Last season was a resurgent campaign for the New Jersey Devils. After years in the NHL doldrums, the team became a competitive and exciting team that battled their way into the playoffs for the first time since 2012. A number of factors contributed to the Devils’ success, but the clear-cut biggest driver of the team’s return to the playoffs came from one player in particular: Taylor Hall. Hall’s dominance relative to the output of his teammates was a truly rare feat and it helped drive voters to deservedly anoint him last years league MVP. But while Hall may yet have more herculean efforts up his sleeve, the team’s model for success in 2017-18 was probably not the most sustainable one.
Behind Hall, there were certainly some impressive and surprising seasons in New Jersey, but the team overall had a serious scoring deficiency compared to the league at large. Hall finished sixth in the league in scoring, but no other Devil even cracked the top 100 in league scoring. Only three other teams failed to have multiple players in the top 100 in scoring: the Blackhawks, the Canadiens, and the Rangers, all of whom finished in the bottom eight in the standings. Nico Hischier was the Devils next highest ranked scorer at #102 and even after Hischier, there was another substantial dropoff to Will Butcher and Kyle Palmieri at #148.
It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that teams who have substantial depth in scoring are mostly going to be found at the top of the standings, but it’s still a point worth reiterating when discussing the Devils chances to make a return to the playoffs. The best teams in the league are rarely so reliant on one scorer like the Devils were and if they hope to take a step forward, or even tread water, in 2018-19, they likely need more players to step up and produce. Of the final eight teams in last year’s postseason, only the Sharks had fewer than four 50-point scorers (they had three), and New Jersey was one of only three teams (out of nine total) with fewer than three 50-point scorers to make the playoffs. The bottom line being: if the Devils want to sustain this success, they need more players to produce.
The Search for Depth
So who will the Devils look to for production in 2018-19? Some of the answers to that question are obvious, but the team will need more than just the obvious contributors to produce to create some real scoring depth. Which players can they expect to improve/rebound and which will they have to hope for a surprise season from? How many 50-point scorers can the team reasonably expect to have? Last season, the line of demarcation between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ when it came to scoring depth was four players of 50 points or more. Above that line, 11 out of 16 teams (69%) made the playoffs, whereas below that line, only 5 of 15 (33%) made it.
So for the Devils, the goal would ostensibly be to produce four 50-point players. If we travel back through the Devils recent history, we see a bunch of seasons with two or fewer 50-point scorers where the Devils missed the playoffs (including an unpleasant ‘zero’ in 2014-15). The number of 50-point players when they made the Cup final in 2012? Four. And they were pretty reliably hitting that mark when they were winning division titles in the late aughts. So lets break it down into categories based on likelihood or reaching that plateau.
Tier 1 - Duh
Barring a significant injury, Hall not reaching 50 points would obviously be an enormous shock, given he put up an 82-game pace of double that in 2017-18.
Tier 2 - The Rest of the Core
Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmieri
Behind Hall, the second wave of Devils the team will be leaning on to create goals are these two. As we know, Hischier put up over 50 points as a rookie teenager, so even a modest step forward in his second season would put him comfortably over that threshold. Hischier, after his success as a rookie, is obviously a pillar that the Devils plan to build any future success on, so in his sophomore campaign, the expectations will now be elevated a bit for the young Swiss forward.
Meanwhile, Palmieri will look to continue what has been a very productive run in black and red since his arrival. The Devils are still a team that seems to lack quality trigger men at times, but Palmieri is the exception, as he is 30th in the league in goals since his arrival three summers ago. Injuries shortened his season last year to prevent him from reaching 50 points for the first time as a Devil, but if he stays relatively healthy, the expectation will be for him to reach that level again.
Tier 3 - The Maybes
Marcus Johansson, Will Butcher
Among the rest of the roster, I would put these two players as the most likely to potentially get the Devils their fourth 50-point scorer. Johansson has only eclipsed the mark once, in his season prior to coming to New Jersey, but he was just short the two seasons prior and should get significant minutes to make it happen this season with the big caveat being his health after an injury-ravaged 2017-18.
Will Butcher, who collected 44 points in his rookie campaign, represents the other player that has a good shot at 50 this season. He showed great ability to move the puck and run a power play as a rookie and put up his point total while getting relatively limited minutes. On the flip side, fewer than 20 defenders across the league reached 50 points, so it’s far from a slam dunk to expect that from a sophomore defenseman who will likely be getting minutes with a bit higher difficulty level this year.
Tier 4 - The Wild Cards
Pavel Zacha, Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood, Sami Vatanen
In this group, I would say that I’m not necessarily expecting any of these players to reach the 50-point plateau, but I think among the rest of the roster, these are the guys who might at least have a punchers chance. Pavel Zacha has looked the part in stretches, but still has yet to prove he can consistently produce at something approaching a top-six level. If we see the Jesper Bratt from the first half of last season, he might have the best shot of this group, but that is a big if for the young winger as his late-season struggles are well-documented. Miles Wood took a big step forward last season, but would have to take an equally large step forward this season to get into the 50-point range. It’s unlikely, but Wood was a very good even-strength scorer in limited minutes, so he’s a potential dark horse, particularly if he finds his way onto a productive PP unit. Sami Vatanen had a very productive season after coming over from the Ducks, but it also ended up being the first season he ever broke 40 points, so 50 is probably a stretch.
Tier 5 - The Longshots
Travis Zajac, Stefan Noesen, Blake Coleman, Damon Severson
If any of these guys were to reach 50 points, that would be hugely surprising (and probably a very good sign for New Jersey), but they are likely the only guys among the rest with any longshot chance. Zajac reached the 50-point level once upon a time, but has only really sniffed it again a couple times since the back-to-back 60-point campaigns of his ZZ-Pops glory days. Noesen and Coleman were breakout players for New Jersey, but they would also have to essentially double their output to get there. And Damon Severson has always shown talent as a puck mover from the blue line, but he’s only cracked even 30 points once. The overwhelming odds are against any of these guys driving the Devils scoring, but a big season from one of them might be at least in the general realm of posibility.
Can They Get There?
At least on paper, it seems like the Devils have a reasonable chance of coming away with a fairly deep scoring team. Things probably have to break their way a bit to reach that magic number of four, but this is a roster that was already middle of the pack in league scoring last year (14th overall). If they can stay healthy and have some of their young guns take a modest step forward, reaching four 50-point scorers and perhaps even breaking into the top-10 in overall scoring seem reasonably within reach for this roster. They will be relying on their best scorers, Hall, Hischier, and Palmieri, to create the foundation to build on, but even beyond them, the team does not necessarily lack secondary scoring options. Questions remain about the Devils having a complete enough roster overall to return to the playoffs, but at the very least, it seems like this will be a fun team to watch.
All stats retrieved via the invaluable Hockey-Reference Play Index.