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New Jersey Devils 2018-19 Season Preview Part I: Forwards

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The regular season is almost upon us! That means that here at All About the Jersey, we will start our season preview of the New Jersey Devils in earnest. Today, we look at the biggest and arguably the most important group on the ice, the forwards. Come check it out and get hyped for Devils hockey!

Here was your offense last year. This year, let’s hope we get some more depth.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Welcome to the 2018-19 season preview of your favorite squad, the New Jersey Devils! Here at All About the Jersey, we will be previewing the team throughout this entire week, discussing each facet of the team and ultimately making our predictions about how we think they will do this season. Last year, our predictions for the most part were pretty far off base (besides for Gerard), but don’t let our terrible divination skills deter you from reading our preview this year!

First up, as always, we will begin by discussing and dissecting the largest group of players on the team, the forwards. We will begin by delving into what happened last season before taking a look at the squad this year and finally figuring out what their expectations could and perhaps should be. I definitely encourage you to augment my preview by adding in your own thoughts about the forwards in the comments below. Also, if you are interested, here is the link to all of the season preview articles from last year. Now, without further ado, let’s begin!

What Happened Last Season

Obviously, last year saw a huge improvement in the overall production of this offense. Entering last season, the Devils were perennially in or near last place in goals for, which severely hampered their ability to win games. Goaltending and defense needed to be excellent or near as much in order to stay competitive in the Metropolitan. Just check out some quick offensive numbers from the 2017-18 Devils versus years prior (information from Natural Stat Trick):

So as you can see, last year was a huge jump up from the previous norm. Over the previous three seasons, the Devils were no better than 28th in the league in scoring, and never really got all that close to 200 goals on the season. This past year, however, the jump was huge. 243 goals was 63 higher than the year previous, and NJ ended 15th in the league in scoring, pretty much the dead middle. Being average in the league is nothing wonderful, but considering where they were in previous seasons, it was a real and tangible improvement.

To specifically look at this past season, let’s put the Devils’ numbers in context with some of the best offensive teams and some of the worst. In the following chart, once again with info from Natural Stat Trick, I have the top 3 teams in terms of goals for, the worst three teams, and then the Devils in the middle. Was New Jersey closer to the bottom of the league in goal production, or the top?

Looking at the chart, the Devils were closer in goals for per game played with 3rd place Toronto than they were with 29th place Montreal. That is a good sign. In fact, they were closer to 2nd place Winnipeg than Montreal. Tampa Bay, however, was far and ahead of every other team.

To me, that further cements how last year represented a huge boost in offensive production. The Devils ended 15th in the league in scoring, but that was a strong 15th, closer to the top of the league than the bottom. And considering they were one of those bottom teams in scoring for a while, it was a monster improvement.

In terms of dishing out credit for the improvement in scoring, it was really almost 100% thanks to a wicked top line, or more like the top pairing of Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier. And when looking between the two, while Nico was a huge addition to this team and they would not have made the playoffs without him, in truth his contributions pale in comparison to what Hall meant to this team and this offense. The Hart Trophy winner was absolutely vital to this team, there was no two ways about it. Hall ended the season with 93 points, 39 of those coming as goals. That was the most points produced by any one NJD forward since Zach Parise also scored 93 points back in the 2008-09 season. In terms of this year alone, Hall’s 93 points were 41 more than Nico’s 52, and Nico finished 2nd on the team in points produced. At least in 08-09, Patrik Elias scored 75 points, somewhat close to Parise’s 93.

Just on the surface, it is already clear that those two were the offense. Their 145 points were more than the next four skaters combined, who only managed 138. But we can and should look at least a little deeper. Among the forwards with at least 200 minutes played, Hall also had the best relative Corsi on the team, finishing at +3.85%. Nico, not coincidentally, also had a great relative Corsi, finishing 3rd at +1.67%. Only Stefan Noesen had a better relative Corsi than Nico. When both Hischier and Hall were on the ice together, a whopping 803 minutes last year, the Devils generated 789 Corsi attempts for. That is just under 1 per minute, a solid number for a team usually incapable of generating many attempts forward.

To that effect, let’s take a look at one more chart here. This one will showcase stats about the forwards on the team who played at least 400 minutes. Once again, all stats from Natural Stat Trick with the exception of GAR, which is from Corsica.

I realize that shots are not remotely an advanced statistic at all, but I wanted to put it in to highlight the severe discrepancy in shooting. Hall was far and away the most prolific shooter, and this is from someone who still had over 50 assists. No one else was even over 200. Then, you have the next tier of Hischier and Kyle Palmieri, who each had around 180 shots. That is not terrible, especially from Nico who is more of a playmaker than a sniper anyway. Miles Wood was not too far away from those two with 170 shots. After them, however, shot totals drop considerably. Only one other player even had over 130 shots, that being Blake Coleman. If you want a clear stat showing the difference between Hall and the rest of this team, and the impact he had on offense last year, look no further than shots.

I also added in GAR, or goals above replacement. Here we have another clear indicator that the top line last season was the offense so to speak, and among the top line, Hall stood out. In fact, Hall’s GAR of 17.87 ranked 12th in the entire league among all forwards with at least 200 minutes played. He was clearly indispensable, but the rest of the top line also stands out. Kyle Palmieri clearly was productive in the fact that his GAR is above 10, which no one else on the team could say. When I initially saw the numbers, I was shocked to see his GAR fairly significantly higher than Nico’s. However, Nico’s GAR of 7.79 was quite higher than every other forward. The only one who was remotely close was Coleman, with his GAR of 5.13, mostly thanks to his defensive play (offensive GAR of only 1.22 but a defensive GAR of 3.92). Most of the rest of the offense was fairly mediocre, with only 2 others showing a GAR above 2. On the positive, however, only three forwards had a negative GAR, and only just barely so, so there is that.

In the end, when looking at last season, three words to describe the offense would be Hall, Hall, and Hall. Perhaps top line would be in there somewhere soon too, and Nico should get a shoutout as well as Palmieri eventually. While it was a top-heavy offense, it led to overall goal production that was significantly higher than the Devils were able to attain in years prior. That top line was able to drive this offense forward to heights it had not seen in half a decade or more. And that, in the end, led to a playoff berth, which was amazing.

This Year’s Squad

This season, the offensive squad will look somewhat different from last year, but most of the faces will be familiar. Considering the bottom 6 really needs to produce more scoring and aid the top line more this year, some change is a good thing. While not comprehensive and not really focused on Binghamton at all, here is a list of some key departures and an addition to the forward group, with contract information coming from Cap Friendly:

Departures:

-Adam Henrique: not an offseason move, but he was on the team at the start of last year, so I figured it was worth noting.

-Brian Gibbons: signed a 1 year, $1 million deal in Anaheim.

-Jimmy Hayes: signed a 1 year, $650k deal in Pittsburgh

-Michael Grabner: signed a 3 year, $10.05 million deal in Arizona

-Patrick Maroon: signed a 1 year, $1.75 million deal in St. Louis

Additions:

-Jean-Sebastien Dea: just claimed off waivers from Pittsburgh. Signed a 1 year, $650k deal with them back in June. Is an RFA after this year.

Of course, there will be other additions. It looks like John Quenneville might make the opening day roster, which is an addition in its on way. So really is a healthy Marcus Johansson, who was expected to be a staple of the top 6 last season before missing so many games due to injury. A healthy Johansson would be a big addition.

However, the lack of true, real additions from outside sources is notable. New Jersey is projected to enter the season with the 2nd most cap room in the NHL, with only division opponent Carolina having more room. Despite having over $15 million in cap space to play around with, Ray Shero mostly decided to stay put. There are many ways to look at this. On the positive side, you can say that Shero did not feel like the money was burning a hole in his pocket, and he did not give out an albatross contract to someone who would underperform with respect to the salary. Those types of contracts are given out every offseason, and Shero shied away from that which is good. Also, the positive is that because the Devils are a young organization as a whole, it gives many of these players a chance to develop and grow together. Guys like Pavel Zacha, Jesper Bratt and Miles Wood, forwards with considerable potential, can have more time to improve and better their games, which will in turn benefit the Devils in the long run.

The negative, however, is that without any real additions, and with the departures of several veterans, almost no one outside of Devils fans is predicting a repeat playoff berth. One of the main reasons for this is that last year, there was no consistent, palpable scoring behind the top line. Unless someone breaks out this year, that will probably be the case once again. It seemed to me like every night last year, if Hall was not scoring, this team was not scoring. They did have a dynamite run by Gibbons, and Maroon was a nice addition mid-season, but really you almost didn’t need to watch when Hall and Hischier were not on the ice, because the odds of positive things happening in terms of goals for was really low. That is something that desperately needs to change this year, but without additions, is something that probably won’t change. The optimist will once again point to potential growth from guys like Wood and especially Zacha, but barring that, good luck, and sorry for putting all the weight on your shoulders once again Hall.

As of me writing this, there were 14 forwards who were still on the squad heading over to Europe for the final preseason game and the regular season opener. To predict an opening night lineup between those 14 guys is near impossible, and I will surely make a fool of myself for trying, but I am just another fan like you in the end, so why not right? Please feel free to mock my prediction in the comments section.

Hall - Hischier - Palmieri

Johansson - Zajac - Bratt

Wood - Zacha - Noesen

Coleman - Boyle - Dea

Extra: Quenneville

It would seem stupid to keep Quenneville up and not play him, but I think center is pretty solid with Hischier, Zajac, Zacha and Boyle. You could play him out on the wing and not play Dea, but considering they just acquired Dea, I would bet they want to see him play and want him to start fitting in immediately, and therefore I am guessing he gets the nod over Quenneville. I could also see Noesen and Bratt switching positions there, but that is not a major discrepancy either way.

Anyway, that is my prediction for opening night against Edmonton. Definitely post your predictions in the comments as well!

Expectations for This Season

This is a tough one this year. Last year, I said that expectations needed to be tempered for the forward group overall, and they went on to demolish all expectations and did quite well. Because of that, it makes expectations this year a little tougher to pinpoint. Off the top, I would have to think that if they end up producing similar numbers to last season, topping 240 goals and ending near the middle of the league, you would have to be content with that. Hall might not be able to recreate his Hart Trophy year, but if he gets 80 points instead of 93, and those lost points are made up elsewhere in the lineup, that would be fairly solid overall. I would hope that Nico manages to improve on his 52 points anyway, so there is some cushion right there.

Improvement on last year’s production would be awesome, but I am not sure we should expect them outright at this point given the lack of additions I discussed previously. In my opinion, the main arguments to be made for an improvement would be (1) a boost from one or more of the young kids, especially Nico, who could make a nice jump this year, especially if he plays consistently with Hall again. If someone like Zacha or Bratt or Wood manages to improve as well, that could get this team over 250 goals no problem. (2) A fully healthy Johansson. Marcus produced a measly 14 points in 29 regular season games last year. If he manages to play over 70 games this year, and can produce over 50 points which is very possible given his skill set, that would be a major addition to the offense. If both 1 and 2 come true, you are looking at an offense who could easily surpass last year’s production.

On the flip side, despite the chances for improvement, you could also argue that there are equally likely chances that this squad regresses somewhat. The obvious reason for this would be the lack of depth. When your top line is responsible for so much of the production, any issue from them would be catastrophic. When a team has 3 strong lines, there are others who can pick up the slack when needed. If the top line for the Devils goes into a slump for one reason or another, however, there is much less support. 243 goals from last year could easily become 220 if issues become prevalent, or if teams manage to figure out how to shut down the Hall-Hischier combination.

Therefore, to me, you can’t expect this group to improve on last year, simply because the potential pitfalls of the offense (no depth) were not addressed in the offseason. But given the talent on this squad, and the youth that could improve, I think expecting a similar result is not too much to ask. I would take 243 goals again this year.

Conclusion

Well, I apologize for the extreme length, but that about does it for my preview of the forwards for the 2018-19 New Jersey Devils! Last year was an exciting year for this group, given the immense growth we saw as compared to years prior. This year, the squad lost a few skaters, but generally looks the same. That means that young guys will have a chance to step up, but the lack of scoring depth here is still as much of an issue as it was last year, and perhaps more so with the loss of Maroon. To me, hoping for similar overall production from this group in terms of ~240 goals by season’s end would give the Devils a real shot at a repeat playoff berth, but there are so many factors that could send that number up or down by a not-insignificant amount. It will be fun to watch, that is for sure!

So now, what are your thoughts about the forward group this season? What or who are you most excited to see? Do you think there is a better chance that this group will continue to improve on its scoring capabilities, or do you think the better odds are with regression? Please feel free to tell me where you think I am right and where I am totally off. And definitely let us know what you think the lines will look like come October 6th. Thank you so much for reading today, and please come back tomorrow for Part 2 of the Season Preview here at AATJ, where the defense will be dissected!