After the Devils completed the trade that brought Taylor Hall to New Jersey, the forwards group immediately changed its complexion. Instead of being a weakness, the forwards became, if not a strength, at least not such a liability. The addition of Hall, likely a top-five player at his position in the entire league, gave the Devils the top-tier forward talent they have been sorely missing since the departures of Zach Parise and Ilya Kovlachuk. Beyond that though, it also helps improve the Devils’ forward depth by pushing other players down the lineup who might otherwise be forced into top-six roles.
So heading into this season, the Devils now have a pretty complete top six to work with. Five of the spots are pretty much locked down with Hall, Adam Henrique, Michael Cammalleri, Kyle Palmieri, and Travis Zajac all likely to feature on the Devils’ top two lines. One more spot, at right wing, will likely be filled by either Devante Smith-Pelly or Beau Bennett, who, while each possessing some potential, are more of the “stopgap” variety when discussing the top six. Still, the Devils have one of the more complete-looking top-six groups for 2016-17 than they’ve had in quite a few seasons.
The bottom six, however, appears to be largely wide open at this point for New Jersey. The Devils have enough bodies to fill out a lineup, but the configuration and quality of that bottom six remains somewhat up in the air. One thing that does seem relatively clear at this point, though, is that the performance of this team’s bottom six will be dictated heavily by players who are 25 and under. The only player over 25 who seems likely to feature prominently in the team’s bottom six is veteran UFA signing Vernon Fiddler, a journeyman depth player who will probably end up on the fourth line. So the third and fourth lines will consist almost entirely of young or at least young-ish players.
Generally speaking, that is is a good thing for a team still engaged in the rebuilding process (as Alex said in this piece from Saturday), though it does lend itself to a fair bit of uncertainty. Yet, that uncertainty comes with the territory with any young player and, for a team that isn’t quite ready for meaningful contention, handing the keys to the bottom six over to the younger players in your organization is something of a win-win. It allows the team to give the players meaningful NHL experience while still allowing the team to shelter them to an extent and put them in a position to succeed. It also provides an opportunity to meaningfully evaluate young players’ abilities at the NHL level. Of less consequence to the fans, but a nice bonus for the organization is the fact that the cap hit of the bottom six will likely total less than $6 million. So with that, lets break down the different groups of players that could be a part of the third and fourth lines.
The Relatively Known Quantities
Vernon Fiddler, Jacob Josefson, Sergey Kalinin, Beau Bennett, Luke Gazdic
With this group, you have a good idea of what to expect. Everyone except Bennett is 25 or older, so the ‘potential’ side of the equation is somewhat limited but, save for Gazdic, everyone is pretty much confirmed to be a worthwhile NHLer at this point. Smith-Pelly probably falls into this group as well, but right now he probably projects to the empty RW spot in the top six.
Vernon Fiddler - He has pretty much put up between 20-30 points every year since breaking into the NHL full-time, so he’s about as known as they come, though at 36 years old, age could start to become a factor soon.
Jacob Josefson - Josefson has never put together an effective offensive game, despite seeming to have some skill, but at this point he seems to have carved out a niche as an effective defensive forward and special teams role player.
Sergey Kalinin - In his first NHL season, Kalinin looked like a decent grinder and depth option for New Jersey. Not the most dynamic player, but still NHL-worthy and someone who can hold down a third or preferably fourth line role.
Beau Bennett - It’s hard to call Bennett a known quantity with his well-documented injury woes, but in the time he’s been healthy, he’s largely been a bottom six guy and it would be a bit of a (pleasant) surprise if he were much more.
Luke Gazdic - With 13 points and 207 penalty minutes in his 150+ NHL games, there’s a pretty clear picture of what Gazdic brings to the table. Ideally he’s the organization’s AHL enforcer rather than NHL.
The Potential Difference Makers
Pavel Zacha, Reid Boucher, Joseph Blandisi
This trio of players are probably the key to the Devils having a successful bottom six this season. They are positioned to have an NHL impact this season and, to varying degrees, have abilities that could someday elevate them to top six contributors. If they turn out to be part of an effective third line in New Jersey, then suddenly the forwards look like a pretty good group. Of course, it they all faceplant, the team becomes dangerously thin in a hurry.
Pavel Zacha - The Devils’ 6th overall pick from 2015 had a heck of an NHL debut in last season’s finale but his OHL season was a little more up-and-down. Zacha is the organization’s top prospect though, and with a strong finish to his OHL season/playoffs as well as successful starts in the NHL and AHL, the hope is that Zacha is ready to make the jump and have an impact.
Reid Boucher - Boucher looked like something of a changed player this past season after some disappointment in the prior few coming off his insane 62-goal season in Sarnia. While showcasing a more complete two-way game, Boucher put up a half-point per game in the NHL and about a point per game in the A. If he could carry that success through to this season, he could make a big difference for New Jersey.
Joseph Blandisi - Blandisi had a great start to his NHL career last season, putting together an extremely impressive stretch of 14 points in 19 games to go with some blinding speed after his January callup. He fell back to earth in the season’s final two months and had some issues with embellishment, quickly earning a bit of a reputation. He may need to mature a bit more but it seems like the speed and skill are there for the young forward to improve this team.
The Wild Cards
John Quenneville, Miles Wood, Michael McLeod
These are the players who are somewhat unlikely to see much NHL time this season, but could plausibly make it happen if they are particularly impressive or injuries start to pile up. All of them have some potential to make an impact in the future but in 2016-17, they would have to truly impress at camp and/or at lower levels to end up sticking with the NHL team. Most likely, they’re headed to the AHL or, for McLeod, the OHL.
John Quenneville - After a disappointing draft+1 season in 2014-15, Quenneville took a major step in the right direction in 2015-16, improving his scoring significantly, helping lead Brandon to a WHL title, and also doing this at the Memorial Cup. A year in the AHL is probably what’s best for him but it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that he spends some time in New Jersey.
Miles Wood - After two post-draft years in prep school, it didn’t seem like he was destined for the NHL, but a surprising selection to the USA’s U-20 team in 2015 and a big first year at BC helped propel him up to the NHL conversation. It would be a bit surprising to seem him in the NHL much this season, but the Devils did think him worthy of a game in the spring and he went to the World Championships, so who knows.
Michael McLeod - This year’s 12th overall pick is probably headed back to the OHL for 2016-17, but there’s a chance the speedster blows people’s doors off in camp and earns himself a look in the NHL, even if it’s just a 9-game tryout.
The Hail Marys
Ryan Kujawinski, Blake Pietila, Nick Lappin
These are players who I feel could get a look at some point this season, but otherwise seem highly unlikely to make much of an impact. Kujawinski seems to have some skill but has just never really produced at a level that would indicate an NHLer. Peitila actually saw some NHL time last year and could have a future as a defensive specialist and grinder, but his overall impact potential seems limited. Lappin is a longshot, but the free agent pickup out of had a solid career at Brown and a pretty good start in the AHL last season, so maybe he can surprise.
The Bottom Six
So what does the ideal bottom-six look like next year? With a lot of unknowns, it’s obviously tough to be completely sure (Gerard took a stab at the entire lineup last week) but I’d personally be looking for as dynamic a group as possible. To start the season, an ideal bottom six might look something like this:
As alluded to above, I think Zacha and Boucher are really important for this team in 2016-17. Without both of them contributing, things get murky in the bottom six in a hurry. Elsewhere, some may be looking for Blandisi to start in the AHL if he’s not getting top-nine minutes, which I think is fair, but I think Blandisi could give that fourth line a little bit of scoring bite that could make it an asset. Kalinin could also capably slot in at that spot, though, if Blandisi returns to Albany. It would be interesting to see some of the other young players on the fringe push their way into some games too, though I think that only starts to happen when the injury bug inevitably hits. Either way, some of the young forwards in the Devils organization are going to have to step up to give the team some legitimate depth in the upcoming season.