The offseason is in full swing for our New Jersey Devils; the draft has concluded, the team has made (the majority of at least) its free agent signings, and development camp is underway. While there’s still activity, for the most part, news is scant at this point of July, so what is there to write about? Well, the summer is as good a time as any to look towards the upcoming season, especially since we Devils fans want to forget last season, aside from the result of the draft lottery. With that being said, today I’m going to predict what I think New Jersey’s lineup will look like come opening night.
The Forward Group
Top Line: Taylor Hall - Nico Hischier - Jesper Bratt
The Devils top line will be the one that we saw a pair of seasons ago with some regularity due to an injury to Kyle Palmieri. There’s absolutely no way Hall will not be on the top line, and he and Nico have had some good chemistry since Hischier was drafted. Bratt rounds out the line due in part to his potential, his speed and also because my projected second line would be really young if the aforementioned Palmieri were not placed on it. This group should score with regularity and with additional depth on the team, they should be freer to do so than in the past couple of seasons.
Second Line: Jesper Boqvist - Jack Hughes - Kyle Palmieri
Putting Palmieri with two rookies will give this line a stabilizing presence while at the same time providing Palms with two creative youngsters who will aid his continued goal production. Placing Hughes on the second line also means that he won’t have to shoulder more burden than necessary in his first NHL season; Boqvist may be the questionable choice here, but I think that his offensive potential could be recognized in full with the talented playmaking of Hughes. Palmieri additionally has shown himself to not be afraid of standing up for his teammates, so if anyone tried to take any liberties with the rookies, Palms could quickly quell that.
Third Line: Pavel Zacha - Travis Zajac - Blake Coleman
Coleman and Zajac should be kept together at any cost, as they showed their value on the Devils’ shutdown line, and quite a few other lines after the wave of injuries. Adding Zacha, who started to show some more offensive flare toward the end of the season, not only could help to see this unit post some decent point totals, but also solidifies this as a true shutdown unit. Zacha is another one of the best defensive forwards on the current Devils roster, and while I understand the desire to play him at fourth line center, I think he’s better served rounding out a unit that could potentially shut down most big lines in the NHL.
Fourth Line: Miles Wood - Kevin Rooney - Wayne Simmonds
Perhaps by default, these players comprise my projected fourth line, though there’s some justification for each choice here. Rooney played well in a short stint with New Jersey last year, and I honestly thought he did the best job in the roll of all the players who were placed in it with the exception of Brian Boyle. Simmonds is going to be replacing a lot of what Boyle brought last season, but he’s a wildcard right now as to if he’s regressing as badly as last season implied or not. As he’s not exactly the best defensive forward in the NHL, Zacha gets the nod on line three, while the Wayne Train will bring the pain on the bottom line. Wood could see time both here and on the second line depending on how Boqvist performs. I do like the peskiness that Miles brings and having a speedy player like him on your fourth line never hurts, as he can exploit speed mismatches against opposing teams.
Top Pair: Will Butcher - P.K. Subban
The addition of Subban gives the Devils a defender who was and still probably is a true #1; on this team, he’s definitely a #1. Butcher is the top lefty on the team; while he’s not necessarily the most complete player (he seems to get lost in his own end every so often), he’s great at helping to get the puck moving in the right direction more often than not. If the Devils opt to play these two together, they’ll need to be sure they know where the other is at all times, as both are capable of getting involved offensively.
Middle Pair: Andy Greene - Damon Severson
We’ve seen this duo together before, but this time would be different, as they would be playing together but down a pairing from where they usually were. Greene and Sevs have shown they can be effective together, but there are still question marks surrounding them. Severson still has occasional mental gaffes to his game, and now the concern has to be that at age 36 (37 as of the end of October of the upcoming season) Greene isn’t able to mask the deficiencies of his partner any longer. I feel that as the season moves along, the defense pairings will fluctuate more frequently than the forwards will, and part of that will be due to one half of the projected bottom pair.
Bottom Pair: Ty Smith - Sami Vatanen
Smith’s growth from last training camp as well as his initial play this coming season will be the factors that determine where he slots into the Devils’ lineup, and how the team is able to deploy the other players on the blue line. He could wind up on any pairing in my opinion, as the reigning CHL Defenseman of the Year has the potential to be a game-altering player for the Devils. A good early bet would be to put him with the steady Vatanen, who may be playing less at even strength, but could still be used on special teams to round out his minutes. It would help Smith to adjust to the NHL while giving Vats an important role in what could very well be his last season as a Devil.
And in Goal...
Starter: MacKenzie Blackwood
Backup: Cory Schneider
More than likely this winds up being a 1A-1B scenario for the Devils, with the young Blackwood looking as though he’s on the rise, while the veteran Schneider looks to continue a strong rebound from injury/surgery last season. Coach John Hynes tends to give more starts to whichever of his goalies is playing better, so the lion’s share of starts is open for the taking. If Blackwood grows off of his successful first stint in the NHL, then I believe the starter role becomes his for the foreseeable future.
Again, it’s super early to be making these types of predictions, as we haven’t even seen the end of development camp, let alone training camp, but it’s fun to speculate as to what we could see this upcoming season. So what do you think the Devils lineup might look like come opening night? Which prospects do you see making the team? How do you think the lines and pairings shake out? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!