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New Jersey Devils 2017-2018 Season Preview Part 1: Forwards

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With the regular season around the corner, today begins All About the Jersey's season preview for the New Jersey Devils!  Over the course of the week, we will be prepping you for the start of the season on October 7.  Today, we will look at the forwards.

NHL: Preseason-Washington Capitals at New Jersey Devils
Taylor Hall remains the top forward. But he may have some more help in this coming season.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to another season preview of your New Jersey Devils from your favorite Devils blog, All About the Jersey! Over the course of this week, we will dissect and analyze the entire team, from the forwards to the defense, goaltending, special teams, and coaching. We will even give you our predictions for the season! For those of you who have not been following along closely with the team throughout the offseason, here is your chance to get fully caught up on what you missed. By the end of the week, if you follow along with our preview, you will be fully ready to watch another season of Devils’ hockey!

To start off the preview, today I will be discussing the forwards. This is perhaps the area that needs the most improvement over last season. I mean, that has been true over the last several years honestly, since New Jersey last made the postseason. That is why Ray Shero has been working to overhaul and improve the fowards on the team. He did make some moves over the offseason, although the biggest move was based more on luck than anything he did. If you want to see where the state of the forward group was heading into last season, here is what I wrote for last year's season preview. Otherwise, let's get to it!

What Happened Last Season

So last year, the New Jersey Devils were not a good team. We all know this. And perhaps of all the groups on the team, the forwards were the most culpable. They had trouble scoring, had trouble pushing the puck up the ice, and could not really generate much of anything. To showcase, let's put up a chart that has the top three teams last season in terms of goals for, the worst three teams in the category, and the 15th place team, which was in the middle of the pack. Stats here come from Natural Stat Trick:

Natural Stat Trick

So as you can see, the Devils were still quite poor in terms of production. Two seasons ago, they were dead last in goals for, but last year they were only 28th in the same category. That may seem like an improvement, but that would be a lie. In 2015-16, the Devils scored 182 goals over 82 games. Last season, they produced only 180, two goals fewer. So despite moving up in the league in that category, as a team they actually got worse at scoring goals.

One reason to attribute to this would be shots. The Devils were pretty bad at getting shots on goal. Shooting under 28 shots per game was near the bottom of the league. They had basically 3 shots fewer per game than the top teams not named Pittsburgh. 3 shots per game multiplied by 82 comes out to 246 fewer shots over the course of the season. If NJ shot 246 more times, there is no doubt that they would have scored more. That is an issue.

Of course, you can look at the Devils' shooting percentage and come to the conclusion that they were unlucky. That could definitely be a part of it. I did write up an article in July and come to the conclusion that the team was fairly unlucky, although again you can take that for what you will. Being unlucky could just be a component of being bad, so there is that. However, if you want to say that they were bad and also unlucky which suppressed numbers even further, then that is certainly in the realm of possibility.

Of course, however, surface stats are never just the entire story, at least not anymore. Let's also look at some possession-based stats from the forwards last season. As you may know, as a team the Devils were one of the worst possession teams in the NHL last season. In fact, they were 27th in the league at 5 on 5 play with a CF% of 47.80. That is really not good. Therefore, it would be difficult to judge the forwards by just looking at their Corsi stats. That would just show us a team who can't control the run of play, which we already know. Instead, we need to look at relative Corsi to really get a good idea of how bad or good the forwards were in possession as compared to the rest of the team.

If we look at all the Devils forwards who played at least 100 minutes last season at 5v5 action, the forward group as a whole had a whopping relative Corsi of -18.14%. That is atrocious to say the least. To give them a slight break, let’s instead check out that number for forwards who played at least 200 minutes at 5v5 instead of 100 minutes. The forward group’s relative Corsi improves, but only to a -7.71%. That is still poor. The main anchors that brought that number down were Miles Wood, Blake Coleman, and Devante Smith-Pelly, who all had a relative Corsi south of 7%. The positive possession players, namely Taylor Hall and Beau Bennett, were not able to buoy them enough.

Just to draw out some numbers, here is another chart showcasing some of these numbers for the forward group who played at least 200 minutes at 5 on 5 play. Let’s look at each player’s relative Corsi, their offensive zone start percentage which can influence relative Corsi if a player gets lots of zone starts at one end of the ice or the other, and their PDO. Again, thanks to many sites ceasing operation, stats here come from Natural Stat Trick.

Natural Stat Trick

So the thing that alarms me the most is that of the five best possession players on offense for the Devils last season, only one of them is going to be on the ice come October 7th. Beau Bennett was not re-signed for reasons unknown and to the dismay of many. PA Parenteau was traded for assets last year, which was a good move as it frees a spot for a young guy to prove himself, but still hurts team possession. Travis Zajac is out for a while, and of course Cammalleri was not brought back. That leaves only Taylor Hall to drive possession forward. So possession this season among the forwards could be even worse than last year unless others pick up the slack, or unless Bennett is brought back!

Finally, for posterity’s sake, let’s just throw in the basic stats for some of the guys who played a good amount last season, again at least 200 5v5 minutes. Let’s track goals, assists, first assists, and shots.

Natural Stat Trick

Overall, even with some of the bright spots (*cough* Hall *cough*), the forward group last season was clearly not that productive in terms of real points or with driving play up the ice. It is one of the main reasons that Shero has done what he has done this offseason to really try and change things and begin to develop a new core of forwards who can lead this team back into contention. When you only have one person take over 200 shots, and only have five players who are at least decently producing points, you cannot win. Hence, all of the changes we will discuss.

This Year’s Squad

Last year, for the season preview of the forwards, I wrote “the main goal for this entire team, not just for the forwards, has to be to improve the overall offensive production.” I don’t really think I need to change much in terms of analysis for this year! The forwards need to produce more, and the hope at this point is that it will happen sooner rather than later. Don’t all of a sudden expect top of the line production from all four lines, but movement in the right direction is possible, and really is mandatory.

Departures

  • Beau Bennett: not re-signed, recently cut by St. Louis. Please bring him in Shero!
  • Reid Boucher: claimed off waivers in January by Vancouver. Recently waived and sent down to AHL.
  • Michael Cammalleri: bought out by Devils in offseason, signed on in Los Angeles.
  • Devante Smith-Pelly: bought out by Devils in offseason, signed on in Washington.
  • Vernon Fiddler: traded to Nashville in February for a 4th-rounder.
  • Luke Gazdic: not brought back, signed on in Calgary.
  • Jacob Josefson: allowed to test free agency, signed on in Buffalo.
  • Sergey Kalinin: out of the NHL, playing with Kovalchuk in the KHL.
  • PA Parenteau: traded to Nashville at deadline for a 6th-rounder.

Additions

  • Marcus Johansson: acquired in a trade for a 2nd and 3rd rounder, neither of which was NJ’s originally.
  • Brian Boyle: signed during the frenzy for 2 years, $5 million. Prayers should go out to him for his illness.
  • Nico Hischier: acquired with the 1st overall pick in this year’s draft.
  • Drew Stafford: signed back in August for 1 year, $800k.
  • Jimmy Hayes: brought in on a PTO for camp, signed a one year deal for $700k over the weekend.

Now I may be missing some names, and this would definitely be true if you want to consider any potential AHL signees or departures I left out. However, these would constitute the majority of anyone who would most likely be playing decent NHL minutes. As you can see, there are definitively more departures. Ray Shero decided to move on from a lot of players, some of whom have been around for a while and were getting older/not performing and thus contributing to the poor outcomes, while others were on one year contracts and were either dealt away for assets or bought out/allowed to walk so that this year’s roster could get younger.

And younger it will get. Boyle and Stafford coming in are older than 30, but one is 32 and the other is 31. Otherwise, you have Johansson who is in the prime of his 20s, as is Jimmy Hayes at 27. And of course, the #1 overall pick netted you an 18 year old who will almost certainly start from day one. Is the forward corps getting young a good or bad thing? Well, it depends on what your expectations are. If you expect this group to be a top 10 or top 15 or maybe even top 20 group, you may be disappointed come April. But if your goal this season is to see these young players grow and develop, and hopefully see one or two really break out, then good things should be taking place. By the end of this year, hopefully we begin to see who will be a new core of Devils forwards that will bring this team back into contention soon.

Now, how do you generate line combinations? That will be the million dollar question come October 7th, and one that may change often throughout the campaign. However, last season I made a prediction for the opening night lines, and I want to try again, because why not? I wrote an article on Saturday about how I don’t want to see either Pavel Zacha or Nico Hischier play on the third line to start the season; however, with Jimmy Hayes officially on the team, and him being a right winger who will undoubtedly be playing that position on the bottom 6, I am having difficulty making that happen. If both Zacha and Hischier play on the top 6, it may look something like this:

Taylor Hall – Pavel ZachaKyle Palmieri

Adam Henrique – Nico Hischier – Marcus Johansson

Miles Wood – Joseph Blandisi – Drew Stafford

Stefan NoesenJohn Quenneville – Jimmy Hayes

This could be nowhere close by the way, and in fact I would say count on it not being close. Henrique could easily end up as a center, and especially as a center on the top 6. From what I am aware, although Johansson can play all three positions, right wing would be his least natural position, so that might change. Also, I think Jesper Bratt could easily receive a nine game tryout, which would place him where I have Noesen currently (and Noesen himself is a right winger who I just moved over thanks to Hayes being signed). I also have Quenneville there because, like with Bratt, I think he gets a chance to play in Newark before possibly being sent back to Binghamton. I think the least likely person to be there is Blandisi, who has not played many minutes this preseason despite playing fairly well. Left wing would be where he would normally be, but I needed a center amongst those 6 guys on the bottom 6, so I put him there.

If one of Zacha or Hischier ends up centering the third line, and Henrique centers one of the top lines, it could look like this instead:

Taylor Hall – Nico Hischier – Kyle Palmieri

Marcus Johansson – Adam Henrique – Drew Stafford

Jesper Bratt – Pavel Zacha – Stefan Noesen

Miles Wood – John Quenneville – Jimmy Hayes

Of course, if somehow Brian Boyle manages to play come October 7th, he takes the fourth line center role. That would change all of this and would actually make my first prediction look a lot better if you put Quenneville as the third line center, Boyle as the fourth line center, and remove Blandisi. However, for now, I am assuming that Boyle is not dressed for game one. Given that, you have my guesses for the lineup on October 7. Feel free to mock me in the comments while also coming up with your own guesses!

Expectations for This Season

As I began to discuss earlier, the expectations for the forward corps this season cannot be overly high. If they are for you, you are either extremely optimistic, are riding too high on what happened this preseason, or just genuinely think the Devils will overachieve. However, for those realists out there, your expectations should rightly be tempered. This will not end up as one of the better groups in the league in terms of goals produced. For me, however, that is ok. The main goal, and the main expectation for all Devils fans, should be to see improvement and growth. There is almost nowhere to go but up from where the production was last season. How much better does it get? Will they end up with 190 Goals For and a 49% Corsi? That would be a pretty nice boost from last season. It wouldn’t make them a dynamic offense all of a sudden, but that is definitive improvement.

And of course, we need to see improvement and growth from individuals. How will Nico perform in his first year of professional hockey? We know not to expect Auston Matthews numbers, but will he be able to attain 40 points? How about the growth of Zacha, equally as important? He needs to become as big a part of the Devils core moving forward as Nico will hopefully be. Can he achieve 40+ points and a decent Corsi? These are decent expectations to look out for. If they are achieved at the individual level, it can mean a lot of positive things for the future of the Devils forwards, even if it does not necessarily translate to on ice production for the 2017-18 season.

For me, the expectation is to see some of the young players show promise. I already mentioned Zacha and Hischier, and they are the most important, but what about John Quenneville and Michael McLeod, also former first round picks? Can one of them showcase enough promise to deserve a regular spot with the big club? What about the likes of Joseph Blandisi and Miles Wood and others who may receive some bottom 6 roles? Can any of them prove that they are worthy of a regular NHL spot, or will the bottom 6 continue to be a revolving door of random players looking to make a name for themselves? If a couple of players can prove they are growing and can become regulars, it would be huge in solidifying a competent four-line attack for New Jersey. Those are the expectations to look for, to hope for.

I guess what I am saying is that the expectations for the forwards should not be specifically tied to tangible success this season on the scoreboard. It should be more focused on seeing development and the creation of chemistry and a potential strong core of young forwards that will lead this team out of a rebuild and into contention. And as compared to any other time since the team last made the postseason, there are more potential stars in the making on this New Jersey Devils roster of forwards than ever before. That, at least in my opinion, is a great thing, and is what makes this season more exciting to watch.

So, should you expect a breakout season where the Devils forward group ends up in the top half of the league in scoring? I would say no, as that would be wishful thinking in my opinion. However, should you expect to see improvement over last season, the growth of some young players, and the creation of chemistry between potential core players on this offense that will be around for a long time? That is my expectation and my hope.

Conclusion

That ends my preview of the forwards of the New Jersey Devils for the upcoming 2017-18 season. The Devils were a really bad offense last year and have nowhere to go but up after bringing in Johansson and drafting Hischier. With another year of Hall and with the hopeful improvement of Zacha, we could really begin to see the future developing into form.

What are your thoughts about the forwards this season? What are you most excited to see? Do you think this group can be better this season than I mention, or do you think this is the year to see growth and not necessarily expect amazing results? Tell me where you think I am right, and let me know where you think I am off. And definitely let us know what you think the lines will look like come the regular season. Please come back tomorrow to read part 2 of AATJ’s season preview of your New Jersey Devils, and thank you so much for reading this preview today!