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NHL Season Preview 2016: 3 Questions Facing the New Jersey Devils

As part of SB Nation’s league-wide season preview, I ask and answer three big questions facing the New Jersey Devils ahead of the 2016-17 NHL season.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New Jersey Devils
Damon Severson has a question all to himself.
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

We are in the middle of our week-long season preview of the New Jersey Devils at All About theJersey. We are not along in previewing the New Jersey Devils. At the SB Nation NHL hub, there is a shorter season preview that’s more of a “high level” look of every single NHL team. As part of the network’s preview, three big questions were devised for each team and the team’s respective blog would provide answers to them.

It’s arguable that just about every team has many more than three questions of significance. Especially for a re-building team like the Devils, who are coming off a pleasantly surprising 2015-16 campaign. So please do not assume that these three are the most important or the most valuable or even the top three questions of the New Jersey Devils. These are three questions that matters at this point in time that the team will have to answer in the upcoming 2016-17 NHL regular season.

Question 1: What should be expected from the top two scoring lines?

Alex previewed the Devils’ forwards at length on Monday. I recommend you all to read it, assuming you already have not done so. I will summarize the main points from it. The Devils were abysmal at generating offense last season. Whether you count it by shooting attempts, shots, or even goals, the Devils were at or near the bottom of the league last season. While the team has two 30-goal scorers in Adam Henrique (who had a high shooting percentage) and Kyle Palmieri (who was the team’s most prolific shooter with 222 shots, no other forward had more than 149), it’s difficult to think the Devils offense was anywhere near good last season.

The good news is that there have been many changes within the lineup, led by Ray Shero trading defenseman Adam Larsson for Taylor Hall. Hall is one of the best left wingers in the world and will not only guarantee a spot in the top six, but he should lead the team offensively from a production standpoint. A healthy season out of Hall could see him finish among league leaders in points. Alex projects that Hall will at least start with Henrique and Beau Bennett, which what has been seen in preseason. Hall will mitigate whatever drop Henrique may see in production and if Bennett can also stay healthy, then he can contribute. This line leaves for a second line of Mike Cammalleri, Travis Zajac, and Kyle Palmieri. While Zajac’s production has been disappointingly low for the amount of money he gets and how much he plays, it didn’t hurt Palmieri from putting up 30 last season. Cammalleri was just about top-ten scorer in the NHL prior to his injury last season; he has the skills to help that unit go forward. However, the Devils have been experimenting in preseason of having Cammalleri on a third line so the team has three lines with at least one scoring threat on it. We’ll see if it lasts, but if the Devils go that route, then you may expect to see Reid Boucher lineup again to the left of Zajac and Palmieri, which was seen last season.

To go back to the main question, we can expect Hall’s line to be a real threat if only because of Hall’s talents. The Zajac line may be used more tactically against tougher matchups, but they’ve shown to be a kind of a scoring line from last season. Health is a real concern as Hall (before last season), Bennett, and Cammalleri have missed several games for various issues. But it is reasonable to think they could generate more shots, improve possession, and score more goals compared to last season’s top two lines. I think they can - if they can be available to play.

Question 2. Will Damon Severson establish himself as a top-four caliber NHL defenseman?

Brian wrote about the defensemen at length on Tuesday, so I would again recommend you check that out first. There was a lot of hope in the future of the Devils’ defense about three or so years ago. Adam Larsson was projected to be a top pairing defenseman. Eric Gelinas looked like an offensive threat with a big shot. Jon Merrill was touted as being a talented defender out of Michigan. Damon Severson was putting up big numbers in the WHL. Reality eventually set in. Larsson did meet that projection and his right-handedness was enough to garner Hall in a trade this summer. Gelinas really only had a shot and was traded last season with few in New Jersey missing him. Merrill may have established himself in the NHL, but it is questionable as to whether he’s even average, much less good. Severson, at the age of 22, had a rough sophomore season compared to a very promising rookie season. He remains as the last hope among this group of defenders once thought to be the bright future of the team’s blueline.

On paper, Severson should already have a top-four spot. The fact he’s right handed and there are only two of those on the team at the moment helps a lot. In preseason, he’s had pairings with Andy Greene - the team’s top defenseman - and John Moore, who is penciled in for the second pairing on the left side. That alone suggests the team is looking to put him in that spot. However, the question isn’t so much asking whether he’ll be in New Jersey’s top four, but rather would his play justify that role.

There’s some evidence to suggest that he can. As Brian noted in his preview, he has some experience alongside Andy Greene where the team didn’t get hammered in possession. Further, between himself and Lovejoy, Severson has the advantage of being a faster skater and having more offensive skills than Lovejoy. While Larsson was never a speedster, he “turned the corner” about two seasons ago when he hesitated less in his own end to react more quickly. Severson is in a position to make a similar jump and may be able to make a similar improvement in his game. Severson has shown that level play before, about two seasons ago. In his rookie season, prior to an injury, he demonstrated an excellent understanding of gap control and awareness of his surroundings. Even last season, Severson would have flashes of greatness while arguably being one of the team’s better defenseman at moving the puck through the neutral zone.

Essentially, all of the proverbial puzzle pieces are there for Severson. He just has to put them together. Once he does, I think he’ll be a fine fit not only for New Jersey’s top two pairings, but pretty much any other team’s.

Question 3. Can the Devils become more “Fast, Attacking, Supportive” in John Hynes’ second season behind New Jersey’s bench?

“Fast, Attacking, Supportive,” quickly became a tagline of sorts as it was what head coach John Hynes said when asked what he wanted the 2015-16 team to be. With the league’s second worst Corsi For% (46.1% per Corsica) combined with abysmal offensive numbers, they certainly weren’t attacking. Those numbers also point to the team ineffectively controlling and moving the puck, a common sight and lament of mine last season. I can’t say that was very supportive. Maybe they were faster, but a team chasing the play is rarely going to be faster than the one in control.

That said, Ray Shero has made several changes, especially up front, that would help some of this out. Alex’s preview of the team’s forwards has a list of those changes. Plenty of “fill-ins” at forward are gone, such as Stephen Gionta, Tyler Kennedy, Tuomo Ruutu, Jordin Tootoo, and Brian O’Neill. Those were players that weren’t meeting some or all three of those buzzwords. They also weren’t really good, so there’s opportunity for improvement up front. Hall is very fast, he’s excellent on the puck, and he’s got a tantalizing offensive skillset. He’s only one man, but he will help out. Plus, he’s marketable. He can be fast, attacking, and supportive on his own. Additionally, with the departure of so many that filled in the team’s bottom six, there’s an arguable improvement in that area of the lineup. While, say, Sergey Kalinin may not do a whole lot, he is a step up over, say, Bobby Farnham getting a regular shift. Likewise, the changes allow for players like Joseph Blandisi and Pavel Zacha to earn roster spots - two players who can definitely contribute to making the team faster and/or more offensive.

There’s still plenty of work to be done in New Jersey for this tagline to really be true, or at least drag some of the team’s league-worst offensive numbers up to respectability. The Devils badly need a defenseman or two to reliably move the puck up on breakouts and keep the offense going from the point. There’s hope that Severson could be one of them. I think they may need more (or get a really pleasant surprise performance out of Yohann Auvitu) than just him. I also think the Devils do need to strengthen their right wingers and centers. Right wing beyond Palmieri has been thin. Henrique has been productive and should do nicely with Hall, but beyond him, it’s not exactly a group of players - Zajac, Josefson, Vernon Fiddler - that can contribute much going forward. Zacha might be a productive one day, but that assumes he stays in New Jersey for all of 2016-17. Even then, it’s asking a lot of a 19 year old to put up big numbers in a rookie season.

Anyway, to sum up, I’d like to think the Devils are a step closer on paper to being “fast, attacking, supportive,” namely compared to last season. I think the addition of Hall is significant as are the departure of forwards who really weren’t adding much. I think the team needs to keep re-building at certain positions and in their depth to have the players to fit the way Hynes and Shero want the team to play. I think they’re on the right track. We’ll see if the numbers bear that out any improvements in 2016-17.

Your Take

Now that you've read my answers, I want to know how you would answer each question. Please leave your answers - and your other big questions for the 2016-17 Devils - in the comments. Thank you for reading.