13; it's more than just Michael Cammalleri's number at this point. 13 is the number of years it's been since our New Jersey Devils have been to the promised land; 13 years since the team has ascended the mountain and stood tall above all other teams to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup high into the air to the adoration of thousands cheering and screaming in the background. While the cup has only been won 12 times since we last held it (thanks 2004-05 lockout), the Devils have rarely come close to it again save for that one magical spring in 2012.
It's never easy to win season after season in any sport nowadays due to salary caps, free agency rules, and player progression/regression combined with the sheer number of teams in any professional league. We were spoiled by the fact as fans that we were able to win it all 3 times within a span of 9 seasons, but we're now approaching a point where we have a new generation of fans who may not have seen all 3 cup victories; for example, any young adults in their early 20s were born in 1994 or later and unless they're a prodigy, they will not have memories of that first cup run. Continuing that mindset, we now have teenage fans that have never seen New Jersey celebrate sweet victory over the best from the Western Conference.
These are, however, promising times that we live in at least in terms of hockey; our New Jersey Devils have taken a number of steps under the guidance of General Manager Ray Shero to improve the team, and today I look at 13 things that Shero has done for the team in an attempt to not only make the number 13 lucky for us, but also to remind us all why we should have hope for the upcoming seasons:
13. Getting Joseph Blandisi Into the Lineup
I'm not entirely sure if this one could be considered Shero's doing or not, as I don't know everything about the day to day operations of an NHL franchise, but Blandisi last season has some great (and some not so great) moments on the ice.
A little more time, a bit more seasoning, and a bit more maturity could result in Joe becoming an excellent contributor to this team for a long time. While he was a signing of the previous regime, it was this regime that gave him his chance to show what he could do.
12. Signing Ben Lovejoy to an Affordable Contract
Free agency can be a terrible time of year depending on which NHL team you root for; if your GM is under pressure or just not a very good negotiator, your favorite team could be saddled with a really bad contract just shortly after it's been signed.
Fortunately for us, when Ray Shero went out to try and alleviate some of the pressure on the defense from the loss of Adam Larsson, he signed Ben Lovejoy to a contract that will pay him less than $3 million per season for 3 years. When you look around the league and see some of the questionable contracts handed out during free agency (Milan Lucic and Matt Martin come to mind immediately) and compare it to Lovejoy's, it makes it look that much better. Shero is making the right moves financially to ensure New Jersey has flexibility for when they will need it.
11. Drafting Michael McLeod
When this pick was initially made, I wasn't quite sure what to feel; all of the players I had wanted New Jersey to pick were already off the board and this just struck me as underwhelming at best. Fast forward a couple of weeks to the Taylor Hall trade and it all makes sense now;
If the team truly sees Pavel Zacha performing better on the wing than in the middle, choosing someone like McLeod to get the puck to Pavel and Taylor in the future seems like a smart idea. He obviously won't be ready for a couple of seasons, but when he is, he might be the player we need to push into the top 6 as Travis Zajac ages into a 3rd line shutdown specialist.
10. Trading for Beau Bennett
This may seem a little low on the list to some, but I'm not sold on Bennett yet just because of his injury history. If Beau works out, then Shero looks like a genius again by trading just a 3rd round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Bennett. If it doesn't, it probably isn't a big loss anyway, as many 3rd round picks don't ever see the light of the NHL. Bennett will have every chance to succeed with the Devils this year, and could earn himself a slot in the top 9 at right wing. Hopefully he stays healthy and puts up some good numbers to take the offensive load off of the top players.
9. Drafting Pavel Zacha
The Devils have been starved for top talent for years, and while some felt that Pavel Zacha may have been a risky pick, he certainly did not look out of place as an NHL forward against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the last game of the 2015-16 season.
While he still has some proving to do, this may finally be the season where Zacha arrives full time in New Jersey. He's still recovering from an injury suffered during the AHL playoffs and will need to prove himself in training camp, but Pavel making the big team could result in New Jersey having 3 potent scoring lines this season. Goals were the biggest thing the team needs, and though Zacha has yet to score one at the NHL level, a full season with some NHL caliber line mates could see him potting quite a few to help New Jersey climb the standings.
8. Turning Stefan Matteau into Devante Smith-Pelly
Wow is all I can say on this one; Stefan Matteau was starting to look like waiver fodder during his career, and that could be either because he was thrust into the NHL too quickly, or just because whatever game he had with the USNDT/in juniors just did not translate to the pro level.
While DSP probably won't be contributing points at the pace that he did last season, it's safe to say he's already contributed more to the Devils than Matteau will to the NHL. At the very least, DSP is a big rugged body who can stand in front of the net and pick up some "garbage goals" both at evens and on the power play. One way or another Matteau would have been gone; Shero just managed to get a useful player for him.
7. Actually Getting Some Depth During the Summer of 2016
The major criticism of our Devils from everywhere you could imagine (analysts, bloggers, our own fans, us) last season was that New Jersey was essentially a 2 line team. Players who consistently played in our bottom 6 could not buy a goal to save their lives last season outside of "Wild Thing" Bobby Farnham. Gone from New Jersey are Tuomo Ruutu (0 goals in 33 games), Jordin Tootoo (4 in 66), Brian O'Neill (0 in 22), Jiri Tlusty (2 in 30) and Stephen Gionta (1 in 82) among others.
These moves should bump Jacob Josefson and Sergey Kalinin down to a more comfortable position on the fourth line to join most likely Vernon Fiddler (12 in 82) with Luke Gazdic (1 in 29) as the extra. Either Reid Boucher or Cammalleri will be on the third scoring line (depending on whether Bouch/Zajac/Palms is kept together or not) alongside either Beau Bennett or DSP; Pavel Zacha or Joe Blandisi could win the center spot to form a line that will more than likely produce way more points than the entire bottom 6 did last season.
More scoring = more winning. More winning = more points in the standings. More points in the standings = playoff spot. Playoff spot = more Devils hockey. Need I go on?
6. Adam Larsson's New Contract
Before Adam Larsson was shockingly shipped out of New Jersey (more on that later), he was a restricted free agent with New Jersey. While he filed for arbitration, it never got there as he signed a 6 year contract for just over $4 million a season. As a former #4 overall draft pick, Larsson was seen as a cornerstone on the back end playing alongside our captain Andy Greene. Locking him up through some of his unrestricted free agent years at a good price was important, and Shero managed to pull it off.
Any time you have a player in an important role on your team that is signed to a team-friendly contract, it really helps to both bring other players in and have the affordability to sign them; while Shero did not bring in a boatload of free agents right away, this contract was signed so that he could do so if needed. I fully expect Ray to continue to be shrewd and set the Devils up to compete for the long haul instead of signing a few players to contracts north of $7 or 8 million and trading away youth to maintain cap compliance.
5. Hiring John Hynes
This one places highly on my list simply because I think without John Hynes, last season's team finishes much lower than it actually did in the standings. While there were times this season where I was vocally upset with my television when I saw Hynes (due to his blank expression), the emotions began to come from him more and more as the season progresses, and I truly believe he's the coach this team needs to take them back to the top of the NHL mountain. The players also seem to both enjoy and respect Hynes as a coach, and they want to grow under him as well, providing further proof that he's the man for the job.
While his rookie season was successful, I think Hynes will want the playoffs in his sophomore year. If the team stays healthy, and our depth actually scores some goals this year, I feel like John Hynes will bring New Jersey back to the NHL playoffs. How far do they go? All I will say is the 2015-16 team exceeded expectations.
4. Staying Away From the Past Regime's Mistakes
One thing that I both loved and hated about the last management regime was loyalty to certain players; while it worked well when the player excelled, there were too many bad contracts being handed out to players that had not earned them and too many bad moves being made.
Dainius Zubrus and Bryce Salvador were both signed for one season too many when they re-signed during free agency. The Tuomo Ruutu trade was a disaster that we're just now freeing ourselves from; the bigger kicker was that we sent Carolina a draft pick along with Andrei Loktionov. Steve Bernier and Stephen Gionta were both kept around longer than either needed to be, especially considering that re-signing them led to Ryan Carter's departure as he was in my opinion the best of the 3. Questionable free agent signings that we've beaten to death here before also plagued the old regime.
Shero has done an excellent job of staying away from most, if not all of these types of moves so far. Most of the players that he signed were on PTOs before he added them at the start of last season. His major summer signing last year was John Moore to a relatively cheap deal; this year is was the above mentioned Ben Lovejoy deal. I'm sure the track record may not always be this good, but to a rebuilding/reloading team, Shero is taking us in the right direction compared to the "plug the holes" contracts being given out before.
3. Re-Signing Kyle Palmieri to a Good Contract
I'm not going to spend too much time on this one, as many of the reasons are similar to above, but once Palms was in the fold (more on that just a bit further down), Shero made sure this past summer to get him locked up for a while. 5 years is a nice amount of time, and under $5 million a season is a steal for a guy who just scored 30 goals. Even if Palmieri regresses slightly into a 50 point player, the contract is still well worth it. Additionally, with Palmieri signing for under $5 million, it leaves the Devils with some financial flexibility in upcoming seasons to be able to add more pieces as Shero sees fit.
2. Trading for Taylor Hall
I only rank this one so high mainly for Hall's previous accolades and for the shock that it sent through both our fan base and Edmonton Oilers fans. Rumors this past summer seemed to lead everyone to believe that either Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Jordan Eberle would be on their way out of Edmonton to acquire some much needed D help for the team, but instead it was the high scoring Hall coming to New Jersey in exchange for Adam Larsson.
While I was initially shocked by the move, I have grown to enjoy it simply because it fills a need for both teams. While we may now have a hole on the blue line, the hope is that some younger players (including Damon Severson) will be able to step up and take the team further. Hall meanwhile brings another legitimate scoring threat to New Jersey, and alongside Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, Michael Cammalleri, and a legitimate supporting cast, the Devils are starting to look dangerous up front. Hall has never seen the playoffs in 6 NHL seasons, so maybe lucky 7 in New Jersey will be the charm!
As an aside, I know sometimes players read blogs, and while he may not read this one as he is no longer part of the organization, just a thank you to Adam Larsson for his contributions to this team. We know what you're capable of Lars, now go show the Oilers what great defense is all about!
1. Trading for Kyle Palmieri
Until Taylor Hall actually sees the ice in red and black, this will still be Shero's crowning achievement in New Jersey. Sending pick # 41 in 2015 and pick # 76 in 2016 to the Anaheim Ducks resulted in the return of a young, still relatively unproven Kyle Palmieri. As we all know, he did not have the chance to prove himself on a team as deep at forward as the Ducks, but when he arrived in forward-starved New Jersey, his production took off!
Kyle would appear in every game last season and scored 30 goals, or 16 more than his previous career high; his 27 assists would also establish a new career high. The extra ice time that Anaheim could not afford him turned out to be just what the doctor ordered, and all it cost New Jersey was 2 draft picks, and for all we know, those players chosen may never even skate on NHL ice. Palmieri is an exciting, integral cog in New Jersey's system, and I hope that he takes another step forward this season; if he does and the team stays healthy, there's no reason we don't make the playoffs.
Now I'd like to hear what you think about the direction the Devils are trending in; do you like the moves that Ray Shero has made? Any I missed or that did not make the cut that you are fond of? Do you think the Devils make the playoffs this year? Leave any and all comments below and as always thank you for reading!