Technically, there are more than three big questions facing the New Jersey Devils. The team is re-building. The team is lacking in most offensive aspects of the game. The team's prospects aren't that tantalizing beyond Pavel Zacha. The defense may have promise but it does need help. The goaltending is the solid part but goaltending can only do so much. Given all of the roster and management turnover, it's tempting to state that there's really only one big question that can be asked for this season: How long is this re-build going to last?
It's a fair question but I wanted to focus on three specific questions as part of the larger SBN NHL Preview. These are three questions that are relevant ahead of the season, with one of them being something to keep in mind as the season progresses. If you're reading this, then you already know what I think the strengths and weaknesses are with the 2015-16 Devils ahead of the season. I don't think they will be a good team, I don't think they'll be pushing for a playoff spot, and I don't think they should be. Still, it should be an interesting season as it's the first one where many Devils fans are expecting to miss the playoffs instead of striving for one in a long, long time.
1. Who’s playing at right wing this season for the Devils?
The good news is that the Devils do have one legitimate top-six right winger: Kyle Palmieri. Palmieri has easily been the best veteran player in preseason for the Devils. He’s been an advertisement for "fast, attacking, supportive" with his team-leading 20 shots in four games while skating hard up and down the ice and performing in all situations. The bad news is that those behind Palmieri are somewhat suspect.
Early on in preseason, Jiri Tlusty has been used on the right side. In Carolina, he spent most of his time at left wing or at center across their top two lines. It’s possible he can handle the right wing position but if he’s not exactly a great fit, then it may mean he’s on the off wing, so to speak. Beyond that, the team has an energy player in Jordin Tootoo and young sort-of unknowns in Reid Boucher and Stefan Matteau. Boucher has done well enough in preseason, but he hasn’t impressed in previous games last season to a point where one could think he has a NHL future. The same applies to Matteau, although, he’s struggled in preseason. Down in Albany, the Devils have no one that really has NHL potential beyond being a fill-in player at right winger. Sergey Kalinin was signed early in the offseason from the KHL and might be able to play on the right side, though he’s been used more at center. But he’s still an unknown at this level.
Fortunately, the Devils brought in Tyler Kennedy and Lee Stempniak on professional try-out contracts. As NHL veterans, there’s security in that one knows what they can expect from them. Stempniak is a veteran bottom-six player but a year from him can provide decent play as the team figures out 2015-16. He’s done farily well in preseason; he’s performed as expected given his career. Kennedy, who’s been a more prolific shooter, hasn’t been as strong. He’s displayed good energy, but not a whole lot of shooting and a few more minor penalties. He could still be signed, but between the two try-outs, Stempniak has been the better one in game situations.
Should the Devils sign Stempniak – and they should – they’ll have four to six players who will handle the position in some capacity in the NHL. It’s still a position of weakness – the Devils should be praying nothing bad happens to Palmieri and/or Tlusty – but it’ll at least be filled for the moment.
2. With new staff and new players, how will they approach special team situations?
This is something that really will be answered early in the season. In the first week of preseason, John Hynes and his staff utilized players on the roster for that night that normally wouldn’t be in those situations. It was presumably done to see how they’ll do and to get more minutes for players and evaluation. For example, one game featured Eric Gelinas playing more shorthanded ice time than nearly every other defenseman. That’s something that should not normally happen in a regular season game.
After taking a step back and looking at last season’s team, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Devils’ general tactics remain the same. I did not see something drastically different in the first week of games. Most teams sit in a box on penalty kills. The 1-3-1 remains the "in" thing for a lot of power plays and the Devils have set up in that mode more than few times to be a coincidence. I will say that the penalty kill has not been as aggressive; last season’s PK regularly featured the team shifting to a wedge plus one to pressure the puck carrier. That could be a result of who was actually out there rather than a tactical shift. The power play’s 1-3-1 has shifted to something a more traditional position-based set-up depending on the wing. If it’s a defenseman, then he does drop back to do that at times. Recently, Kyle Palmieri has been used on the point so that may be a sign of further changes. At least it's a little fluid for the moment.
It’ll be clearer as to what they’ll do once the season begins. I think it’s fairly safe to guess who will be involved in each situation. On the power play side, I’d be surprised if Kyle Palmieri, Jiri Tlusty, and John Moore weren’t involved on a regular basis. Palmieri and Tlusty should be fixtures of the top two lines. As the team doesn’t really have any special forwards in their bottom six that could be more of a screener, I think they’ll be used quite frequently in man advantage, offense-first situations. Moore has demonstrated he’s a good skater and is decent on the puck. He can provide a different look than the shoot-first, shoot-often Gelinas (who should be shooting) and mesh well with others like Damon Severson and Andy Greene, should the coaches go with two defensemen regularly. On the penalty kill, Greene and Adam Larsson will most likely be heavily leaned on again. Severson and Jon Merrill should be on the second defensive pairing, it remains to be seen whether they’ll be effective. Most of the forwards that played a significant amount of ice time on PK’s last season will return. Lee Stempniak may join them if he’s signed and Patrik Elias, provided he hasn’t fully declined as a player, can join a group that already has Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, Stephen Gionta, and Jacob Josefson.
3. What will it take for this season to be a success in the bigger picture?
Again, if you're reading this, then you probably checked out my predicition for this season. So it's no surprise that my expectations for 2015-16 are very low. I don’t think this team is really going to escape the basement of the Metropolitan Division. I don’t think this team will have to tank to have a very poor record. I think their best case scenario is that they win the lottery, which should hasten the re-building effort. That being said, it wouldn’t be a successful season if the team just ate it for the better part of 82 games and got the right lottery number called.
A re-build isn’t really a re-build if there’s nothing building. Similarly, bad teams don’t get better without getting better at something. What needs to happen this season is that some steps are taken that show this team being better in 2016-17 and seasons beyond that. The organization has made an appropriately big deal about all of the changes made. There’s a new general manager, a new director of scouting, new coaches, and plenty of roster turnover from last season among them. This needs to be the season where Ray Shero, John Hynes, and the rest of the staff establishes what they want this team to become. They determine what the Devils should want to play like and make the appropriate moves to get there. There should also be some improvements along the way. The team may even finish dead last in their division, but if they can do so while also taking steps forward in terms of possession, passing, breakouts, and/or discipline, then that would make this season a success. They’ll have shown they’re on the right path towards success and they’re heading down it. They’ll prove that this won’t be a repeat of how 2014-15’s team ended up. Subsequent seasons can then focus on staying on that path by getting more of the right players and personnel to fit that path. All of that would mean the re-build is working. It won’t be done by any means, but it’ll be past its starting point.
Now that you've read the answers from the other writers, I want to know how you would answer each question. Please leave your answers - and your big questions for the team - in the comments. Thank you for reading.