Our New Jersey Devils have been in a rebuild period since roughly the conclusion of the 2012-13 season; at the end of that campaign, Los Angeles LW #17 retired just a mere year after Minnesota LW #11 took his ball and went home. While the illusion of a competitive team lasted at least another season or so, we knew that for the first time in a long time, the Devils were entering a rebuilding phase. CJ covered those rebuilding years and what the team accomplished during them yesterday; today, I look at what the team still needs and how they can truly exit this rebuild.
What’s Still Missing
A True Top Pairing of Defenders
While some might argue that the Devils have one top-pairing caliber defender on the team, they most certainly do not have two to put together as a true, effective pairing that can match-up with any team in the NHL. The Devils need at least one more premier defenseman, and I know that a lot of fans (myself included) are hoping that Ty Smith can develop into a top tier NHL defender who will be a Devil for a long time to come.
The Devils can’t put all of their eggs in the Smith basket however; they need more talent on the back end in general. The team needs to hope that other prospects such as Jeremy Davies, Colby Sissons and Jeremy Groleau progress into NHL defenders who can join the team and aid them from the back end. This isn’t to say that they all need to pan out, but at least one or two need to eventually make the jump to the big club, otherwise the Devils are in trouble...but we’ll touch on that more a bit later as well.
Whether you believe it’s top tier talent missing, or just more talent in general the fact is the Devils absolutely need to solve this issue one way or the other for the rebuild to be declared “officially over.”
At Least One Top-6 Forward
Looking the make-up of the Devils roster heading toward the start of 2019-20, the team currently has four forwards that seem to be legitimate Top-6 forward talent, even if one of them isn’t quite there yet. Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri are all legitimate Top-6 players, and Jesper Bratt is on the cusp of becoming one as well. If you add whoever the Devils draft to this list, that’s five players, meaning the Devils need at least one more forward to round out their Top-6.
If the rebuild is over, then the Devils need to sign someone legitimate to fill this hole on the roster; while Jesper Boqvist could wind up panning out as a Top-6 talent as well, he’s too large of an unknown coming into what could be his first NHL season, provided he makes the team. If the Devils are serious about coming out of the rebuild sooner rather than later, at least one Top-6 forward needs to be added now; this will also be a good step towards making sure we don’t have to replace a particular Top-6 forward who happens to wear #9 next summer as well.
Ideally, again, the Devils should be looking into anyone who will sign here for a reasonable amount/slight overpay as teams should never be turning down talent to improve the team. Trades could also be explored to flesh out the roster; the Devils have the cap space and a stockpile of picks with which they should be able to pull something off.
Rebuild the Pipeline
Ray Shero and Paul Castron have done a good job so far to repair an absolutely decimated Devils pipeline, but there’s still more to be done. The Devils may or may not use all of the picks that they have available to them at the draft, but the ones that they do use (sans the first overall) will need to be focused on players who can fit the mold of the team, and have the potential to be more than just AHL regulars/lifers.
Another Possible Problem
Ever since the Devils bowed out of the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals, can anyone name one free agent of major name value who has signed with the Devils? Me neither. For one reason or another, the Devils are not a prime landing spot for big names in free agency, but then again they never really have been. Overshadowed by the spending giant that is Gotham and passed over in favor of nicer climates (such as Florida), the Devils haven’t really ever had anything that made them a huge draw.
This is why I mentioned needing prospects to pan out in the defense section of this piece; the Devils need prospects to become either NHL players or better (meaning elite and/or franchise level talent) so that they can once again have a competitive team through either their homegrown talent, or trading some of their prospects for established talent.
Some Final Commentary
If the Devils are serious about competing with Taylor Hall still in the fold, then this offseason will be one where they need to make some high-quality, high-profiles moves to finish exiting the rebuild...and quickly! With the available names that CJ and I have previously profiled (defenders and forwards with more specific examples here and here), the possibility of an offer sheet, and trade options available from cap-strapped teams, this is the summer to strike.
If Ray Shero sits on his thumbs as he did last summer, than sadly I don’t foresee Hall sticking around, which would put the Devils back into the rebuild. At that point, Hall would need to be moved (most likely at the trade deadline) to acquire more assets to fit into a compete window centered around Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes/Kaapo Kakko. With the money and players available this summer however, my hope is that Jersey’s Team is busy bettering the team and we see the light of a day where Hall stays, rather than falling into a dystopia where we see him leave for less than his value.
Please leave any and all thoughts you have on the Devils possibility of exiting the rebuild below and thanks as always for reading!