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A Decade of Necessary Changes Part 8: The 2016-17 New Jersey Devils

The 2010s are ending and so will end a decade of New Jersey Devils hockey where past glories ended and difficult necessary changes were to be made. This is the eighth part of a series where the season was terrible and dismal and Nico Hischier became the first #1 overall draft pick by the Devils team.

2017 NHL Draft - Portraits
The 2016-17 season itself stunk. But it did give us Nico.
Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2010s will end on January 1, 2020. It was a tumultuous ten years for the New Jersey Devils franchise. Big trades, a player controversy, and massive changes in ownership, management, coaches, and players surround seasons where the Devils fell from past glories. It is not a decade that will be fondly remembered with some exceptions. It is a decade that forced the Devils to make some difficult, messy, and necessary changes. And as this decade closes, we can only hope that the changes that continue to be made will lead the Devils back to making the playoffs regularly, challenging for Stanley Cups, and perhaps being the model franchise for others once again. Before it ends, let us look back one more time at the 2010s with a now daily series of posts summarizing each of the previous ten seasons up to New Year’s Day.

In the eighth part of this series, this post will summarize the 2016-17 season. The previous season was pleasantly surprising and an overachivement. This one was a slog to watch and write about as it happened. Plenty of players were not performing well. The harsh reality is that a rebuilding team means suffering through some really poor seasons in the hopes of getting premier prospects for a better tomorrow. Knowing that did not make the experience any better.

This is meant to be an overview of that season and the resulting offseason. I hope to capture all of the major events. And if you feel there were things I missed or there was someone or something that you really liked (or disliked) that should have been highlighted, then feel free to share it in the comments.

The 2016-17 Season

The Record: 28-40-14, 70 points, Eighth in the Metropolitan Division (Source: Hockey-Reference)

The Head Coach: John Hynes

The Team Captain: Andy Greene

The Top Scorers: A tie. Kyle Palmieri - 26 goals, 27 assists, 192 shots, 53 points; Taylor Hall - 20 goals, 33 assists, 238 shots, 53 points

The AAtJ Season Preview: For this season, we expanded the season preview to eight parts with a part devoted solely to fantasy hockey with respect to the Devils. Our predictions for the season were in the eighth and final part. All of the parts can be accessed in this section.

The Biggest In-Season Move: There were plenty of moves by Shero but none could really be described as big. Vernon Fiddler being dealt for a fourth rounder? P.A. Parenteau going for a sixth rounder? Kyle Quincey for Dalton Prout? No, no, and no. While Parenteau put up some production for a waiver wire pick up (which technically happened before the 2016-17 season), the bigger move was picking up Stefan Noesen off waivers on January 25. Noesen did not produce a lot but he was filling in a bottom-six right wing position while also not being young. Noesen would go on to make his mark in the following season. As with a lot of 2016-17, it was middling. As were the other in-season moves.

A more significant move for the organization was reported in late January. On January 25, Pete Dougherty of the Albany Times-Union reported that the Albany Devils would be moving to Binghamton for the 2017-18 season. The Devils’ second term in New York’s capital city lasted for seven seasons. For the second time in the decade, the Devils’ AHL affiliate would move to a new city. The team in Albany at the time was not bad. They would go on to make the playoffs for the second straight season. However, attendance was the worst in the AHL, and the costs were more trouble than it was worth. After the news that the Binghamton Senators were moving to Belleville, Binghamton’s arena staff was able to make a sweeter deal to convince the Devils to move there. They took it. The news became official on January 31.

Playoffs?: No. The Devils bottomed out in 2016-17 and finished dead last in the Eastern Conference and 25 points behind the second wild card owner, Toronto. The 70 points earned in this season would be the fewest among all of the seasons covered in this retrospective series. I really hope the 2019-20 team does not challenge for that “honor.”

The Months in Review: Here is a link to each of the Months in Review for the season - which includes the Devil of the Month (DotM).

Yes, December 2016 was bad enough for me to declare that no one would Devil of the Month. I have done that for past honorable mentions and even axed the runner-up for a few seasons. Never for the actual Devil of the Month. That should tell you how awful 2016-17 was at points. I also formally brought back honorable mentions in January 2017’s month in review.

The Player Awards by the Blog: Once again, the staff came together ahead of the end of the regular season and decided on the player awards for the 2016-17 season. The final three games did not really impact the results of who we voted for. Here is the full post on who we picked; here were the notable results:

  • MVP: Taylor Hall
  • Best Defenseman: Damon Severson
  • Best Goaltender: Cory Schneider
  • Best Rookie: Pavel Zacha
  • Best Defensive Forward: Travis Zajac
  • Best Offensive Forward: Taylor Hall
  • The Sergei Brylin Award for Versatility: Travis Zajac

The 2016-17 Season Stats: This is similar to the charts in the By the Numbers sections in the current month in reviews. For this series, I put 5-on-5 stats, expected goals for 5-on-5 and all situations, power play, and penalty kill stats all in one chart for the season. Rankings in green were top ten in the league in 2016-17; red is for stats in the bottom ten. The stats primarily come from Natural Stat Trick with special teams stats being pulled from

2016-17 New Jersey Devils Stats and NHL Ranks
2016-17 New Jersey Devils Stats and NHL Ranks
Natural Stat Trick and

2019 Thoughts About the 2016-17 Season: It was a rough one to witness and write about then. It is a rough one to look back at. Whatever that went right in 2015-16 seemingly did not go so well in 2016-17 and that led to a lot of losing. The Devils’ offense was still well behind everyone else’s in the NHL. The defensive efforts were weaker. The sticks on the power play was not not hot so the power play was not as successful. The penalty kill was surprisingly vulnerable. There were no pleasant surprises like Lee Stempniak or a hot streak of scoring from unlikely players like Bobby Farnham or Devante Smith-Pelly. P.A. Parenteau was it and even that was just 13 goals and 27 points. A lot of younger Devils in the organization received chances to perform and few made their case for more minutes. Pavel Zacha jumped right into the NHL and there were more than a few nights where you wondered why he did. Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid were not bad as a whole but definitely not as good as in 2015-16. Knowing that Schneider had surgery in the 2016 offseason makes me wonder whether that was the start of his decline. Support for Kinkaid grew by season’s end and 2017-18 would only make it more vocal. Still, that was the least of the Devils’ concerns as they had a team that was not that fast and definitely not attacking or supportive.

Fans are generally fickle and the team’s setbacks in 2016-17 started to call into question whether Shero and Hynes were the right ones to lead the Devils into a new era. Winning only three games since the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline will do that. (That was an impressive amount of futility.) However, the Devils were just in their second season in a rebuild. Rebuilds require massive changeovers and those are rarely successful in the short term. This was part of the rebuilding process. Whereas Shero’s low-risk moves yielded some rewards in 2015-16, they did not in 2016-17. Whereas Hynes’ methods seemed to be good for the team in 2015-16, they were shown to be flawed in 2016-17. But the biggest issue was still the same issue before 2015-16: a lack of offensive talent.

The acquisition of Taylor Hall was made in part to address that. Plus, anytime you can get a player of Hall’s caliber for only Adam Larsson, then you make that move every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Hall’s production was not so impressive. He tied with Palmieri in points whilst only scoring 20 out of 238 shots. However, it was quickly apparent that he was moving faster than most of the other Devils, he was more aggressive on the puck than most of his teammates, and he was pushing the play forward when most of his teammates could not. Hall was a standout on a team that had a lot of players fade in the background. He was someone to build around and one of the few bright spots in a dismal season. Look at it this way: imagine how terrible the offense would have been if Shero did not trade for Hall. I shudder at the thought even as I just wrote it - not to mention how it would have impacted next season.

Adding to the low fan morale was the announcement that Patrik Elias would retire from being a hockey player. Elias tried to make a comeback in 2016-17 but it was not to be. He made a statement about his retirement on March 31. He would take one last warm-up skate with the 2016-17 Devils before the team’s last home game on April 8. He was honored and received a standing ovation. Sticking with the theme of the season, the Devils proceeded to lose that game to the Isles. It was not a bad performance but knowing Elias was gone just hammered another nail into the coffin of the Devils illustrious past. The Devils were terrible and rebuilding. As Mike wrote before that game, it felt like the new normal for the team.

It would not become a new normal but it would become somewhat familiar. The following season brought a glorious respite from all of the losing and futility. But I cannot stress enough how bad this season really was. This was the season where I introduced Sherman Abrams, the representation of all pro-tank fans, to the blog. This was the season that wiped away any optimism one would have about the Devils in the short term, at least. This was the season for when they helped close Joe Louis Arena in their season ending game, they were stomped on by Detroit and conceded a goal to a player who had scored zero all season long. As I wrote in the headline, “This season is finally over.” I wrote a full recap of that game but today, I look at it and I wonder why did I bother. I should have left it with that. That’s how bad 2016-17 was. Things would get better, but I can understand feeling otherwise in retrospect.

The 2017 Offseason

The 2017 offseason would give the Devils something they never had in New Jersey before. It would also involve an expansion draft. And it also included a potential return of a not-so-well-loved-anymore player. Here are the main points from the 2017 offseason:

It was not as quiet of a offseason as 2016. There was always something to discuss, consider, debate, and look forward to in this one. Having the first overall pick was a big deal. The Kovy Affair ‘17 was another big deal. Free agency and the following trade for Johansson. The normally dead period of August was taken up by hope and eventual celebration of the Devils signing Will Butcher. Preseason featured the rise of Bratt. And there was a growing general sentiment that 2017-18 could not be as bad as 2016-17. That would turn out to be more correct than anyone would have guessed.

The Ilya Kovalchuk Drama Part 3: I called this Kovy Affair ‘17 because, well, anything involving this player was never simple or easy. It all began again on April 23 when reports came out that Kovalchuk wanted to return to the NHL. He spent the previous four seasons with SKA St. Petersburg, winning two championships and being a big fish in a small pond. He was 34 so returning was a little complicated since he quit on the Devils voluntarily retired back in 2013. The initial report came from Elliotte Friedman and was relayed by Tom Gulitti, so it was a legitimate bit of news. Both outlined three options for Kovalchuk to return.

  1. The Devils just sign Kovalchuk and he plays for New Jersey
  2. Kovalchuk stays out of the NHL for a season and makes a return in the 2018 offseason. He will be 35 and therefore can become free to return as per the NHL Contract Bargaining Agreement.
  3. The Devils sign Kovalchuk and trade him to a team that will sign him and that he will play for.

The third option seemed like the best one to me. I did not want Kovalchuk back. Few Devils fans did. And if Kovalchuk did not want to wait, it was the only viable option.

The sign-and-trade seemed to be the way to go based on the news reported on May 9, 2017. Pierre LeBrun reported that Ray Shero spoke with Kovalchuk’s North American agent Jay Grossman, confirmed that Kovalchuk wanted to return, and agreed to let him and his client speak with other teams about a contract. Once that was agreed upon, Shero would try to make a trade happen provided it would make sense for New Jersey. However, the sign and trade would have to happen on July 1 at the earliest since that was the first date that Kovalchuk can sign a contract with the Devils. And Bob McKenzie confirmed that he would need to sign a contract to get off of the voluntary retirement list.

This yielded a lot of speculation about what the Devils could get in return, what would be reasonable, and who they may have to deal. Unlike the NBA, sign-and-trades were (and are) just not done in the NHL. This was a unique experience, which was not so unique given who is involved. I was not expecting much since Kovalchuk had all of the leverage from where I stood. Kovalchuk and his agent would need to find a team, ensure they would agree to terms, and then hope Shero can make a trade happen. If Kovalchuk was not satisfied with any of this, then he was free to return to the KHL for a season and then just sign with whoever next season.

The latter became more of a possibility when Dmitry Rachitsky of reported that SKA St. Petersburg was claiming they were going to re-sign Kovalchuk on May 29. This casted more doubt on what would happen while also keeping the flames of speculation going. The offseason between April and the NHL Draft usually lacks action so having the Kovy Affair’17 to kick around was popular among Devils fans. It was something to think about. At best, it was a found asset in waiting.

The report out of Russia turned out to be accurate at the end. On July 4, 2017, multiple media members reported that Kovalchuk would stay with SKA for one more season. I saw it first from Larry Brooks and confirmed by Andrew Gross and Mike Morreale, who obtained further confirmation from Jay Grossman, Kovalchuk’s North American agent. There would be no sign and trade for the Devils. The Devils would not be adding anything to their roster through Kovalchuk. The Kovy Affair ‘17 ended with nothing.

It also ends the drama with Kovalchuk and the Devils. In 2018, he would be 35 and able to sign with whoever he wanted as an unrestricted free agent. I am happy to state that this is the third and final separate section just for Ilya Kovalchuk in this retrospective review of the 2010s for the Devils.

The 2017 NHL Draft: You know what is better than drama involving Kovalchuk? The draft. And the Devils were picking first. While the initial reaction after the lottery had more fans hoping for Nolan Patrick, the tide of opinion turned to Nico Hischier as the preferred pick. We had a big roundtable discussion amongst ourselves on the site. We settled on him as our mock draft pick on the network. I put up a poll similar to the one back in April after the draft lottery and Nico was preferred over Nolan by a near 2:1 ratio. A reversal of fortune in less than two months. I want to say that the change of opinion grew around the NHL combine when it was revealed that Patrick had two sports hernia injuries in his draft year. But who is to say; the popoular preference became Nico Hischier. Still, the decision was not up to the fans. It was up to the Devils organization: Nico or Nolan?

The Devils chose Nico. They selected Nico Hischier first overall in the 2017 NHL Draft. While the draft class overall is still developing, Hischier was an early success out of all of the players picked. He became the Devils’ top center in the following center and has continued to develop as a two-way force at the position. He is not even 21 yet. He has certainly achieved more than Nolan Patrick. He was also given a list of things to do as the Devils promoted him right away after being selected.

While Hischier was out and about, the Devils were very busy on the second day of the draft with ten selections. The picks, in order, Jesper Boqvist, Fabian Zetterlund, Reilly Walsh, Nikita Popugaev, Gilles Senn, Marian Studenic, Aarne Talvitie, Jocktan Chainey, Yegor Zaitsev, and Matthew Hellickson. The amazing thing is that the Devils stockpiled these picks; they did not make any deals during the draft to move up or down.

There have been some initial successes out of this draft class already. Hischier jumped right away to the NHL. Senn and Boqvist made their NHL debuts in this season; Boqvist stuck in NJ instead of returning to Sweden whereas Senn got a call up and his first start due to with the Devils’ current #2 goaltender out hurt. The others are either in minor pro hockey or still developing with their initial teams. I liked it a lot at the time. It was a very European draft class and another draft class that aligned with Shero’s desire for a “fast, attacking, and supportive” team. More years will be needed before we can fully declare whether this was a good draft or not, but early signs are positive. If nothing else, the Devils found a #1 center in it.

Site Notes and Etc.

With the news that the Albany Devils were moving to Binghamton, an opportunity presented itself on SB Nation. The move happened after the Senators announced their affiliate was moving to Belleville. Over at Silver Seven, writer Jeff Ulmer and photographer Alicia Strauch covered the Sens when they were in Binghamton. I asked if they would be interested in continuing their work by covering and taking photos of the B-Devils. They were. On June 26, I formally announced Jeff and Alicia to the site. You have seen their work throughout the site for the past two seasons. With their additions, the site had dedicated blogging about the AHL affiliate from someone who had their fingers on the pulse of it. Jeff has been a star at covering the Binghamton team, getting a group together to assess how they players are doing, and has continued to do so currently to this day. His writing made it such that we no longer needed stat updates in Brian’s weekly prospect articles; Jeff’s work provided a regular account of how the AHL team was doing. Alicia has since moved on, but her photos provided an original look at the team and added to Jeff’s posts. I thank both Jeff and Alicia for agreeing to come to All About the Jersey and for the great work they have done past and present.

For the last time, I would end up asking for more volunteers for the site. Chris and Steve were doing great with the news, but I believe Chris was moving on, Steve’s availability was reduced and so I needed more help. So I requested two more members from the community to volunteer to step in with news as it happened provided that they could do so. Devin was a great help with the previews and recaps, but I needed more help as my own availability was reduced. So I asked for two more people to volunteer and serve in the same role that Devin did. You may have noticed in 2018-19 that I do not write nearly as many previews as I used to and not as many recaps. Personal timing made that not possible. This made it possible. This would end up being the final call for volunteers due to a change in how SB Nation did business.

I put the call on July 18 and by July 24, I had all four spots filled. It was an impressive turnaround thanks in large part to a community that wanted to help the site. Chris Fieldhouse and Ryan Grosso joined the site to help with previews and recaps. Chris is still with us today while Ryan moved on during last season. For the news, Nick Varney and Dan Rozel joined up with Steve. Dan is still with us in a completely different role. He is the host, producer, editor, and poster of the All About the Jersey podcast, Garden State of Hockey. He also helped me with the name of this series of posts and convinced me that a series of posts was better than one giant post. Given how much I have written to this point, I fully agree.

Lastly, during the offseason, the NHL released a statement of principles. People online, specifically social media, made fun of it and noted how the NHL did not fully live up to it. While snark is great for clicks, retweets, and likes, I think that was the wrong way to go about it. Improvement is incremental, it is never just an event that happens. To that end, I declared set of principles for the site that I still think is a good set to this day. The only real change I would make is that in #8, I would call you, the best readers - The People Who Matter. Because at All About the Jersey, you - the Devils fan and the reader - matter.

A Short Preview of Part 9, the 2017-18 Devils: Superstar Taylor Hall.

Thank you for reading. Part 9 will be up tomorrow, which is the penultimate season and offseason covered in this series.