The Devils’ return to the playoffs has brought playoff excitement back to the ice in New Jersey, with the Devils battling the heavily favored Tampa Bay Lightning in round one. This series, now 3-1 in Tampa’s favor, has also brought another thing to New Jersey, though: a bit of a reality check. The Devils returned to the playoffs ahead of schedule this season, and should feel good about where they are at this point in the rebuild, but it’s also clear that this rebuild is not over. This isn’t necessarily stating anything we didn’t already know, but as New Jersey attempts to make Tampa sweat in this series, the talent disparity between the teams has been apparent. Tampa has waves and waves of players who can hurt you in an instant and the Devils have, for the most part, Taylor Hall.
It’s not for lack of effort that the Devils haven’t been able to keep up so far. They have gotten good efforts from players other than Hall in this series for sure, with players like Blake Coleman and Will Butcher showing up on a big stage and Travis Zajac being an effective shutdown center. The Devils limitations with the current roster are clear, though. They have plenty of decent or even good players, but for the most part they lack any players outside of Hall who can be a consistent matchup issue for opposing teams. While a team like Tampa can roll three lines of gifted offensive players, the Devils have struggled to find any scoring punch away from their potential MVP winger. The Devils have scored nine non-empty net goals in this series, and Taylor Hall has had points on six of them (with primary points on five). If they hope to come back in this series, they will probably need to have to to a bit more scoring while Taylor Hall is not on the ice.
The question is then who can provide that? Candidates are unfortunately limited. Kyle Pamieri is a talented and capable scoring winger, but he has some limits in his ability to create plays on his own. Marcus Johansson is a quality playmaker in a secondary role, but he is unlikely to carry a line and also just returned from a half season of missed games. Nico Hischier is probably the Devils best hope at a second game-breaker outside of Hall, but you can only ask for so much from a player that just passed his 19th birthday a few months ago. The Devils got by with the secondary scoring they had in the regular season, but in the playoffs where the teams are better and the intensity is higher, having multiple talented lines who can beat defenses consistently becomes that much more crucial.
The most major issue right now for the Devils’ forwards is the situation down the middle. Hischier has been thrust into the first line center role and played well there all season, but it’s a lot to ask of a teenager to be your team’s answer for Steven Stamkos. And behind Hischier is where things really get tough for New Jersey to keep up. Travis Zajac has settled nicely into the checking line center role he’s been destined for for years, but his line realistically won’t provide major scoring punch. Brian Boyle has been a great story and a decent enough fourth line center for the Devils, but he won’t be creating many mismatches either. Having Zajac and Boyle as your third and fourth line centers though isn’t necessarily a major problem. The real problem for New Jersey is the essential non-existence of a threatening second line.
Pavel Zacha has been entrusted with de facto second line center duties for New Jersey and, unfortunately, continues to lack the ability to impact games in that spot. Zacha, while showing flashes of skill and playmaking abilities this season, was again underwhelming production-wise in 2017-18 and that has very-much carried into the playoffs, where he and his line have largely been non-factors. Zacha has no points and just two shots over the first four games against Tampa. I will avoid re-litigating the 2015 draft for the thousandth time in this space, but the bottom line is that Zacha was selected to be a difference-maker for this team, and at this stage he seems unable to be that player. Whether he can still become that player is a separate argument, but at least for now, his line is hamstringing the Devils ability to cause issues for a team like Tampa.
Other players for New Jersey have disappeared at inopportune times in this series as well. Zacha’s linemates to start this series were not much help, as both Patrick Maroon and Miles Wood have been held pointless with Wood’s play in particular being a major issue. Boyle has been held without a point, Michael Grabner has continued his disappearing act, and Drew Stafford has unsurprisingly made no impact since coming in for Grabner in Game 3. The defensive depth issues have been pretty clear as well for New Jersey, with Gerard touching on some of them in his post yesterday. To illustrate why the Devils now find themselves in the position they are in vs Tampa, though, there is one stat that tells the story pretty well: the Lightning have eight players with three or more points in this and the Devils have... two.
This isn’t to say the Devils have no chance to come back in this series (this is the NHL, after all). The Devils have shown a remarkable amount of resilience this season, between their ability to come back in individual games and their late season surge when their backs were against the wall. But it’s a significant uphill battle for New Jersey given the disparity in rosters between them and the Lightning and with the hole they now find themselves in. Even if the Devils are able to push this series the distance or even get past Tampa, Ray Shero should recognize that there is significantly more work to do to complete this rebuild and make this team a perennial contender. In the immediate future though, the Devils are going to need more of their non-Taylor Hall players to make themselves heard if they want to climb back into this series.