We are one day away from New Jersey Devils hockey ladies and gentlemen; can you believe it? It’s here at last! While the preseason was nice because it’s hockey in some form, it winds up being worth no more than a way to try different player combinations out. The regular season is where games start to count and jostling for a chance to compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup begins.
So far this week, we’ve looked at the different components that comprise the team, but now it’s time to look at all of those pieces as a whole. What better way to do that than with some season predictions from your AAtJ staff! Here now, in alphabetical order by first name, are your AAtJ staff
Last year, I felt that things were moving in the right direction for the Devils and that they would finish better than the year before. Boy was I wrong. The rebuild stagnated, things went sideways, and the team went on an epic futility streak in order to net a top pick, which in turn got them Nico Hischier. I feel like a little bit of a tool just predicting the same thing as I did last year, because it was indeed so wrong, but I am basically going to. Do I expect this team to contend for the playoffs this season? No, I do not. However, do I expect to see improvement? Absolutely. I expect to see the young guys improve, and I hope to see a breakout year from at least one or two players who can make the jump from “hopeful star” into “legitimate star”. Whether that be Hischier, Pavel Zacha or someone else, that would be huge. I also expect to see some improvement with the offense, now that the top 6 is more solidified, and especially with the addition of Marcus Johansson. Losing Travis Zajac for a while hurts, but his return later in the year will only help when that happens. Will the offense finish in the better half of the league? Absolutely not. But they should begin to create positive momentum up the rankings.
Given how good the Metropolitan has been, and how good it should be this year, I do not see much improvement in terms of standings. The Devils might break a point per game, and may hover around 82-84 points at season’s end if things go very well. However, that will still only be good enough for 7th in the Metropolitan Division. Do not expect a great year in terms of being competitive right now; however, if you’re looking to see growth and the development of a new Devils’ core, then this year could be exciting on that front.
X-Factor: The Development of Both Hischier and Zacha
The team invested heavily into these two. Zacha especially, in his third year now, needs to show that he is a legitimate top 6 forward with considerable upside. Hischier has time still, but first overall picks have performed well in recent history. While a McDavid or Matthews-like season is ridiculous to expect, a 40-point season would go a long way in showing us that he will be the next star of this team.
I remain optimistic in the rebuild that Ray Shero is conducting in New Jersey. With that said, I think the Devils are going to be in for another tough season and miss the playoffs once again. While most projection systems have the Devils finishing last in the division, I'm going to go with 7th.
Losing Travis Zajac for an extended amount of time is a big loss at both ends of the rink. Having to rely on veterans like Drew Stafford and Jimmy Hayes to provide secondary scoring doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. While it's exciting to see young players like Pavel Zacha and Nico Hischier in big roles, it's probable that both may experience some growing pains and patience will be required by the fans. I also worry a lot about the Devils defense. Andy Greene is still awesome but entering the decline phase of his career. Ben Lovejoy is often a liability on the ice that gets playing time based more on his veteran status than actual contributions. John Moore is anything but comfortable when it comes to defending. Mirco Mueller has struggled to make the jump from the AHL for a few seasons now. Dalton Prout can fight but that's about it. While I look forward to watching Will Butcher and Steve Santini, they are both prone to some growing pains, as is the case for any young defender.
However, it's not all doom and gloom. This team is going to be more enjoyable to watch in my opinion. First, I expect Cory Schneider to get back to being one of the best goaltenders in the league. Secondly, Nico Hischier will provide both the skill and results to bring Devils fans to their feet. I also expect Taylor Hall to improve upon his debut season in New Jersey and be a game breaker for the Devils. I'm optimistic that Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique can improve upon their contributions from last year. The continued evolution of Pavel Zacha will be interesting to watch. I'm also intrigued to see what Marcus Johansson brings to the ice. Plus, we could see young players like Jesper Bratt, John Quenneville, Blake Speers, etc. potentially take the next step this season. Will Butcher could provide a much needed boost to the rebuilding of the Devils blue line as well along with Steve Santini and Mirco Mueller. Plus, Damon Severson is a big bright spot on the back end. It may be another year without playoffs, but I feel the Devils are trending in the right direction under Shero.
I've got the Devils as the best last place team in the 4-division history (since 2013-14). I think we will get excitement from the young players, I think Schneider will be better than last year, but probably not quite as good as the two before. I think the defenders will be better than we think, but still among the worst in the league. All of that combined with the best division in the history of ever and I think the Devils finish with 78-82 points and last in the Metro.
After finishing 27th or below in goals scored each of the last 5 seasons (28th, 27th, 28th, 30th, 28th), the Devils will be league-average or over in offense this season. We have almost everything we had last year of note (MCWH is the only important scoring force we are missing), plus Marcus Johansson, 1st overall pick Nico Hischier, and a more developed Pavel Zacha, and Will Butcher on the PP. It seems impossible that we won't see a significant improvement offensively. If we don't, I'm calling out Hynes because Shero has done nothing but add offense since he's been here and the clocks run out on seeing improvement in that element of the game.
X-factor: Cory Schneider
I know it's boring, but it does have the benefit of being the only correct answer. I think that a lot of people will probably say Zacha or Butcher because of the huge interval of achievement possible for them. They each have a high ceiling and a low floor and we don't have a great idea of where either will fall. But this team is going to live or die with goaltending. The Devils gave up 244 goals last year (5th worst in NHL). If Cory posted the 0.925 Sv% he had the last two seasons, that number would have gone down to 214, or 11th best in the NHL. By the conservative estimates of 6 goals per win, that is a difference of 5 games or 10 standings points and could be as high as 13. That is the same as the difference between the Nashville Predators, and the Florida Panthers. Before you mention how much Nico could be worth, let me remind you that Connor McDavid led the league and was only worth 24 goals. It's impossible to overstate how much Cory determines the year's outcome.
Oh what a difference a year can make! The Devils have embraced their youth movement full force this year, and even if the team is not competitive, I feel they’re going to be exciting to watch this season. Nico Hischier and Pavel Zacha, the team’s first round choices in 2017 and 2015 respectively, both exceeded expectations in the preseason and should be starting in Top 6 roles for New Jersey. Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher were not considered locks to make the team out of camp, and yet here we are one day away from opening night (afternoon?) with both on the roster and a possibility of playing against Colorado tomorrow.
Additionally, the Devils added another solid piece up front by acquiring Marcus Johansson for a pair of draft picks that were acquired for cap space and hiring compensation. Travis Zajac and possibly Brian Boyle being out for some time hurts the team, but if Kyle Palmieri and Taylor Hall continue to show their chemistry from last season, and the young centers help pick up the slack, it could mitigate the damage until they return.
The defense is still a giant question mark, and in my opinion will continue to be until the staff wise up and scratch Ben Lovejoy in favor of the young trio of Butcher, Steven Santini and Mirco Mueller, who all greatly outplayed the Rev in preseason action.
Without even using my bold prediction, I’m going to proclaim the Devils return to the promised land, sneaking into the postseason as the second wild card. I feel like I made the same decree last season; let’s see if I’m right this year.
Adam Henrique is traded at the deadline for defensive help, due to the emergence of Zacha, Hischier and Bratt as legitimate NHL players.
X-Factor: Travis Zajac’s Return
While above I did predict that New Jersey will sneak into the playoffs, I think it hinges upon when Travis returns from his injury. If he’s ready to go sometime in December or at the start of January, then the Devils will have the depth (and elite defense) that they need to compete in a stacked division. If not, then my above prediction does not come true and the Devils (barely) miss the playoffs.
Last season was bad. Not mediocre. Not below average. Not unlucky. Bad. Bad with a capital B. It was so bad that it is hard to think the Devils can be any worse. It is also hard because there are signs of progress both on paper and after preseason. As for the paper, while the team did not make too many wholesale changes, some players that were not fully contributing departed such as Michael Cammalleri and Devante Smith-Pelly. The team added a bottom-six center in Brian Boyle who is tailor-made for either the third or fourth line plus penalty killing duties - something the team needed after shipping off Vernon Fiddler. Ray Shero acquired Marcus Johansson, who should be a fine fit for either forward position on offense. While the team did not make many changes on defense, signing Will Butcher was a plus and the preseason performances of Steve Santini, Mirco Mueller, and even Dalton Prout lend one to think that there could be some progress on the back end. There is also the youth, who stand to play a bigger part in 2017-18. First overall draft pick Nico Hischier has been as good as advertised, Pavel Zacha looked like a greately improved player in exhibition. While it may be only for a few games, the team may have found a proverbial diamond in the rough in Jesper Bratt. The larger point is that it is reasonable to think. Especially when Cory Schneider returns to form as a top goaltender after a down season last season.
The problem for the Devils is that I do not think this is enough to progress in a really, really tough division. The starting goaltenders in the Metropolitan is a remarkably talented group. While it could be argued they are worse, Pittsburgh and Washington remain as the teams to beat. The two New York teams will try to contend along with a feisty Carolina team that may finally have their goaltending issues sorted out, a Columbus team that probably did not get worse, and a Philadelphia squad that remains a tough out. Unless something unforseen like injuries or a really low PDO run wrecks one of these seven teams, I find hard to believe the Devils will move up in this season. Even if they do, making the playoffs out of the Eastern Conference is tough. The potential bubble could also include Tampa Bay, Ottawa, Toronto, and Boston from the other division. It would take a perfect storm of luck, performance, strategy, and talent for the Devils to be playing playoff hockey in mid-April.
I've grown to like Kevin Weekes' idea of the next step for the team: playing meaningful games in mid-March. Even if they end up shy of the postseason, it would at least prove that the 2017-18 Devils are more competitive and on their way to being a better team. It would be important as the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons are crucial for the futures of several "veteran" players like Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Marcus Johansson, Andy Greene, Cory Schneider, and more. I like to think the Devils will be more offensive, their defense may be a bit better, and their special teams will not be such a struggle (being without Travis Zajac for months will hurt). But given the division and the fact that a lot has to go right for the team to move up, I think the Devils will still finish eighth in the Metropolitan Division. I think they'll be the best out of the last-place teams in each division. They may even finish outside of the bottom five. But I think they'll be in the Metropolitan basement. As usual, I could be wrong.
It's going to be a bit of a weird season in New Jersey. There are good reasons to be excited about the Devils and there is definitely some hope that we're closing in on the end of this rebuild. That said, the results seem likely to only be incrementally better than last season. The Metro might be the toughest division in hockey and while the Devils will almost certainly have more talent than last season, it would be a bit of a shock if they competed for a playoff spot. A last place finish in the division is probably what they are headed for, unless a team like the Isles or Flyers implodes. I think they'll finish in the low 80s in points and maybe land in the 8-10 range in next year's draft.
After only having two last year, the Devils have five different players with over 50 points (Hall, Hischier, Johansson, Palmieri, and Zacha).
X-Factor: The Young Centers
If Zacha and Hischier break out and make the top two lines legitimate scoring threats, that will go a long way towards making the team competitive.
Well, we’re about to start the third season of the Ray Shero era… and from my point of view, it’s the last one where I have zero expectations or fan demands that we’ll talking about the playoffs in a few months. If all the stars align, we could be a playoff bubble team, and Shero will have some tough decisions ahead of him. But I’m gearing up to embrace one more developmental season for a team I still hardly recognize when I think of the New Jersey Devils. I know this sounds pessimistic, but I don’t intend it to be. We are still witnessing the construction of a new team foundation for a longer term of success, and I do think that’s in the not too distant future.
I think they’ll pull together a few big team wins. I think they’ll face a lot of backup goalies. I really just hope they put the puck in the net more often. I do expect them to bring it for games against our hated rivals from New York, and the even less relevant rivals in Philly. Hopefully they can play the spoiler for these teams moving forward.
Schneider will bounce back from last season. While I don’t quite think he’s going to be a league leader, I see the defense putting up a few more points this year to make up for the extras they let in last year.
I’m optimistic and excited about Nico Hischier. I was very excited the Devils picked him over Nolan Patrick. I know it will take him some time to adjust to the NHL level, and I expect an ebb and flow to his production this season. I need to see him placed in opportunities to grow and succeed, or I’ll be disappointed.
Like Alex noted last week, I’ll also be disappointed if Nico Hischier and Pavel Zacha aren’t seeing first or second line minutes, especially while Travis Zajac is injured. I’d imagine Gibbons, Coleman, Blandisi, and Quenneville will all be rotating in and out of the NHL lineup based on performance.
Outside of NJ, I think we’ll see the strongest teams in the Metropolitan division start to crack. It won’t be giving the Devils a better opportunity today, but it might align nicely with their slow rise back to being playoff contenders.
First of all, I’d like to thank Alex, Brian, CJ, John, Mike and Steve for their predictions; it’s always more fun to read multiple writers’ takes instead of just one.
Now we’d like to hear from you, the fans, as to where you think the Devils finish this year; are they destined to be bottom dwellers in a jammed division? Who is your personal X-Factor? Any bold predictions you have for this season? Leave any comments you have down below and thank you as always for reading.