As John wrote last week, the New Jersey Devils are looking at another season of tanking. It was not the goal, this was not a team tanking or even stealth tanking like Detroit has been doing this season. This was a team looking to improve and do well so it could re-sign Taylor Hall and get positive years out of cheap contracts from Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. Alas, it is not to be, and the tank is absolutely happening.
The question I have then, is how will that affect the lineup and lineup decisions moving forward? Interim head coach Alain Nasreddine will want to put out the best lineup night in and night out so he can prove he is a competent coach, something he has struggled to do so far to start his tenure. However, for the organization, the best option in a tank is to put players in the best positions to develop and grow, regardless of whether it gives the team a better chance to win or not in the immediate future.
Given that, first off, I agree that the sooner Ray Shero can trade Hall, the better it probably is. There are obvious reasons for that, as Hall is currently healthy, and teams might pay more for him now since they will have a longer rental period with him this year. But also, if he is dealt, that opens up a spot on the top line for other players to gain experience there. Now, playing alongside Hall is in and of itself a great learning experience, so it is not necessarily bad the longer he remains as long as he stays healthy. But if he does go, someone else can jump in on a more permanent basis and play on the top line alongside Hischier or Hughes and Kyle Palmieri. You can debate who that could or should be, Jesper Bratt or Jesper Boqvist or someone else, but the point is that someone could, and that could be some quality developmental experience that happens this season instead of another.
And in that same vein, younger players can begin to get more playing time the rest of the way. If Shero moves Hall and Miles Wood as has been rumored is possible, that would open up spots. Why not give Michael McLeod a longer look at this point? He is a former first round choice and has 21 career NHL games. He was not that great last season, but there is no reason not to see whether or not he has grown or can grow more by having more playing time in the NHL. Jesper Boqvist has been given random minutes with the top line at times too. If they think he has that kind of potential, why not try it for a longer period? That way, they can see if he can develop and adjust to that level of play.
And that is just a few possibilities on the offensive side of things. Defensively, what about Ty Smith? Yes it would burn a year of his ELC if he plays a lot this season, so I can see the reason not to, but if the coaching staff thinks he is ready, bringing him up this year and letting him develop now to the NHL game could pay dividends as early as next year. If Shero wants to keep his job, this team cannot tank again next year, and having Smith be a plus player for this team sooner than later can only help that cause. Getting him quality experience alongside the likes of PK Subban or Sami Vatanen or Damon Severson this year could really give him a jump forward that would not otherwise happen while playing for Spokane.
Now, doing these things would obviously weaken the Devils lineup for this year. Going from Hall to Boqvist as a left wing regular on the top line this season is a serious downgrade, no matter what Boqvist eventually turns out to be. Giving McLeod regular minutes this season is most likely a downgrade, given how green he is, and how non-spectacular he looked last year. And despite his clear talent, Smith could be a downgrade this season too, given he does not have any regular season NHL games. These moves would not be a benefit to the team’s chances of success this season, and would definitely make Nasreddine’s job of keeping his interim job as long as possible quite difficult.
However, for the health of the organization moving forward, perhaps as early as next season, making the commitment to play some of the younger, greener talent now could pay off. It gives the coaching staff loads of game tape by which to evaluate the talent that this organization has. They can make a determination of what type of players some of these guys are, and plan accordingly for the future. What priorities they should target in free agency and the draft in the upcoming year or years could become more clear based on the performance of these players over a half a season of NHL playtime.
It will be an interesting dynamic to see moving forward. Will they continue to just play the best lineup period in an attempt to become relevant again this season, or will they accept that the tank is happening and alter their lineup decisions accordingly? Nasreddine obviously will want to do the former to get as many wins as possible, but if Shero overrides him, we may see the team ice some younger lineups, especially once the calendar turns.