The Devils are a team in transition. They are in the midst of a rebuild and are trying to find their way back into contention in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. With this in mind, it makes sense that a majority of the focus has been on the new faces that are (or could be) coming to the Devils roster this fall. Rightfully so in the case of players like Taylor Hall and Pavel Zacha, who are potential difference-makers and could help pull the team out of its recent offensive doldrums. If things break right, the Devils could end up with a half-decent offense, which, with Cory Schneider in the mix, should put the Devils right in the thick of things when April is approaching.
One of the potential biggest factors in an offensive resurgence has flown under the radar for much of this summer, though, and it wears jersey number 13 for the red and black. Yes, there’s a good chance that Michael Cammalleri is the most important player for the Devils offense this side of Taylor Hall. It’s clear why he has been a bit of an afterthought this summer, between his 2015-16 injury woes (40 games missed) and his age (34) on a rebuilding team, but few players possess the same ability to score as he does. He makes a difference when he’s on the ice and if the Devils want the playoffs to be a possibility this season, they will probably need Cammalleri to be a part of it.
Who would you say was the Devils’ best forward last season? Most answers would probably land on 30-goal-scorers Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique. But there’s a pretty good argument to be made that Cammalleri, despite missing half of the campaign, was the best forward in New Jersey in 2015-16. Obviously, his points pace blew everyone else out of the water, but you have to account for all the time he missed. Yet, at 5-on-5, he lead the team in primary points for the entire season and, yes, you are reading that correctly. He played four games after New Year’s Day and not one Devil could overtake him in goals + first assists at even-strength.
To take it a step further, let’s try and guess who had the best 5-on-5 primary points per 60 in the NHL last season. Was it new Devil and even-strength power house Taylor Hall? How about Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner Patrick Kane? Young phenom Connor McDavid? You can probably see where I’m going with this but no, no, and no (7th, 3rd, and 10th, respectively). It was Michael Cammalleri, and it was by a fairly wide margin. Now, I’m not trying to say Cammalleri is the best forward in the league (though if he stayed healthy, he probably would have deserved a few Hart votes last season) but when a team has an offense as putrid as the Devils’ has been at even strength, a guy like him seems pretty important to have. When he’s on the ice, he’s one of the more productive forwards in this league.
Embedded in that last sentence is the rub, though. When he’s on the ice. The injury Sword of Damocles seems to hover perpetually over Cammalleri’s head, with one ailment or another constantly causing him to miss time. He hasn’t gotten into 70 games in a season since 2008-09 (!), which is kind of incredible. Though to be fair, last season was the first time he’d ever played less than 60, lockout season excepted. So it would be foolhardy to expect a full campaign out of Cammalleri at this point. But just because missing 15-20 games a season is part of the Mike Cammalleri Experience™ at this point doesn’t mean you shouldn’t want him for those other 65 games. I’ll take 65 games of Cammalleri over 82 games of a heck of a lot of other NHL forwards.
Age is also certainly a consideration with Cammalleri, and it’s the main driver of the many trade proposals involving #13 that have been floated by Devils fans in the past few months. If the goal is to contend in two or three years, then Cammalleri probably doesn’t fit into the picture as anything more than a bit player at that point. So it makes sense too look into trade options for a 34-year-old when you’re working on a rebuild, and if the right move comes along, you take it. The defensive pipeline could use a little help at this point, so you have to weigh your options. If Ducks GM Bob Murray has an aneurysm and offers you Hampus Lindholm for Cammalleri, then, obviously, you make the move. But a majority of the returns the Devils would likely be offered are liable to make the team worse on day one of the 2016-17 season. For the right future return, that could be worth it, but it comes with the understanding that you’re removing one of your best forwards and thinning out the one forward position you had some depth at for this season.
Barring any transactions involving Cammalleri, though, he remains a major part of the 2016-17 team. A healthy Cammalleri makes the Devils a considerably better and deeper offensive team. His age and a wrist injury that ended his 2015-16, along with the arrival of bona fide star Taylor Hall, have conspired to make him something of an afterthought going into this season. Even if you get the standard sprained (x) or strained (y) that holds him out for a few weeks, 65 games of Cammalleri makes you a better team, regardless. If the Devils’ offense wants to get to that mediocre level they so sorely need to be on, Michael Cammalleri, likely their second best offensive forward, is going to have to be a part of it.
All stats retrieved via Puckalytics.com and Hockey-Reference.