It’s that time of year again ladies and gentlemen! In just over 24 hours (roughly 26), New Jersey Devils hockey will resume. Preseason hockey is always a nice precursor and helps to build excitement, but nothing beats the real deal of the regular season! The Devils were wise this summer, and instead of opting to spend money on aging players, they instead continued to invest in their young core.
As we tend to do this time of year, we as a staff have come up with our thoughts on how the upcoming New Jersey Devils season will look. Presented in alphabetical order by first name, here are your 2018-19 New Jersey Devils Season Predictions from the AAtJ writers:
Last season, the Devils were expected to be a bottom feeder, yet thanks to an unexpected offensive outburst from the top line, they snuck into a wild card position. This season, however, there is talk of regression, and I understand the thought behind that: Ray Shero did not go out and make any real free agent signings. Instead, several players left. With the loss of talent and no real infusion of more veterans, a drop in the standings is plausible.
However, I think the one area that gives this team some real possibility is the growth of the young players. Hischier managed 52 points in his rookie season. If you see growth from him instead of a sophomore slump, he could easily eclipse the 60 point barrier. Then, you have the potential continued growth of Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, and/or Jesper Bratt. If even one of them breaks out and elevates their game to the next level, that is huge as well. This team is in desperate need of secondary scoring, and if they can get it, then watch out. And that isn’t to mention the growth of the young d-men like Butcher, Severson, and Santini.
To that end, I think the growth of young talent can and will offset the loss of veterans in the offseason. I think that leads to a similar finish, with a point range from 94-99 points. The variation there comes from goaltending, including when Schneider comes back, how he plays, and how Kinkaid does in his duties. All combined, that should make New Jersey a wild card team once again.
X-Factor: Secondary Scoring
Last season, so much of the offense came from the top line, and Hall ended up as the Hart Trophy winner as a result. To expect over 90 points again is tough; 80 could be more like it. To compensate, then, this team needs more secondary scoring if it wants to repeat its offensive performance. Without it, there could be trouble in Newark.
Last season was another step in the right direction as Ray Shero and John Hynes continue to revamp the Devils organization. With that said I think a lot of things went right for the Devils last season which can make it seem like their rebuild is a bit ahead of schedule. I’m encouraged by what the veteran and young forwards can bring to this team. I have my doubts about the defensemen and goaltenders though. I expect Shero to find a way to bring in some defensive help at some point in the season, similar to when he brought in Sami Vatanen last season. If he can pull off a move like that, then I think the Devils could be a playoff team. Until that happens, I feel like the Devils are currently the 6th best team in the Metropolitan Division. As we all learned last season, this group is capable of surprising us, so hopefully they prove me wrong. Either way, I expect this team to find a way to keep themselves relevant in the playoff race until the end of the season and I’m excited to see what they can do.
John Quenneville will finally be a full time NHL player and become a key piece to the Devils bottom 6, providing solid two-way play with a physical edge.
X-Factor: Marcus Johansson
Johansson is a proven top 6 forward in the NHL but concussions shortened his debut season for the Devils last year. If he can remain healthy, then I think he’ll be instrumental in helping the Devils produce secondary scoring, taking some pressure off of Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier. I also think Johansson could help Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt find another level to their game as they continue to develop.
Standings: 4th in the Division. I think that the team is going to be slightly better than last season, and will probably make the playoffs as a wild card, hovering around 100 points.
Not-So-Bold-And-Not-Very-Uplifting Prediction: By somewhere between the first and third game, Andy Greene will be getting more time at even strength than Mirco Mueller. I want Mueller to do well. Do I think he’s going to hold up against Connor McDavid’s line on Saturday? Then anyone on the Capitals? And then the Sharks? The guy is not going to survive the first week. I will be sure to talk about this issue in any previews and recaps this year, and I don’t expect I will be very positive about him as long as he is listed on the top pairing.
Bold Prediction: Marcus Johansson will be traded
One of the bottom six forwards will make him expendable similar to what happened to Adam Henrique last season. However, I do not expect to have as positive trade result for Johansson, and I think if he is traded, the team will be worse off.
X-Factor: Travis Zajac
I think that Zajac’s shutdown capability is absolutely essential to this team’s success for the upcoming year. If Zajac can be utilized in a way that consistently neutralizes a top line from game to game, it sets up Hischier and Zacha to make strides in their offensive outputs. That is why I would not list someone like Zacha as the X-Factor - because I think his performance at this point is too reliant on the situation he is in. I think that Zajac should play with at least one of Coleman or Noesen, as well, since they helped bring out Zajac’s shutdown capability last season.
Despite a narrative that the Devils were lucky last season, I’m of the opinion that that was demonstrably not the case. Furthermore, the Devils’s most notable loss from last year is John Moore -- which I believe is likely addition by subtraction -- we potentially will get more health from Johansson and Schneider, and we stand to gain more from additional experience (Hischier, Wood, Zacha, Bratt) than we do to lose from aging out (Zajac, Greene, Schneider). As a result, I believe that the Devils are likely to experience marginal improvement from last year as a team. I also think the division may slightly improve which will cancel out some of the improvements so I project the Devils to finish with 99 pts and finish 4th in the Metropolitan.
After averaging 15 minutes per game for the first 4 years of his career, Mirco Mueller will play over 20 minutes per game and trail only Sami Vatanen in average ice time. Mueller has been spending a lot of time on a top pairing in the preseason, played 20+ minutes in 2 of the last 3 regular season games last year, and led the Devils D in EVGAR/60 (even-strength goals above replacement). I am personally skeptical of his skills, but I think he is the only young blueliner on the roster that has the trust of the coaching staff in the defensive end.
I’m the worst. I’m basically just gonna keep putting this answer until the Devils get some consistency from the position. There are plenty of fun answers here: Bratt and Severson could both be in the starting lineup or off the active roster, Zacha could make the jump finally, Johansson could be who he was pre-trade, Butcher could be elite, etc. But the reality is simply that none of those things matter as much as strong goalie play. Cory’s health puts his range of possibilities all over the place. Even Kinkaid’s is unclear though. His highest Sv% (0.916) and lowest (.904) would have been a difference of 15 goals over the 1214 goals he faced last year. That translates to around 3.3 wins or 6.6 standings points. And he’s the goalie without question marks. For a bubble team like the Devils, goaltending has the potential to make the team sink or swim.
I believe in the New Jersey Devils; I believe that last season was no fluke and that the team is trending in the correct direction. Led by Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmieri and of course Taylor Hall, the Devils should be able to continue putting pucks in the net with more regularity than they did before that trio arrived. Combine that with another year of maturity for players such as Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt, and Will Butcher could lead to an increase in scoring for the team.
The defense is still a bit suspect and while I understand the decision to send Ty Smith back to his junior team, I’m a bit frustrated due to him looking to be one of the team’s best six defenders in the preseason. The defense and goaltending are still at least somewhat suspect as a result. The Devils may need to rely on Hall and the rest of the offense to outscore the amount of goals they let in.
The bottom 6 will also need to contribute while still shutting down the opposition; the addition of John Quenneville here could help, and it’s certainly time to see if he can sink or swim in the NHL.
Also doubles as my prediction in the standings; the Devils will record over 100 points for the first time since 2011-12, and will finish in the top three of their division, rather than a wild card spot.
X-Factor: Nico Hischier
The New Jersey Devils will come and go with their young, possible franchise center. If Nico continues to build upon what was a rock solid rookie campaign, then there’s no reason to believe the Devils can’t be as good, if not better than last season. If he falters, gets injured, or stays stagnant, then the Devils could be in trouble, particularly if it is the former two options rather than the latter third.
I’ll cut to the chase. I am leaning against the Devils making the playoffs. While I can agree with CJ that the Devils were not totally luck-driven last season, quite a bit went right. From Schneider being good for three months and Kinkaid being good for the most part for two more to Hall putting up one of the best seasons in franchise history to getting hot runs at timely points from “lesser” names like Brian Gibbons, Blake Coleman, Brian Boyle, and Stefan Noesen, the Devils had been buoyed by some impressively unexpected performances They also were supported by the fact that the Metropolitan Division was very tight from first to fifth and the Atlantic was weaker. The Devils edged Florida, but Florida needed to play like they were on fire after the All-Star Break to claw their way back into the playoff picture. I do not expect it all to happen again. I don’t think the Devils power play will out-perform some less than exceptional rate stats. I don’t think the Devils’ 5-on-5 play was good and consistent enough from a possession standpoint to be a consistent threat. I think the Devils could stand to drop some points beyond regulation after being a net positive in both overtimes and shootouts. While I think Hall will still be awesome and a first line of Hall-Hischier-Palmieri will scare a lot of teams, the forwards behind them have a lot to prove from an offensive standpoint. Most of all, I don’t think the division will necessarily be as up-for-grabs as it was last season. I am confident that the Devils will not be the worst team in the area. The two New York teams will be worse and, for all we know, Carolina’s goaltending will sink them again. But are they good enough without major additions to be with Columbus, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington, and while staving off Florida and maybe Buffalo in the Atlantic? I am doubtful for a repeat of 2017-18. I want it to happen, but based on how I see the team, I have to say that the team will likely miss the playoffs and finish sixth in the Metropolitan. That said: I am strong enough to be wrong and I want to write another post like this one in April 2019.
Bold Prediction/X-Factor: Marcus Johansson
As a bold prediction, I want you, the reader, to pay attention to the biggest X-factor on the team: Marcus Johansson. Johansson is in a prime age (27) and he has a lot to prove. He presumably wants to show the Devils why he was worth trading for to begin with. He’s coming back from a nightmare of a 2017-18 campaign, where he suffered two concussions and an ankle injury; so he wants to show that he’s still a top-six caliber forward. He will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, so he can earn a lot of money with a good season. The Devils really could use an effective forward beyond their first line to produce and play well at both ends; Johansson can be that guy. I think he will be. So much so that he may end up on the first line at points during this coming season and finish close to Palmieri and Hischier in total points. His success will also make it a little more likely that the Devils will compete for a playoff position.
The Devils aren’t in a terribly different position than they were at the start of last season. The roster, with just a few notable exceptions, remains largely the same as it was heading into last season. The expectations, while elevated from a year ago, are still not what you’d call particularly high, particularly at the national level, where many think this team returns to Earth. Last season, I pegged them as probably finishing near last in the division and as maybe an 80-point team, and I was way off (and extremely happy to be).
Not everything is the same, though. Nico Hischier established himself as the real deal in his rookie season and will look to build on that as the undisputed number one center for this team in 2018-19. Taylor Hall is now the MVP of the league and will have everyone planning their strategies around him more than ever before and it will be up to his linemates to really make teams pay if they zero in on him. Sami Vatanen is now a mainstay in the top-four on defense and Will Butcher proved himself very worthy of the sweepstakes that was devoted to him last summer. Only a few of the names have changed from last season, but many of those names showed out in a big way in 2017-18 and will now be expected to repeat or in some cases even build on those performances.
Internally, the expectations are undeniably higher, but I think this team will retain some of the chip on its shoulder due to outsiders seemingly still not being convinced. A repeat of last season feels very reachable, though the team will need some things to go right. The East remains very tough though, and there is no shortage of teams who will likely be a part of the wild card conversation. Five teams are probably a near-lock for a playoff return (TBL, WAS, PIT, TOR, BOS), leaving three spots open that the rest will have to fight for. I put the Devils in the group of PHI, FLA, CBJ, CAR, and NJD in the thick of the battle for those spots, with another team like MTL or BUF perhaps jumping up and challenging as well). My pessimistic head is telling me the Devils are one of the teams that will land on the ‘out’ side of that group, but something in my gut is telling me that this team finds a way to claw back into the dance again. They emerge from a slugfest for the last wild card with 94 points, getting in on a tiebreaker.
Nico Hischier, now a year stronger and wiser, finishes the season with 70 points. Teams will be doing everything in their power to stop Hall, giving Hischier plenty of space at 5-on-5, and Nico will become an actual contributor on the power play after the paltry 6 PP points his rookie season.
X-Factor: Cory Schneider
There’s really only one answer to this question for me and it has to be Cory Schneider. If the returns to his pre-2016 form, the team could end up not just squeaking in, but making the playoffs comfortably (remember, New Jersey was leading the division before his play fell apart and he got injured). If he struggles again, though, the Devils road back gets much tougher and the odds of a playoff miss grow considerably.
Where will the Devils sit at the end of the day on April 6? Without any significant additions this offseason, we’re basically left to hope for another Herculean effort from Taylor Hall, a step forward from the young guns, something ... resembling mediocrity out of the merry band of defensemen we’ve assembled and improved play between the pipes. I don’t think it’s all that unreasonable to think all that could happen. Ruling out some significant injury, I think on the whole we have roughly the same output that we did last season: somewhere in the neighborhood of 90-95 points.
I don’t see the Capitals taking a step back and the Pegnuins – despite adding ... Jack Johnson? – look to be as salty as ever. With the addition of James van Riemsdyk and an already impressive defensive core, I could see the Flyers sneaking up and challenging this top tier if they can get some decent goaltending. After that, I see us right in the mix with the Blue Jackets and Hurricanes for fourth, fifth and sixth in the division, ahead of New York’s fine duo of hockey teams at the bottom. With that, it feels like the Devils are a playoff bubble team yet again this season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see us squeak into the playoffs in that second wild-card spot again.
X-factor: Goaltending. Can Keith Kinkaid and Eddie Lack hold down the fort and produce here at the beginning of the season? Will we see the Kinkaid that helped to propel the Devils into the playoffs down the stretch last season? Or do we get the “meh” Kinkaid that we saw for a good chunk of the season before that impressive final stretch? And more importantly, what do we have in Schneider, who’s coming off offseason surgery? Does that procedure allow him to bounce back to form or do we see a continued decline?
I think the Devils will experience a bit of a setback year in 2018-19. A year ago they made a crucial trade to acquire Sami Vatanen, Taylor Hall had an MVP season, and the team rode some of the best special teams in the league, only to clinch a playoff berth in the last week of the regular season. To me, New Jersey’s playoff berth a year ago was the product of a lot of things falling perfectly into place. But the Devils only lost pieces in the offseason, and they’re hoping to replace those pieces from within, and see some nice growth from their younger players on the roster. While not an impossible task, I do think it’s asking a little bit too much. I have New Jersey finishing fifth in the Metropolitan Division, and missing the playoffs.
I guess my bold prediction could be that the Devils will miss the postseason. But instead, my X-factor will be Nico Hischier’s sophomore performance. We all know what we’re going to get out of Taylor Hall. No. 9 is one of the best wingers in the NHL, and his talent and effort level every night are unquestionable. But Nico, like he did last season, has to impress and outperform all expectations for him again for the Devils to make the postseason. His production in the 1C role is simply irreplaceable for New Jersey, and if he struggles to at least replicate his campaign from a year ago, I think New Jersey will have a tough time keeping pace with it’s competition in the Eastern Conference.
You’ve heard from all of us, now we’d like to hear from you; what do you think the Devils will do in the 2018-19 season? Will they be more successful than last year? Will they take a step back? Are they or are they not a playoff team? Any bold predictions or x-factors you see? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!