Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2019-20, where Last Word on Hockey 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. Make 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 2019-20 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils.
2019-20 New Jersey Devils
To say last season for the New Jersey Devils was a disappointment would be the understatement of the year. After making the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2018 for the first time since 2012, the Devils missed the playoffs once again last season. It was more a step backward than a step forward. Granted the Devils did not make any moves in the off-season heading into the 2018-19 season. As Taylor Hall noted, the Devils came into last season with the same team. Understanding that general manager Ray Shero has a plan for what he wants to do, not making any moves put the Devils behind the eight-ball.
The Devils started the season winning their first four games. Keith Kinkaid was playing well and it appeared the Devils were carrying momentum over from the prior season. That went away quickly as the Devils lost their next six of seven games and did not recover the rest of the season. Injuries never help as Hall would go down with a knee injury on December 23, 2018, which led to him missing the rest of the regular season. In 33 games Hall had 37 points (11 goals and 16 assists). Everyone points to Hall going down as when the Devils season went downhill, but they were struggling long before his injury.
Just to stay with the negative for a second, the Devils power play ranked near the bottom of the league converting at 17.72 percent. The Devils .895 save percentage again also ranked near the bottom in the league. It was not all doom and gloom despite what the numbers say. The Devils penalty kill was one of the tops in the league killing off penalties at 84.31 percent with 10 shorthanded goals. Kyle Palmieri led the team with 50 points (27 goals and 23 assists). In his second season, Nico Hischier‘s point production went up to 47 points (17 goals, and 30 assists). Even with Kinkaid and Cory Schneider struggling, the Devils saw the future in net as MacKenzie Blackwood showed he can play in the NHL.
The Devils had one of the better off-seasons in team history. After finishing 15th in the Eastern Conference, the Devils were back in the NHL Draft Lottery. With Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko being touted as two of the best prospects in the 2019 NHL Draft, the Devils were hoping the ping-pong balls fell their way. Luck was on the Devils side as for the second time in the three years the Devils got to the number one pick in the draft. With that pick, the Devils selected Hughes first overall in the 2019 NHL Draft. That selection would be only a sign of things to come for the Devils.
Immediately after drafting Hughes, Shero traded for defenceman P.K. Subban from the Nashville Predators. As part of the deal, the Devils sent defenceman Steven Santini and Jeremy Davies along with a second-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and a second-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. After making the blockbuster trade, the Devils then traded John Quenneville to the Chicago Blackhawks for John Hayden.
Once free agency officially began, the Devils signed free agent forward Wayne Simmonds to a one-year contract. He will be paid $5 million for a season, which a low risk, high reward signing for the Devils. If Simmonds plays great, they can re-sign him next year, if not they can trade him away or let him walk into free agency. The Devils took care of some housekeeping issues as well. The Devils signed Josh Jacobs and Brandon Baddock each to one-year, two-way contracts.
Then Shero got to work re-signings his RFAs before their salary arbitration hearings. First, he re-signed defenceman Connor Carrick to a new two-year deal. Soon after Mirco Mueller signed a one-year contract to stay with the Devils. Finally, Will Butcher agreed to a new three-contract to remain with the Devils. In between those signings, the Devils traded for Nikita Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights, adding another top-six forward to the mix. The only remaining RFA left to re-sign is Pavel Zacha. It will be interesting to see if and when the Devils decided to give Zacha a new contract.
One of the biggest problems for the Devils last season was that they were a one-line team. Outside of Hall-Hischier-Palmieri, the Devils could not produce any offense. Shero addressed that issue during the off-season. Expect the top line to remain the same throughout the year unless Hughes shows he is capable of taking on the top-line center role. Expect Hischier to take the next step in his development in the league. With Hall and Palmieri on his wings, the young Swiss can reach new heights in point production for the Devils this season.
With the additions of Gusev and Simmonds, this allows the Devils to have a physical presence alongside the youngster in Hughes. Expect Hughes to get his points early on, but he will have to adjust as the season goes on. His body will have to get used to playing more games and adjusting to the schedule of the NHL. The wildcard on this line is Gusev. He has never played in an NHL regular-season game before. Everyone is amazed at what he did in the KHL. However, the NHL is a whole different animal. Having a player that can shoot and set up on a line with a rookie will help the entire line produce.
The bottom six is a bit more tricky when it comes to the Devils. There are so many question marks outside of Zajac and Bratt. With Zacha still in need of a contract, where does he slot in once he settles on a new deal? Does he stay at the centre position on the fourth line or does he shift to the wing to provide offense on a line with Zajac and Bratt? The Devils went out and added depth to their bottom-six forwards. As we have seen over the past few seasons in the NHL, depth scoring is what helps a team win in the playoffs, especially a good fourth line.
With players like Wood, Rooney, and Hayden on the fourth line, these players not only bring a physical presence but have the skill to score goals as well. That is what a team needs in today’s NHL. Wood has the potential to play on the third line with his speed and skill. But his brain gets him into trouble. Wood just takes penalties at the wrong time. Plus players like Zajac, Coleman, and Rooney can kill penalties.
The top pairing of the Devils will feature young and upcoming defenceman Will Butcher and the veteran P.K. Subban. Subban is motivated to show he still has a lot left in the tank. He battled through injuries last season with the Nashville Predators. Having Butcher paired with a player like Subban will allow him to grow into the offensive player he can be in the NHL. Subban is getting up there in age, but still has a rocket of a shot from the point, which the Devils will exploit on the power play.
Subban adds another veteran presence to the defence that has been vastly improved from a year ago. While the defence can surely improve even more this season, having Butcher on the top pair playing more minutes allows him to grow even more as a player. With Subban in the mix and getting all the attention, Butcher will have the opportunity to increase his point totals from a year ago.
This is where things can get interesting for the Devils. Smith was the final cut for the Devils last year when training camp wrapped up. Smith showed his ability to play in the NHL during the preseason. After being sent back to juniors, Smith dominated the WHL with the Spokane Chiefs putting up 69 points (7 goals and 62 assists). With the Devils defence being a bit weaker on the left side, having a guy like Smith on the team improves the defence even more.
On the right side with Smith will be Severson. He is coming into his own as an NHL defenceman. With Subban on the top pairing, and getting the harder matchups, Severson will have more favorable matchups while still putting up high offensive numbers. He set career highs last season in goals and points while leading the team in ice time. He will still be able to log a ton of ice time considering he plays on the power play and penalty kill. If Smith makes the team, this is the pair to watch out for when the Devils take the ice.
The final pair features Greene and Vatanen. The Finn is entering the final year of his contract, while Greene is on the back end of his career. Entering the season Greene will have to realize that he is not a top-four defencemen anymore. Vatanen enters the season healthy and looking to make an impact. Like Severson, Vatanen is a workhorse who eats a ton of minutes. And with the addition Subban, Vatanen’s role shifts. If the Devils are looking to bolster their left-side, Vatanen could shift to there which moves Butcher and Smith down in the lineup.
The key to this whole scenario is Smith If the Devils believe he is not ready to play, Mirco Mueller can be inserted into the lineup to take on the second pairing minutes. Unfortunately, Greene just cannot handle those minutes anymore. If one of the players on the right side needs a night off, Connor Carrick can be inserted to play some games. Having depth on defense is essential especially as it gets late in the season.
The biggest question mark entering the season is goaltending for the Devils. MacKenzie Blackwood and Cory Schneider will be the tandem this season of the Devils. Over the last two seasons, Schneider has struggled. It took him a whole calendar year to win a game in the regular-season game. Schneider did win a game in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Last year, Schneider was not healthy to start the season. He played through a groin injury and rushed to get back. After getting the proper amount of time off, Schneider came back and played better. His time during the IIHF World Championships helped his game, but he needs to be better when Blackwood needs time off.
Going into the season, Blackwood is the number one for the Devils. While he has a small sample size in the league, Blackwood has shown the poise and confidence to be a starting goalie in the NHL. Being the number one at the top level will be a new experience for him, but if Schneider can ease his workload, look for Blackwood to have a good season. Remember, the backup goalie does not have to be great but has to be good enough to win games. Both goalies have to remember not to do too much. The team in front of them can win hockey games. They do not need to put it all on their shoulders.
Players to Watch
One of the players to watch this season for the Devils is Nikita Gusev. It will be interesting to see how Gusev adjusts to the NHL. He spent his career in the KHL where he put up some impressive numbers. Last season with St. Petersburg SKA he recorded 82 points (17 goals and 65 assists). Playing in the KHL is totally different than playing in the NHL. It is the best league in the world for a reason. He brings another dynamic element to the Devils roster that they have not had in a long time.
Another player to watch is Jesper Boqvist. Boqvist signed his entry-level contract this season and expectations are high. He looked really good during Devils developmental camp in July and has the ability to make this team. Boqvist will determine what the Devils do going forward. If Boqvist can show he can play in the league, then the line combinations get thrown out the window. And also could determine how they handle Hall going forward.
Prediction for the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils
While last season can be chalked up to injuries and bad play, the Devils enter the 2019-20 season as they did in the 2017-18 season. Outside the Devils locker room, there are not many expectations. Inside, the Devils have the belief and drive to get back to the playoffs. Even with a revamped roster, there are still too many question marks on defense and with the goaltenders. There is no doubt the Devils will be battling for a playoff spot, but it is hard to see them securing one of the top three spots in the Metro Division. In order for the Devils to be in the top three, they will need to improve their record against teams in the Metro.
Taking everything into consideration, the Devils are one of the most improved teams in the league. The Devils will not be an easy out once the regular-season starts and have the team to make it to the playoffs. Once the season ends in April the Devils will have one of the two wild cards in the Eastern Conference.
NEWARK, NEW JERSEY – NOVEMBER 21: Taylor Hall #9 of the New Jersey Devils is congratulated by teammates on the bench after he scored a goal in the second period against the Montreal Canadiens at Prudential Center on November 21, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)