The 2016-17 is essentially another lost season for the New Jersey Devils. While several fans predicted - like ourselves - that the Devils wouldn’t make the playoffs, the team’s performances were worse than expected. The re-build is very much still in progress. The ten game losing streak the team is currently mired in has especially shown that the team needs a lot of help. This losing streak has also brought to mind a common rationalization for bad teams: a bad record will yield higher draft picks. There is a definite interest in the future, especially since the present really stinks now and there are several young players on the roster. This is important as big part of how the Devils will eventually get to where they want to be will come from which prospects they select.
Prospects are more or less a long-term answer to the team’s current roster problems. Off the top of my head, the team has demonstrated plenty of issues related to puck movement. While the Devils may be younger and somewhat faster, they’re not particularly skilled in either of the three zones. As much as I’d like to say this will be fixed in 2017-18, it’s not going to be through this aspect of roster-building. Very few players are able to handle the NHL game at ages 18 through 21, much less make enough of an impact to bolster a roster. Still, the draft picks and signings of a few years ago can provide the basis of what a team does on the ice. Finding an actual NHL player from a young player is cheaper than signing a free agent and it can alter what the team needs to do in the short-term to compete.
What I’m not going to do in this post is detail who specifically the Devils should draft or try to get right now. It’s too early to do that. The general sentiment is that the 2017 NHL Draft isn’t a strong one. It doesn’t have a generational talent like the last two seasons. It doesn’t have prospective players that have been projected to be great for several months. While true, there are good players in every draft year and what any re-building team needs to get to stop re-building are good players. Furthermore, I think it’s too early to determine who the best prospective players are now. The Canadian Hockey League leagues haven’t started their playoffs yet. Neither has the USHL playoffs. College conference tournaments may be imminent, but they’re not played yet either. Most of all, there’s one big international tournament in April for any draft year: the World Under-18 Championships. There’s still plenty of hockey left to make a difference for too many players. Oh, and it’s not guaranteed where the Devils will be picking yet either. So I wouldn’t get wrapped up on whether you do or do not want Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier in Newark in September 2017.
What I am going to do is offer my thoughts on the kinds of prospects the Devils should focus on and other issues related to that.
The Devils should avoid thinking about filling short-term positional needs with prospects. It’s difficult enough for a young man to jump into the NHL, much less be expected to address a glaring need on the team. The Devils’ defense may be leaky now and the current system of prospects may be thin on defense. But that doesn’t mean the Devils need to pick defensemen with their first three picks or anything like that. A defenseman may be the best selection when it comes time to draft players. But since it’ll likely take a few years for those players to break into the NHL, that position may not be a weakness when they show up. Let me put it in another way: Toronto had plenty of exciting forward prospects ahead of the 2016 draft. They still picked the most talented player: a forward named Auston Matthews. The team managed to fit him in and he’s been a cornerstone in their run back to the postseason. I just don’t think teams should put a short-term need when it comes to getting players for the future.
It’s easy to say the Devils need more skill. I know, I wrote it earlier. But the Devils need to really focus on prospects who are at adept at passing the puck. One of the biggest reasons why the Devils have struggled in these playoff-less seasons is because they struggle at passing the puck. Whether it’s a defenseman starting a breakout, forwards trying to make pass in transition into the opposition’s zone, or skaters putting passes on players’ sticks. I’d like John Hynes and his staff to change some of the tactics to account for these issues, such as the team’s tendency to make multiple passes in their own end prior to a zone exit attempt. But all tactics will require some level of puck movement. So it’s imperative that the Devils make how well a player makes and receives passes a priority. Related to that, how well a player can make himself available for passes would be a massive plus. If only because plenty of the current Devils seem to not make themselves options for their puck-carrying teammates. If the Devils want to improve in their puck movement, which will lead to improvements in puck possession, then they’ll need players who have those kinds of skills.
The other important skill the team should prioritize in my opinion is skating. To an extent, the Devils have shown a shift towards that. The team’s first round selection in 2016, Michael McLeod, was touted for being excellent at skating. The Devils swung a big deal for Taylor Hall, who is a fantastic skater and it’s apparent in every game. Younger players like Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, and even Blake Coleman have shown some real hustle on the ice. While he’s not a speedster, Steve Santini moves quite well for what he does. In a way, skating is the most important skill for any forward or defenseman. You can’t do much if you have issues in trying to get where you need to go. The Devils should continue this trend with their prospects to push towards being a faster and more agile team. This also means that the Devils should try to avoid players who have shown some issues with it or had injuries that could hamper it. If the passing does get better, then the Devils will become a real nightmare for opponents in the future; a player is generally faster with the puck than without it.
While I don’t think the Devils should focus on meeting current positional needs, if the Devils do go for a defenseman, then they should really look to the offensive-minded players. They have not had too many of these players in their system recently after Damon Severson ascended to the NHL roster. They’ve had five defensemen in the last three seasons put up over 100 shots on net and no one has repeated the feat. No defenseman has topped thirty total points and fifteen power play points in the last three seasons, though Severson can still do both in this season. Sure, their near-term issues on defense are with positioning and communication. But the Devils just don’t have enough offensive weapons from the back no matter how much John Moore joins the attack. They can address this in part in this year’s draft and in any other additional signings they make. Should the Devils add defenders to their prospect pool, they really could use a few with superlative offensive skills. Even if the defensive skills aren’t quite there, perhaps they’ll be offset to a degree. Better that than the Devils having multiple defensemen who aren’t good at either - like now.
In fact, the Devils should continue what they did in last year’s class, and add players with offensive skill sets with later picks and/or in free agency. Joseph Anderson, Brandon Gignac, and Jesper Bratt fit this idea well. Both were and are players who have demonstrated good levels of production for their age and in their leagues. It’s not at all a guarantee that scoring a bunch in juniors, college, or European leagues will mean someone will be a scorer at the NHL level. But someone who’s producing is at least someone who is succeeding at their level of competition. And I don’t think there are many NHL scoring forwards or defensemen that weren’t at all productive in their own leagues. I’d like to see the Devils make more of those decisions. Additionally, I think the Devils should shy away from the “hard working, two-way” players that weren’t productive where they were. I don’t think the Devils or other teams will go back to having checking lines anytime soon. The Devils of the last few years have had lines filled with these players and the results have been the same: not a lot of offense from them, not a lot of possession, not enough defensive or special teams contributions to justify their usage, and not a lot of positive on a night-to-night basis. This means fewer signings and picks like Kevin Rooney (36 points in 144 games with Providence), who demonstrated little offensive upside - a key thing many of the Devils prospects lack. I understand that a responsible fourth-liners can be good; having several players like that doesn’t help a roster that needs more finesse and on-the-puck skill. And the Devils need more of that.
The Devils should also continue to aim for some older players late in drafts and college free agents. While I’m not really sold on Nick Lappin as a NHL player, I was a fan of his signing. He was a scoring forward for some poor teams at Brown. At a minimum, he made an impact in Albany and at least earned the right to come up to play. It’s better to take chances on players like him if only for their higher potential ceilings. College free agents are about to hit the market soon as teams have their seasons come to an end. The Devils may not be in the mix for the best ones, but they can find players to take a flyer on. As the Devils are still re-building, they can afford to give these guys chances. As long as they can skate well and they’re good at moving the puck, then I’d say bring it on.
Lastly, while we’ll focus a lot on who the Devils should pick in June, what the Devils will do with who they pick may be more important. Development isn’t just selecting a player and letting him play. There’s more to it than that. Steve Kourianos explains why it’ll be so important with this year’s draft class in The Draft Analyst’s list of the top 500 prospects as of February:
The 2017 pool of draftees is not deep, meaning post-draft player development is far more critical than in previous years. It remains to be seen how a GM and his scouts attack this draft, as the best player available in the second or third round in 2017 is likely to have a lower ceiling than a fifth or sicth [sic] round pick from a stronger pool. Fans tend to hate it when their team drafts for need because you run the risk of missing out on a game breaking star (See Dylan McIlrath over Vladimir Tarasenko in 2010). This draft, however, has to be strategized with looming expansion drafts in mind — if your organization is full of hit-or-miss scoring forwards but has only one or two quality defense prospects, the drafting expansion team will likely target the quality rather than the quantity.
In other words, you might hate the immediate result, but your team will be better off long-term.
This is true. A prospect’s skill set alone won’t carry him to the future. How he handles himself on and off the ice, how he responds to different tactics and instructions, and what he works on is all part of the process to turn the prospect into the player. Working with the young players within the organization can go a long way in determining whether they’ll be New Jersey Devils, Binghamton Devils, or not at all. I trust Ray Shero has a plan for how he wants the Devils to play in the future; how the team will be re-built. Selecting players to fit that plan is a big part of it; but so is grooming them to be better fits.
In total, I think the Devils should emphasize passing and skating over other skills for the prospects they’ll take in this summer and any others they sign along the way. Should they take defensemen, they should make a point of it to get some offensive-minded players. Not so much the mythical Puck Moving Defenseman, but defensemen that can read offensive plays, pass the puck, and shoot the puck well. The team should also emphasize those prospects that have been productive at that level, whether they are draft picks or free agents. Most of all, the team will need to emphasize their post-selection development. A close eye on how the player grows can go a long way in determining whether they’ll be a useful one for the Devils or just a body in the lineup. This is true in any draft year, “weak” like 2017 or “strong” like 2016.
And if you’re looking for an example, then Michael McLeod - who is pictured in this post - is a good one. He’s an excellent skater. Looking back, he also received praise for how he moved the puck. While I was initially underwhelmed by his selection, it turns out that I want the Devils to get more players like McLeod. Sure, a McLeod with a supposedly higher ceiling would be great; but he’s got what I think the Devils will need for the future.
That’s how I see it. When we get to making prospect profiles in May and June and/or when discussions about 2017 prospects come up, keep those skills in mind. I’ll try to do the same. What do you think though? What sort of prospects should the Devils aim to get for now? Are passing and skating the most important skills the Devils should identify in future players? What else should they focus on? What other approaches to prospects should the Devils take given their current state? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on prospects in the comments. Thank you for reading.