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Are We There Yet?: Determining Where the Devils Have Improved Over 2016-17

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With the Devils’ roster looking close to set at this point, we can now project how this squad might look versus last year’s last-place finishers in the East. There is some definite potential for improvement in some areas, but major problems (cough... defense) still persist.

2017 NHL Draft - Round One
Hopefully this guy can inch the Devils a bit closer to the promised land in 2017-18.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Heading toward the 2017-18 season in New Jersey, one of the biggest questions that will be on the mind of the fans is “How will this team improve from last season?” Given how poorly the team finished up in 2016-17, the hope will be that this iteration of the Devils is set to outperform the last one by a significant margin. To take stock of where things are versus last season, we’ll take a look at what last season’s opening night lineup was and juxtapose it against a projected roster for the start of this season. The roster is obviously fluid over the course of a season, but for simplicity’s sake, the opening night roster provides a useful comparison for how the team has changed. For the projected roster, we can use the lineup that Gerard put together last week (with perhaps a minor tweak or two).

2016-17 Opening Night

For the Devils opening night roster, I headed over to Shift Chart to get a rundown of the players and lines the Devils were trotting out in that game. The results:

Taylor Hall - Adam Henrique - Devante Smith-Pelly

Michael Cammalleri - Travis Zajac - Kyle Palmieri

Jacob Josefson - Pavel Zacha - P.A. Parenteau

Miles Wood - Vernon Fiddler - Blake Speers

Andy Greene - Damon Severson

John Moore - Ben Lovejoy

Kyle Quincey - Yohann Auvitu

Cory Schneider

2017-18 Projected

I basically took Gerard’s prediction as the current opening day situation with a few minor tweaks. I swapped Miles Wood in for Joseph Blandisi as I think that scenario is more likely and I also slotted Lovejoy back in because I think there almost no chance he doesn’t see regular ice based on the way he’s been used. I’m skeptical Johansson is forced to play RW all year, but for now it’s a decent guess for where he’ll start.

Taylor Hall - Travis Zajac - Kyle Palmieri

Adam Henrique - Nico Hischier - Marcus Johansson

John Quenneville - Pavel Zacha - Michael McLeod

Miles Wood - Brian Boyle - Stefan Noesen

Andy Greene - Damon Severson

John Moore - Ben Lovejoy

Mirco Mueller - Steven Santini

Cory Schneider

Line-by-Line Analysis

Line 1

2016-17: Hall - Henrique - Smith-Pelly

2017-18: Hall - Zajac - Palmieri

I think we can start things off with a simple rule of thumb for NHL hockey teams: Not having Devante Smith-Pelly on your opening night top line is probably better than the alternative of having Devante Smith-Pelly on your opening night top line. Beyond that, the Hall-Zajac-Palmieri line was dominant after it was put together last season and it will be helpful for the Devils to roll into this season with an undisputed top line that they know can perform against tough competition. It’s pretty clear that this is a significant upgrade over the start of last season.

Line 2

2016-17: Cammalleri - Zajac - Palmieri

2017-18: Henrique - Hischier - Johansson

The difference on the second line is not quite as clear cut as the first. Last year’s opening night second line of Cammalleri, Zajac, and Palmeiri is a pretty decent one on paper, and while Cammalleri had a rough finish to last season, he’s still probably a pretty viable second line LW. The big X-factor is obviously Nico Hischier here. If Hischier is an immediately impactful NHL center, that second line looks every bit as good, if not better, than its predecessor. I’ve long been on team “Henrique should play on the wing” so if Hischier handles his responsibilities well and allows Henrique to thrive on the wing, this could be a significant step up for NJ. Johansson playing on his off wing still doesn’t feel like a permanent solution, but this looks like a pretty talented line. It’s proabably a push or an improvement, depending on Hischier’s NHL adjustment.

Line 3

2016-17: Josefson - Zacha - Parenteau

2017-18: Quenneville - Zacha - McLeod

The third line feels like the biggest wildcard for the forwards. If the Devils go with the proposed youth movement line above, the results will rely heavily on how those players are able to adjust. Zacha will be a year older and theoretically better suited to a role helming his own line. Quenneville may be an improvement over Josefson, at least on offense, but that isn’t necessarily a guarantee. It probably comes down to McLeod (which is obviously dependent on him actually being used in this role). Parenteau is a decent veteran forward so it’s tough to bank on a major improvement from a rookie replacement, but if McLeod can create major matchup issues with his speed, it seems possible this line could grow into something dynamic with the top two taking the tougher assignments. Tough to necessarily bank on that, though.

Line 4

2016-17: Wood - Fiddler - Speers

2017-18: Wood - Boyle - Noesen

The fourth line feels like a decent improvement, mainly due to the arrival of Brian Boyle. Fiddler was an effective player once upon a time, but he was a non-factor last season. Boyle is a bit of a luxury in the fourth line role in comparison. As long as the Devils keep Boyle quarantined to this role and don’t try to move him up the lineup, this feels like a definite win. Starting with Noesen instead of a not-yet-ready Speers also helps out.

Pairings 1 & 2

2016-17: Greene - Severson; Moore - Lovejoy

2017-18: Greene - Severson; Moore - Lovejoy

I believe the word you’re looking for is “welp.” Last season’s defense was... not good. Based on that in depth analysis of the defensive unit, it feels pretty safe to say this season’s version will be... also not good. Severson was good last season and should hopefully maintain or improve his play. The problem is that he may be the only top-four player in this top four. Greene is another year older and did not have a very good 2017-18. If we see a bounceback of sorts from him, maybe there’s a sliver of hope this can be better. Not much of one, though. Moorejoy in a second-pairing role continues to be bad, but you already knew that.

Pairing 3

2016-17: Quincey - Auvitu

2017-18: Mueller - Santini

Auvitu seemed like a potential breakout player the first few weeks of last season before ending up buried under the Times Union Center in Albany by April. Quincey was a serviceable third-pairing guy. Whether this year’s pairing can be better is, unfortunately, very much up in the air. Santini was what you’d probably classify as “okay” in his first NHL stint last season, but the hope is that he will be able to take a decent step forward this season. Ideally, he’d be good enough to be promoted to second-pairing duties, but we’ll have to wait-and-see there. Mueller is a wild card, but not one I’m currently investing a lot of hopes in. Going way out on a limb, the defense may continue to be a problem for this team.

Goalie

2016-17: Cory Schneider

2017-18: Cory Schneider

Getting past the obvious point that the NHL goaltending battery will be exactly the same this season as last, there is a pretty great chance for improvement here for New Jersey. If Schneider returns to anything remotely resembling the Cory Schneider of 2010-2016, it’s a big step up for the team. Without reopening the debate from a few weeks ago, this is a good place to start if you’re looking for a reason to expect an improved 2017-18 squad.

Conclusions

Going through line by line on the forwards definitely gives you the impression that we’re looking at an improved unit for 2017-18. There is a bit of uncertainty wrapped up in that, though. The Devils will be relying on a lot of young players to fill significant roles among the forwards. That could be a good thing, given the potential quality of some of those players, but there are sure to be at least some growing pains. Overall, though, things feel better for sure over a year ago at forward.

On defense, it’s tough to say the same. This unit, as currently constructed, isn’t much different from the 2016-17 version and miraculously, depending on how Mueller and Santini shake out, it could even be slightly worse. The Devils needed to make some substantial moves this summer to get this defense to respectability in 2017-18. Simply put: they didn’t, so it isn’t. If Schneider returns to form, he can help paper over some of those shortcomings though.

On the whole, a lineup comparison between this year and last year makes it feel like the Devils are in line for some modest improvement. They definitely don’t seem like a playoff team yet, but I’m optimistic they won't lose 21 out of 24 at any point this season. A step in the right direction on the ice and a pick that’s still within the top-10 range is seems like an okay outcome for this season, and based on the current projected roster, that’s what seems most likely.