The Devils have been something of a roller-coaster to watch over the past 7 weeks. A once semi-comfortable playoff position has given way to a much more stressful state of affairs. Particularly of late, the team has been giving its fans whiplash. A post break three-game win streak gave way to another troublesome four-game slide, plunging the Devils into major jeopardy on the playoff bubble. This week, the Devils have again temporarily righted the ship, winning two crucial intra-division games against the Flyers and Hurricanes. Their margin for error remains slim though, and whatever cushion they once had has essentially been burned through in the past month and a half.
The Metropolitan Division slog toward the playoffs is likely to continue apace, but with things being so tight, the Devils feel like a team carrying some major risk right now. The team just cannot afford to have more of the type of losing streaks that have become unfortunately a bit commonplace recently. And while earlier in the year, this team started to feel like it had a lot of depth, of late it seems like an injury to one or two of the wrong people could quickly derail things (to the extent that one might consider them not already derailed). We’ve already seen how injury troubles with Cory Schneider have badly hindered the team, but the risks go beyond the number one goaltender. There are probably a half-dozen people the Devils really need to have a healthy and productive final 25 games to ensure passage to the promised land.
This one obviously goes without saying, but the Devils’ Hart Trophy candidate winger is a player they can ill-afford to have miss any more time this season. Unless some of the other top forwards can step up in a big way, any stretch without Taylor Hall feels like a potential losing streak. Hall is the engine that powers this team right now and he is certainly not immune to injury troubles. Even just this week, he took a big and dangerous hit into the boards against the Flyers. We saw the grim results when he missed about a week back in January where the team managed to get shut out twice in four games. The verdict here is that Taylor Hall is very much banned from getting injured going forward or we’re all screwed.
It’s crazy to think how a player who only had maybe a 5 to 10% chance of ever being on the Devils around the same time last year has become so integral to the team’s fabric and future now. Hischier, prior to this week, had seen his scoring pace slow a bit, but it’s hard to see this team having anywhere in the same area code of success they’ve had without him. Slide Hischier out of this lineup and things get dodgy very quickly. You either have Pavel Zacha promoted to top-line duty or Travis Zajac back as your 1C. Neither is a particularly desirable state of affairs at this moment in time.
This is perhaps a bit of an odd one, given that he has already missed large swaths of time this year, but right now Palmieri might be as important a forward as the Devils have this side of Hall. The Devils have struggled to score in stretches recently and while surprise producers like Brian Gibbons and Brian Boyle helped power things in the first half, the team really lacks a consistent trigger man without Palmieri clicking. The indefinite absence of Marcus Johansson also leaves the Devils short a top-six caliber winger and slowed output from Jesper Bratt has made production from Palmieri a crucial factor for New Jersey.
Schneider is already injured (obviously) so this one is more “get healthy” than “stay healthy” but the issues in Schnieder’s absence have laid bare his importance to the team and the extent to which they need him to be in the lineup and perform. Keith Kinkaid has struggled with a starter’s workload and the options beyond him are, uh, limited. To get home strong, New Jersey needs a fully operational Cory Schneider. So get well soon, 35.
Much digital ink has been spilled on this blog about Damon Severson, but his play recently has really emphasized what makes him so important to this team. No defenseman moves the puck like Severson can right now and the team needs players who can move the needle from the back end like him. A lineup without Severson is one that is hamstrung, and while one might argue that his earlier benching helped spur recent success, the time for lesson-learning is about past with the Devils in a dogfight. Severson staying healthy and continuing to play like he has will be a crucial factor down the stretch.
Vatanen has become one of the major stabilizing forces on the Devils’ blueline since his arrival at the start of December. I would put him below Severson at the moment in overall importance, but perhaps only slightly. Behind Vatanen, things get dicey in a hurry and his presence has been significant in all three phases of play.
Beyond these players, perhaps Andy Greene, even in a declining state is important on the left side and sparks like Jesper Bratt and Miles Wood have roles to play as well, but I'd say the Devils will be looking to the six above to power them down the home stretch. Here's hoping they can all get/stay at something approaching 100% to get the team to the finish line.