It has been no secret that the New Jersey Devils have been re-building as an organization. Since Ray Shero has become general manager of the team, the franchise has undergone changes throughout management, coaches, scouting, support personnel, and the players. Some of these were welcomed, others less so, but it has all be for the hopes of building a better team for tomorrow. Now that Shero is entering his third regular season in charge and the team has missed the playoffs for five straight seasons, it is a fair question to ask: when should the Devils be battling for the playoffs?
Coincidentally, two New Jersey Devils players recently addressed this the topic. In this article at NHL.com by Dave McCarthy on this past Friday, Adam Henrique said the following when asked whether the playoffs are the goal:
"Absolutely, the playoffs are always the goal. It starts from our backend out, having Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid back there, they both play well and give us a chance every single night," Henrique said at the NHLPA Golf Tournament at Glen Abbey Golf Club on Wednesday. "Along with the additions we've brought in so far this summer, hopefully there will be a few young kids who can come in and make a difference this year. Playoffs is the goal and we've seen you just have to get in to give yourself a chance."
This is a fairly non-committal answer. Sure, playoffs are surely a goal but Henrique does not say whether they’ll do it this season, next season, or some other season. Fortunately, a few days earlier after a set of 3-on-3 scrimmages at last week’s development camp, Pavel Zacha said the following to the fans, as quoted by Andrew Gross:
Pavel Zacha to crowd: "We have to make the playoffs next year."— Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) July 12, 2017
I like the confidence from the young forward. I also think this is a telling answer. Given that he was speaking to fans at the camp and presumably knowing there was press present, Zacha provided a clear mission statement. That the Devils have to make playoffs next year. Not necessarily this year. I think Zacha is right.
For the moment, it is not clear what the 2017-18 Devils will be. There is a real excitement over the possibility of young prospects from the past three years joining the New Jersey squad in some way or form. Pavel Zacha was there last season. Michael McLeod, Blake Speers (who started in New Jersey last season), and Nico Hischier could all join him. The same can be said for other younger players like John Quenneville. Should their additions yield good offensive play right away, the Devils’ forwards become more formidable on paper. Contributions from young players combined with Taylor Hall, Marcus Johansson, Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, and Brian Boyle will hopefully make the team more competitive line-by-line. However, that is a lot to ask for one player who may not even 21; much less to ask it for multiple players.
Further, there is that whole issue of the back end. Sure, Cory Schneider will likely bounce back from a less-than-stellar 2016-17. Even that season saw him post a 92% even strength save percentage, which is around league median per NHL.com. It was not a 2013-14 Brodeurian disaster. However, the defense itself remains a concern. In terms of allowing shots, the team allowed 30.34 shots per sixty minutes and 53.69 shooting attempts per sixty minutes in 5-on-5 play per Natural Stat Trick. Both of those ranked within the bottom ten of the league. The blueline plus the “help” of the forwards was definitely not in line of past Devils teams known for their stinginess. Further, most of the defensemen were not that effective at passing the puck. Per Ryan Stimson’s passing project 5-on-5 passing tableau, which includes past seasons:
There’s Damon Severson and Andy Greene in terms of who has been notably good when it comes to creating shots in the run of play. (Aside: That shade by Severson is David Schlemko, which only makes me wish he was here). While the hope is that Severson, Steve Santini, and Mirco Mueller grow into the position, there is not a lot of reason to think the defense can at least help generate a lot of offense to offset how much they allow. And shots? Forget about it. As it stands, the defense remains as the team’s biggest weakness on the ice whether it is in shot prevention or supporting the offense through passes and shots.
So that’s the situation as I see it: hope in the goalies and the forwards for improvements and the defense remaining a drag on the squad. Combined with a Metropolitan Division that remains challenging on paper and it is easy to understand why Henrique or Zacha did not say anything about making the playoffs this season.
But next season? Well, there are further opportunities to be had.
First, those younger players will have had a season somewhere under their belt to better understand what they can do. If Hischier shows to be a NHL player right away, then he could do more in 2018-19. If players like Quenneville, Speers, Miles Wood, Michael McLeod, and others needed more seasoning, then they may be ready in 2018-19. Perhaps the Devils will have a nice surprise emerge from their system. The point is the Devils will know more about what they have from their younger players and what they can do. The hope is that it’ll be more than what they can do now.
Second, 2018-19 will be the final year in the contracts of Henrique and Johansson as well as the penultimate year in the contracts for Hall. If Shero plans on keeping any of those players - especially Hall - then pushing for the postseason would do plenty to convince them to want to stick around. Hall has never been to the playoffs, Johansson has not missed the playoffs, and Henrique has been there once. Getting to the postseason in 2018-19 would be evidence that they are a team on the rise, they’ve been a part of that rise, and the case can be to stay in New Jersey to keep it going (of course, with a significant contract). Another two seasons of misery and one could not blame them for wanting out.
Third, the free agency market for defensemen may be better in 2018 than this year’s group. According to Cap Friendly, the Devils will not have a lot of notable players hitting unrestricted free agency in July 2018. Only John Moore, Dalton Prout, and Ryane Clowe will be hitting the market among players on the NHL side of the books. The three non-New Jersey pending UFAs are the three signings earlier this month made for Binghamton. While a lot can change between now and next year, the Devils should have a lot of cap space available to go get the players they need. The Devils went for and did not get Kevin Shattenkirk this year. There could be more than just one player to shoot for in 2018. Per CapFriendly, Mike Green, John Carlson, Luca Sbisa, Erik Gudbranson, Toby Enstrom, Dan Hamhuis, and others could be available barring any extensions they may get (I would think Washington will extend Carlson, but who knows). They may not be your one-player-fixes-all players or defenders worth very long deals, but they can provide short-term help. The Devils can take advantage then to get them into a position for a season where they can realistically push for the playoffs.
Note: This says nothing about a forward class that could potentially include Bryan Little, Paul Stastny, Evander Kane, Rick Nash, Kyle Turris, Mikael Backlund, and more. And some guy named John Tavares, if he’s not extended by the Isles. So if the Devils feel that they need a forward too, then they can absolutely go get one in 2018.
Fourth, there could be serious changes in coaching in 2018-19 that could yield gains. With the team becoming worse in possession, shot prevention, and more under John Hynes and his staff, the initial thought it was due to the players. That was not wrong. However, last season started to make me wonder whether Hynes is the guy going forward. With Miles Wood, he kept his lines to a dump-and-chase style that did Wood and his own team a disservice. Despite getting drowned in the run of play, Hynes kept Greene together with Ben Lovejoy for many defensive zone starts and tough match-ups where the Devils were often pinned back. Hynes did punish Damon Severson for mistakes that other defenders made, who were left unpunished. I am mystified by those who question Severson’s defensive play while ignoring John Moore, where upon his presence on the ice tends to lead the Devils to become shot-sieves. I am not saying this can be corrected or that Hynes needs to be fired. But if there are not any signs of improvement, then Shero can justifiably move on from Hynes in 2018 and get someone who can elevate a roster to that next level.
Fifth, we could see some real sea changes in the Metropolitan Division. The window for Washington may close down a little in 2016-17 and could do so further in 2017-18. Ditto for a Rangers squad that also has yet to “get over the hump.” It remains to be seen how the Islanders and Flyers approach the future. With the division looking ferocious on paper in this season, the following season may make it more possible for the Devils to make their way up the standings.
Lastly, yes, a not-so-good 2017-18 season will likely yield another high-end prospect and other solid draft picks to bolster the team’s pipeline of prospects. I do not think it is as simple or necessary as to fall for Rasmus Dahlin. Especially since it is July 2017, prospect rankings will change a lot between now and next June, and the top three picks are decided by a lottery anyway. But the point remains: the Devils could unearth a NHL player in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft that could step in and contribute in 2018-19 while also being a part of the team’s future. It could be someone to help put the Devils over the top.
I will admit to being biased towards Zacha’s statement. I do personally want the Devils to make a point of it to get to the postseason in 2018-19. The re-building has to actually build to something and, by then, it would be the fourth season under Shero’s reign. I can understand and even appreciate the gutting of the roster over the past two seasons. But eventually there has to be results from all of these moves. Planning 2016-17 as a non-playoff year would make it six straight seasons without the playoffs. They were made with the understanding that this will make the Devils a more competitive squad in the future. The team can promote patience as much as they’d like, but at some point, there needs to be something coming out of all of this. To that end, I was happy to see Zacha - one of the young players the Devils are hoping will be good enough to build around - state that they have to do it next year. It’s evidence that could be the larger plan. If the Devils could address their defensive needs, utilize more effective tactics, and get real growth out of their younger players, then it is possible. I think it is reasonable to think a push for the postseason can happen in 2018-19. I think the Devils should do so.
And if not - then we should really question what Shero and ownership has in mind.