At the start of the season, there was a clear divide between the top 5 forwards of the New Jersey Devils and then everyone else. I wrote this in my season preview of the forward corps in the AATJ Season Preview. I mentioned that should the offense improve this season over last, besides hoping for sustained health, the growth would come from finding someone else to fill out the top 6. This could perhaps come from a breakout year from one of the younger kids on the roster. Then, the bottom 6 would need to chip in its fair share and let the top 5 do the rest.
Well here we are at the end of the season, and when you look at the scoring from the forwards, the large majority of it is basically from that top 5 I initially wrote about. The group of Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, and Michael Cammalleri produced the large majority of goals and points for the Devils. In fact, if you look at total points produced by the team this season, those 5 are the top 5 scoring leaders. Cammalleri is 5th on the team with 30 points, tied with Damon Severson, then the next highest producer is Zacha with 24. No one else stepped up to produce anything more than sporadic points. And considering that Cammalleri was clearly a bust this year, but was still the 5th highest in scoring points, that tells you all you need to know about the rest of the forward corps.
To further showcase this, we can specifically look at goals produced. The Devils only have 6 players who have at least 10 goals scored this season: the top 5 mentioned above, and John Moore. That is it. No team in the league has less than that. Arizona and Colorado also only have 6 players with at least 10 goals scored, while every other team has 7 or more. And for the Devils, the contrast is stark even within the top 5, with Palmieri Hall and Henrique with 20+ goals, and then Zajac with 14 and Cammalleri with 10. Scoring for the forwards was largely concentrated in a small group of players, and when they were not out on the ice, the odds of the Devils scoring a goal was rather slim and only happened in infrequent circumstances.
While there are many aspects of this team that the coaching staff and management need to address in the offseason to help right the ship and get this rebuild back on track, one major area is going to have to be scoring from legitimate forwards outside of the main group. Next year, you can most likely still count on Hall, Palmieri, Zajac and Henrique to keep up the pace. If Cammalleri is back, we can hope for him to bounce back and have a better year, certainly a possibility. After that, however, the Devils need to find some skaters that can do something. Hopefully we will see improvement from the youngsters, with Zacha and Wood and whoever else taking strides forward and producing more. Beyond that, however, the organization will need to find some people to help augment point production, whether it be through the draft, free agency, or through trading. If that does not happen, then do not expect that the Devils will start to contend next year. They will be just as bad as this year if they cannot find others to supplement the top scorers on this team.
Of course, with the fact that this is a rebuild, no one should expect that New Jersey will all of a sudden go from an atrocious offensive team to an excellent one. That simply does not happen. The key is growth in a positive direction. Maybe next season, two more forwards beyond the top 5 breach 10 goals scored for the season, and the year after that, another two get there as well while someone else breaks 20 goals. The Devils will not all of a sudden turn into Minnesota, where 13 skaters have at least 10 goals, 11 of them being forwards. NJ can simply not get that much depth that quickly. But in 3 years? That is not out of the realm of possibility. And if the Devils want to get out of the basement of the Metropolitan and start to compete and become relevant in the hockey universe once again, they will need to find that scoring depth with their forwards.
This year, Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, and Stefan Noesen all have 8 goals, the highest number after Cammalleri’s 10. Zacha has played the closest to a full season, with 68 games played. Hopefully next season, if all three players improve and remain with the big club for the entire season, they can all breach 10 goals, and perhaps one of them (Zacha?) can become a regular producer on the top 6 to join the ranks with the others. That would certainly be a step in the right direction, but it will still need to be addressed further. Who the organization brings in, and who they are able to develop on the farm will go a long way to solving this scoring crisis and helping this team to compete.