A lot has changed since last year. In the very next section of this article we will look at all of the changes to this position group. But one thing hasn't changed. Our forwards have some serious questions. From developing our young players, to fixing the underachievers (*cough*cough* Zajac), to wondering if some players are on their way out, we have every type of question a team can have. So we start with what has changed since just last year.
The forwards group of this team received a total facelift under the new management. only half of our top 6 scorers from last year return with us letting Steve Bernier and Scott Gomez pursue other options and trading Jaromir Jagr at the deadline. Those were only a small portion of the exodus though. The team also had Michael Ryder and Martin Havlat walk, Ryane Clowe basically retire, and Dainius Zubrus get bought out.
The new faces that we will definitely include the big trade of the draft for us which landed us a young, top-six forward in Kyle Palmieri, and the shrewd signing of Jiri Tlusty who has had 30 points in 4 consecutive seasons, is 27 years old, and is getting paid $800K. The new faces that may or may not see the ice include the former Penguins, Tyler Kennedy and Lee Stempniak, as well as the KHLer Sergey Kalinin.
Then there are the young faces. We have a crop of young forwards have been, are being, and will be evaluated. Reid Boucher is a name most Devils fans are used to hearing by now after his better-than-Stamkos season in Sarnia. He played in 11 games last year and was viable thought exceedingly unspectacular given the spark he is supposed to provide. He got a concussion in the preseason, but has already played in a preseason game. Other than him, many fans would like to see our prized first-rounder Pavel Zacha in at least a few games this season. I discussed this in more detail earlier this month, but the general reaction thus far has been that he's improved in every game this preseason and will have every chance for a full evaluation of his NHL-readiness. The last young guy that will almost definitely show up on the NHL roster is Stefan Matteau, who we got a brief taste of as a rookie in 2012 and haven't seen much of since. He was given a 2-year, 1-way contract so we expect him to get a healthy dose of New Jersey for his do-or-die evaluation on his future with the franchise.
In order for a list of some other forwards that are not going to be on the Day 1 roster, but might make brief appearances later, you can check out the big round of cuts we just made.
All stats in this section from War-on-Ice.
The forwards were among the --if not the undisputed -- worst in the NHL last year. It has been a systematic disappointment with the most glaring problem being the lack of top end talent. This is an output of the top scoring forward of each team last year:
The Devils were better than only the Coyotes in production from their top forward. That forward was Adam Henrique who leads this less-than-encouraging crop of forwards:
Henrique and Cammalleri were the only forwards on last years team that registered any kind of spark to our offense last year. However, according to Ryan's passing statistics, Cammalleri is the only returning player that was a genuine driver of shots. Adam Henrique is in a cluster of players that normally includes Michael Ryder. Yikes. But sometimes other stats tell a different story so lets look at a less conventional combination of statistics.
Read left to right: Name, Position, Games, Individual Scoring Chances, Points from Goals and First Assists, Takeaway-Giveaway difference, Penalty Drawn-Taken difference, Corsi For Percentage, PDO, Relative Scoring Chance For Percentage.
First thing I noticed Cammalleri's high PDO and Elias's low PDO. PDO is the luck statistic so it's expected that #13 will experience some bad luck this year after getting some bounces in 2015. Similarly Elias should have it easier this year. SCF%Rel is one of my favorite statistics out there right now because it sifts out so much of the noise and focus just on the events on the ice that a player has control over and how the game changes with them on the ice. Bouchers SCF%Rel led the team in limited time. Jacob Josefson was also in our top 3. We should see from them both this year whether or not this was a fluke. Cam predictably paved the way with individual scoring chances, but Travis Zajac is much closer to the pack in that stat than he was in the shallower ones. He also had a great Takeaway-Giveaway ratio. That being said, Giontas +8 in that category and +8 in the Penalties Drawn-Taken were the most impressive pair of the bunch. And I can't move on without mentioning the top-to-bottom abysmal display of possession statistics. Josefson and Boucher are the only returning players over 50%. And our two point leaders Cam and Rico are both just over an ugly 45%.
So there's room for improvement.
What to Expect
So what can we expect this year. Well I gave a brief preview of some of what I'm thinking for this year. I expect Elias to do well this year id he can get and stay healthy. He's been dealing with a knee issue and claims he has not yet ruled out playing in the season opener. He played on the PK last year and had really rough zone start numbers. If we make life easier on him he might see a surprising amount of production in what could be his swan song.
Cammalleri can't expect the same luck but should still be the leading driver of scoring chances on the team. Henrique seems to continually produce, but his possession numbers and other advanced metrics have been bad for a while now so don't be shocked if he turns in a disappointing season. Hopefully we will be able to offset that with a coming out party from Kyle Palmieri. Palmieri averaged 14 minutes in the 57 games he played last year. He should see closed to 18 minutes in 82 games (barring injury) for us.
Tlusty has put up nothing but 30-point seasons and he's done it with the Hurricanes. As bad as most people think we are, we are not that much worse than that team. Tlusty, in my opinion, should be a safe bet for 30 points again.
Zajac will continue to have great advanced statistics while not showing up on the scoresheet. Rumors have been circling about a certain former Devils GM being interested in Travis. It would shock me if that came to fruition before, or very early in the season. Since I can't predict that I will assume Zajac is on this team for the forseeable future.
Someone of the Tootoo, Ruutu, Kennedy, Stempniak, Gionta group will probably flirt with a 20- tor maybe even 30-point season just because that always seems to happen to someone (read: 2014-15 Bernier/Tootoo).
The wildcards on this team are the young guys.
Can Matteau become the strong, grinding, two-way player we want him to be? My bar for him would be to try to replace the production from Bernier. He should be a physical presence that chips in occasionally on the stat sheet.
Can Boucher become the dynamic scorer we had hoped? Most bets seem to be no on this one. Gerard wrote and article on if the curtain is closing on him. If he doesn't show his new GM and coach something and fast, it might just be.
Can Josefson cement his role with the future of this team? I wrote an article on unlikely places production will come from this year with the top possibility being Josefson. I give statistical support, but in a more informal assessment, that guy always looks like he's about to do something special and never finishes. Stab in the dark -- I think he figures it out this year. Total hunch.
Can Pavel Zacha make the team and contribute in his first year? I linked above to the article I wrote on this. Most of the AAtJ community wants him to get a shot to play. About 75% think he should be allowed to earn a spot with a third of that group believing he should get an 82-game spot immediately. He's a young guy with a load of talent. It's not impossible for him to make this team.
Can Sergey Kalinin make the adjustment to the North American game? He put up 25 points in 54 games as the 23-year-old captain of a KHL team that went 35-17-8 (in our system ... theirs is a mess). He could be a really pleasant surprise if his game transitions well.
These are the questions that will determine the tone of the whole year.
I tried this once all the way back in July. A bit has changed so I will do my best to amend those projections accordingly. Just to help you guys follow along at home, the 16 remaining forwards according to Tom Gulitti are: Forwards (16): Reid Boucher, Mike Cammalleri, Patrik Elias, Stephen Gionta, Adam Henrique, Jacob Josefson, Sergey Kalinin, Tyler Kennedy, Stefan Matteau, Kyle Palmieri, Tuomo Ruutu, Lee Stempniak, Jiri Tlusty, Jordin Tootoo, Pavel Zacha, Travis Zajac.
In my opinion, Stempniak is the worst of this group although I thought that about Tootoo last year so who knows.
Tlusty - Henrique - Palmieri
Cammalleri - Zajac - Boucher *Elias
Ruutu - Josefson - Tootoo *Zacha
Matteau - Gionta - Kalinin *Kennedy
The little asterisks indicate a player that will get time on that line as well for various reasons. I believe Elias will miss some time early, but probably replace Boucher. I coulf him either taking a seat or dropping to another line. Zacha will see time in the NHL this year. I say they want to put him on a line that has a little bit of talent so they'll play him with Josefson. It's hardly a crime if Tootoo or Ruutu gets a rest while out prized rookie shows his stuff. And lastly -- this is a gut call -- I actually haven't minded Kennedy this preseason and I feel as though we are going to end up with one of Shero's guys on this team so Kennedy will sub in to that fourth line frequently. I say Gionta plays most of the season and then Matteau/Kalinin get 60 games and Kennedy gets 40.
Our forwards are a totally new group of guys. This is the exciting part of being a team in transition. Even if we don't perform well as a unit, odds are there are going to be a couple bright spots that carve their name into the tablet on which this teams future is being penned. Does Josefson finally put it all together? Does Boucher figure out the NHL? Is Zacha a true savant? Is Palmieri the true first liner we hope he is and has looked like in the preseason? This is what we gear up for as fans. We like to watch our team forge something so that if they become great we can say we were witnesses at their birth.
So what'd I miss? Any glaring omissions? Am I totally wrong on my lineup predictions or other predictions? Don't be shy. Let me know. Let's Go Devils!