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A Decade of Necessary Changes Part 9: The 2017-18 New Jersey Devils

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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 ninth part of a series where Taylor Hall put in one of the greatest seasons in Devils history and the team returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New Jersey Devils - Game Three
The season where Taylor Hall was a superstar and the Rock saw its first playoff game since 2012.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/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 ninth part of this series, this post will summarize the 2017-18 season. On the last episode of Garden State of Hockey for 2019, Dan and I discussed what the biggest moment of the decade was. The first choice was the 2012 Cup run, characterized by Henrique’s legendary series winning goal over Our Hated Rivals. The second choice was Taylor Hall’s entire 2017-18, which culminated in becoming the first ever New Jersey Devil to win the Hart Trophy for MVP of the league. Also, it is to date the only season where the Devils qualified for the playoffs under Ray Shero and it was for the first time since 2012. That adds to the glory of the season. This is a season that was celebrated at its time and is fondly remembered today, as messy as it got sometimes back then.

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 2017-18 Season

The Record: 44-29-9, 97 points, Fourth in the Metropolitan Division (Source: Hockey-Reference)

The Head Coach: John Hynes

The Team Captain: Andy Greene

The Top Scorer: Taylor Hall - 39 goals, 54 assists, 278 shots, 93 points

The AAtJ Season Preview: We scaled back the season preview to six parts, with the sixth part consisting of the staff’s predictions for the season. The other parts of the season preview for 2017-18 were here.

The Biggest In-Season Move: I’m going to list three in order of magnitude and importance. The third place move was the historic trade on February 22, 2018. Amid a disappointing loss to Minnesota, big news hit after the game. The Devils made their first ever trade with Our Hated Rivals. The Devils sent their 2018 second round pick and Yegor Rykov to Manhattan for their then-leading goal scorer, Michael Grabner. It finally happened: the Devils made a trade with Our Hated Rivals. Pigs did not, in fact, fly that evening. It was also a clear sign that the Devils were going for it given where they were in the standings. It was also a great idea on paper; Grabner was a scorer and the Devils seemingly always need scoring. Unfortunately, Grabner’s time in New Jersey was filled with breakaways not being finished and not a lot of positive contributions. The history made makes it worth noting.

The second place move was the Devils’ deal on the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline. On February 26, the Devils sent their third round pick in 2019 and J.D. Dudek to Edmonton for Patrick Maroon. Like Grabner, this was a “go for it” deal. Unlike Grabner, it worked out quite well for the Devils. Maroon provided more than just depth at winger. He was great at screening goalies. He was quite productive with 13 point in 17 games with the team. He meshed well with the style of play the Devils had. He was so good I wish he stuck around in New Jersey. Why was this not first? Because a bigger deal was made earlier in the season.

On November 30, 2017, Devils hero of 2012 Adam Henrique was no longer a Devil. Henrique, Joseph Blandisi, and a third round pick in 2018 was sent to Anaheim for Sami Vatanen and a conditional third round pick based on whether and when the Ducks kept Henrique. This was a rare trade where both sides could claim they did well in the trade. Anaheim needed forwards and could have used a two-way center. They got one in Henrique. They even added forward depth with Blandisi. The Devils needed a defenseman, particularly a right-side defenseman with an offensive component. They got one in Vatanen. Even to this day, the deal has worked out. Henrique and Vatanen play significant roles for their respective teams. I am sure both Anaheim and New Jersey fans have their foibles for each but they would come down on the side that they have been good for their teams. Which they have been. I said it was an even deal back in 2017 and I still think of that way now. I will admit that it did sting a bit since Henrique was a big part of the team’s last playoff run. But as the Devils organization has moved on in other way, this was another change to accept. Due to the significance of the deal and how it met the needs of both sides, it comes in first as the biggest in-season move of the season.

Playoffs?: Yes! For the first time since 2011-12, the Devils made the playoffs. It was not easy. They were on the edge of the knife in a very tight playoff race in the Metropolitan and in the Eastern Conference with a hot Florida team challenging them. The Devils would clinch their spot in Game #81, their final home game of the season (a.k.a. Fan Appreciation Night) against Toronto. To say the fans were electric on that night was an understatement.

The Devils finished with the second wild card spot in the East. This meant they took on the first-place team in the East, the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was a difficult match-up on paper. It was a difficult match-up in real life. My personal expectations were low; I was just happy to see the Devils back in it. My prediction was a six-game series loss. Alas, there would only be one playoff win. It was in Game 3 in Newark, capitalized by Hall sending a pass across to Stefan Noesen, who hit the puck with one of the hardest one-timers I can recall hearing which blasted the puck past the goalie for the game winning goal. It did not match the feelings of 2012 but it was close to it. Alas, the Devils fell in Game 1 and Game 2 in Tampa Bay; the Devils did not tie up the series in Game 4 in Newark; and so the 2017-18 campaign ended in Game 5. After many years of the Devils being done in early April, having it end in late April was a welcomed change of pace.

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).

  • October 2017 - DotM Honorable Mention - Jesper Bratt; AAtJ DotM - Taylor Hall
  • November 2017 - DotM Honorable Mention - Nico Hischier; AAtJ DotM - Taylor Hall
  • December 2017 - DotM Honorable Mention - Stefan Noesen; AAtJ DotM - Cory Schneider
  • January 2018 - DotM Honorable Mention - Will Butcher; AAtJ DotM - Taylor Hall
  • February 2018 - DotM Honorable Mention - Travis Zajac; AAtJ DotM - Taylor Hall
  • March 2018 - DotM Honorable Mention - Keith Kinkaid; AAtJ DotM - Taylor Hall

The Number Retirement: The Devils retired three numbers in the 2010s. The third and final one of the decade was for Patrik Elias. Elias’ last game was at the end of the 2015-16 season and he announced his retirement near the end of the 2016-17 season. On February 24, 2018, #26 was raised to the rafters to join #4, #3, #27, and #30. We collectively put some of our favorite Elias moments in this post, which went up on the day of his retirement. The ceremony was wonderful and the Devils fans gave as much love to Elias as he has earned over the years with the team. The active Devils players did him right by beating the Isles that night, 2-1.

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 2017-18 season. This was far more enjoyable than last season. It was also decided upon before the season ender in Washington, which had little impact on the results. Here is the full post on who we picked; here were the notable results:

  • MVP: Taylor Hall
  • Best Defenseman: Sami Vatanen
  • Best Goaltender: Keith Kinkaid
  • Best Rookie: Nico Hischier
  • Best Defensive Forward: Blake Coleman
  • Best Offensive Forward: Taylor Hall
  • The Sergei Brylin Award for Versatility: Travis Zajac

The 2017-18 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 2017-18; red is for stats in the bottom ten (which is now #22 through #31 since Vegas joined the league). The stats primarily come from Natural Stat Trick with special teams stats being pulled from NHL.com.

2017-18 New Jersey Devils Stats and NHL Ranks
2017-18 New Jersey Devils Stats and NHL Ranks
Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com

2019 Thoughts about 2017-18: This remains as the high point of Shero’s era as general manager of the Devils. It was the high point of Hynes’ tenure as head coach of the Devils. It was featured and headlined and led by what will likely be the greatest season in Taylor Hall’s NHL career. Looking back, I can say how joyful it was. In reality, it was a lot more harrowing as the Devils barely made the playoffs at all even with Hall putting up a 26-game point streak and staking his claim in Devils history.

Two issues came up in this season that remained as issues in the following season and the current season. The first was the goaltending.

Schneider was more than fine in the 2017 portion of the season. But his performances broke down and it became more apparent that was because his body was breaking down. Hip and muscle issues came to light as he struggled in the crease almost right when the calendar flipped to 2018. The team’s backup Keith Kinkaid was poor in the 2017 portion of the season and also struggled in January albeit not as badly as Schneider. As February continued into March, he got hot and was a big reason why the Devils often remained just ahead of Florida for the final playoff spot. Kinkaid took the #1 spot from Schneider and entered the postseason as the starter. That did not last as he was replaced in Game 2 and Schneider played very well against the ferocious Tampa Bay offense.

So the season ended with this idea that maybe Schneider was getting back to normal. We know that was not the case. Kinkaid was hot for around two months and, well, that was it. Combined, the Devils’ team save percentage fell to the lower end of the league and has remained there since. Schneider’s downfall was sudden and looks unrecoverable at this point. Kinkaid peaked and that eventually be it. And so the Devils’ goaltending went from a kind of positive from the few seasons before 2017-18 to a weakness. It remains a concern today.

The second issue can be seen in the on-ice rate stats in 5-on-5. For most of this decade, they were one of the fewest scoring teams in the NHL in 5-on-5. Their game plan was seemingly to make the game as low-event as possible; the Devils would create few opportunities but try to allow even fewer. That went awry as the decade went on. In 2017-18, the Devils finally saw gains in generating attempts, shots, and chances. They were becoming more attacking to go along with a legitimately faster roster. However, the Devils’ defensive effort also went awry in parallel. It was more or less mediocre compared to other NHL teams in 2017-18. But it was a big decline from past seasons and it would continue to the remainder of the decade. As much as I appreciate seeing the Devils not being dead last or near to it in every offensive rate stat, they were still being out-performed by their opposition as they have been for several seasons running. This is why for-percentages are meaningful. The whole idea is try to outperform your opposition as you try to outscore them. The 2017-18 Devils were not so much behind the break-even mark of 50% but it meant there was still plenty of room for improvement. It also suggests that, once again, the 2017-18 team overachieved. Unfortunately, neither Shero or Hynes would find the next level for the team to improve from this season.

Those two observations would be the negative side to this season. Given how the Devils made the playoffs after missing out since 2012, the season still has to be taken as a big positive. At the time, it felt like the Devils were taking a real step forward. Making the playoffs was taken for granted by plenty of Devils fans in the 2000s and back at the beginning of the 2010s. Achieving it in 2018 showed that the rebuild is working or on pace. Whatever concerns one had about Shero or Hynes or the team’s direction after 2016-17 were allayed in 2017-18 - even if the Devils made the playoffs by a thin margin. It also helped a lot that the 2017-18 team was like a souped-up version of 2015-16 in terms of individual and team results to be happy to witness. Here is a short list off of the top of my head:

  • Brian Gibbons was a surprising scorer with 11 goals in the first two months of the season.
  • Brian Boyle came back to the team in November and put in a very good season whilst fighting leukemia. He was not just cheered for battling and succeeding over cancer in 2017-18; he was a good player who played in a lot of different situations for the Devils too. An injury to Hall kept him from appearing at the 2018 NHL All-Star Game so Boyle replaced Hall. Boyle would end up being awarded the Bill Masterton Trophy, which was fully deserved and capped off an eventful 2017-18 for Boyle. As I predicted when he was signed, he would become a fan favorite and he is still well regarded in New Jersey.
  • Jesper Bratt made the roster and had a very good first half of the 2017-18 season. His arrival to the NHL strengthened the idea that the Devils drafting was on the right track.
  • The aforementioned goaltending runs from Schneider (2017) and Kinkaid (February and March 2018)
  • Will Butcher starting the season on the first power play unit, salvaging the end of Ben Lovejoy’s career to make an effective third pairing, and putting up 44 points as a rookie defenseman.
  • While injuries kept him from doing it, Kyle Palmieri was on pace for another 30-goal season.
  • Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen emerged as effective bottom-six forwards, with Coleman being a forechecking machine on the penalty kill. Amazingly, this was the same Coleman who did next to nothing in 2016-17.
  • Miles Wood showed massive improvements in his game on and off the puck. Wood was doing more than just skating real fast to chase down pucks. He scored 19 goals to go with it, too.
  • Sami Vatanen stepped right onto the Devils blueline and became a significant contributor at both ends right away. That justified the trade for New Jersey’s side.
  • Nico Hischier made an immediate impact in the NHL. He was called upon to center the top line early in his NHL career, similar to Henrique in 2011-12. Similar to Henrique, Hischier took the opportunity and justified the role and the minutes that came with it. He was great as an 18-year old rookie, centered an effective line with Hall and Palmieri (or Hall and Bratt), and finished second in Devils scoring with 20 goals and 32 assists. Nico quickly proved to be the right choice for first overall in 2017.
  • The Devils went 3-0-1 against the Isles and Penguins and 3-1-0 against Our Hated Rivals and Carolina. These twelve wins within the division were important plus beating local teams is always a plus. They also went a surprising 3-0-0 against Tampa Bay including what was arguably the last great performance in Eddie Lack’s NHL career.
  • The Devils went 5-4 in shootouts. Take that, 2013-14 Devils.

Of course, the most impressive and important and memorable part of the season was Taylor Hall. I started calling him Superstar Taylor Hall or New Jersey Devils’ Superstar or Superstar Left Winger, Taylor Hall. Everything seemed to click and then some for Hall in 2017-18. He set career highs in production while becoming the first Devil to have a point streak in over 20 consecutive games where he was able to play. Hall made so many wonderful plays that he was worth the price of a ticket alone. You could have a lot of fun discussing which one of them was your favorite. Mine would be where he took on three Islanders on a rush up ice and picked a corner on a near-perfect shot in April. With 93 points, there is no shortage of options. Hall’s 1.22 points per game is the highest among individual Devils seasons in franchise history, breaking Elias’ 1.18 in 2005-06, John MacLean’s 1.18 in 1988-89, and Kirk Muller’s 1.18 1987-88 per Hockey-Reference. In a decade where the Devils did not achieve much (if any) success, we will always have Hall’s brilliant 2017-18, which earned him and the Devils’ their first Hart Trophy. The Devils do not make the postseason without Hall being a stupendous scorer and playing like one of the best in the world. The Devils’ decade would be poorer without him. It was magical then and I am still in awe looking back at it now.

To put a cap on this section, two posts in 2018 reflect the feelings of being a Devils fan at the time. The first was by Mike, noting how the Devils were back where they should be: in the playoffs. The second was by me and it was a mea culpa. After 2016-17, I thought the 2017-18 Devils were going to be bad again. Not mediocre. Bad. As in, miss the playoffs by more than ten points bad. I was wrong. One of the things I have learned in being a hockey blogger is that you need to be willing to be wrong. I think a lot of the nonsense, especially online, comes from people just not wanting to be convinced or consider that they were wrong. It does not feel good to be wrong. It is humbling to be wrong. Non-intuitive as it seems, it takes strength to be wrong. On April 6, 2018, I declared that I was happy to be wrong about the 2017-18 New Jersey Devils. I am still proud of that post and proud of that team, flawed as it may seem and even with a quick playoff exit to a superior team.

Unfortunately, I thought (and expected) the Devils to run it back in 2018-19 and I was, well, wrong about that. More wrong than I could have imagined.

The 2018 Offseason

Here were the notable events and news items from the 2018 offseason, which started closer to the end of April for a welcomed change:

The Devils did not do a whole lot in the 2018 offseason. It showed in the 2018-19 season. A lot of it was keeping the course. The departed players were not really a part of the Devils’ long term future. The Devils only signed who they had to for depth purposes and keeping RFAs around. The coaching changes would have an impact as the B-Devils under Dennehy stunk and the Devils’ power play under Kowalsky has also declined. I could not tell you what Grier actually does for the Devils. At least Brodeur came back to the organization.

The 2018 NHL Draft: With the Devils going for it, they did not have a lot of picks in this year compared to the 2016 and 2017 drafts. They were also not in the lottery for a change. With only their first round pick available within the first three rounds, would the Devils be able to get a good prospect for the future? The answer: Yes. Ty Smith was projected to go around tenth overall. He slipped to the Devils at 17th overall and the Devils quickly took him. Smith immediately became the Devils’ best defenseman prospect, a title he still holds today. I really liked it and initial reactions to the pick were very positive.

The other selections were all long shots as they were in the fourth round or later. In order: Xavier Bernard, Akira Schmid, Yegor Sharangovich, Mitchell Hoelscher, and Eetu Pakilla. These are all players still developing in their respective leagues with the exception of the overage pick, Sharangovich, who is in the AHL. Even Smith is still in the development process. He received a chance to make New Jersey in 2019, but he did not so he was returned to Spokane again. It will be at least several more years before we know if this class turned out to be good or not. All the same, my initial review liked the draft picks as most of them were touted for their skating in the run up the draft - which aligns with the Devils’ preference for fast, attacking, and supportive players.

Site News and Etc.

There were not any significant additions to the site for this season that are worth going over publicly. However, I learned of the most important addition in my life was to come during the team’s playoff run in 2018. While the Devils won Game 3, the night of Game 4 on April 18, 2018 gave me great news. I learned that I would become a father after the game. Mason Fischer was projected to arrive around New Year’s Day in 2019. So amid the Devils’ activities in the offseason, I was very active in my own offseason to prepare what I could for Mason’s arrival to the world, which happened on January 4, 2019. Similarly, Mike also received great news in his own life in 2018 as he learned he would become a father. Connor Stromberg arrived to the world February 2019.

A Short Preview of Part 10, the 2018-19 Devils: It’s 2016-17 Part 2, right down the numbing and dulling feeling from watching them play.


Thank you for reading. Part 10 will be up tomorrow as the series (and decade) nears its end.