Five full seasons and counting; that’s how long it has been since our New Jersey Devils have been a playoff team. That’s how long it’s been since Jersey’s Team was relevant in discussions about who will take home the Stanley Cup at the end of each season’s playoffs. While most fans have been patient during the team’s rebuilding phase, it’s still a bummer to not see our team playing into late April and May.
Usually when a prediction about a rebuilding team is made, it’s how many years are they away from competing. Today I want to look at that idea in a slightly different way; the Devils have been stockpiling useful players up front, but are still pretty shallow on the back end. Instead of predicting how many years out the team is, today I look at each position and estimate how many players I think the team is from being competitive again.
Goaltending - All Set
Cory Schneider may not be the youngest player on this team, but with only 340 NHL games played (both regular and postseason) he doesn’t have as much wear and tear as many other 31 year old goalies. I’m looking for Cory to have a bounce back year in 2017-18, and if he can continue to play at the same level he did prior to last season, the Devils will have no concerns between the pipes. Additionally, the team does have youngsters Ken Appleby and MacKenzie Blackwood in the system, both of whom found success in the AHL last season and could eventually see NHL time.
Centers - All Set
I may need to put an asterisk here as the center depth being declared “all set” is dependent upon a number of players panning out in regards to their potential and being able to contribute relative to their spot on the depth chart. Nico Hischier, Pavel Zacha, and Michael McLeod all have the ability to play center, and the Devils need two of them to eventually become the team’s top two centers. Travis Zajac isn’t getting any younger, but can still be a useful 3C for his defensive prowess; the problem right now is he’s playing 1C with the point totals of a 2C. Again, I am a Zajac fan, but he like Schneider is one of the older players on the team now. If the youngsters step up sooner rather than later, then New Jersey is right back on the right track.
Wings - Need one Middle-6 RW
I’m grouping the team’s wings together due to the fact that the Devils are pretty loaded at left wing, but still lacking a bit on the right; with this in mind, someone may have to play their off side, and I know Ray Shero said he wouldn’t but Marcus Johansson has done it before, and could move to the right again. The Devils would still be deep on the left with Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, John Quenneville, Miles Wood and Joseph Blandisi all pushing for playing time. The right side would then feature Johansson and Kyle Palmieri, but not much else aside from depth players. If one of those two were to be injured, it could be disastrous; for this reason, the Devils need a player who could play on either the second or third line and still be an effective contributor. Again, someone like McLeod could wind up getting shifted to RW, but only if the other pair of players mentioned above pan out into Top-6 centers. We may just need to shuffle prospects around, but at this time, I’ll say Jersey needs a Middle-6 RW.
Defense - Need two or three Top-4 Defenders
Now for the area where the team needs a bit of a miracle and that’s the back end. I have to say first that I respect CJ’s research and statistics in his article yesterday about Ben Lovejoy, but the fact remains that to the eye test, he stunk. He consistently screened Schneider, he was terrible at getting opposing players away from the front of the net, and he may have been the #1 guy on the PK, but when your PK ranks 23rd in the league, that’s not something to be proud of. Lovejoy should be a bottom pair guy or the 7th D; whether that happens remains to be seen and I’ll say right now I doubt that it does.
In the long run, New Jersey needs Steven Santini to pan out and become the #2 righty behind Damon Severson; he looked good in limited usage last season, but he needs to continue to grow, as his improvement will lead to more minutes which in turn will lessen Lovejoy’s usage. The left side is a bigger issue, as the Devils have a declining Andy Greene and not much else. Mirco Mueller is a wild card here, and the Devils need to hope a change of scenery helps him to blossom. John Moore is who he is and with his defensive prowess lacking, he’s a bottom pair power play specialist.
With Greene declining and Mueller an unknown, the Devils will soon need three Top-4 defenders if Santini doesn’t become more than bottom pair player. If he is able to solidify himself in the spot behind Severson, then the Devils only need two more players that can slot in to the Top-4.
Summary and Your Take
To wrap up my thoughts, the Devils are essentially three effective players (a Middle-6 RW and two Top-4 defensemen) away from being truly competitive again. Keep in mind that this estimate relies on a number of variable, such as players reaching their full potential to fill out the lineup; additionally, this summary is based on the traditional needs of any NHL team and not all teams are built the same way. For all we know, the Devils could start winning a bunch of games 4-3 this season if the youngsters come in and start scoring in bunches. In that kind of situation, a sub-par defense wouldn’t be enough to deter the team from being successful, and who knows, maybe that’s what Ray Shero is trying to build.
Now I’d like to hear your ideas on how many players the Devils need to be competitive; do you agree or disagree with my estimate? Are you as optimistic as I am about players like Hischier, Zacha, McLeod and Santini? Is there a position where I was too easy or too harsh on the team? Where do you think the Devils need to focus to be competitive again? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!