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Beyond the Top Line

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A look at New Jersey’s (lack of) forward depth in 2016-17 and what might need to be done before 2017-18 to make the team more successful for next season and beyond.

Columbus Blue Jackets v New Jersey Devils
Taylor Hall feels our pain.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

I’ve spoken about this a bit previously, but I think it’s worth referencing again with our New Jersey Devils in the midst of a second large losing streak this season. There was optimism heading into this season for improved forward depth; the acquisition of Taylor Hall gave the team three legitimate scoring threats (along with Adam Henrique and Kyle Palmieri), and it pushed Michael Cammalleri down in the lineup, which was predicted to provide more scoring. Bringing in Beau Bennett, PA Parenteau (via a waiver claim), Vernon Fiddler combined with a full season of Pavel Zacha had Jersey looking much better than they did in 2015-16.

Fast forward to today and boy do things look different; as we all know, Parenteau and Fiddler were sent to Nashville in two separate trades after a good and disappointing season respectively. Bennett, like so many others this season, has disappointed with his point totals. Zacha has had a very up and down season, plagued by injuries and inconsistency; hopefully, he uses it as a learning experience for next season. Cammalleri, despite posting a somewhat respectable point total, seems as though he has started to regress in terms of his overall play. Henrique is another player that has posted somewhat respectable totals, but has been frustratingly invisible/a floater on the ice at times.

While 39 points isn’t spectacular, for Travis Zajac who plays against the opposing teams’ best players on a nightly basis, I consider that a pretty good total on a mostly offensively inept team. His current line mates, Hall and Palmieri, have produced 44 points each, in 58 and 66 games respectively; again, not spectacular totals, but on a team having an awful offensive year as a collective, I’m not going to complain about the two point posters who are attempting to lead this team to victory.

Where to Go in 2017-18

A lot of fans were worried about Zajac before this season, but as of the present day, he’s found some chemistry with Hall and Palms, and I don’t think there are too many fans who will complain about this line. The issue now becomes the fact that beyond this trio, the Devils are failing up and down the lineup. I’m aware we have a lot of rookies playing nightly due to the injuries, traded players, and disappointing seasons from a number of players, but we have players who should have been called up earlier than they were (such as Joseph Blandisi) and players (like John Quenneville) who were essentially snubbed in favor of players who really had no business being in New Jersey this season.

I know the team was not actively tanking this season (which they should not have been and I feel no team truly should), but when things started to go wrong, why were moves not made? Going along with this, why did we wait until 50+ games in to start holding certain players (Cam) accountable? Why have some players (like Ben Lovejoy) not been held accountable for their garbage play all season? We send Yohann Auvitu to the minors for defensive lapses, but Lovejoy can’t be scratched for even a game due to playing terribly in every zone? The bottom six has been flat out awful minus a stretch of Zacha, Jacob Josefson and either Beau Bennet or Stefan Noesen providing some spark; Blender has looked good since being recalled, and while it took him six games to get going, he’s at .5 PPG in his last 10. That’s quite a bit better than some players who have gotten more ice time than he has.

The offseason is always a time for change to be made across the NHL, and the Devils will need to be one of the busiest should they hope to remove themselves from the league’s bottom three teams. I’m not suggesting the team go nuts with free agents, but at this point we should be realizing if some players (be they in the NHL or prospects) are worth keeping around or not. We need to be sure that our draft pick is a hit, rather than some of the misses we had over the past decade, directly resulting in the situation the team is in now.

Ray Shero and John Hynes will also need to restructure some pieces of the team based upon the Expansion Draft and player signings/trades. The bottom six was again a weakness this season, that again feels as if it needs to be addressed once again due to how ineffective it was; while we could use one more consistent goal scorer, the lack of secondary scoring is hurting the team more. The defense is a whole separate issue, but will also need to be addressed this offseason. I previously wrote about how the Devils should go 4-4-1 for the Expansion Draft, but even then, I still think we need at least 2 new defensemen to join Andy Greene, Damon Severson, Jon Merrill and Steven Santini on a nightly basis.

If this team comes back with most of the same pieces next season, then I think we as a staff will be able to copy/paste most of our articles from this season and just change the player names; the Devils need to make some difficult decisions this offseason in terms of personnel who should not be coming back because the only aspect they add to the team is making the squad look like an AHL team on a nightly basis. Some players just don’t have the necessary skills to help this team be successful, and it will be best for both parties to move on. Again, we might be stuck with a couple of contracts for next season (such as Cammalleri’s), but there are some big improvements that need to be made between now and the start of 2017-18; by 2018-19 at the very latest, this team needs to be competitive again (not necessarily a championship team, just not a bottom feeder), or else ownership might need to start looking for a new GM and/or coach.

Your Take

Now I’d like to hear your thoughts on anything outside of the top line; is the offense or defense a bigger focus this offseason? What do you think New Jersey should do about the state of their forwards outside of Zajac/Hall/Palms? Is there anyone in particular that you have been impressed with? Anyone you think should go? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!