The New Jersey Devils are coming out of the Christmas break in a weird spot. They’re a good team, albeit probably not “13 wins in a row” good like they were earlier this season. However, as a big proponent of “you are what your record says you are”, the Devils record says they’re a team that has lost 7 of their last 8 games and are 3-6-1 in the last ten.
As I wrote three weeks ago, the Devils are not without flaws. Since then, those flaws have only become more apparent due to a combination of losing, roster construction, stubbornness, and injuries testing their depth. I believe the Devils are still a playoff-caliber team. They are more than capable of getting the 100 or so points they’re going to need to make the playoffs.....they just might need a little push to get there. Ondrej Palat’s return is imminent as he has rejoined the team at practice. However, with John Marino and Ryan Graves both week-to-week and Nate Bastian having no definitive timeline (at least publicly), a new set of challenges await this Devils group as they continue to try to stay ahead of the pack in the Metropolitan.
Keep in mind that I’m going to try to stay away from bigger long-term needs and primarily focus on stuff that will be more easily attainable for this group in-season. I’m well aware that the Devils will likely need an upgrade in net once Mackenzie Blackwood uses up the last of his nine lives and plays his way out of town. I get that the Devils could really use a power forward to round out the Top Six and be a net-front presence on the power play. Between the Devils cap situation this season, uncertainty with contractual situations moving forward (IE: Whether or not Bratt will be here on a big number going forward), the particular players the Devils need not growing on trees, and the Devils slow burn approach to team-building, I wanted to take a look at tweaks around the edges they can make to maximize what they currently have. We’ll have plenty of time this offseason to fantasy GM and come up with ideas to address those bigger ticket needs. In the meantime, there is value in this group making the playoffs, both short-term and long-term, and I’d like to see Tom Fitzgerald do whatever he can (within reason) to push this group over the finish line just like Ray Shero before him in the 2017-18 season.
Here are the areas where I think the Devils need to improve the most if they hope to make the playoffs.
Adding a Depth Defenseman is a Must
I was leaning towards pounding the table and insisting that the Devils need a veteran third-pairing defense-first defenseman before the injuries to Marino and Graves, but I feel even stronger about it now that both of them are going to miss some time due to injuries.
We have a very small sample size of one (1) game with both Marino and Graves out of the Devils lineup, but the early returns aren’t great in terms of usage. Kevin Bahl has yet to fully earn the trust of the Devils coaching staff, playing just 8:14 of ice time. Nikita Okhotiuk fared a little better with just over 14 minutes of ice time in his season-debut, while the four veteran Devils defensemen in the lineup (Hamilton, Severson, Siegenthaler, Smith) all topped 21 minutes. Aside from Smith and Severson being asked to fill a bigger role that they probably shouldn’t, playing two rookie defensemen, a penalty machine in Smith, and a gaffe machine in Severson isn’t a recipe for success. After all, we’re not that far removed from Smith being scratched for Bahl and Severson being a healthy scratch himself.
It’s important that whoever is playing on any pairing, but especially the bottom pairing, has the trust of the coaching staff. I get that top pairing defensemen playing 25-30 minutes in a playoff game is the norm. Hamilton, Marino, and Siegenthaler will likely be asked to do that if and when the Devils make the playoffs. Playing matchups and leaning on your best players will become even more important when that time comes. It will be equally important to have bottom-pairing defensemen the coaching staff can trust to handle anywhere from 10-13 minutes. A pair of rookie defensemen and Brendan Smith, with all due respect, ain’t it. The long-term fix for the Devils is to probably call up Simon Nemec and/or play Luke Hughes once he signs his ELC and turns pro, but at that point, you’re replacing two rookie defensemen with two other rookie defensemen with higher ceilings. Swinging for the fences and hoping to hit a home run on players with massive upside is great, but this is a situation where these Devils need a stable floor.
The good news is that the exact type of defensemen the Devils should be in the market for shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg to acquire. Heck, the Devils even had one of these defensemen that they traded for a future 4th round draft pick at the deadline a couple years ago in Dmitry Kulikov. He’s someone that would likely go for a similar return this time around at the deadline, except he actually has played for this team and in Lindy Ruff’s system. And he played well! There were people in these very forums who were upset the Devils (correctly) traded a rental defenseman who not only met expectations but exceeded them.
A reunion with Kulikov would make all sorts of sense in the short-term while having zero negative impact on the long-term. But even if its not him, per se, the Devils could use a steady veteran presence on the bottom pairing for as long as Marino and Graves are sidelined.
A Third Line Forward Would Help a Lot
The loss of Palat really put the Devils in a bind, as Erik Haula was meant to be the Devils third line center going into the season. Haula has been called upon to fill Palat’s role in the Top Six. Haula has played well from an underlying numbers standpoint, but he has not played well from a “This dude has two measly goals on the season despite Jack Hughes feeding him Grade A chances on a nightly basis” standpoint. Haula has gotten unlucky, of course.....anyone shooting 3% is. But the results are what they are.
Palat’s return could allow the Devils to play Tatar-Hischier-Zetterlund and Palat-Hughes-Bratt on their top two lines. This would allow the Devils to play Haula at his natural position on the third line and likely center Yegor Sharangovich and Dawson Mercer. Of course, none of this is set in stone, but the bottom line is that the Devils would have more flexibility with what they can do with their lineup. It would get the Devils one step closer to being able to do what they want to do and roll four lines, which they did successfully earlier in the season when they were winning on a regular basis.
I mentioned last week when I aired some grievances that several of the Devils best players have gone ice cold in terms of putting the puck in the net, but a few players had mostly escaped my wrath, so I think its worth mentioning them here. Jesper Boqvist, for example, has zero points in his last 13 games. He only has 4 points in 28 games on the season, and is generally one of the first players who is stapled to the bench once Lindy Ruff decides to shorten the lineup. He’s a perfect example of a guy who needs to bring more to the lineup than what he has. I said my piece on Alex Holtz last week and nothing has changed in the last week to change my opinion that he should not be in the NHL right now. I also wonder if Fabian Zetterlund, who has zero points in his last 9 despite consistent ice time (but not consistent linemates), has hit a bit of a rookie wall like how Mercer did last year.
I could envision a scenario where the Devils move Mercer into the top six permanently and their Top Six is some combination of Tomas Tatar, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Ondrej Palat, Jack Hughes, and Dawson Mercer, with Yegor Sharangovich on the periphery. The Devils may even have 2⁄3 of a solid third line between the excess forward and Haula. But they could probably use a more consistent winger than a rookie in Zetterlund to pair with them. Or perhaps even another center who can slide over to wing if they want Haula to center his own line, Palat to play with Hischier, and someone else with Hughes to take faceoffs off of his plate. I don’t think it matters so much whether this player is a natural center or winger, but I do think they need somebody a little more established and consistent than Boqvist, Holtz, or Zetterlund.
Ideally, whoever this forward is would check a few of the boxes of things the Devils are missing in general (right-handed shot, size, playoff experience, plays with an edge, battles along the boards, power play option).
A Fourth Line Winger Makes Sense
We have no idea how long Nathan Bastian will be on IR (he was placed on Injured Reserve retroactive to November 26th this past week), but he’s already missed a month and doesn’t appear to be close to returning, so put two and two together. He’ll be out awhile.
I wrote last week how I believe Bastian has little actual impact on whether or not the Devils win or lose on any given night and I stand by that. But I also believe that Bastian’s role on the BMW line was important and that the Devils have had issues finding a suitable replacement. Quite frankly, they don’t have a lot of players who do the things that Bastian does well, which is why it appears on the surface that Bastian has left a huge hole in this lineup.
I believe Bastian will be back at some point and the BMW line will be reunited at that time. I also believe that having a plug-and-play fourth liner who can step in and fill that role should any of Miles Wood, Michael McLeod, or Bastian miss time makes sense since the Devils don’t have that guy on the roster. Perhaps Tyce Thompson can become that guy now that he has been recalled from Utica.
The good news is that these types of players are readily available at the trading deadline every year. You can go out and find the Andrew Coglianos or Riley Nashs or even the Eric Staals of the world who can be plugged in in case of emergency. None of those names will move the needle in terms of making people sit back and say “Whoa, watch out for the Devils in the playoffs, they got Tyler Motte”. But those are the types of moves that teams that play deep into the postseason are happy they made.
The Devils don’t need to do a ton to tweak the edges of this roster and add guys who can help them weather the storm, but there are some obvious areas where they could use a little help. Some of those concerns might wind up addressing themselves as the season continues on. As far as we know, none of the Devils injuries are confirmed to be season-ending injuries and the playoffs are still three and a half months away.
There is no such thing as having too much depth, though. Tom Fitzgerald adding reinforcements to give this group an extra push is well worth the cost and won’t have any major impact on how the team goes about building their roster going forward. The Devils owe it to the fanbase to make moves to make a push, and with the holes on the roster staring them in the face, there’s no time like the present.
You’ve heard enough from me though, so now, I turn things over to you. Do you agree with me on the short-term needs of this team? Do you agree with me that bigger-picture needs likely need to wait until the offseason to be addressed or do you want to see those addressed now? Is there an area you’d like to see the Devils improve that I didn’t mention that warrants discussion? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading.