The New Jersey Devils are struggling to keep pace with other teams in the Eastern Conference this year. More troubling perhaps is the fact that there have been a number of games where they’ve either led and blown the lead, or outright been decimated by their opposition. While some (a lot?) of that can fall on coaching, some of it also has to fall to the fact that the Devils simply don’t have enough players who can take control of a game yet to be considered a true Stanley Cup contender. These players don’t exactly grow on trees either; you have to be lucky, or good enough to draft and sign enough of these players at one time.
The Devils realistically have one, maybe two players who can dominate and take over the pace of the game for sections at a time. Taylor Hall is absolutely an impact player by this definition, as he single-handedly carries the Devils for periods at a time. Jersey’s Team has certainly missed Hall during this stretch that he has been absent; he plays hard, records points and makes match-ups more difficult for other teams.
I would argue that Nico Hischier is evolving into an impact player as well. In only his second full season in the NHL, Nico has 29 points in 38 games played, good for a pace of 63 points over a full 82 games. He’s also quickly becoming an all situations player, as he’s obviously used at even strength and on the PP, but Coach John Hynes has also been turning to Nico on the PK either during extended kills or when one of his usual top four choices (Travis Zajac, Blake Coleman, Pavel Zacha and Brian Boyle) are unavailable. While he’s not Hall-esque in controlling games, he’s shown enough flashes of brilliance to believe he could travel that path.
The Devils may have an impact defender in the pipeline in Ty Smith; even with his success in juniors, it is still too early to say whether he will be impactful, serviceable, or even possibly underwhelming at the NHL level. Again, based off of his play to this point in time and his draft pedigree, he should at least be serviceable, but he is currently an unknown quantity, as is the problem with most draft choices. Ditto that for goalie MacKenzie Blackwood; while he is now in the realm of professional hockey, his sample size in the NHL is too small to yet know if he’ll be someone who can take control of games or if he’s just a flash in the pan.
Some draft choices are not unknown quantities; while Hischier wasn’t projected to be a franchise-defining level talent, it was widely believed that he would be an NHL player, and he has shown that to be true. Players such as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews were talents seen as elite before even playing an NHL game and they proved it rather quickly upon entering the league, but these players are very few and far between. So how exactly does a team go about acquiring impact players without having the first overall pick?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this question and even a first overall isn’t a sure thing as Edmonton would surely tell you about with Nail Yakupov. Smart drafting does help though; look at a team such as the Tampa Bay Lightning and how many players they have on their roster that they drafted and developed. Sure they have a former first overall in Steven Stamkos, but they’ve found success in round two (Nikita Kucherov) and round three (Brayden Point) of the draft for players who can have a profound impact on any game. That’s without even going beyond their forwards as well!
A trade can get an impact player on a team as well, however the Devils don’t have much in the way of trade-able assets at the moment. It worked more than once in the past, for example when the Devils acquired Jason Arnott from Edmonton, which helped set the stage for the team to win the 2000 Stanley Cup. I could see the Devils sending some players packing at this year’s trade deadline, but there won’t be anything more than picks or prospects coming back even if they choose to trade a higher value piece as Marcus Johansson could be.
The best hope for Jersey? First that Ty Smith pans out and is more than just an offensive defender at the NHL level, because right now the Devils have no impact player on the back end. Similarly, the team was blessed with one of the biggest impact players of all time in Martin Brodeur for over two decades; if MacKenzie Blackwood can have some level of impact in net, it will be better than the quality in net of the past couple of seasons. The Devils will still need a few more players, but improving the rest of the roster can attract impactful players to the team.
What do you think of the Devils roster right now; do they truly need more impact players or just solid NHLers? Do you believe the biggest problem lies in the team’s defense or goaltending? Are there any other prospects that you are excited for that you believe could make a big impact at the NHL level? Leave any and all comments below and thank you as always for reading.