Last week when writing about Keith Kinkaid, I wrote how a 5 point improvement in his record, combined with a 7 point improvement in Cory Schneider’s record, would put the New Jersey Devils somewhere around 96 points, which is a point for clear playoff contention. To me, it seemed like a somewhat reasonable progression, albeit possibly far-reaching.
Since then, writing that has made me consider what my expectations should be for this team this season. I find that the Devils are in an interesting position which makes expectations rather hard to pinpoint, at least for me. The team is in year 2 of a rebuild, which when it started last season I would’ve said could take up to 5 years depending on how things went. In that scenario, there is no way that a team in the 2nd year of the rebuild should have expectations for a playoff berth. Aspirations for the playoffs are always fine, but actual legitimate expectations would seem a bit far-fetched.
However, there is the other end of it. Despite still only ending with 84 points last season, the Devils clearly improved in the first year of the rebuild. It was not a pure dumpster fire that a sub-80 point season would bring. Granted the offense as a whole did not see major improvement, but there were 30 goal scorers, some of the younger defensive players improved, and Cory proved yet again that he is a bona-fide all-star.
Then, you have the offseason to take into account as well. Bringing in Taylor Hall clearly improves NJ in its weakest area, trading for Beau Bennett shouldn’t be a waste either assuming he stays healthy, and the first two picks in the draft yielded what will hopefully turn into valuable offensive commodities. While the final point does not help with expectations for this current season, what I am trying to paint is a team that looks to be moving in the right direction. That aura brings with it a certain level of excitement for the upcoming season, and excitement almost always raises expectations.
Now I do not want to give a legitimate prediction for what I think New Jersey will do this upcoming season, as that is for another day. But what I do want to come up with is a threshold for what I would consider a successful season. And the most interesting and yet most difficult part about that is that there are multiple factors that could lead to me dubbing this year successful, and not all of them relate to the standings.
With regards to the standings, however, there clearly needs to be improvement for this season to be a success. An 82 point season that has the Devils finishing 7th in the Metro would not be a successful year. The perceived improvements Ray Shero made this offseason, and the fact that John Hynes is now back for a second year which will improve team chemistry, need to create better results on the scoreboard and with the standings. Do the Devils need to make the playoffs for it to be a successful year, however? I personally do not think so. A 12+ point jump is no easy task, and it does not happen often. However, a much more reasonable expectation might be for a 90+ point season. A 6 point jump in the standings is certainly doable. That is literally 3 more wins. A team moving in the right direction should be able to achieve that goal. Anything beyond that, including the playoffs, would definitely be gravy.
Of course, overall team goals are not the only aspects of this season that would make it successful. Individual improvements would also be a huge bonus and could make the year successful in terms of growth for the future, even if the Devils as a team do not make that 90 point threshold. There are several players that I am looking at to improve this season and become quality NHL players, or at least show that becoming a regular NHL player is not far off. Here are 5 players I am looking to see improve:
1. Joseph Blandisi – Last season, Blandisi came onto the scene and caught our eyes with some quality play and fancy moves, like this goal against Philadelphia in February. He ended the season with 17 points in 41 games, but only 5 goals. Now those are not terrible numbers for someone who just cracked the NHL in his early 20’s, but this season I want to see improvement. In my eyes, there are 5 legitimate top 6 forwards on the Devils: Henrique, Zajac, Hall, Cammalleri, and Palmieri. It would be great if someone like Blandisi could improve this season and make the top 6 even more solid.
2. Pavel Zacha – If Blandisi does not solidify himself as a scorer this season, how about Zacha? It might be a season too early for that, but I would like to see him continue his progress towards an eventual top 6 regular. He was very successful last season in a very small sample size in Albany, and of course had those 2 assists for NJ at the end of the season. If he plays in Albany this year that is fine, but I want to continue to see that growth towards becoming a player worthy of his draft position.
3. Damon Severson – While I may have put him on this list anyway, perhaps the main reason he is here now is because Adam Larsson is now in Edmonton. For lack of anyone else, Severson now needs to become the new Larsson, playing alongside stalwart Andy Greene and dominating defensively. That position could theoretically also fall to someone else, like John Moore or Ben Lovejoy, but Severson has the most potential of the bunch. At only 22 years old, he has plenty of time left for growth. I hope this year we see him really become a true top 4 player.
4. John Quenneville – Like with Zacha, this one may not be specifically for this season, but I really want to see Quenneville do well in Albany. A former first round pick, he needs to become an NHL-caliber player in the next two seasons or so. The Devils blew it on too many first rounders over the last dozen years or so, the team cannot afford to miss on another. He may not have the hype or potential that Zacha does, but if he can become a quality second liner in the NHL one day, that would work. Let’s see improvement towards that this season.
5. Jon Merrill – the ship may have sailed on Merrill, but he is still only 24 years old, and as a defenseman that means he can still get better. It would really be a bad blow if both Eric Gelinas and Merrill did not work out. Both were so highly touted two years ago. He will most likely never become a top pairing guy, but if he can just become a steady bottom 4 defender, that would be fine for the Devils’ purposes. And if that does not happen, let’s hope that Steven Santini is ready sooner than later.
In the end, it is hard to combine expectations for the team as a whole along with expectations for individual growth, but for this year to be successful as a Devils fan I need to see something. Perhaps an 88-90 point season but breakout years from Blandisi and Zacha along with quality growth from Merrill and Severson. That would work for me. It would not be a playoff year, sure, but the improvement of key guys would mean that the rebuild is moving in the right direction and this team is becoming something again. But hey, let’s shoot for 96 points!
What are your expectations for this season? How much improvement in the standings do you need to see, and/or what players do you need to see improvement from to call this season a success? Is it playoffs or bust for you this season, or would simply seeing growth from a few younger players be enough? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.