I am pretty sure that most every fan of the New Jersey Devils is bracing for an upcoming season that will not feature our team being very competitive. Almost no one predicts that this team is playoff-ready, or even close to it. I mean, just today The Athletic began its season previews of all 31 teams, and they predict that our Devils will come in last place with a 4% chance of making the playoffs and absolutely no chance whatsoever of winning the Metropolitan Division. That’s the kind of expectations this team has amongst many people out there. Because of that, you could see many fans beginning to root for the team to lose for a better pick pretty early on. That is probably the logical thing to do, because there is no question that another top 5 pick would be huge for this team’s rebuild, but as fans, we are not supposed to always be logical, and nor should we. We want our team to do well. Therefore, I want to go with a positive prediction today that could help paint this team in a better light. While it may not help too much in the long run with the team’s overall record, it should help showcase that even if the team is bad, there should be positives to look for to show that the rebuild is moving in a forward direction.
Today, I want to predict that the Devils will at least triple their number of players from last season that reach the 30 point threshold at 5 on 5 action. Last season, New Jersey had exactly one player score 30 or more points while at 5v5: Taylor Hall. Hall produced exactly 30 points while all 10 skaters were on the ice, 8 goals and 22 assists. There were 89 forwards who produced more 5v5 points than Hall did last season, while another three defensemen also surpassed that 5v5 scoring total. It is worth noting that two other Devils were very close to also reaching that 30 point threshold, but just fell short. Both Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac produced exactly 29 points at 5 on 5 action. Palmieri was good for 15 goals and 14 assists, while Zajac was at only 6 goals, but 23 assists.
This season, for my positive prediction to come true, we need at least three players to score 30 or more points at 5 on 5 play. Why is this important? Because last season, New Jersey got crushed while at even strength. I mean they got crushed in basically every scenario, but since the overwhelmingly large portion of the season is played while at 5 on 5, it is the area that carries more weight and importance. Just look at the numbers. The Devils had the 2nd worst goals for percentage in the entire league during full strength action, scoring only 114 goals while giving up 149. Those 149 goals against are not actually terrible, that number was good for 16th in the league last year. But scoring only 114 goals on the season at 5 on 5 is pitiful. No team scored less goals at full strength play, and only Colorado scored as few. This could partially be attributed to an also-pathetic 47.8% 5v5 Corsi, good for 4th worst last year.
Given that knowledge, what would be the best way to rectify the rather poor 5v5 play? The clear answer is to produce more points. The team’s 5v5 defense is not bad, and I expect that goals against number to improve this year as well considering how not-so-good Cory Schneider was last year. He should get back to his usual all-star caliber play this year (boy do I hope so), and that alone will improve the team’s goals against. So we need to really focus on New Jersey’s 5v5 offense. This is why I want to predict that at least three skaters will produce 30 or more 5v5 points. If that can happen, it can help to improve the team’s overall GF% while at even strength, and this would be a huge improvement that would signal that the rebuild could be working.
So last year, Hall achieved that 30-point threshold, and there is no reason to expect that he will not do so again this year. I would even think that he should improve, and score more than simply 30 even strength points. He has had another year to develop in John Hynes’ system, and should still be playing with the best talent that NJ has to offer. If anyone on this team is a lock to meet my positive prediction, it is Taylor Hall.
Next, we also know that Kyle Palmieri was only one point short of reaching that threshold. I think he could be hit or miss in terms of reaching 30 5v5 points. In 2015-16, he did reach 34 even strength points when he was consistently better over the course of the entire season. Last year, he was not good at all for the start of the season before really turning it on later. I mean, he won the AATJ Best Comeback Player of 2016-17 because of that. The thing with Palmieri is that he is largely dependent on his linemates. When he was with Hall and Travis Zajac last year, he was much better than without. This is what led an analytics guy like Sean Tierney to categorize Palmieri as a “dependent” player, not something else like a balanced or sniper type. And the worst thing that could’ve happened to Palmieri this offseason probably did: Travis Zajac got hurt and will be out for a while. Zajac made Palmieri considerably better. Who will do that this year? Adam Henrique? I like Henrique, and I’ve argued for him to remain a Devil on the top 6, but he is not necessarily the same player that Zajac is, and that could hurt Palmieri’s production. I think we have to put Palmieri’s odds of reaching the 30 point 5v5 threshold at 50%. You just don’t know how he will react to a new center.
So, who else could make it? My first prediction will be Nico Hischier. While Zajac getting hurt is a problem for someone like Palmieri, it could be a blessing in disguise for Nico. A few weeks ago, I wrote an article trying to figure out how John Hynes would deploy his top 3 centers. I figured in the end that he would keep Zajac on the top 6 while giving one of either Zacha or Hischier, most likely Zacha, the other top 6 role. Well, with Zajac out for a while, it gives Hischier the inside track at a starting center position in the top 6. That will drastically improve his linemates. Instead of having to play with the likes of Miles Wood and Joseph Blandisi, he will be able to play with potentially Taylor Hall, Marcus Johansson, Adam Henrique, and/or Kyle Palmieri. Just being able to play with better talent around him will help to improve his overall point output. This can be added to the fact that some rookie first picks have achieved 30 or more even strength points recently. Taylor Hall did it in 2010-11. Nathan MacKinnon did it in 2013-14. And of course both Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews did it (by the way, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins all achieved 29 even strength points in their rookie season after being selected first overall). So the precedent is there for him to achieve 30 5v5 points, and I think he could do it.
In a similar vein to Nico, I think Zacha could break out and score 30 even strength points. I say in a similar vein because my argument is similar to my argument for Nico. With Zajac hurt, Zacha is probably the top choice to center the top line. He would be my guess to center Hall and Palmieri or Hall and Johansson. He also has a full year of NHL experience under his belt now. There is a decent chance he could break out as early as this season and show to the world why the Devils chose him at 6th overall. If that happens, 30 even strength points is possible, especially centering the top line.
Finally, I think Henrique has a chance as well. He had 23 even strength points last year, 10 goals and 13 assists, while centering and playing on the wing with a bunch of different guys last year. He never had static linemates, and never was given a chance to gel with top 6 players. This year, he should have that ability now with Zajac out. Playing with better talent will help to improve his scoring output. Could that help to up his number from 23 5v5 points to 30 or more? I think so.
In the end, I do think there is a chance that at least three Devils score 30 or more points at 5 on 5 play. Hall, in my opinion, is a strong lock. Can 2 others do it? I think it is possible. Palmieri, Hischier, Zacha, and Henrique all have a chance given the circumstances. If that does happen, while it may not lead to a better season this year, it could show us a lot. If Hischier or Zacha do it, it would show that they are legit players and have truly arrived at the NHL level. If Henrique does it, it may prove that he is a real top 6 talent on this team. And if Palmieri does it, it perhaps proves that he could be a part of the young core moving forward. And above it all, it proves that the rebuild is moving in a positive direction, at least to some degree. And that, in the end, is what we need to look for this year, even if the team’s record quickly puts them at or near last place.
Now, what do you think? Do you think that I am crazy for predicting this? Or, do you think there is a shot as well? Who do you think could produce 30 5v5 points on this team this year? If it does happen, what do you think it will say about the Devils and the rebuilding process moving forward? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.