Are the Devils the Most Improved Team in the NHL?

The New Jersey Devils appear to be the most improved team in the NHL after a big splash and some savvy additions from General Manager Ray Shero.

Highlighting the offseason turnaround was a shocking one-for-one trade, with Shero acquiring elite left winger Hall from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for growing defender Adam Larsson. While Larsson is an outstanding shut down defenseman with tremendous upside, Hall is an elite player who is only 24 years old.

Both teams addressed glaring weaknesses with the trade, but New Jersey got better overall talent in this deal. Larsson is reliable on the back end, but does not contribute offensively enough to consider him at Hall’s level (his 18 points were only fourth best among defensemen on his own team).

Loss of Larsson

Larsson’s success as a defensive player may be more reflective of the Devil’s system than his own play. Similar to Larsson, Mark Fayne was supposed to solve some of Edmonton’s defensive struggles when he left the Devils to sign with the Oilers prior to the 2014-15 season. Fayne struggled to perform anywhere near the level he did with New Jersey, and even dropped out of the Oilers’ lineup at times. Considering Edmonton was one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL the past couple of seasons, his difficulty maintaining a starting role speaks volumes.

Larsson is much younger than Fayne, and has greater potential to improve, but they both succeeded in New Jersey in the same way. The two also benefited from being paired with Andy Greene.

Shero took advantage of how desperate Edmonton was to bolster their defense, while exploiting the strength of his own organization. It was simply a deal that he could not resist making, despite having to relinquish homegrown talent.

How Hall Will Help 

Hall gives the Devils the skilled winger that they have been lacking since Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk departed in consecutive seasons. Fittingly, Hall takes nine as his new jersey number, as he fills the obvious void that Parise left when he signed with the Minnesota Wild.

Although the Devils have found help from signing Mike Cammalleri, and trading for Kyle Palmieri, they have been missing a superstar forward that they can build their franchise around. Hall put up 65 points in 2015-16, as he played a full 82 game schedule for the first time in his NHL career. This surpasses the point total for every player on the Devils last year.

The trade reunites the winger with Adam Henrique, who Hall played alongside with the Windsor Spitfires in juniors. Devils Coach John Hynes will almost surely test the two forwards together this season.

While it may be frustrating for Hall to leave the Oilers after suffering through many painful losing campaigns, it may motivate him to excel further. Hall is still yet to have a 30-goal season, and could meet this objective playing on a better overall team. Connor McDavid is poised to emerge as the face of the Edmonton franchise, meaning the change gives Hall the opportunity to remain the most prominent player on his team.

Signing Ben Lovejoy 

To replace Larsson, Shero signed another right-handed defenseman in Lovejoy. He does not have the potential of Larsson, being that he is a veteran player, but his performance was very similar in 2015-16. If Hynes pairs Lovejoy with Greene, he could serve the same purpose as Larsson efficiently.

Lovejoy also brings an important presence coming off of a Stanley Cup championship with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Having a player who understands what it takes to win can be fundamental in the locker room. The Devils lack this on their team, unless they bring back Patrik Elias.

More Forward Depth and Youth  

The additions of Beau Bennett, Luke Gazdic, and Vernon Fiddler will further strengthen the forwards. They will have much more depth than last year, and many young players like Joseph Blandisi, Pavel Zacha, and Steven Santini will have the chance to win regular spots in the Devils’ lineup. Devante Smith-Pelly will also have the opportunity to show whether his 13 points in 18 games with the Devils was simply a fluke, or a legitimate, positive result of increased ice time.

New Direction For the Devils: The Most Improved Team in the NHL? 

Labeled as an organization that exclusively builds from the net out, the Devils’ recent moves signal an unusual twist for the club. When Shero took over as the team’s general manager he made it clear he wanted his team to embrace being “fast, attacking, and supportive.” The acquisitions he has made this offseason prove that he is fully committed to this motto.

Stark changes came when Shero obtained the general manager position from Lou Lamoriello last offseason. But now, a year later, he is showing that he has turned the corner with this team, is looking towards the playoffs, and is preparing to sustain winning with the new New Jersey Devils.

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