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How Far Are the New Jersey Devils from Being a Competitive Team Again?

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With the failure that has been the 2019-20 season, as well as the team trading away players such as Taylor Hall and Blake Coleman, today we ponder just how far away the New Jersey Devils are from being a competitive team again?

NHL: Florida Panthers at New Jersey Devils
At least two of the three pictures should be here long term.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

While the NHL Trade Deadline still has yet to come, our New Jersey Devils were busy just a bit early. The team sent Captain Andy Greene to the New York Islanders, and Blake Coleman was shipped off to Tampa Bay signaling that the team is continuing to rebuild. With some established players already out, and other seemingly on the table prior to Monday, the message is clear: the Devils need to build up more young, talented assest to be a competitive team again.

So the question now shifts to when that window of competition will come. Interim General Manager Tom Fitzgerald seems to believe that with a good enough retooling, it could be as early as next season. I don’t think that’s extremely realistic though, simply based off of the players being sent out, the lack of immediate replacements, and the need for some high-end assets to mature. Let’s take a look at where the team is, and what the timeline could look like.

Current NHLers that Should Remain

Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, MacKenzie Blackwood, Damon Severson, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, Kyle Palmieri, Miles Wood, Nick Merkley, Joey Anderson

Okay, possibly some unpopular picks in here, but I think all of the guys mentioned will at least have a role with the team, even if it is in the Bottom-6. Nico and Jack are the guys being built around; they’ll be centering the Top-6 for a while, and while CJ pointed out yesterday how that could be a problem, it is the plan for now. Blackwood also seems to be the plan in net, and while he’s had some bad games this season, he’s performed above average or better more often than not.

Jepser Bratt and Kyle Palmieri might not be top line forwards in the future (it’s arguable with his production as to if Bratt is even one now), but they can still be put into successful scoring roles. This also accounts for Palmieri staying, but without Coleman now, it would be wise to keep him around as a veteran presence. Pavel Zacha will likely stay on in a Bottom-6 center role, and should slot into some more penalty kill minutes once Travis Zajac finishes his time (or career) in Jersey. I was hesitant to include Wood, Merkley and Anderson, and they may not have a true NHL future with this team, but for now, they at least serve roles in the Bottom-6.

The defense is in a LOT worse shape; while P.K. Subban might play out the remainder of his current contract in New Jersey, he doesn’t factor into the long term plans. I’m also not sold on Will Butcher, who has seemingly regressed every season since debuting. Anyone who follows this site knows how I feel about Mirco Mueller while Connor Carrick could stick around as the 7th D and it wouldn’t be awful. Sami Vatanen will probably be on the move, and everyone else is AHL level or lower. Damon Severson might be polarizing, but he’s at least NHL caliber and signed to a decent deal. So how does what we have shake out going forward?

? - Hischier - ?

? - Hughes - Palmieri

Bratt - Zacha - Anderson

Wood - ? - Merkley

? - ?

? - Severson

? - ?

Blackwood

?

This is taking into account competition timeline; by the time New Jersey is “ready” I don’t think Palms will be on the top line. I’m bumping Bratt down as well because while I like him as a player and some of the skills he brings, there’s just too many invisible games from him right now. Also of note with the Bottom-6 players: if more high impact talent comes along, we bump players down or out of the lineup accordingly. Merkley COULD be better than Anderson; Anderson COULD wind up becoming a good scoring winger on the third line because the Devils get him a better center. There’s too many unknowns right now (hence, the whole rebuilding in the first place) to accurately draft a full set of lines; this is just a rough idea of where people could be.

Also, you’ll notice there are quite a few holes in the Top-6 and on defense; that whole “lack of high impact talent” comes back into play here. The Devils will need to hit, and hit well on their next few draft picks to restock the team, and that includes more than just their first round picks.

What Else in the System is (Possibly) Useful

Brett Seney, Ty Smith, Jesper Boqvist, Nolan Foote, Kevin Bahl, Potentially Three First
Round Picks This Year

Seney has been playing well in the AHL and probably deserves a call-up before season’s end to see if he has developed any further than last year. Boqvist will get another shot in New Jersey, but I think he’s best kept in Binghamton this season to keep his confidence high. Smith, Foote and Bahl are all interesting as their timelines could be similar (within the next two seasons) or more spread out depending on continued progress. I think Smith is in New Jersey next year and depending on his training camp, Foote could be as well. Bahl seems to still need some polishing (at least one more season) although I could be wrong.

The first round picks are interesting because there are conditions on the ones received in trades. The best case scenario is that Vancouver makes the playoffs, but exits in round one, while Arizon doesn’t make the postseason, but also does not win a lottery spot. This would give the Devils all three picks at their highest possible positions. Fitzgerald has said that he might use them to acquire a young, NHL-ready player, and that’s fine. The Devils should use their own pick though, as it will more than likely be Top 5, and they could hopefully find a good winger or defender there.

Even if All Goes Well...

Assume EVERYTHING hits best case above; Smith and Foote are legit, Bahl becomes a Top-4 player, and all of Seney, Anderson and Merkley contribute as the NHL level. That STILL leaves the team looking like this:

Foote - Hischier - ?

? - Hughes - Palmieri

Bratt - Seney - Anderson

Wood - Zacha - Merkley

Smith - ?

Bahl - Severson

? - ?

Blackwood

?

There’s two holes in the Top-6, and a top pairing defender missing; the bottom pairing is easier to figure out, as could be a backup goaltender, but the bigger holes are still obvious, and still there. The Devils have work to do, and it’s not going to be a one season turnaround. Two-three years seems like a good estimate right now, and that’s assuming drafting goes well and players pan out.

At the same time, I think the team needs to stick to the plan this time; no “cheating” a rebuild, no trying to accelerate it, let’s just do it right. The next couple of years will probably be tough for us Devils fans, but if we commit to a building plan, and draft well, the team could be hoisting another championship in this decade.

Another Cup win would do wonders for washing away the years of rebuilding; years of competitiveness wouldn’t do the same.

Your Take

What do you think the Devils should do with this upcoming rebuild? Do you follow Fitzgerald’s line of thinking, and believe the team can turn it around as soon as next season? Do you think it will be longer as I do? Which players/prospects do you believe will help the Devils turn things around? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!