that isn't like to be climbed by the end of the season to make the postseason. With each passing game where the team didn't win, the outcry increases to dump the veterans and/or to play the kids.
The general idea is straight-forward. If a season is lost, then the idea is to move older, established players for additional assets and to make space for younger players to determine whether they can fill in those spots. If a team is lucky, the younger player will do well enough, the assets (picks, prospects, other players) obtained can strengthen the team down the line. There's not much a team that's nearly doomed to fail can do so it's at least something. However, this isn't something that is so easy for the Devils to do. As much as I understand the desire to do so, I'd like to explain why that's not so simple for the team with three major points.
For the sake of this post, I'm going to define "kids" as players under the age of 25. These would include players still on their entry level contracts and those are on their first or second deals before they would be eligible for unrestricted free agency.
1. Most of the Kids Are Already Playing
The Devils are certainly an old team. One of the oldest in the league. Yet, they have several players under the age of 25 who have played a significant role on this season's team. In no particular order they are forward Adam Henrique, Damon Severson, Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas, Adam Larsson, Seth Helgeson, and Jacob Josefson. (Keith Kinkaid is 25 so I'm not counting him.) Not all of these players have played in every game as they have been (or are) held out due to injury, illness, or a roster decision at one point or another. Still, the team has used at least three of these five defensemen regularly. Josefson was centering a bottom-six line for weeks before his recent injury. Henrique has been moved around but found ways to be productive. So much so that he's tied for the team lead in points. That's a total of seven young skaters, which isn't a small amount in spite of the average age of the Devils' roster.
How are they doing in the bigger picture? After going to NHL.com and War On Ice, here's a quick summary of how things are going for these young players - I included Reid Boucher, more on him in #2. CF% is Corsi For percentage; OZS% is offensive zone start percentage; Comp Rank is for Time on Ice% of all competition; and all three of those stats are at even strength per War on Ice:
|U-25 Devil||GP||PTS||SOG||ATOI||CF%||OZS%||Comp Rank|
|Henrique||28||20||47||18:42||45.5||45.5||9 / 19 Fwds|
|Josefson||25||3||23||12:03||53.0||50.0||14 / 19 Fwds|
|Boucher||4||0||6||09:28||51.8||47.8||15 / 19 Fwds|
|Severson||32||12||74||23:01||51.3||43.5||2 / 9 Dmen|
|Merrill||21||7||19||22:22||46.2||49.2||4 / 9 Dmen|
|Gelinas||28||10||62||17:21||51.0||67.4||7 / 9 Dmen|
|Larsson||17||4||20||16:27||50.8||34.8||8 / 9 Dmen|
|Helgeson||16||1||8||13:09||45.5||37.5||9 / 9 Dmen|
I will say that the "kids" haven't done all that well. Henrique has been productive but he's been struggling mightily in terms of Corsi percentage. Some of that is on his teammates but given that being with Scott Gomez and Jaromir Jagr - a possession powerhouse almost on his own - has not helped him in recent games, I wonder how good Henrique really is. At least he can play 17-18 minutes at forward. Josefson was doing very well centering a bottom-six line before his recent groin injury. However, he is turning closer into Vladimir Zharkov as a center. I really liked Zharkov, but it means that Josefson's best role is a limited one. Not one where he can play plenty of minutes against difficult competition. That's really it for young forwards, but that speaks to
On defense, there's a wide range of usage. Damon Severson was paired right next to Andy Greene since the start of the season and he's been a revelation. He's had some struggles as a rookie with respect to positioning and reading the play. But more often than not, he's making the right decisions and he's doing it against the opposition's best players while contributing plenty of shots from distance. He's been good so far and that's impressive given he's only 20. It's a shame he's unable to play due to a stress fracture in his left ankle.
Beyond him isn't so pretty. Jon Merrill has been receiving significant minutes but his really low CF% suggests he shouldn't. Eric Gelinas has the Truth and plenty of other shots, but he's an adventure in his own end of the rink. Seth Helgeson was called up due to injury. He's been appropriately limited in terms of minutes and while he has held his own at times, he's not a defenseman who's going to be able to push the play in the right direction after being stuck in his own end. His upside may actually be Bryce Salvador. Adam Larsson is the only one of the bunch who deserves more than what he has been given, as he wasn't used much or at all early in the season . However, he was on his way to establishing himself as a regular who can (and did!) play some tough minutes before he got afflicted with the mumps of all things. For the most part, though, everyone's got their role and most are set to be on the NHL team. Helgeson will likely be sent down soon, but you can't say he hasn't been given his opportunity.
Are these players getting better? That's really hard to say. From where I stand, here's how I see the eight: Henrique may be switching among lines and back to wing or center for some time, but he's set as a NHL forward who can provide some offense. Josefson has done well in his role, but given that he has never been a productive player even in terms of attempts, where he is now is likely how he'll be in the NHL. I'd like to think that the defensemen will improve. Severson certainly is young enough at the age of 20 to grow; Larsson has played with less hesitation, which has improved his game considerably; and Jon Merrill occasionally resembles Andy Greene. Gelinas can be salvaged if he can get smarter in his own end. However, Merrill occasionally resembles a less offensive Jack Johnson or Andy McDonald. Helgeson may get smarter in his decision making but his upside appears to be limited. Who knows whether Larsson's improvements mean he can be relied on for 18-20 minutes against good competition? Gelinas has shown that he can be real liability in his own end of the rink. At this rate, he'll be a powerful shooter but little more than a specialist. Players do need to play to get better, but there's no pre-defined number of games, minutes, or events that will lead one to get better. It's not even a guarantee that players will get better. It's that latter point we should keep in mind a bit more often.
Nevertheless, these players have been at least good enough to play a not insignificant when available. To that extent, the kids are already being played.
2. What Other Kids Really Belong in the NHL Anyway?
Generally when there is a call-up of a forward from Albany and it's not Reid Boucher, I see questions about why not Reid Boucher. He was well regarded enough to crack the top five of the 2014 ILWT Top 25 Under 25 as decided by readers like you. He's arguably the only scoring prospect in the system right now. However, Reid Boucher not been all that productive until recently. As of Sunday evening he's got seven goals, seven assists, and 63 shots in 24 games in the AHL. That's not terrible - especially the shots - but it doesn't suggest he's necessarily ready for the next level.
In fact, Boucher has made four appearances this season and 23 last season. He demonstrated that he had a great release on his shot. Boucher can shoot. The problem is that he can't do much else in terms of skating, defending, passing, or playing off the puck. While he averaged less than ten minutes per game with each call up, it's difficult to point out anything that he did that would justify more ice time in those games or just more games with New Jersey. My conclusion is that Boucher needs more time and he'll get that in the 'A.' The NHL is certainly a better league than the AHL, but it's not a force multiplier for development. Therefore, Boucher is where he should be.
Keep in mind that Boucher has been the closest of the crew in Albany to get to that next level. Stefan Matteau played 17 games right after his draft year with New Jersey, but he hasn't been called up at all since then. Right now, he's averaging a shot-and-a-half per game with one goals and eight assists in 24 games. It's not all about points, but it suggests he's not ready. Therefore, there's little point to bring him up and hope getting a few NHL minutes will be better for him than getting more minutes in the AHL.
Beyond that, there's no other player under the age 25 in Albany that really should be called up short of another rash of injuries hitting New Jersey. Graham Black, Ben Thomson, and Ben Johnson are in their first seasons of pro hockey and they need to establish themselves in the AHL first. Reece Scarlett and Raman Hrabarenka haven't been healthy for starters and nothing they've done has moved the needle on any potential call-up. I know this because the team recently signed Mark Fraser to a NHL deal for depth past Helgeson. This also explains why Brandon Burlon is on the outside looking in. I think Burlon is an AHLer, but the others need more time to determine whether they can possibly be more than that. Throwing them up to fill in spots just because New Jersey is bad does not make much sense.
I'll happily defer to those who follow the prospects and/or Albany more closely, but I don't think there is anyone on that roster right now that deserves to be in New Jersey for more than just filling in. Those kids should just be playing there. Let them be good AHL players first before asking them to be NHL players to contribute.
3. Someone's Got to Play the Vets' Roles When They're Gone
While I've been focusing on the kids, let's look at the veterans. The Devils have a number of older players without any kind of clause that they could move this season: Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder, Martin Havlat, and (maybe?) Scott Gomez. If others like Marek Zidlicky are willing to waive their clauses, then there's more options to move. The idea is to get assets like draft picks or even a prospect. However, keep in mind that the team will still have to play games after they move the veteran players and so someone's got to play their minutes.
This will depend on who they move. Ryder and Havlat aren't crucial members of the roster. However, as the Devils are thin at wing - especially at right wing - there's no easy replacement short of forcing someone to play well over their heads. As stated in #2, the kids in Albany are better suited in Albany than having to fill in for them. This issue looms even larger if #68 is shipped out. Jagr may command the most significant return. He also averages over 18:39 per game, he leads the forwards in terms of possession (54.3%), shots (76), and is tied with Henrique for points. Jagr will likely continue to be one of, if not the best, forward on the Devils and so he'll continue to play a lot and against tough competition. That's an even bigger role to fill. Gomez, well, that depends on how much you'd want to see Patrik Elias back at center since the Devils don't really have centers in the system.
Now, if the Devils are trading those players, then it probably doesn't matter that their replacements would represent a step down. Whether they may not be able to handle the minutes and competition would likely be moot as the team wouldn't be good anyway. I get that. If you want a higher draft pick, it may even be desirable. However, if the kids in Albany aren't even good AHLers and the kids in New Jersey already have their roles, then how will the possibility of playing more significant minutes make them better? Remember, the system doesn't have much forward talent available and the veterans to be moved are forwards. There may not be enough bodies Furthermore, if Reid Boucher can't cut it in limited minutes, he's not likely going to figure out what it takes in the NHL if he's guaranteed to play something like 15-16 minutes. That also applies to the others in Albany. If even applies to the others in New Jersey, even though that's really only Josefson at forward and his development may be done anyway.
This all doesn't even take into account the possibility that the kids may just not be all that good or able to take on a more significant role in the lineup. When the Devils get that touted prospect with that high draft pick their on track to getting, there's still going to be a team in place in 2015-16. If you want the team to be good then, then there's going to have to be more than just a few good players for that prospect to join. A bunch of inexperienced players who've went through a big part of 2014-15 playing in spots they don't need to play in isn't going to help.
Conclusion & Your Take
Now I'm not saying the Devils shouldn't trade anyone and just roll with their current lineup for all 82 games. It's becoming clearer and clearer that 2014-15 is a lost season. I'm expecting at least one veteran to be moved before the NHL trade deadline on March 2, 2015. My larger message is that it's not simple for the Devils to just dump players and expect younger players to come anywhere near adequately filling their spot. The current New Jersey has just about all of the under-25 players playing already and the under-25s in Albany should remain in place based on what they've done so far. A veteran should only be moved if there's some reasonable plan to have someone take their spot on the roster. That's how I see it.
How do you see it? Please leave your answer and other thoughts on this topic in the comments. Thank you for reading.