After another long offseason, a new season is finally upon us here in New Jersey. Players have reported to training camp and we are now just about three weeks away from opening day at the Rock. There is a certain amount of excitement that comes with the start of each new season and this year is no different for the Devils. With the start of this season comes a potential wave of the future for New Jersey. A host of new names will have a chance to make the team and make an impact in 2017-18, including first overall pick Nico Hischier and college free agent coup Will Butcher. As Ray Shero is keen on saying, it is an exciting time for the Devils.
That excitement is somewhat surficial in nature, though, as there is a certain amount of subtext in many of the declarations of exciting times in New Jersey. That being: the Devils are likely to have a lot of young faces around this season partially because they have little other choice. In 2016-17, aside from a hopeful start, the Devils were a largely terrible NHL outfit for the bulk of the season. In the offseason, the team made a few moves for some veteran help, most notably the trade for Marcus Johansson, but overall on paper, the known quantities on this team aren’t really much better than they were heading into 2016-17. Swap Michael Cammalleri for Johansson, PA Parenteau for Drew Stafford, Vern Fiddler for Brian Boyle, and Kyle Quincey for... I guess Mirco Mueller(?) and you are probably not too far from breaking even. For those of us who have not mercifully been in a coma for the past 12 months, this is not a good thing.
HOWEVAH, despite that grim little bit of addition and subtraction there really is some reason for hope in Newark this season. Things are certainly headed in the right direction and even if the on-paper roster doesn’t have guaranteed upgrades littered all over it, the potential for significant upgrades on the ice is absolutely there. The only issue is that it is largely attached to that dreaded “p”-word. Yes, if the Devils are hoping to make a leap forward this year, they will need some of the latent potential among many of their younger players to start being realized. The past few seasons in New Jersey have led to a lot of disappointment in the “realization of potential” department, but the system that is now being built in New Jersey has a much brighter outlook than it did just a few years ago.
So what do those young players need to do to make this team a non-cellar-dweller? Simply put, they probably need one or two top-six-worthy performances from rookies or near rookies to go along with another couple of middle-six-level years. The most obvious candidate to lead that charge is first overall pick Nico Hischier. It’s widely acknowledged that Hischier is not going to be the instant world-beater and Hart Trophy candidate that Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews have been the past couple years, but for the team to have the depth necessary to start to pull themselves out of the NHL doldrums, they probably need Nico to be a top-six caliber player after allowing a little time for him to settle into the league. A 40-50 point season is a lot to expect from a rookie in today’s NHL, but if we’re being realistic about what the Devils need to do to elevate beyond their recent levels, that might be what they need from him.
Beyond Nico, the next breakout that the team is probably hoping to see is from Pavel Zacha. Now two years removed from being drafted 6th overall and coming off a half-decent rookie campaign where he held his own but not much more, the Devils will want to see a significant uptick in output from the big Czech this season. If he can take a leap in scoring and help take on some of the duties vacated by Travis Zajac’s injury, that would be optimal for the Devils. Zacha remains just 20 years of age, but with him having a full year of NHL experience under his belt the team needs him to start becoming a player that can help drive play and do more than just chip in on offense. If they get a legitimate top-six type performance out of Zacha this year to go along with a good rookie campaign from Hischier, the group of forwards in New Jersey starts to look pretty strong, particularly once Zajac gets healthy.
Beyond what I would say are the two key people the Devils will look for a breakout from in Hischier and Zacha, they will also need players to step up and become solid role players behind them. There are a few candidates in that category, chiefly among them probably John Quenneville and Michael McLeod. Quenneville had a very good year in the AHL in 2016-17 and earned himself a couple NHL call-ups, though his impact was somewhat limited in those stints. With Quenneville now 21 and several years removed from the draft, the team will be looking for him to take a step forward to become an NHL regular and a mainstay on the team’s 3rd line. For McLeod, it’s far from a guarantee that he can stay in the NHL, but if he were to shift to right wing for the time being in New Jersey and become a contributor, that would help the team out in a big way. The Devils would also benefit from Miles Wood rounding out his game after his jump to the NHL in 2016-17 as well as another player like Joe Blandisi or Nick Lappin becoming a consistent bottom-six option.
The situation on defense draws some parallels to the forwards group in that the Devils will be reliant on potential for improvement, but that potential is much more limited and the veteran situation on which it is building is fairly dire. For the forwards, the Devils can hope for realized potential to take them from an okay forward group to a good one. On the blue line, the team will be hoping that potential can propel the defense from a complete horror show to something bordering on serviceable. The players they will be hoping for breakouts from will be clear though.
At the top of things, the Devils will be hoping that Damon Severson can build on a season where he was, for better or worse (mostly worse), the Devils’ best defenseman. He has proven he can be a top-four defender in the league, but the hope is that he can strengthen his game to become a true top-pairing guy. Behind him, Steve Santini will be another player the Devils are looking for a step forward from on the back end. He didn’t look too out of place in his rookie season last year, but the Devils will be hoping he can start to take on a bigger role and maybe pry some minutes away from Ben Lovejoy in 2017-18. Perhaps the biggest wild card for New Jersey’s defense is Will Butcher. If he can immediately fit in a the NHL level and contribute on a power play, that would be a major help for the team, but that will be a tall task for a rookie that is fresh out of college. If those three players can break out to an extent, that would go a long way toward starting to fix what ails the Devils on their blue line.
That last sentence drives at the crux of the problem for the Devils, though. In theory, this could be a team that improves a lot over last season, but that theory relies on a lot of things breaking the right way for the team and their fans. If three of the forwards described and two of the defensemen mentioned can make a big leap, the team could be in decent shape. Asking for five simultaneous breakout seasons from your young players is, well... not exactly a sure thing. So I consider myself excited and hopeful of what some of these young players can do this season, but its probably a good idea to keep expectations for the team as a whole somewhat tempered. If this wave of youth does carry the team to respectability, perhaps we will be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for this rebuild, though.