Before the trade deadline, with the team's top leading scorer in Lee Stempniak still on the squad, the New Jersey Devils were already the worst scoring team in the league, and it was not very close. When Ray Shero decided to ship him up to Boston for a 2nd and a 4th rounder, it made the team's offensive capabilities over the long haul one of dire need. Granted there are nights where they can still go off for 5 goals (see: Nashville game on Thursday night), but those are the aberrations, not the norms.
Whether or not you are rooting for the Devils to keep winning games to make the playoffs, or you are rooting for them to lose and get a better draft pick, the need is still there: top 6 scoring is a must, and bottom 6 scoring is a close second in terms of a need. Without this, the team will not win now, will not win next year, and will not win at any point in the foreseeable future. Some may even believe the bottom 6 scoring is a more glaring hole, and it may very well be. But without top flight scorers to put this team on the scoreboard on most nights, the wins will simply not be there. Secondary, bottom 6 scoring only works to complement top 6 scoring. At this point, beyond Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri, Michael Cammalleri when healthy, and to a lesser extent Travis Zajac, there is no top 6 scoring, or indeed much scoring at all.
This needs to change, and change sooner than later. There are some bright spots for this team. Perhaps the most obvious bright spot at this point is Joseph Blandisi. He has done well for the big club this year in terms of his scoring abilities. Through the Nashville game, he had 14 points in 26 games played. That is a pace similar to how Zajac has been scoring this year, as he had 33 points in 57 games played. It is not groundbreaking, and it will not be the sole answer, but you have to think of it like this: Blandisi is only 21 years old, and is still scoring at a 0.54 point per game clip. That should certainly improve over the next couple seasons as he grows, both in terms of physically getting stronger and growing as a hockey player at the NHL level. He could certainly become one of the top scorers on this team in the future, relied on for top 6 scoring.
The other in-house answer that should hopefully be a lock to produce is 6th overall pick Pavel Zacha. While he is still playing junior hockey, he is improving down there, and is still very young, turning only 19 years old tomorrow. He has had a good season with the Sarnia Sting, with 25 goals and 28 assists in 45 games played as an assistant captain. That is not groundbreaking in terms of numbers for a top prospect in the OHL, but it is over a point per game, and is an improvement over the 34 points in 37 games he had last year, which was his first in the OHL. If he keeps improving as a hockey player, and can continue to produce at a high level in the AHL when he gets called up, it will only be a matter of time before he is given time with the big club. He and Blandisi could be a nice 1-2 punch for the Devils down the road in terms of scoring.
The problem for the Devils is that simply having these two to rely on for top 6 scoring is not going to be enough for the team's present or future. It certainly won't be enough for this season, as we know what Blandisi has to offer this year and Zacha is going nowhere near Newark. But even for the future, it still leaves holes in the offense. Henqirue will be around for a while and will continue to be a staple of offense. We should also consider Palmieri a lock to remain around a while, as there is a very strong chance Shero gives him a nice long term deal to stay around and keep scoring goals. But after that, new names are going to need to become top 6 scorers. We know what the Devils have in Zajac, and his scoring this season is about the ceiling for what to expect from him. He has always been a 2-way center and will continue to be that moving forward. Cammalleri is a great point producer, but he is also 33 years old at this point and is a constant injury risk. While he may continue to do very well over the next couple seasons, he is not getting any younger or better, and we can't really expect him to play more than 65 games in any given year.
So who else is there? Well that is where we need more guys come out of the blue, much like Blandisi did this year. The Devils may very well end up with a decent draft pick this year, but that forward would still theoretically be a couple seasons away, much like Zacha. If this team wants to compete as early as next season to make the playoffs, it will need more scorers ASAP. That could mean dipping into free agency this offseason, and the Devils will have a considerable amount of cap space to work with. Some nice names will be out there this summer, such as Steven Stamkos, Eric Staal, Andrew Ladd, Loui Eriksson, Mikkel Boedker and others, but who knows who Shero will target, and who he will actually be able to sign. He may be able to get a quality forward to come to the Devils, but I would not expect the biggest names to end up in New Jersey. They rarely ever do.
So even if you say that Shero manages to nab a quality top 6 forward in free agency this year, there still needs to be at least one other. Stempniak had 41 points in 63 games, and with him the Devils were still dead last in scoring. If they want to leave the basement, the team realistically needs to replace him twice over, or maybe even thrice over. So even with one free agent, there needs to be someone else to plug in. If Blandisi becomes that forward, takes a jump up to a place where he consistently produces points, that would be amazing. However, he would be moving up from a position where he currently produces as a bottom 6 forward, and that would need to be replaced.
Within the organization, other than Zacha, there are some forwards. Brian would be a way better person to discuss this than me, but following his prospect updates each week, there could be some names that become decent scorers for the big club down the line. John Quenneville was the team's first round pick in 2014, and while being drafted 30th overall does temper expectations as compared to someone like Zacha, there is hope and indeed some expectations for him to eventually produce at the NHL level. Playing in the WHL, he has produced 24 goals and 34 assists in 49 games as an assistant captain for the Brandon Wheat Kings. Those are quality numbers, and like Zacha, if he can continue to do well at the AHL level perhaps as early as next season, he could be up producing like Blandisi is now sooner than later.
Other names could perhaps be Ryan Kujawinski, who has not produced many points in the AHL this year, but is becoming more seasoned, and if he can find a switch and amp it up, he could surprise people. A stretch to be a producer in the short term would be Blake Speers, but he has 61 points in 60 games as the captain of the Soo Greyhounds, and perhaps down the line that can mean production at the NHL level.
But again, look where I just went. It is not like there are a plethora of guys to look at where a fan like you or me can expect to find another Blandisi who can perhaps become a quality scorer as soon as next year. It would have to be a diamond in the rough, or it would have to be someone improving their game at a drastic level like it seemed Blandisi did, who had produced 21 points in 24 games for Albany before getting the call up. Those are not bad numbers, but they do not necessarily indicate the quality production that we have seen already.
In reality, it may have to be someone like Reid Boucher who steps up his game and becomes the scorer the Devils desperately need him to become. Or even Jacob Josefson, who has shown he really is not a goal scorer at this level, but at 25, could perhaps become somewhat more like Zajac in his scoring abilities. While that is underwhelming for a first rounder, it would be a step up from what he is now, and extra production from the third line center would be a nice boost to have. Or, it may need to come from Ray Shero wheeling and dealing and being able to bring in more talent than I gave him credit for earlier in the article. That is really hard to say. But what I can say is what I do know: the Devils are last in offense, and it is undeniably the largest reason as to why this team is not in a playoff position this season. And unless this team can find at least two more Lee Stempniaks to score in a top 6 role sooner rather than later, it could be at least another couple seasons before the Devils are as competitive as we want them to be.
What are your thoughts about this matter? How nervous are you about the offensive capabilities for the New Jersey Devils moving forward? What do you think the team needs to do to not only replace Stempniak, but also to become a more competent offensive team that can push for a playoff position? How long do you think this process will take? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.