The start of the 2016-17 NHL season is still about 2 and 1/2 months away, but the offseason moves made by the New Jersey Devils are reason enough to be anxious and impatiently awaiting the return of hockey season. As we draw closer to training camp, we will see Coach John Hynes put units together for preseason games and while those lines are not always an indication of what will happen during the season, there’s a good chance that some of those combinations stick.
Again, we don’t really know what will happen with forward trios and defense pairs yet and we won’t for quite some time, but it’s fun to think about would could be, especially in the summer when teams news is at a low point. Based on the current roster, here’s my look at how our forward and defense combinations might shake out this year:
Line 1: Taylor Hall - - Adam Henrique - - Devante Smith-Pelly
Okay, I don’t think there will be too many objections to at least the left wing/center combination here. Henrique is our best center and should be paired with our new star winger regardless on if they’re familiar with each other or not; in this case, the fact that they’ve played together before (in juniors for the Windsor Spitfires) is simply an added bonus. Hall should be at least a 25 goal scorer for this team, and even if Henrique has a slight recession in his goal total from last year, having 2 legitimate scoring threats on the top line will be welcome. DSP gets the call on the right side due to his strong play with Rico at the end of last season; I hope that he continues to play strong, and contribute to the team. His big frame down low will be useful to screen opposing goalies and he’s shown he can bang home a rebound when in the right spot. If he struggles, Smith-Pelly could be replaced by Beau Bennett provided Bennett stays healthy and proves that he can provide offense in Hynes’ system.
Line 2: Reid Boucher (RFA)/Joseph Blandisi - - Travis Zajac - - Kyle Palmieri
With the way that Zajac and Palmieri played together last season, I would not split them up to simply “load up” the top line; if anything, the Devils need more balanced scoring and this will provide it. With the Devils FINALLY adding another center that can win more than 50% of his face-offs taken (Vernon Fiddler), Zajac may not have to be relied on to take as many defensive zone draws as he was last season, meaning this line may be a true offense-focused second line. Palms is Palms; again, he might have a slight recession in his goal total, but then again with the number of times he got robbed by either a goalie or a post last season, he might even go higher! Both Reid Boucher and Joseph Blandisi played well with these guys (Reid had more time with them and was more consistent but Joe had the Ottawa game highlighted below with this pair), and I honestly think that whoever has the better training camp will win this spot. If Blender takes it, look for Boosh to be the extra forward; if the opposite happens, expect Blandisi to be in Albany as the first available injury call-up.
Line 3: Michael Cammalleri - - Pavel Zacha - - Beau Bennett
Here’s where the madness begins; Mike Cammalleri on the third line you say? I promise I haven’t gone crazy; if you look at the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, they had 3 lines balanced with at least one scoring threat on each line. Pushing Cammalleri to the third line makes sense to me for 3 reasons; again it gives us 3 scoring lines, it reduces Cam’s minutes to hopefully keep him away from the injured list, and while he’s not Patrik Elias, Mike’s still a great vet to mentor young Zacha. Pavel gets the nod here because he seems ready for the big time, but he’s not ready to play in the top 6 yet; he can develop here with less responsibilities but still with skilled line mates, which is what he needs if we want him to be a legitimate top 6 player going forward. Bennett rounds out this trio because his game doesn’t play well on a bottom line but at the same time he’s still an injury concern; again, as stated in Line 1, swap him and DSP as necessary.
Line 4: Jacob Josefson - - Vernon Fiddler - - Sergei Kalinin
Going with three lefties here on the bottom line because honestly I don’t have any other choice! Josefson gets placed on a line where his quality of competition will probably be of more comfort to him than when he was on the third line, and he may score a few more points. He should dress for every game this season (barring injury) as he helps the power play out and is money in shootouts. Kalinin, much like Josefson, played over his head last year but even more so on the second line at times! I’m not sure if he’s played right wing before, but I think he makes the most sense to start there unless Hynes wants Fiddler to take draws but play right wing. While possibly confusing that could also make sense, since Vern has experience playing the right side; in that case after the draw Kalinin plays left, Fiddler plays right, and Jake covers the middle. Additionally, all of these players are at least decent defensively, so if John Hynes chooses to use them as a defensive shut down unit, I won’t have any complaints.
Defense Pair 1: Andy Greene - - Steve Santini
I will reiterate that I have not gone crazy, just because I’m sure there are more than a few readers balking at seeing the unproven rookie on the top pairing. As much as I want to see Greene reunited with Damon Severson, the fact is that the rest of our left side played like a train wreck towards the end of last season and I would not want to absolutely shatter any confidence that Santini had. While these two both play a similar, more defensive minded game, Greene has shown the ability to produce offense from the back end as well, and it could be that he needs a Steve Santini type next to him to feel comfortable enough to “cheat” and pinch past the offensive blue line. Honestly, I see the D pairs being shuffled a lot this season, but should Santini win a spot out of camp, I think having the captain mentor him is the best bet.
Defense Pair 2: John Moore - - Ben Lovejoy
Defense Pair 3: John Merrill - - Damon Severson
In all honesty, pairs 2 and 3 are pretty interchangeable in my mind and it will all depend on how the players perform. Moore had some moments where he looked great last season, and then some where he looked downright terrible; his brain gaffes on defense are one of the major reasons that I projected Santini as Greene’s partner. I also kept Moore and Severson away from each other just to keep our 2 most offensive minded defenders off of the same pair; not only might that limit any offense from the back to just one pair (depending on Greene’s usage) but it could also result in some ugly plays heading towards Cory Schneider. This season needs to be a big one for Severson, and it might even help to start him on the bottom pair and have him “earn” top pair ice time through his play. We need him to play to his potential now that Adam Larsson is in Edmonton.
Ben Lovejoy should bring a stabilizing force to the defense and that’s why I initially have him and Moore as the second pair; Lovejoy played mostly in Pittsburgh’s top 4 in the playoffs and again they did win the Stanley Cup, so he must have been doing something right! Again though, if Sevs outplays him, just deploy Severson and Merrill more. Speaking of Merrill, he was absolutely my least favorite regular defenseman last season (with Moore not too far behind after his return from injury) and I think there are many Devils fans here who feel the same way. To me, he has this season and next that he’s contracted for, and if he doesn’t improve in any way, shape, or form then I see no reason to even qualify him at the end of the contract. At that point, he will simply be eating up a contract slot that could go to someone else; Merrill needs to get his head on straight this season; while some Devils fans may have initially had too high of expectations for Jon, he isn’t playing to the potential that he has either, and he needs to get there to solidify at least the bottom pair.
Goaltender: Cory Schneider
Too obvious? The back-up doesn’t matter much, it will be either Keith Kinkaid or Scott Wedgewood depending on who looks better in camp. All I can say is that if this is the season that we’re going back to the promised land, then Cory is our man!
I’d like to hear from you, my fellow Devils fans, as to who you think will be playing together this season; do you have any/all of the same lines and pairs as I do? Do you have any players making the team that I didn’t list here? Any thoughts on who will be the extra forwards and/or defensemen? Do you have any other goalie other than Cory as the starter, and if you do, are you sure you’re really a Devils fan? Leave any and all comments below, and thank you guys as always for reading!