With the New Jersey Devils' season coming to a conclusion sooner rather than later, it is natural as fans to look beyond the last few games and think about what this team will need for next season if it wants to build on this years' successes. This year did have its triumphs, and I believe anyone would say that it was an improvement over last season, which is no small thing. Improvement each and every year will lead this team back into playoff contention.
Of course, one big area that needs improvement is scoring, and no one denies that. The Devils found a gem in Kyle Palmieri, and Adam Henrique set a new career high in goals scored this season. Hopefully both of them continue to score 25+ goals for this team for seasons to come. However, that will obviously not be enough. Michael Cammalleri is a great goal scorer when healthy, but he rarely plays for a full season and is also on the wrong side of 30. More scoring help will be needed. Names have been floated around for sure, from Travis Zajac to Jacob Josefson to even Joseph Blandisi now, and hopefully some of them do help to improve the goal scoring.
One name that has also been mentioned since he scored 62 goals in 68 games for the Sarnia Sting is Reid Boucher. He gave Devils fans a lot of hope that year that he could become a much needed goal scorer for this team sooner than later. Well, the two seasons after he did that, he did not necessarily continue to overly impress anyone. In 2013-14, he only had 2 goals in 23 games for New Jersey, and 22 goals in 56 games for Albany. Those numbers in Albany were not terrible, but again not the insane goal per game pace he had in juniors for sure.
We may have been happy with those numbers if they improved the following season, but they did not. In 2014-15, he had 1 goal in 11 games for New Jersey, and only 15 goals in 62 games for Albany. He was regressing, which is a terrible sign for a player in his early 20's who should be improving. It certainly tempered expectations for him amongst fans, and certainly he was discussed less and less as a savior to the team's scoring woes.
This year, however, he has started to show signs of improvement again, especially lately. Boucher has 17 points in 33 NHL games this year, with 7 of those points coming as goals. That sounds simply average, but he also has 5 points in his last 5 games, with 2 goals. Of course, it is most likely just a hot streak, and he will certainly cool down, but it is a good sign. It means that he can produce at a high level in the NHL. He may never score 62 goals in an NHL season like he did in the OHL, but New Jersey would gladly take another 25 goal scorer to complement Palmieri and Henrique. 7 goals in 33 games equates to under 20 goals for a full season, but if you believe he has turned a little corner lately and that he can produce more next year given this strong end to the season, then 20+ goals is a very reasonable expectation for next season.
If Boucher can become a quality goal scorer on par with Henrique and Palmieri, it would do wonders for this team's lineup next season. You then have Henrique and Zajac as your top 2 centers, with Palmieri, Cammalleri, and Boucher to complement on the wings. The last winger could be anyone else, perhaps Blandisi if he also makes a jump, or a free agent signing (perhaps Lee Stempniak if he returns). But with Boucher as a solidified top 6 winger, you can see what it does for the top 6 in general. It makes it that much more potent. There wouldn't be 2 spots that could be filled by guys like Tyler Kennedy or Jordin Tootoo on any given night. They are decent players, but they are not the goal scorers that this team needs. Boucher, if he can break out and continue to score at a higher pace, would be the tonic that this team is looking for.
One big question that has to be dealt with first, however, is what to do with him this offseason. His entry level contract expires this season, and he becomes a restricted free agent. Of course he will be tendered and signed to a contract, there is no debate there. There is too much potential with him to let go. The question is to what degree. He has not produced like someone who deserves a long term deal, and perhaps Ray Shero will look to give him a bridge deal that will still keep him as a restricted free agent after this contract. A one or two year deal would give Reid the time to prove that he deserves a top 6 role and good money.
There are other options, like investing longer term so that he does not become a UFA too early, but that carries the risk that he does not continue to develop and eventually produce points at a consistent level. I do not see that happening, but then again you never know. I would more expect to see that bridge deal, as it works well for both the team and the player. The team gets the security of a shorter deal, and the player gets to prove that he is worth big time money. The real question is whether or not it will be a one-way or two-way deal. A two-way deal would be better for the team in case Boucher does tank, as it would allow him to freely move between Albany and Newark without having to clear waivers. It also prevents what happened to Stefan Matteau this season, sitting in the press box instead of developing in the AHL. However, for the player, a one-way deal is obviously better as it means more guaranteed money and a much better chance at playing time in the NHL.
I think a contract to look at as a possible example is Jacob Josefson's last contract, which was a show me deal as well. In 2014, he signed a 2 year deal worth $800k a year. Had he produced well these past two seasons, he certainly would have been in line for a nice deal and raise, but alas that did not necessarily happen. He may be re-signed as he is a solid bottom 6 center, but he probably should not expect much of a raise. Boucher may get a little more than the $800k that JJ got, but I would not expect too much more. Maybe 1 million a year for 2 years or something.
Of course, I am simply speculating. In the end, what is most important for us as fans is that he continue to improve and produce for New Jersey. If that can happen, and if he can eventually claim a top 6 role and score goals regularly, the money will come to him, and Shero will be happy to pay him. Combined with a possible signing of a quality goal scorer in free agency, it would solidify the Devils' top 6 and turn those two lines into legitimate scoring threats. After that, finding any fringe goal scoring on the bottom 6 to keep teams honest would be the final boost to this offense that could potentially put them over the top and into playoff contention.
What are your thoughts on Reid? Do you think he can become a legitimate every day top 6 player and goal scorer for the Devils? Do you think that this is possible sooner rather than later? What should Ray Shero do with his contract this offseason? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.