As CJ wrote about the other day, there are many out there who think that the New Jersey Devils made the playoffs mostly because they were lucky last season, and this season we should all expect regression and be ready for a team that will be mediocre at best. In this thought process, the idea of them really competing for a playoff position is not in the cards.
Of course, as CJ noted from following a fabulous luck-tracking model (I considered writing an article about it this summer, but I’m glad he went with it), the Devils were not overly lucky last season. Their PDO and wins lost due to injury were particularly unlucky. The one area that the team was most certainly lucky was with special teams, and this is probably especially true on the power play more so than the penalty kill.
Nonetheless, given the somewhat pessimistic sentiment surrounding this team from some pundits and fans, I wanted to spend today making a positive prediction about this team this season. Last season, there were exactly 21 skaters who scored 20 or more goals at 5 on 5 play. New Jersey had one such skater, obviously Taylor Hall who scored exactly 20 goals at 5v5 action. There were four teams that had more than one player in that category last season. Minnesota had both Eric Staal and Jason Zucker reach that plateau; Philadelphia had both Claude Giroux and Travis Konecny; Toronto had Auston Matthews and James van Riemsdyk; Tampa Bay had Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point. Not only were all four of those teams playoff teams last season, but they all received divisional playoff bids instead of sitting in a wild card position like the Devils did. Now, that obviously is not solely because of 20 goal scorers at 5v5, but it does go to show that having multiple forwards who can score regularly at 5 on 5 is extremely valuable to any team, and also not something that is all that easy to come by.
For today, I want to predict that this season, New Jersey will be one of those select teams that has two players achieve the 20 goal plateau. To achieve this success, the Devils will very much be banking on Hall playing at a similar level to what he did last season. The odds of this team getting two 20 goal scorers at 5v5 action without Hall being one of those two players are basically zero. If Hall does reach that milestone once again, however, then I think the Devils’ chances of having two forwards in this category are fairly decent.
The player that I think has the best chance of reaching that 20 goal milestone would be Nico Hischier of course. Last season, he produced 18 goals at 5 on 5. Since the Cup run in 2012, the only other Devil besides Taylor Hall to score that many goals in one season at 5v5 was Adam Henrique, when he scored exactly 18 5v5 goals during the 2015-16 season. The fact that Hischier was able to do something that most all Devils have not been able to do since 2012 is just another indicator of his talent. And given that he now has a full year of experience in the NHL and also a full year gelling with his linemates, especially Hall, I think that bodes really well for his chances at 20+ 5v5 goals. Realistically, the two of them can work together on the same top line to dominate the competition, and between them just run up their goal totals at even strength. This would be great for my prediction obviously, but it would also be great for the Devils, giving them much needed offensive production in all scenarios.
If Hischier is not the answer, however, there are still a couple other options for my prediction to hold true. The first player that comes to mind is Kyle Palmieri. He spent a lot of time last season with Hall and Hischier, and benefitted from their play. He had only 12 5v5 goals in 62 games played last season, but if he were able to produce 30 goals overall this upcoming season like he did in 2015-16, it could stand to reason that he could produce 20 of those goals at 5v5. However, he has never reached that plateau before, so the odds are not incredibly great.
Another option, while not as obvious on the surface, would be Miles Wood. Last year, Wood had 16 goals at 5 on 5. That was more than any Devil had in 2013-14, 2014-15, and 2016-17. He only had 19 goals total all last season, but an astounding 16 of those came during 5v5. If he takes a jump forward with his game this season, a definite possibility, that jump could easily come from his game at even strength, where clearly he was at his best offensively last year. He would only need to score 4 more 5v5 goals to reach the 20 goal milestone. Again, the odds of that are definitely not as good as Hischier doing it, but you might say Wood’s odds are better than Palmieri’s, or at least as good.
Beyond them, real dark horses to reach the milestone could be Marcus Johansson or Jesper Bratt. I don’t particularly think either player has much of a chance, but Johansson will be a staple top 6 winger if he stays healthy, and Bratt played more time last year alongside Hall and Hischer than anyone else, even Palmieri, so that alone could boost his chances. I guess you could also mention Pavel Zacha, but he has not shown that kind of offensive firepower yet in his career, nor would I bank on it.
So in the end, I think there are four realistic options on New Jersey to reach 20 5v5 goals this season. Hall of course has the best odds, and if NJ is to have two players reach that plateau, he really needs to be one of those players. Beyond him, I think Hischier has a real strong chance, given he already had 18 last year as a rookie. If he falters, however, I still think Palmieri and Wood have decent enough chances to make me feel fairly confident about my prediction. Now, if the Devils do manage to get two forwards with 20+ 5v5 goals, does that automatically mean a playoff berth? Of course not, but it does give them a boost, and helps to buck this regression trend surrounding NJ right now.