Even though the Devils have suffered through terrible seasons over the past several years, I'm actually pretty bullish on this team, in large part thanks to the numbers around Jack Hughes this past season, the fantastic rookie season for Ty Smith and the Devils unearthing gems like Yegor Sharangovich and great, young role players like Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian. John did a great job of writing both optimistic and pessimistic views of the team moving forward recently (though gotta be totally honest, I mostly skimmed the pessimistic view because I already am well versed in the potential holes in this lineup and didn't need those insecurities about the team reinforced).
Yes, playoff hockey is happening now but I'm already counting down the days to the draft lottery. Let me just put it this way, I've already spent an unhealthy amount of time on Tankathon running mock draft and lottery simulations. I've been running through scenarios for the Devils this offseason in terms of what I think the team needs. The Devils need to take a step forward this offseason not to become a Stanley Cup contending team in 2021-2022, but they need to make the playoffs in order to adequately show progress.
First thing is the Seattle Kraken expansion draft and people are submitting their projected protected list everywhere. I would likely expose PK Subban and hopefully get Seattle to bite on the defenseman to help build a solid defense core. Remember Ron Francis helped build the powerhouse in Carolina right now and he HEAVILY weighted defensemen during his time in Raleigh. Subban is not worth the $9 million he's being paid but he could be a nice way of Seattle hitting the floor of the salary cap while being a marketable player for a new team. As for forwards, Andreas Johnsson and Nick Merkley would be exposed. I am not one to say to expose Nathan Bastian simply because I think Bastian is exactly the kind of player the Devils should be seeking. Hard working, physical and he plays with an edge that much of the rest of the Devils roster is lacking.
If the Devils can shed themselves of Subban, I pursue Johnny Gaudreau from the Calgary Flames. The Flames have tried to rid themselves of Johnny Hockey for a few different seasons now and he brings creativity and fantastic hockey sense who I think would be a fantastic fit with Jack Hughes. I'd also try and bring back Pickles. Yes, I'll never not regret losing Blake Coleman to Tampa Bay and I'm happy he won a Cup last season but I think he would go a long way towards helping the Devils penalty killing righting the ship. I imagine Coleman possibly replacing Miles Wood (if the Devils decide to expose Wood in the expansion draft) on that Bastian and McLeod line and think that line even progresses to the next step.
As for the defense, which is, IMO, this teams biggest issue moving forward, part of the solution will hopefully be in the NHL entry draft where the Devils will have a high draft pick plus another pick just outside the top 20 (depending on where the Islanders go in the playoffs). The Devils are developing a good set of forwards who can score and attack with speed but the defense continues to remain a major Achilles Heel. Especially for a franchise that has been known in its height for having names like Niedermayer, Stevens, Daneyko and Rafalski back there. We are a long way removed from that. I think Smith can be a top pairing defenseman but the Devils defense is relatively soft and not hard to play against at all. They have a hard time getting the puck out of their zone, often making bad passes that result in them being pinned for long periods of time. I would highly recommend that no matter where the Devils pick to heavily consider taking Luke Hughes. Maybe I just have PTSD from losing my favorite Devil of all time in Scott Niedermayer when he bolted to play with his brother Rob in Anaheim (despite the Devils having the better financial offer) but what I saw from Jack Hughes this year has me convinced that he is as good a talent as the Devils have had up front, possibly ever. He's not only a pleasure to watch but the analytical numbers love him as well. It's because of those two reasons that I am of the mind that the Devils do whatever they can to get Luke. Remember the Vancouver Canucks have Quinn Hughes, Jack's older brother, and the Canucks might be of the mind that they could keep Quinn longer term if they get Luke and maybe eventually lure Jack away from our team when he's up for free agency. Some families might not care to all play together on the same NHL team, but the Hughes boys don't strike me that way at all. They are tight and, much like the Niedermayers, it would likely taste sweeter to drink from the Cup together rather than as rivals. Maybe Owen Power turns into the incredible stud everyone predicts but for the longer-term health of the Devils franchise, I would LOVE to have ALL the Hughes brothers in red and black at some point. Granted, Luke likely wouldn't help the Devils for at least a season and possibly two, so they would have to deal with their current group through free agencies and trades. If Luke happens to be gone before the Devils pick, taking Brandt Clarke, Graeme's brother, in keeping with the siblings making a destination more attractive theme.
Many have speculated that the Devils could chase a reunion with Adam Larsson but I wouldn't go in that direction despite Larsson's well-earned defensive defenseman reputation. Me? I'd pursue Brandon Montour and Dmitry Kulikov in free agency instead. Montour has always been a defenseman that I've liked and now that he's not with a terrible Buffalo team, his numbers have jumped significantly in Florida. Yes, it's a small sample size but Montour has always played hard and a borderline dirty game whenever I've seen him and I like his game. Kulikov could serve as a nice bridge to whatever young Devils defensemen are able to make the jump professionally over the next few seasons. Kulikov was one of the better players on a bad Devils team this season. Maybe it was an outlier and he won't do it again, but that's why you don't have to break the bank for him and he serves to make the Devils harder to play against until younger prospects are ready.
The one other thing I would address would be backup goalie. The natural thing to chase is a veteran guy to relieve Mackenzie Blackwood like a Jaroslav Halak or Petr Mrazek. But I'd like to see more of a 1A/1B tandem and the one I'd target would be Linus Ullmark. He's 27, he's had winning records in Buffalo despite playing on atrocious teams and he could naturally push Blackwood to be better. He's not one of those goalies where I'd hold my breath knowing that Blackwood was on the bench that night. It also gives the Devils more time to see if any of their recent picks will actually materialize into something more than AHL fodder. If someone starts to shine in the AHL and pushes for an NHL job, you then get a trade chip with Ullmark.
There is my plan for this upcoming offseason. Oh, and before we go, one other name to throw out there. And this is only because my heart still loves the guy. Zach Parise. Advanced metrics hate him and he's showing serious signs of age but if Minnesota releases him or cuts him at his huge cap hit, I, for one would welcome him back as someone who could potentially kill penalties and continue to outwork the opposition. I never had a lot of anger towards Zach for wanting to go home. Who doesn't want to go home? Maybe I'm speaking too much from the heart here, but I'm told old school hockey guys love heart, so bring Zach home to retire as a Devil where it all started.
As John always says, thanks for reading.