Yesterday, I wrote up about the New Jersey Devils players who are entering contract years in 2018-19 who also have the most to prove. Sure, anyone about to be up for a new deal wants to have a good season. But I believe some have more incentive than others. I wrote about who among the pending UFAs, RFAs, and RFAs not with New Jersey really has a lot more to gain with a good season than others. Today is Part 2: the Devils who have the most to prove who are not entering contract years. These are the players who are signed beyond 2018-19 but would benefit greatly by doing well in this coming season. Let’s get to it.
In a way, this is an odd choice. By all accounts, Jesper Bratt had a successful 2017-18 season. He was a standout in prospect games last Summer, he impressed the organization in training camp, and he was so good early on in 2017-18 that he was playing on a first line with Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier. All in his first season of ever playing pro hockey in North America and at the age of 19. Bratt finished the season in fifth on the Devils in points with 35 in 74 games; with 13 goals, 22 assists, and 100 shots. That’s quite good for any rookie. Given that Bratt was a sixth round draft pick in 2016, no one expected this much for him and definitely not this soon. So what does he really have to prove?
Plenty. While Bratt played quite a bit with Hall and Hischier, that did not last throughout the season. Kyle Palmieri, who was injured through most of the first half of the season, would return and - more importantly - Bratt’s play dropped off. Check out his monthly splits at Hockey-Reference. From October to January, Bratt put up 5 to 10 points in each month and averaged over 16 minutes per game. That’s not Calder-worthy material, but it is quite good. From February onward, Bratt’s ice time dropped and his production dried up. In that month of January, Bratt was taken off power plays and he was moved away from Hall and Hischier. Palmieri took that spot and Bratt struggled away from the two best forwards on the team. For evidence of that, here’s Bratt’s with-or-without you 5-on-5 stats at Natural Stat Trick. With Hall and Hischier, things were not too bad. They were not amazing or even completely break-even, but it was not heinous. Not as heinous as Bratt’s 5-on-5 numbers away from #9 and #13. Going from a bit over 49% CF% with Hall and Hischier to being 42% without Hall and 44% without Hischier shows that opponents enjoyed Bratt away from them. And given that Bratt’s skillset is offensive, that represents struggles for the young winger. Again, his whole season was a success - but we did not get positive answer to the question, “What can he do when he plays with others?”
That question will come up again. I have no doubts that Bratt will be a NHL player in 2018-19 and for seasons to come. But he’s going into this Fall’s training camp with a healthy Kyle Palmieri ahead of him plus a healthy Marcus Johansson, who was used as a right wing to at least start last season. Bratt may not be a lock for a top-six forward role. Again, he did not do well outside of such a role last season. It would be a great improvement if Bratt can still perform and perhaps even push Palmieri or Johansson for a top-six position. If he struggles again, then we have to wonder if his ceiling is not as high as we may have thought when flying up the right side alongside Hall and Hischier back in the Fall of 2017.
Damon Severson is in an odd spot. Back in 2017, the Devils and Severson agreed to a 6-year, $25 million contract. As of right now, no other Devil is on the books for longer than him. That will probably change in July 2019, but Severson is committed through the 2022-23 season. His salary is not exorbitant with a cap hit of $4.16 million per year; not that the cap is remotely close to being an issue for the Devils (as of this writing, they have the most space in the league). Plus, he’s that vaunted “puck moving defenseman,” as he is quite good at distribution and his own shot is not that bad. And, yet, he has been a healthy scratch multiple times last season and even in one playoff game.
For whatever reason, head coach John Hynes and his staff does not always think highly of Severson. Sure, I can understand and even appreciate a coach benching a player for poor play. But Severson was doing the best he can with a defensive liability named John Moore on his pairing last season. Check out his 5-on-5 with-or-without-you stats at Natural Stat Trick. With Moore, the Devils were out-shot, out-attempted, out-chanced, and even out-scored. When Severson was away from Moore, the numbers all went in the right direction, which indicates that the play was better for the Devils with Severson apart from Moore. Yet, Moore-Severson was kept being thrown out there. And did Moore get punished for his errors? No. Severson? Yep, as Mirco Mueller took his spot towards the end of last season. Severson eventually did make it back into the lineup during the Tampa Bay series - a lineup he never should have left to begin with if you believe a team should play their 18 best skaters in the playoffs.
Also consider what happened in 2016-17. Greene and Severson were together for most of the first half of the season. While they did not set the world on fire, Severson was replaced by his opposite: Ben Lovejoy. Whereas Severson could skate well, Lovejoy was slow. Whereas Severson could make a good first pass and make reads from the blueline, Lovejoy handled pucks like they were grenades and often had to defer in breakout situations. Whereas Severson could help the run of play not be terrible, Lovejoy was often overwhelmed and was an anchor. Especially for Greene, which was a big component of his struggles in that season. This is not to say that Severson has no flaws, but an objective eye cannot conclude that Lovejoy was a fair replacement for Severson, never mind an upgrade. This is further evidenced by the fact that Lovejoy played much better last season. That was in a more limited and less challenging role alongside a defenseman who can do the things he does not do well in Will Butcher. Still, Severson was demoted in favor of a player who made things worse for Greene and the Devils on a top defenseman pairing and that lasted for most of the second half of last season.
So 2017-18 was the second straight year of Hynes not really utilizing Severson to the best of his abilities. This does not make sense. Management clearly thought highly of his abilities to give him a long-term deal that paid well. Yet, the coach and his staff treats Severson as if he’s more on the fringe than his contract and talent states. What Severson has to prove is not that he’s necessarily the best right-handed shooting defenseman on the Devils, but to earn some respect from the guys behind the bench. While he’s 23, this is not a young player who is early in development and can grow out of things. He’s played in over 280 NHL games across the regular season and playoffs. His skillset is known. He’s not on an ELC, he got the big contract that will take him through the prime years of his career. I get it, he can take avoidable penalties and he doesn’t clear creases, but the discipline can be worked on and asking Severson to clear creases is like asking The Devils are in the middle of receiving the best of what he can offer - yet Severson has to prove that he should be put in positions to succeed in.
Without John Moore and a player to immediately take that spot, we’ll see who the coaches may be thinking about who to pair with Severson in camp. But if the trust is not there and Severson is held back, so to speak, then one really has to question what the issue is. Again, management thought well enough of Severson to give him his current contract but the coaches do not want to play him like that. Unfortunately for Severson, it would be in his best interest to play so well that Hynes and his crew would have to be real dumb to not play him like he should be played. Given that Hynes’ own contract was extended by a year as a result of making the playoffs, he cannot afford to be really dumb in 2018-19.
This is more for the Devils than it is for Schneider, though I imagine there is a point of pride at stake too. Let’s go back to 2013. The Devils had the ninth-overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, which was held at the Prudential Center. They used it - to trade it to Vancouver for Cory Schneider. Schneider was a talented goaltender who was stuck behind one of the best goalies of his generation, Roberto Luongo. Schneider came to New Jersey was, well, stuck behind Martin Brodeur in what would turn out to be Brodeur’s last full season ever in his long career. But Schneider got his time to shine in 2014-15, which was a contract year for him, and he did well. Even if the guys in front of him were not so hot, he did well enough for management to bet on Schneider being the Devils’ goalie for a long time. A seven-year, $42 million bet. To this day, only Severson is on the books for longer than Schneider.
Since then, things have not gone so smoothly. Schneider did rather well in 2015-16. One could argue he and the team were a bit too good since that was the season where Ray Shero started to tear down the team in a re-building effort. But, hey, you pay the man to be a $6 million goalie and he played more or less like a $6 million goalie could in that situation. Schneider not that good in 2016-17; but again, the team was re-building and they were really bad. This past season, however, created more doubt for Schneider. He was bouncing back just fine for the first three months of 2017-18. He did suffer a lower-body injury in October but he came back more than fine from it. But January was bad as he followed up overall save percentages of 92.4% and 92.3% from November and December with an 87% stinker in January. (Numbers from Hockey-Reference.) Plus, Schneider pulled his groin on January 23 and was put on IR for it in February. Keith Kinkaid emerged at this time as Schneider was out for the whole month. He would return in March - and flop. As Kinkaid was the hotter goalie, he took the #1 job as the Devils entered the postseason. A not-so-good performance by Kinkaid in Game 2 allowed Schneider to get another crack at the crease in that game. Schneider stopped all ten shots and proceeded to own the crease in Games 3, 4, and 5 where Schneider only allowed six total goals out of 109 shots against (aside: Yes, the Devils allowed 36, 36, and 37 shots). It was a reminder that the man had game. Yet, injury crept up again as an issue as news came out in April that Schneider needed hip surgery. While successful, the recovery time involved makes it likely that he misses camp and the start of the 2018-19 season.
This means there is legitimate reason to doubt what value Schneider can provide for this coming season. One of the reasons why I did not mind the term on his current contract was because he did not have a lot of mileage on his body compared to most goalies in their late 20s. Last season showed me up; his hip and groin certainly were not counting games to become issues. Schneider has been so talented before; yet Kinkaid was the better goalie down the stretch of last season. Goaltending is a tough position where a bad run of games at a bad time could lead to a demotion on the depth chart. Combined with the inherent “What have you done for me lately?” mindset in sports from fans, coaches, and management, and I cannot say that Hynes made a bad decision in letting Kinkaid keep getting minutes over Schneider. His poor run in 2017-18 undermined - statistically and by memory - the good things from the start of 2017-18 means that this is a second bad season in a row for Schneider. There are four more seasons on his contract, starting with 2018-19 and he’s going to turn 33 in this coming season. It is not wrong to think that the future is not bright and sunny for Schneider.
It is dimmer for the organization. Since they bet big on Schneider, they are stuck with the contract for the time being. The Devils have rich owners and huge tracts of cap space, so it is not a big deal now. But if he comes back and does not play well, the Devils may have to just suffer from it. A buyout would be a huge cost to the team. Maybe it is an option with one or two years left, but definitely not now or next season. With the contract lasting for three more seasons after 2018-19, I cannot imagine there would be a team willing to take on such a deal should Schneider get even worse. Not that a trade would be easy since he as a no trade clause, which gives him some leverage. Never mind that no team would likely be interested in taking a potentially-poor-performing Schneider anyway.
And it’s not that the Devils have anyone to force their hand or replace the goalie. The Devils’ goaltending depth is not at all anything to be confident in. Keith Kinkaid got hot enough last season to earn favor from coaches and fans to believe he can be a stand-in as Schneider recovers. But that’s a lot of faith to put into a 29-year goalie who has never really had good looking numbers. Sure, an overall save percentage of 91.6% in 2016-17 and 91.3% in 2017-18 are better than what he had before but they are not good compared to most goalies in the league. Kinkaid may hope to be a #1 goalie in this league, but I don’t see that window of opportunity for him. Not at this age, not with his talent, and not with what he has done so far - two-ish months of being hot aside. But Kinkaid is at least a NHL-caliber goalie. I cannot really say the same for #3 man Eddie Lack or any of the goalies in the system. MacKenzie Blackwood has done nothing in the AHL to make me think he has a future. Ken Appleby made it to the NHL for a few appearances but did not so well enough for the Devils to even give him a qualifying offer (and he’s gone). Cam Johnson just went pro in March last season; he’s an unknown. Gilles Senn and Akira Schmid are also unknown. We can hope upon hope that one of the goalies in the system can make some big gains for the future, but there is not much of a reason to be confident.
For 2018-19 to be another playoff-bound or at least contending-for-a-playoff-spot season, the Devils are going to need some solid goaltending throughout the season. This will mean that Schneider has to come back from injury and play well right away. (It will also mean that Kinkaid has to put in more consistent performances. A repeat of his 2017 would only work if the Devils somehow score a whole lot and, let’s face it, that’s not something to reasonably expect.) If Schneider can do that, then this potential big problem becomes a much smaller concern for the organization. At least there would be confidence that the Devils have a #1 goalie. If Schneider struggles and/or gets hurt again, then the Devils’ crease and his contract becomes a real big problem.
In addition to who I identified in Part 1, I believe Bratt, Severson, and Schneider have the most to gain among the players on the team who are not entering contract years. Whether it is for their short-term futures within the organization or for the organization itself, it would be most beneficial if they put in strong performances in 2018-19. Especially for Schneider since he is a goaltender. But that is how I see it. How do you see it? Among the players who are not up for a new contract after 2018-19, who has the most to prove on this team? Who stands to gain the most with a strong 2018-19 performance? Please leave your answers and your other thoughts about Bratt, Severson, and Schneider in the comments. Thank you for reading.