Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.
[Under Pressure | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]
44-29-9, 97 pts. (5th Metropolitan Division; 8th Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost 4-1 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, second round
The New Jersey Devils took a nice step in the right direction last season.
Gifted with some luck even before the season started, the Devils jumped from fifth to first in the draft lottery and selected Nico Hischier with the pick.
From there, the team battled through adversity in the form of a mid-season trade of a fan favorite, an oft-injured starting goalie and the heat of the playoff chase down the stretch.
And at the end of it, New Jersey made it to the playoffs, returning to the promised land for the first time since they lost in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final to the Los Angeles Kings and they did so on the back of a Hart Trophy-winning season by Taylor Hall, who put the Devils on his back with a 26-game point streak that began on Jan. 2 and carried right on their the beginning of March.
Hischier also rose to the occasion, playing in all 82 games last season and finished second in team scoring with 20 goals and 52 points.
That’s a good year in most books, especially given New Jersey’s recent drought come spring.
The Devils weren’t without fault, however.
There was a large disparity in scoring. Hall finished with 93 points, and the next closest, Hischier, finished a distant 41 points adrift. Third-best ended with 44 points, a 49-gap, and only three players on the team had 20 or more goals, leaving the Devils in the middle of the pack in terms of goals-for as a team.
The Devils shuffled the deck in November, sending Adam Henrique to Anaheim in exchange for Sami Vatanen. The deal filled the needs of both teams at the time. Vatanen, in just 57 games, finished sixth on the team in scoring, but the Devils missed Henrique’s production, especially in the playoffs where they managed just 2.4 goals per game.
A slow offseason means the Devils will continue to drink from their fountain of youth (they have 11 players 25 years of age or younger), and Jesper Bratt shouldn’t be forgotten amongst the Hischiers and the Halls of the team.
Bratt had 13 goals and 35 points during his rookie season last year and the Devils will hope he can take the next step this coming year.
A healthy Marcus Johansson, who was limited to just 29 games due to a bevy of injuries, will also give the roster a shot in the arm, offensively.
New Jersey can tie a lot of it together with a bounce-back year from Cory Schneider in goal. Schneider battled injury and inconsistent play, not winning a game in 2018 until he surfaced in the playoffs.
Schneider is the starter, no doubt. He’s making $6 million a season and has four years left on his deal. His save percentage has gone from .908 in 2016-17 to .907 last year.
It goes without saying, but the Devils need him back to his best, such as the numbers he displayed in 2015-16 with a .924.
• Ty Smith, D, 18, Spokane Chiefs (WHL) – 2018 first-round pick
Smith took a big step in the Western Hockey League last season with 14 goals and 59 assists in 69 games, more than doubling his numbers from his rookie season. His play helped him to the 17th spot in the draft where the Devils took him. He prides himself on his skating ability and is a future stalwart in New Jersey’s rearguard if he continues to progress.
• Michael McLeod, C, 20, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL) – 2016 first-round pick
Big — he’s 6-foot-2 — and has the ability to move his feet very quickly. McLeod was only slowed last season by an injury at the beginning of the year. He was still able to put up 16 goals and 44 points with the Steelheads in 38 games and had four points in seven games at the world juniors, helping Canada to gold. The Devils haven’t added much on forward this offseason, so a good showing in camp could help McLeod onto the opening night roster.
• John Quenneville, C, 22, Binghamton Devils (AHL) – 2014 first-round pick
Quenneville, like McLeod, will have a shot at making the big club out of camp. The 22-year-old produced another solid year in the AHL with 34 points in 43 games and has the ability to play on either wing as well as his natural center positon, which will only help his chances come the fall.
Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck