From where I sit, it appears that more and more New Jersey Devils fans have not only realized that the Devils are not a good hockey team but that the 2014-15 season is lost. I can not pin-point about when that happened. Maybe it was during one of the many winless streaks the team has went on. Maybe it was during this month where the team got outplayed in nearly every game they were in. Maybe it was with the recent coaching changes. Whatever the case may be, I think it's fair to say that the New Jersey Devils are a mess right now. It's going to take quite a bit to get them to become a better team. While I don't think it'll be enough to get the Devils into the playoffs this season, the work begins now to at least make 2015-16 a better season. To do that, let's try to understand what the Devils need given the current state of the roster.
1. A Second Line Center
I wrote about this at the end of November, and it's true now as it was then. One of the biggest reasons why the Devils have been so competitive in the last decade or so was because Patrik Elias could anchor that second unit like a boss. He carried a Michael-Ryder-like Petr Sykora and a possession-strong but offensively-challenged Dainius Zubrus in 2011-12 and not managed to be productive but drive the play well. Elias has been a part of the team's foundation since 1999 or so. The problem with foundation players is that they can't be foundation players forever. Father Time has hit Elias hard. As such, the team's second line has suffered and opponents have really keyed in on that.
With injury and illness undercutting the Devils' roster, there have been several different looks for the second line so it's not like the team has tried different looks. With the co-coaches, I would expect further experimentation. There is some hope for improvement this season, given the surprising emergence of Scott Gomez and the continuing play of Jaromir Jagr. This frees up Travis Zajac for that second line spot and allows some options among Mike Cammalleri, Adam Henrique, Dainius Zubrus, and others at wing. That may help in the short-term but for the longer-term of next season and beyond, this area needs to be addressed.
What they need here are possession-strong players who can attack and defend well. A second line is going to see at least a better-than-decent level of competition. When the first line struggles on a given night, it's usually on the second line to step up. In a perfect world, the Devils need another Elias and two fairly good wingers to support him. Zajac could do that, but then that leaves the Devils with a hole on the first line and I really do not think Scott Gomez is the answer. The problem is that finding those players is easier said than done. Players like Elias aren't common at all. The cheapest way to get them is to unearth them in the draft.
If the Devils are going to try to trade for players this season, then it's this level of forward they may want to shoot for. The impending free agent market appears to be thin on skilled centers. Any draft pick is going to need some time to develop. So this is a more immediate need.
2. Right Wingers for the Top Nine
Here's a list of right wingers for the New Jersey Devils that we have seen this season: Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder, Damien Brunner, Martin Havlat (he can play either side), Dainius Zubrus (he can play any forward position), Steve Bernier, Jordin Tootoo, and Mike Sislo. Brunner is already gone and he is not missed. Ryder will likely not be missed if/when he goes. Havlat as a one-year experiment has gone very poorly and should not continue. Zubrus has been aging and his usefulness has faded. Bernier is fine for a fourth line but anything higher may put him in over his head. Tootoo and Sislo are just fill-in players. Oh, and Jagr is 42 and while he's been valiant against Father Time, I'm not betting on him being an effective first line right winger at age 43. This is clearly the Devils' weakest position. The Devils absolutely need right wingers for both New Jersey and in the developmental system. And they'll need them soon as only Zubrus and Sislo are signed beyond 2015.
Fortunately, this positional need can be addressed through free agency. Per CapGeek's UFA Finder and assuming their positions are correct, there are plenty of solid right wingers that may be available this summer. If Winnipeg lets Michael Frolik get to July 1, the Devils should absolutely be first in line to get him. They should at least consider players like Drew Stafford, Justin Williams, and Eric Fehr among other forwards that can handle the right side. The Devils need to learn the hard lessons from Ryder, Brunner, and Havlat. They need wingers that can actually contribute in both ends of the rink and help drive possession forward as opposed to having flashes of skill or just a strong shot. As much as I liked the decisions to bring in those players, those three chances all going wrong tells me that a fourth chance like it would be a poor idea.
Replacing a Jagr will be hard because it's rare to find players who handle tough competition well while not being at all adept on defense. But I think the Devils can quickly put up better second and third lines with improvements at right wing from free agency. There should be a number of good natural right wingers available and, failing that, other forwards that can handle that position without issue. Bernier can be kept for the fourth line and that will be that.
As for the prospect need, well, draft some right wingers and hope for the best. More on that in a bit.
3. A Distributor on the Blueline
You'll notice none of these points are or will be hackneyed statements of "Get younger." Look at the defense. They are younger. They are not better. They might get better. However, after 91 games of Eric Gelinas, 75 games of Jon Merrill, and 147 games of Adam Larsson, the Devils' defensemen has one area that they'll need to address soon: who's going to move the puck? (I didn't mention Damon Severson, I think it's too soon to tell other than that he's going to be really good at defending.) Marek Zidlicky has been one of the most prolific passers last season among the Devils' defense. While he sometimes some awful and over-aggressive decisions, it's not an accident he has the puck on his stick more often than most. He's the guy usually making not just offensive passes, but also passes out of their end and through the neutral zone. It's not an accident he's third on the team in scoring right now with 17 points and averaging over 22 minutes per game. You have to take the bad with the good with #2, but the good is something the other defenders don't do nearly as well as him.
Throw in the fact that the Devils' blueline is expected to be quite young anyway, and it's not such a bad idea for the Devils to invest in a defenseman this summer. As much as I justified Zidlicky's role, he's going to be turning 38 and I think his bad is going to outweigh his good real soon. It'll be a real test of the Devils' evaluation methods of other NHL players to find such a player. There are plenty of blueliners that could be available, but a good passer goes beyond someone with a whole bunch of assists. It's still worth the effort. Plus, if Damon Severson, Gelinas, Larsson, and Merrill don't progress much, then the defense may not be a total eyesore past Andy Greene. Like with right wingers, the opportunities will be there, it'll be on the Devils to find the right one.
4. Scouting Needs to Be Addressed
One of the root causes of the Devils' current situation is that their drafting has been poor. We can go on and on about draft position, trading or losing first round picks, and undrafted free agents. The fact remains: the Devils have only found a handful of good players through the draft over the past decade or so. The issue isn't that the Devils aren't throwing Reid Boucher or Stefan Matteau into the NHL without issue, it's that the scouts haven't found enough good players. This is the main point of Dave Lozo's excellent article about it at Bleacher Report, a site that's better off actually reading these days due to Lozo, Robert Vollman, and Jonathan Willis.
My understanding is that Lou doesn't run the draft. It's largely run by David Conte, who has plenty of long-time scouts on staff. Assuming I am correct, the lack of prospects with viable future should fall on Conte and his staff. If any group needs to be held accountable - code for punished - then it should be them. The lack of results speak for themselves and I think Lou would be entirely justified if he were to clean that particular house. Timing would be weird as it's halfway through the 2014-15 season for evaluation, but a new staff could catch-up with the World Junior Championships completed, tape from previous tourneys and the first half, and monitor players in the second half. It would at least show that Lou recognizes the issue from up top and at least something is being done about it.
This is a long-term issue and so the answer will be a long-term one. We're not going to know whether a new scouting department would be better for a few years. Even if Conte & Co. remain intact, get it together, and have an awesome 2015 draft, we're not going to know about it until the prospects actually play. And that also lies on the prospects actually having the potential they are perceived to have and put in the hard, often unglamorous work to reach that potential. At a minimum, there better be some hits this year with what will likely be a high first and second round pick.
5. A Re-Commitment to Possession
The Devils aren't quite so behind the times as one may conclude from the outside. The Devils were a top possession team until this particular season. The roots of that lie with the lack of effective passing, especially on zone exits; and the constant use of dump-ins on zone entries. The Devils don't necessarily need to become a high-event team to become successful. But it's not as if they have been trying to sit in a 1-2-2 all game long and utilize tendencies from the past decade like a dedicated checking line. These are areas that the new co-coaches can work on even with the current roster. New players may be necessary for the team to get better, but I do think they can at least crawl up from a 48.8% score-adjusted Corsi.
Even if the call from Lou is to suddenly have games littered with shooting attempts both ways, it's not an accident that the majority of the quality teams in the NHL have been on the right side of shooting attempt differential. The Devils will need to get back to that in someway. Being really good in terms of possession alone isn't going to put a team into the post season. We know that from the 2013 and 2013-14 seasons. But at least those teams were difficult to play against. The Devils right now are not and they won't be until they get better in this regard. What this would entail would be for the new coaches (assuming it's not Adam Oates or Scott Stevens) to work with the players on improving their puck movement. It would also require Lou to not only find new players that have at least been good at driving the play, but also to find new coaches who will emphasize that part of the game. Oh, and stop dumping the puck in on every other shift. That will help, too.
The Devils may be on the outside looking in for this season, but that doesn't mean next season has to be a wash. The worst thing the Devils could do is to blow everything up for this and next few season(s), putting all their hope that their draft picks will be so, so good that they can make everything better. Going down the path that Edmonton, Florida, and the Islanders have or recently been on is a sad, lonely path. It's not an accident that some smart signings and decisions outside of the draft have put Florida and the Islanders in way better positions than they have been as of late. So it is with the Devils. They'll need to do well in July as well as at the draft in June. A better 2015-16 is absolutely possible and I think the work should be put in now to make it happen.
Do you think these are the Devils needs given their current roster? What else should the Devils try to address? Should they be thinking about next season now anyway? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils' short-term future in the comments. Thank you for reading.