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New Jersey Devils 2016-2017 Season Preview Part 1: Forwards

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It is October, and regular season hockey is almost upon us! This means that here at AATJ, our season preview gets underway. This week, we will roll out our preview of all parts concerning the New Jersey Devils. Part one today: the forwards!

The most important addition to the forwards in years
The most important addition to the forwards in years
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Today starts All About the Jersey's annual season preview of the New Jersey Devils!  Over the course of this week, we will cover most every aspect of the team, from the forwards to the defense, goaltending, special teams, and more.  By the end of the week, we hope to have all of you fully back in hockey mode and ready to root on our Devils to victory with a knowledgeable eye about this iteration of our favorite team.  I happen to get the honor this season of starting the preview and discussing the area that needs the most improvement over last season: the forwards.  If you want to hark back to where we were a year ago, here is what CJ wrote about the forwards heading into last season.

What Happened Last Season

As you are already painfully aware of, the Devils had the worst offensive production in the league last season.  The reason they were in most of the games that they were was not because they were potting 4+ goals.  Rather, they were lucky to get a couple goals each night, and instead relied on stellar goaltending to keep the games close.  That is not necessarily a recipe for success.  The Devils have normally won with more of a focus on defense and goaltending than scoring, but if you can't score at all, you can't win.  Here are some basic overall offensive stats compared to some of the best and worst teams in the league, courtesy of NHL.com.

Team

Goals For

GF/GP

Shots/GP

Shooting%

Dallas Stars

265

3.23

32.0

7.87%

Washington Capitals

248

3.02

30.6

8.24%

Pittsburgh Penguins

241

2.94

33.2

7.54%

St. Louis Blues

219

2.72

30.2

7.04%

Toronto Maple Leafs

192

2.34

30.7

6.36%

Vancouver Canucks

186

2.27

28.2

6.83%

New Jersey Devils

182

2.22

24.4

7.16%

So I added the top 3 teams in terms of Goals For last season, Dallas Washington and Pittsburgh, along with the 3 at the bottom in Goals For, Toronto Vancouver and New Jersey.  I also threw in St. Louis, who ranked 15th in GF, which is the dead middle of the league.  As you can see, Dallas is definitely an outlier, but we can look at Washington and Pitt as good indicators of the tops, which is 240+ goals.  25 goals behind them is the middle of the league around St. Louis, and another 30+ goals behind them is the bottom of the league, Vancouver and the Devils.  So the Devils were considerably behind not only the top scoring teams, but also the mediocre scoring teams.  This showcases in Goals For per games played, where the Devils were a full goal behind #1 Dallas, and a full half goal behind #15 St. Louis.  The 15th best scoring team in the league scored a full half goal more than the Devils did last season, per game.  That is poor indeed.

I also added in shots per game there because it also tells a similar story.  The top teams in the league were producing over 30 shots per game, and even Toronto had 30+ despite their low GF total.  The Devils, however, just did not shoot the puck.  Their 24.4 shots per game was over three shots per game behind the next team, Arizona (27.6 SF/GP).  So it was not like the Devils were just getting bad puck luck, shooting often but not scoring.  They were not shooting, and they were not scoring.  Of course not all of that awfulness is the result of the forwards.  The defense chipped in next to nothing at all.  But the brunt of that blame has to go to the forwards, as they get paid to produce offense much more than the defense does.

Beyond the simple stats, the underlying analysis does not help out last year's forwarding corps either.  This was not like 2013-14, when the Devils had excellent underlying numbers but just had zero luck.  Here are some advanced stats as well, some information coming from NHL.com and others coming from Hockey Analysis.  All information here is at 5 on 5 play.

Team

CF%

FF%

PDO

Zone Start%

Los Angeles

56.4%

56.2%

99.8

55.89%

Pittsburgh

52.7%

52.9%

100.6

51.38%

Dallas

52.6%

52.5%

99.5

51.14%

Chicago

50.7%

50.1%

99.6

51.79%

Arizona

46.8%

46.2%

100.6

47.88%

New Jersey

46.2%

47.0%

99.6

45.74%

Colorado

44.2%

45.3%

100.6

46.99%

So once again, I added in the chart the top 3 teams in Corsi, the worst 3 teams, and the 15th ranked team, which this time was Chicago.  As you can see, the possession-based stats were bad for New Jersey as well.  A terrible Corsi, a slightly better but still terrible Fenwick, and a zone start percentage that ranked dead last in the league.  And they cannot even make the argument that their luck was exceptionally poor, as the Devils' PDO was at 99.6, just below luck-neutral 100.

Now, all the stats I have given so far are team stats, which will encompass defensemen as well as forwards.  Among other things, this certainly lowers shooting percentages, and can also affect every stat mentioned.  So a chart with individual forward statistics is also necessary.  Most stats will come from the websites listed above, along with Behind the Net.  The first chart contains the basic statistics, and the second some more underlying stats.

Player

GP

Goals

Assists

Shots

Sh%

Kyle Palmieri

82

30

27

222

13.5%

Adam Henrique

80

30

20

149

20.1%

Travis Zajac

74

14

28

111

12.6%

Lee Stempniak

63

16

25

120

13.3%

Michael Cammalleri

42

14

24

101

13.9%

Reid Boucher

39

8

11

74

10.8%

Joseph Blandisi

41

5

12

43

11.6%

Tyler Kennedy

50

3

13

72

4.2%

Sergey Kalinin

78

8

7

70

11.4%

Jacob Josefson

58

4

10

86

4.7%

Devante Smith-Pelly

18

8

5

34

23.5%

Stephen Gionta

82

1

10

62

1.6%

Bobby Farnham

50

8

2

48

16.7%

Jordin Tootoo

66

4

5

90

4.4%

Patrik Elias

16

2

6

21

9.5%

Player

Rel CF%

OZS%

PDO

First Assists

Kyle Palmieri

-1.4%

42.7%

1031

16

Adam Henrique

0.8%

50.8%

1030

7

Travis Zajac

-1.0%

40.7%

1019

15

Lee Stempniak

0.1%

53.3%

1021

15

Michael Cammalleri

6.8%

62.0%

1050

18

Reid Boucher

-5.0%

47.3%

984

7

Joseph Blandisi

1.9%

45.6%

969

9

Tyler Kennedy

11.1%

42.9%

959

8

Sergey Kalinin

-0.4%

44.2%

996

3

Jacob Josefson

9.0%

44.3%

940

3

Devante Smith-Pelly

-7.4%

37.8%

1036

5

Stephen Gionta

-5.2%

42.1%

977

6

Bobby Farnham

-4.2%

43.0%

998

1

Jordin Tootoo

0.5%

39.5%

930

3

Patrik Elias

2.6%

51.4%

1042

3

I left some skaters out, like Stefan Matteau and Jiri Tlusty, who did play some, but did not play often and were not overly successful.  I should have probably left out Elias too, but how can any sane Devils fan leave him out of anything?  Either way, these forwards represent the overwhelming large majority of the production from the forward corps.

The one major positive that happened last season was that the Devils had not only one, but two 30 goal scorers!  The year prior there were zero 30 goal scorers, and only Cammalleri had more than 20, so that is a nice improvement.  The other good news is that apart from Stempniak, all of the major scorers for this team have returned.  Tyler Kennedy is the highest player on the list who is not back, and he only had 16 points.  In terms of negatives from the top chart, the one area that needs to improve is overall shots.  Only Palmieri had over 200 shots.  That is not good from a team that needs to score more.  Palmieri ranked 38th in the entire league in shots, while Henrique, 2nd highest on NJ, was ranked 173rd.  That is bad, and needs to improve for next year.

There were a couple shooting percentages that are also probably unsustainable from year to year.  Henrique has a career average 15.7% shooting percentage. He will need to shoot a lot more to get to 30 goals once again.  Smith-Pelly, meanwhile, has a career sh% of 9.9%, and between both teams last season, had a season sh% of 14.9%.  So his amazing scoring streak to start his Devils tenure is unlikely to continue at the same rapid pace.  He may score, but not as often.

In terms of possession, amongst the top guys only Cammalleri really drove possession as compared to the rest of the team, with a relative Corsi of +6.8%.  Palmieri and Zajac were negative in relative Corsi which is very bad on a bad possession team, but some relief can be given to them considering their zone start percentages were worse than most others.  Jacob Josefson may not score often, but he is an excellent driver of possession with a +9.0% relative Corsi, and that is not out of the norm for him either.  For a bottom 6 center, being able to drive possession like that is a big asset, especially when you consider his fairly low 44.3% zone start percentage.

Finally, I added first assists so you can see who was really a part of the scoring and not just a beneficiary of secondary assists.  Henrique had the biggest discrepancy there, with only 7 of 20 assists coming as first assists.  However, he is still a quality set up man, so I would not read too much into him.

This Year's Squad

This year, the main goal for this entire team, not just for the forwards, has to be to improve the overall offensive production.  The main brunt of that improvement, however, needs to come from the forward position.  Knowing that, Ray Shero and Co. made some changes from last year.  Here is a quick rundown of those changes:

Departures

-Lee Stempniak traded at deadline last year, now with Carolina

-Stefan Matteau traded for Devante Smith-Pelly

-Bobby Farnham let go, now with Montreal

-Stephen Gionta let go, now with New York Islanders on a PTO

-Tuomo Ruutu let go, now with Vancouver on a PTO

-Jordin Tootoo let go, now with Chicago

-Tyler Kennedy let go, currently a UFA

-Mike Sislo let go, now with Colorado

-Jiri Tlusty let go, currently a UFA

-Brian O'Neill let go, now in the KHL

-Patrik Elias may or may not retire

Additions

-Taylor Hall brought in, traded for Adam Larsson

-Beau Bennett brought in, traded for a 3rd rounder (Connor Hall)

-Taylor Hall is now a Devil

-Vernon Fiddler signed from Dallas

-Luke Gazdic signed from Edmonton

-Taylor Hall is now a Devil

-Minor leaguers brought on who may gain Mike Sislo-type roles

-Marc Savard's contract was taken on, but he won't play

-I personally believe Elias will come back for this year, but that is purely my guess

-Did I mention Shero traded for Taylor Hall?

With all of those changes, especially with the seemingly large number of departures, the forward lines to start the season will be quite different than they were last year.  For starters, they will be considerably younger.  Many of those that left were older, like Stempniak (33), Ruutu (33), Tootoo (also 33), Kennedy (30), and of course Elias if he does not come back.  This means that new faces will be seen in Newark that were in Albany or elsewhere last year.  Probably the biggest lock to see some playing time at the NHL level would be Pavel Zacha, who looked NHL-ready at the end of last season already.  We should also look to expect full NHL seasons from the likes of Boucher and Blandisi, barring any serious slumps or setbacks.  If they continue to improve, they will be NHL regulars.  Other names may not have the potential to see lots of NHL time this year, like John Quenneville, Michael McLeod, Blake Speers and others, but they could be up in the near future, and perhaps some could see a few games this season without burning a year on their ELCs.

Predicting what the lines will look like is a near impossibility.  So much can and probably will change during the rest of camp and even into the season.  What I can say fairly reasonably is that there are 5 solid forwards who will play in the top 6, at least to start the season: Henrique, Hall, Palmieri, Zajac, and Cammalleri.  That then leaves Josefson and maybe Zacha to center the bottom 6.  With them, you have Boucher, Blandisi, Smith-Pelly, Gazdic, Fiddler, Kalinin, and Bennett.  Which one of those players earns a spot on the top 6 and how the rest pan out will be anyone's guess.  Just for the sake of it, I would think opening night could look something like this:

Hall -€” Henrique -€” Bennett

Cammalleri -€” Zajac -€” Palmieri

Boucher -€” Zacha -€” Smith-Pelly

Blandisi -€” Josefson -€” Whichever left winger can play on the right side

As I wrote on Saturday, I do think that Zacha could end up cracking the top 6 and playing alongside the likes of Cammalleri and Palmieri instead of Zajac, but for opening night, I would not expect Hynes to go with that.  Zajac is an assistant captain and leader on this team, and it is better to be conservative to start the year when everyone has the same record.

Expectations for This Season

I think the main expectation for this season has to be that the forwards won't be as bad as they were last year.  New Jersey was a sub-90 point team last year because they could not score, and like it or not, the forwards were mainly to blame for that.  Yes there were two 30-goal scorers, but no one shot all that often except for Palmieri, and it led to the worst offense in the league.  That cannot happen again.

Given that expectation, I feel that there is some optimism for that to happen.  The main reason for optimism has to be Taylor Hall.  Not only does he have the potential to be a perennial 30 goal scorer and a consistent 80 point producer for the next decade, but he makes his line mates around him better.  Whoever ends up being with him, whether it be Henrique and Bennett like I guessed above or two others, they will have better offensive seasons thanks to Hall.  He can dish it as well as he can shoot it, if not better, so that right there is a huge boon.  Also, a full year from Cammalleri would be huge to this offense as well.  I feel like the 5 guys I mentioned as locks in the top 6 are a real solid group, and perhaps no one has more potential than Cammalleri to reach anything near Taylor Hall production. If the entire top 5 can stay relatively healthy, Cammalleri included, it would go a long way to seeing improvement.  That is a tall task in an 82-game season, but it is something to hope for.

Finally, the last reason to hope for improvement is the youth.  Getting younger has the benefit of also bringing with it a chance for improvement and breakout performances, like Henrique back in 2011-12, and even like with Blandisi to a small degree last year.  Youth brings hope, and there is hope.  Zacha could turn into an NHL-regular this year if he is mature enough.  He has the skills for it.  Blandisi could take a huge step forward and cement himself in the top 6.  Boucher could do the same thing.  Maybe someone I did not mention blows up in Albany and makes his way to Newark, like Quenneville or Speers or Miles Wood or Nick Lappin or someone else.  If anyone really breaks into the NHL in a big way, it would only add to the improvement that this offense needs to show.

In the end, I do not think that the forwards will all of a sudden score to the point that the Devils are even in the top half of offenses in the NHL.  That would be a very unreasonable expectation.  However, I do expect them to get out of the basement, and I would look for the offense to finish somewhere between 23rd and 26th overall. I hope that is not an overly optimistic expectation, but we shall see.

Conclusion

There you have it for the forwards of the New Jersey Devils.  It was perhaps long-winded, but when you get on a roll researching and typing about it, the pages add up.  The Devils had a bad offense last year, the worst in the league.  Because of that, Shero made some serious changes from last year in an attempt to get younger, more skilled, and frankly better.  I personally feel that there is a good chance for improvement this year, if for no other reason than because when you are dead last, the only way to go is up.  Bringing in Hall will help considerably, Bennett should be a good addition if he can stay healthy, and the youth on this squad should continue to improve, which should only benefit the team's scoring capabilities.  I am not overly hyped about the offense on this team, the Devils never have a super exciting offense to look forward to, but I am pumped to watch Hall for a full season, and I really want to see the young talent come into its own.  If they can improve to the rate that I believe they could, it would definitely go a long way in making the Devils much more competitive than they were last season.

Now that you've heard my thoughts, however, what are yours? What are your expectations for the Devils forwards this season?  What are you most looking forward to from this group?  Other than Hall, who are you most excited about?  Is it Zacha, or is it someone else? Do you think my prediction of the offense finishing between 23rd and 26th is too high, too low, or just right? How do you think John Hynes might set up the lines going into the regular season?  Please leave your comments below, and I thank you so much for reading on day one of AATJ's season preview!