Since the start of 2016, the Devils have been dealing with some injuries on their roster, and it has led to some struggles over the past few weeks. No team is safe from the injury bug but it has been well-documented that a thin Devils team is particularly susceptible to any losses throughout their lineup, particularly if the losses are key pieces. This has reared its head in the past few weeks, where a rash of injuries noticeably downgraded the Devils' play, even beyond where it was in a lackluster December.
At forward, the key absence was obviously leading-scorer Mike Cammalleri, who missed eight games with a mystery upper-body ailment. Other injuries, including to Jacob Josefson, Jiri Tlusty, Tyler Kennedy, Jordin Tootoo, and the now-indefinitely-sidelined Patrick Elias, forced AHL names like Mike Sislo, Jim O'Brien, and Paul Thompson into the lineup. On defense, the Devils were without John Moore and David Schlemko for a stretch, necessitating the use of Marc-Andre Gragnani for several nights. Alex's post over the weekend went into depth on the Devils' injuries and their need to survive them.
Beyond Cammalleri, none of the injuries listed seem catastrophic, but the problem for the Devils is that much of the roster is already stretched into roles that are a shade over their heads when everyone is healthy. If everyone has to move up a notch, that means they're all that much further out of their depth. Luckily for New Jersey, though, the recent swath of injuries seems to be subsiding. Cammalleri, the primary engine of the Devils' offense, has returned to give the team a viable first line again. Moore and Schlemko have returned on defense to solidify the blue line. Jacob Josefson is skating with the team again and could return soon. If the Devils can get healthy and stay healthy, a wide open playoff race in the east at least gives them a shot to continue to hang around.
The question from the start of this season has always been if that healthy roster could realistically compete for the playoffs. Prior to the season, most would have said no. But 47 games in, with New Jersey currently sitting in a wild card spot, that answer has changed to a hopeful "maybe." The team has shown the ability to hang with opponents and pull out victories but, even with a healthy roster, the contributions on offense are still really only coming from 4 or 5 players. Their underlying numbers also continue to be underwhelming, with the Devils putting up, by far, the fewest 5v5 (and all-situations) shots and attempts per 60 in the league, as well as the second-fewest goals per 60 (all via stats.hockeyanalysis.com).
The reality, though, is that this Devils team doesn't need a good offense to be able to succeed. Heck, it hardly even needs a mediocre one. This is because the Devils remain one of the stingier teams in the league when it comes to allowing shots (5th at 5v5 and 8th in all situations) and, perhaps most importantly, because they have one of the best goaltenders in the league between the pipes. Cory Schneider remains the great equalizer for this team and on any night that the Devils can manage to scrape together 3 goals, they are a near-lock to win the game. Case in point: the Devils are 18-1-1 in games in which they score 3+ goals this season and 15-0-1 in the ones started by Schneider. Even games in which they score exactly two goals have them coming out ahead at 5-2-2 (5-1-2 in front of Schneider). So the answer for the Devils to stick around in the playoff picture is not to have a good offense, just one that is marginally less bad.
How does the team find that extra goal every few games, though? Earlier in the season, the power play was a big help for the offense. Recently, though, that same power play has gone into the tank, spiraling to the 21st-ranked unit in the league by efficiency. With the team getting healthier, perhaps that unit can find some rhythm again. Cammalleri's return will help and the possible return of Josefson soon on the half wall may give it a boost as well. The Devils could use more than just hoping the power play figures itself out, though. They need some measurable contribution from the bottom-six (bottom-seven?). The same 5 forwards who had double-digit points at the 14-game mark remain the only forwards with double-digit points at the 47-game mark, which is honestly pretty remarkable.
Ultimately, the Devils need just a couple more options on offense to claw together enough goals to win games. They just need someone, anyone, to step up into that secondary scoring role. Betting on Jiri Tlusty to ever re-discover his form or Patrik Elias to recover from surgery and find the fountain of youth seem like longshots and Bobby Farnham, fun as he can be to watch, probably won't be shooting 30% for much longer. So the pickings do seem admittedly slim. In the past few games, though, we've seen a glimmer of hope that the Devils may yet find some reinforcements for the offense. Joseph Blandisi and Reid Boucher have both impressed in their recent call-ups to the big club and the team and fans alike are crossing their fingers that maybe they can be the little extra boost this offense needs.
So can a healthy Devils team scrape their way into the playoffs? With Cory Schneider backstopping them and a still-decent defensive hockey club, they certainly have the opportunity to do so. If they can avoid injuries to their top forwards and have any of their other forwards step up and move the offensive needle a bit, I'd say they have a decent shot. We know a rental is pretty much out of the question at this stage of the team's development and trades for young players who can help now continue to be hard to come by, so the boost will likely need to come from within. If Blandisi and Boucher can stretch this recent small-sample success into significant contributions, that would go a long way. If one of the other forwards like Jacob Josefson or Sergey Kalinin could step it up a notch, that would be big as well. Those remain big "ifs," though. The bottom line is that they probably need to have a somewhat non-terrible offense to make it possible, and to have that happen, they need to stay healthy and hope that, maybe, a third line materializes one of these months.