The era of New Jersey Devils legend Lou Lamoriello ended like most eras with general managers. It was left with a team that really needed to be gutted and re-built to bring the team back prominence. So far, Shero has certainly performed the gutting. As he enters his third full season with the Devils, it’s about time for the re-building. I agree with Mike in that it is now worth expecting improvement of some sort. However, it is worth taking a step back and realizing that Shero has made the Devils much, much younger right from when he stepped into his current role.
I’ve had young players on the mind for reasons that will be clearer a little later this week. I went to Hockey-Reference.com and looked at the ages of the Devils players (as of February 1 of that season) from each of the last four seasons. It really is remarkable how much has shifted between 2014-15, Lou’s last season, and 2015-16, Shero’s first full season.
It would not be fair or true to say that young players did not get a chance in 2013-14 and 2014-15. Players like Damon Severson, Adam Larsson Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas, Jacob Josefson and Adam Henrique were very much coming into the fold or already in it. Players like Stefan Matteau and Reid Boucher got their shots as well, for better or for worse. But the 34+ crowd still represented much of the backbone of the team. 2013-14 featured Jaromir Jagr’s great season, Patrik Elias continuing to be great, a rather productive Marek Zidlicky, and a Dainius Zubrus that had some use. That and Martin Brodeur and Bryce Salvador. The 2014-15 campaign saw some of those older players still around but with lesser success from each plus the additions of Michael Ryder and Scott Gomez to their ranks plus some cameos from Scott Clemmensen. It would be understandable to state that the team did maintain a veteran presence with the intent to contribute a lot to the Devils. That did not go so well in 2014-15.
But, my goodness, the youth were really put on display when Shero took over. The team’s average age actually dropped to around the league average, where it has been for the last two seasons. The team went from six and eight players over the age of 34 to just two and one, respectively, in recent seasons. The 25 and under crowd ballooned to twenty one players in 2015-16 and twenty-two in 2016-17.
Sure, those numbers are boosted by a number of players who only received a few games as a call-up. Such as Blake Pietila, Kevin Rooney, Vojtech Mozik, and others that were largely AHL players. There were also a handful of prospects who got a few games, such as the trio of Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, and Steve Santini at the end of 2015-16 and the initial three games of Blake Speers last season. However, there were plenty of legitimate regulars among that younger set. From top players like Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri to regulars filling out the lineup like John Moore (2014-15), Joseph Blandisi, Sergey Kalinin, and Devante Smith-Pelly joining the young ones from Lou’s last two seasons (Henrique, Severson, Merrill, etc.). Of all of the things one could write about the last two seasons, we cannot say that a variety of players did not get a chance with New Jersey. With Nico Hischier, John Quenneville, Speers, Michael McLeod, and others coming up through the system, we could see this continue to a degree.
What’s more astounding is the sudden drop in older players. I chose 34 and older players as 34 is the final age before the important 35-year old designation, whereupon players at that age and older are on the books no matter what. That 2014-15 season was not just the last in management, but also the end for seven out of those eight 35+ players. Only Elias stayed and he only played in sixteen games. The only other older player on the squad was just two appearances of Yann Danis, which were out of necessity if I recall correctly. In this past season, the only old guy was Vernon Fiddler - and he was traded in February. With Mike Cammalleri and P.A. Parenteau also gone, only Andy Greene remains as the sole 34+ player on the roster right now. Short of a call-up of Bracken Kearns or some signing or tryout, he could be the only one for 2016-17.
Of course, this is not as simple as just get rid of old players and give younger players more of a chance. After all, the team was really bad last season and they arguably overachieved in 2015-16. It is also easier to give minor leaguers and prospects more games and minutes when the playoffs are not a realistic goal. Nevertheless, this short post is to illustrate that the Devils have been much younger under Shero and it will continue for sometime. Hopefully because the prospects the team has drafted since 2015 will be good enough to really push for spots to set a new foundation for the roster to be built up for success.
P.S. Check out Devils Insiders tonight at 9 PM. I’ll be there.