The New Jersey Devils have been performing pretty well (at least compared to pre-season expectations) so far in the 2015-16 NHL season. They're defying experts and bloggers alike by winning games, and are scoring on a mostly by committee basis; the problem is that the "committee" features only 5 Devils forwards: Mike Cammalleri, Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri, Lee Stempniak and Travis Zajac have combined for 72 of the 94 points posted by our forwards so far this season. Those 5 also account for 30 of our 38 goals with recent addition Bobby Farnham accounting for 3 of the remaining 8, and 2 of those 8 being scored Tuesday night!
What that leaves is 10 forwards (including 3 games of Reid Boucher) who through 18 games (though not all have played in all 18) have combined for 8 goals and 14 assists. Alarmingly enough that means that it's taking all 10 of our lesser forwards combined to equal Adam Henrique's goal production so far this season. It's true that a team's bottom 6 forwards aren't their renowned scorers, but again 1 of those other 10 is being required to play in the top 6 every night as well to round out Zajac and Palmieri's line. If the Devils hope to continue being competitive this season, 1 of 3 things will have to happen. Either:
A.) The top 5 will have to stay hot and finish with their current point pace, which means Cammalleri (82 points), Henrique (36 goals, 64 points), Palmieri (64 points), Stempniak (68 points) and Zajac (52 points) would all be on pace to have great seasons. The rest of the forwards combined would be on pace for 100 points, a paltry number compared to the other 5.
B.) The defensemen step up and shoulder some of the offensive load. Currently all 7 defenders have combined for 22 points (same as the "other" 10 forwards) with only Jon Merrill being held pointless. This would put the defense on pace for 100 points as well, and while it's certainly not a bad number, this would not keep the team afloat if the top 5 sputter. If they start putting up some more points, it can only help if the forwards cool off.
C.) The bottom 6 need to start scoring, even if it means that the line-up has to be shaken up! This is where I really want to go with this article, because if the Devils can not get some secondary scoring, and the primary source dries up, the team could start to sink in the standings to where we assumed they would be before the season began.
Who To Drop?
At this point, the first two names that immediately come to mind when assessing who should be dropped are Brian O'Neill and Stephen Gionta. I was pretty optimistic about having O'Neill on the roster when the Devils acquired him, but he is more and more seeming like a career AHL player. If the Devils waived him and someone put in a claim, I don't think I would miss him in the least. If no one claims him, we can send him to Albany, as he seems to do his best work at the minor league level.
Gionta is the last remaining piece of the CBGB line that many of us fell in love with during the 2012 playoff run; I do think he was seen by most fans as an interchangeable, expendable piece once that line ran its course. Somehow, Gionta, his lack of scoring ability (he's missed 2 empty net opportunities this season) and his bad face-off percentage (46.3%) continue to make the team. I'm confident no one would put in a claim if the team waived him with the intention of sticking him and O'Neill on the next bus to Albany.
I'd also consider waiving Jiri Tlusty; if he's playing hurt to maintain his roster spot, then he just needs to be healthy scratched, but the guy just isn't doing anything to contribute to the team right now. If he is at 100%, then I don't like the 100% I'm seeing, as a goal and 2 assist in 15 games for a winger we need to score isn't cutting it.
If the Devils were to drop all of those players, it leaves 3 holes in the lineup; I would move Sergey Kalinin down once Patrik Elias is healthy. I think Patty's play making ability would mesh well with Palmieri and Zajac can round that line out nicely. Kalinin would be moved down to the third line with Jacob Josefson.
Speaking of Josefson, he and Jordin Tootoo need to be split apart yesterday; while their Corsi and Fenwick/SAT and USAT are great (Josefson leads the team in Fenwick/USAT) they're a combined -22 and have a total of 8 points. Their numbers are great, but the fact of the matter is that nothing is happening as a result of their shot attempts. Tootoo should be dropped to the fourth line with "Wild Thing" Bobby Farnham.
This leaves two spots plus a healthy scratch spot; I would honestly keep Stefan Matteau as a healthy scratch right now; I know the idea is to play the kids to develop, but as of right now there are other young-ish players the Devils could be trying instead. That or Matteau could suddenly become a center on that bottom line; if that doesn't work, I'd say now is as good of a time as any to bring Jim O'Brien back. He was a depth signing to begin with, but he has to be better than Gionta at this point. Another option would be to sign Tyler Kennedy from his PTO (which may happen down the line) and toss him into that hole; again good chance he's better than Gionta at this point.
The right wing slot on line 3 is a bit more of a toss-up between two options; do we fill it internally or externally? If we choose to go from the inside, I think Joseph Blandisi or Boucher would be the best choices; while both are natural lefties, Blandisi looked good in the preseason and has 11 points in 13 games for Albany while Bouch has 8 in 9 games. Again, I just don't think it could hurt to try out some different players and combinations considering what the combos we currently have are (or aren't depending on how you look at it) doing.
If we choose to go external, we would have to be looking at a trade (unless someone drops a gift on waivers and even then a lower team would probably claim that player first) for one of our defenders. Vojtech Mozik has 6 poins in 11 games for Albany, and he's been talked up a bit on Albany's Facebook page; the team could deal someone on the roster and bring Mozik up to replace them. The Devils could also simply recall anyone to be the extra D in case of injuries and roll with the 6 remaining after a trade.
I think most fans feel that at one point either Jon Merrill or Eric Gelinas will get traded but for different reasons; Merrill on his good nights seems to be the best balance of value, skill and potential while Gelinas is an offensive threat that could be more if he can put it all together. If either could bring in some scoring help for the third line, I think at this point you have to consider it as a framework, and put some other additions into the trade based on what's moving where. If that's not an option (and for Shero it might not be) again, slot in someone from the A.
The Long and The Short of It
To summarize a bit, it's obvious the bottom 6 isn't working, and I think it's time the Devils experimented with shifting those parts around. We only have 5 forwards producing any kind of respectable numbers right now, but if they stop (or get injured) the team could be up the proverbial creek without the proverbial paddle. Patrik Elias should help, but he hasn't played an NHL game since April and he's 39, so we really don't know what Patty we're getting. Additionally as I mentioned above, he might find himself with Zajac and Palmieri as the missing piece of their line; as much as I like Kalinin, I don't think he's the answer for that line.
I'd like to hear your thoughts on the subject; what do you think should be done with the Devils' bottom 6? Do you think the top 5 can maintain the pace they're on? Do you think the defenders will step up and start contributing more points? Are any of the options that i spoke of above viable or even an upgrade in your eyes? Leave any and all comments below and as always thank you for reading!