Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2015-16, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2015-16 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue with the New Jersey Devils.
Puck Drop Preview: 2015-16 New Jersey Devils
Since the Devils made the Stanley Cup Final in 2012, New Jersey has failed to make the playoffs and that trend continued in the 2014-15 season. Finishing in 7th in their division, the team saw their aged and tired offense become exposed, while their up-and-coming defense learned through growing pains.
A team dealing with injuries to just about every key player in their system, young forwards and defensemen alike were tested, some even getting their first look at the NHL level, such as Seth Helgeson and Stefan Matteau. The blue-line featured Jon Merril, Damon Severson and Adam Larsson, all of whom are under the age of 25. Adam Henrique led the team in points with 43, while Mike Cammalleri‘s 27 goals led the team by a wide margin, and he finished just one point behind Henrique.
Bringing back Scott Gomez for another run with the team turned out better than expected, as he looked good in powerplay situations and showed chemistry with Cammalleri. However, by the time the trade deadline rolled around, the Devils were not in a good position to make the playoffs and made two moves for their future. Jaromir Jagr was dealt to the Florida Panthers for a 2015 2nd-round pick and a conditional 2016 3rd-round pick. Defenseman Marek Zidlicky, who had looked good in a pairing with Merill, was sent to the Detroit Red Wings for a conditional 2016 3rd-round pick.
Their struggles ran through until the end of the season, as the Devils finished 1-6-3 in their final ten games and ended up with the 6th overall pick in the 2015 draft. A silver lining, at the very least.
With that pick, the Devils took forward Pavel Zacha, a big, left-handed centerman out of the Ontario Hockey League. New Jersey also ended up with goaltending prospect Mackenzie Blackwood (42), Blake Speers (67), Colton White (97) and Brett Seney (157). At the draft, the Devils also acquired forward Kyle Palmieri from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for essentially the same package they got from Florida for Jagr.
On July 1st, John Moore was signed to a three-year deal, replacing the loss of Peter Harrold. Yann Danis and Marc-Andre Gragnani were both inked to one-year deals for depth purposes. Gelinas was signed for two more years, Larsson earned six years and Zacha signed his three-year entry-level deal. After buying out Danius Zubrus and losing Bryce Salvador to retirement, the Devils signed former Flames defenseman David Schlemko to a one-year deal.
Ryan Clowe, 32, had signed a five-year deal with New Jersey back in 2013, but due to injuries and unfortunate circumstances, he was advised by doctors not to play and inevitably hang up his skates. Clowe had played just 13 games last season, finishing with one goal and four points. Meanwhile, the front office underwent a face change, naming Ray Shero as the new General Manager while losing Lou Lamoriello to the Toronto Maple Leafs. John Hynes was named Head Coach, filling in for Peter DeBoer, who left for the San Jose Sharks.
2015-16 Opening Day Lineup
Mike Cammalleri – Adam Henrique – Kyle Palmieri
Patrik Elias – Travis Zajac – Pavel Zacha
Tuomo Ruutu – Jacob Josefson – Stefan Matteau
Reid Boucher – Sergey Kalinin – Jordin Tootoo
Andy Greene – Adam Larsson
Jon Merrill – Damon Severson
David Schlemko – Eric Gelinas
Players to Watch
As seen above, I have Zacha in the starting line-up and it will be interesting to see if he actually can crack it. At 18 years of age, Zacha does fall below the median age of rookies who crack the NHL, but he certainly has the frame, skill-set and work ethic to make a case for himself. Currently, the Devils are extremely thin on the right wing and are in a rebuilding stage. Responsibility placed on Zacha would solely be based on earning experience and learning the craft at the NHL level. With almost no pressure placed on him and skating with some of the better Devils forwards, Zacha would be able to hone his skills.
This upcoming season will be a trial for the Devils blue-line, as it looks relatively young and inexperienced. Fortunately enough for the young guns, this means opportunity. Severson put up 5 goals and 17 points in 51 games last season and never looked out of place. Pending how pairings look during pre-season, Severson could slot into a top-four role on the second pairing, behind the Larsson-Greene duo.
On the Rise
Paired with Marek Zidlicky last season, Merill strived in a top-four role and excelled at all aspects. His play at both ends of the ice was tremendous, especially considering he is just 23 years of age. Towards the second half of his season, his play did take a dip and he showed signs of struggle, but he still has great size, speed and a good set of hands to make up for some inconsistencies in his play.
On the Decline
Having signed for two more seasons last July, Gionta showed struggles throughout the 2014-15 season and managed just 5 goals and 13 points in 61 games. Primarily a defensive-stationed player, Gionta struggled heavily with puck possession numbers and was often exploited by the opposition. This year, he’ll be in tough competition with several young players coming up to challenge for a spot and a new regime to impress. At 31, Gionta may receive his fair share of time in the press box.
The Devils are heading into the new season with a similar roster and the same glaring issues. An old forwards group consisting of seven players who are 30 or older, a young blue-line hungry for experience and ready to take on the challenge and one of the best goaltenders in the league. Unfortunately, the lack of depth on the wing will again be exposed and the defense will go through some growing pains.
The Devils are still in a rebuild mode but looking at their prospect pool and what lies ahead, this stage of their development may be over sooner than we think. Still, the 2015-16 season will see more-or-less the same positioning as last season. A finish close to the bottom of their division and conference and another top-ten pick at the draft.
Fortunately enough for Devils fans, the new regime will help re-build towards a brighter future and by the time their younger players are close to their prime — or in it — the younger players behind them will be key components to winning games and future veterans will be there to hold their hands and help guide the way. It may be difficult to watch for the time being but close to the end of this decade, we may see the return of New Jersey into the playoff picture.