Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 New Jersey Devils

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NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 23: Adam Henrique #14 of the New Jersey Devils congratulates Cory Schneider #35 after Schneider shut out the Arizona Coyotes on February 23, 2015 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.The New Jersey Devils defeated the Arizona Coyotes 3-0. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com 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 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the New Jersey Devils.

Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 New Jersey Devils

Last Season

The New Jersey Devils dawned on a new era for their historically successful organization with the 2015-16 season. Coming into the year, performance-based expectations were extremely low, as the the team braced for a long-term rebuild. But bringing in many new faces, and giving young players the opportunity to shine allowed the Devils to excel.

Prior to the season, the long tenured general manager of the Devils, Lou Lamoriello, stepped down and handed the reigns over to Ray Shero. He made it clear that he was looking to push the team in a new direction. He instilled the words, “fast, attacking, and supportive” as the mantra to which he wants his team to live by.

To set his blueprint in motion, Shero brought in rookie NHL Coach John Hynes, and made sure to transform the team’s old, depleted lineup into one young with promise. Michael Ryder, Ryane Clowe, Bryce Salvador, Steve Bernier, Dainius Zubrus, Scott Gomez, and Peter Harrold all finally departed. Marek Zidlicky and Jaromir Jagr also moved on to new teams at the trade deadline during the previous season.

Shero made fundamental additions at the draft as he selected winger Pavel Zacha sixth overall, and acquired Kyle Palmieri from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for draft picks. In free agency he supplied the lineup with a mixture of young players and veterans with many low risk, high reward signings such as David Schlemko, Lee Stempniak, John Moore, Sergey Kalinin and Jiri Tlusty.

Upon opening night, the Devils were strong candidates to finish in the range for a top five draft pick. But as the early stages of the season passed, the team was playing very competitive hockey and remained in the playoff race. The Devils flirted with a playoff spot into February, and were tied with the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in points (55) on February 1st.

However, with multiple injuries, especially a wrist injury to sniper Mike Cammalleri, the Devils were unable to continue winning consistently through the end of the season. With post-season play doubtful at the trade deadline, Shero dealt surprise leading scorer Stempniak to the Boston Bruins for a second and fourth round draft pick. He also traded Stefan Matteau to the Montreal Canadiens for Devante Smith-Pelly, who went on to tally 13 points in his 18 games with the Devils.

They finished 38-36-8 (84 points), and missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. Despite another early end to the year, the team proved they can contend for the playoffs sooner rather than later. 

Cory Schneider showed that he is an elite goaltender in the league, and will be a mainstay in the Devils net for the foreseeable future. On the front end, while they saw improvements, the Devils still lacked enough scoring to make it over the hump. Adam Henrique and Palmieri each contributed 30 goals, but the team did not receive much scoring from other areas. 

The Off-season

With the offense being the glaring weakness on this team, Shero completed a blockbuster trade, acquiring elite left winger Taylor Hall from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Adam Larsson. The 24-year-old scorer gives the Devils exactly what they have desired since losing Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Although Larsson has great potential as a right-handed defenseman, the Devils seemingly tricked the Oilers to make this deal happen.

Hall is a known commodity coming off of his first full 82-game campaign in the NHL. Larsson may have benefited from playing in the Devils strong defensive system, and did not pitch in often enough offensively to consider him an elite player. Hall is already one of the top players in the NHL, and at such a young age, still has room to improve. His speedy style fits perfectly into the puzzle Shero continues to craft.

To address the loss of Larsson, Shero inked another reliable right-handed defensemen in Ben Lovejoy. His numbers with the Penguins last season are similar to Larsson, meaning that the team should not skip a beat with their top pairings of defensemen.

Similar to the previous off-season, Shero made some other small, yet savvy additions by acquiring Beau Bennett, Vernon Fiddler, and Luke Gazdic. This should give the Devils plenty of forward depth and stimulate competition for spots in the team’s bottom six.

Because they addressed their everlasting weakness, the Devils may be the most improved team in the NHL coming into the 2016-17 campaign.

The Forwards

Taylor HallAdam HenriqueKyle Palmieri

Mike CammalleriTravis ZajacReid Boucher

Devante Smith-PellyPavel ZachaBeau Bennett

Jacob JosefsonVernon FiddlerSergey Kalinin

Joseph Blandisi– John Quenneville

After failing immensely on the offensive end in recent years, the Devils can now enjoy seeing Hall in their lineup. While one player does not make a team, Hall transforms the Devils forward lines into a much more formidable group.

Speed and skill now becomes prevalent throughout the lineup, as many young wingers will also have the chance to make big strides this season. The top six is quite stable, but there are multiple options for Hynes at right wing on the second line including Reid Boucher, Bennett, Joseph Blandisi, and Smith-Pelly.

Hynes will surely want to play Henrique with Hall as they have experience as linemates as former teammates with the Windsor Spitfires. As the team’s top center and winger respectively, it should be an easy decision to unite them on the first line. At right wing, Hynes will likely choose between Cammalleri and Palmieri.

The second line should feature the other of the two playing alongside centerman Travis Zajac. Zajac has struggled a bit to put up noticeable offensive numbers, but could be a greater threat with one of these wingers. Despite his lackluster production, Zajac continues to pay a strong defense game, and is fantastic on face-offs.

The bottom six will likely be key to whether the Devils truly turn the corner offensively. Getting consistent scoring from players such as Bennett and Smith-Pelly would take the pressure off their top forwards. Zacha can be the wild card for this team in what will likely be his first full season in the NHL.

The Defensemen

Andy GreeneBen Lovejoy

John MooreDamon Severson

Jon Merrill- Steven Santini

Uncharacteristically, the Devils’ defense appears to be a bigger mystery coming into this season. Beyond Andy Greene, who is stapled into the top pairing, Hynes will have many options when it comes to how he wants to lay out the pairings.

The main dilemma will be deciding whether to play Lovejoy or Damon Severson on the top pair with Greene. Lovejoy is a veteran whose skills and statistics line up very strikingly with Larsson. This could be reason to slot him in next to Greene, but Severson has played very well at the NHL level and could flourish receiving the important minutes. With the need for Severson to be a consistent two-way defender for years to come, they may want to give him that opportunity.

After getting a small taste of the NHL towards the end of last season, Steven Santini will probably get a shot to win an everyday job. Most of his experience comes from the collegiate level, so it will be interesting to see where Hynes believes Santini fits.

The Goaltenders

Cory Schneider

Keith Kinkaid

Scott Wedgewood

Without Schneider, this team does not win. Last season, he put up a 2.15 goals against average and a .924 save percentage, which put him in the Vezina conversation. But what sets Schneider apart as an elite NHL goaltender is the inability for the Devil to succeed without him. 

With tremendous saves and and overall steady performances, he keeps the team in most game. In many instances, he gives the Devils a chance to win when their on ice performance shows they do not deserve it.

After Schneider, it will be Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood competing for the backup role. Kinkaid served as the backup for most of last season, but Wedgewood was successful in his small sample of starts.

Players to Watch

Kyle Palmieri

Palmieri set career highs in scoring last year, as he prospered when receiving more minutes with the Devils. They relied on him heavily, as he performed at a higher level than anyone could have hoped for. 

Although Hall helps the offense, it is still fragile and limited. The Devils need Palmieri to put up another terrific season. Because Palmieri’s growth last year correlates with receiving more minutes, the Devils should expect similar results.

Palmieri will also be coming off time with Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey. While having a fresh to the start of the season would be ideal, he could be closer to mid-season form after playing in real competition for a few weeks.

Devante Smith-Pelly

Smith-Pelly seemed like a lost cause with Montreal, triggering the trade to the Devils in exchange for Matteau. But with new scenery and more ice time, the power winger scored 13 points in 18 games.

The Devils cannot expect these types of numbers from Smith-Pelly constantly, but he could become a productive forward with a knack for cleaning up in front. It will be interesting to see whether his success was simply a fluke or a sign of things to come.

Taylor Hall  

Hall is a motivated player out to prove that the Oilers made an unbearable mistake. He wants to show that he can consistently stay healthy, and likely has his sights on obtaining career highs. And considering the Devils have lacked scoring so painfully of late, why wouldn’t you want to watch him?

Players on the Rise

Pavel Zacha

After being selected sixth overall by the Devils in the 2015 draft, Zacha spent the majority of last season with his junior team, the Sarnia Sting. He added 64 points in 51 games, putting up a solid season.

When he was drafted, Zacha noted how excited he was to join the Devils, especially with Czech players like Patrik Elias having such successful careers there. He will get the chance to center one of the Devils lines this season, and could be a huge booster for the team if he performs well.

Players on the Decline

Travis Zajac

Shero has done an excellent job getting rid of declining players, but still must deal with problems with players like Zajac, who is still in his prime and has the ability to put up a strong season when playing with top caliber scorers. Yet, in recent seasons, he has struggled to score on a consistent basis. He had great success with players like Parise and Kovalchuk, so if he plays with one of the Devils best scorers this year he could be successful again.

His large contract makes his performance seem worse than it actually is, as his production is not sufficient for the money he is making.

2016-17 Season Predictions

After shattering expectations in 2015-16, the Devils have their sights on the playoffs coming into the 2016-17 season. The Metropolitan Division will be extremely competitive once again this season, but with growing youngsters and the addition of Hall the Devils may return to the post-season.

They could compete for a wild card position, or even a lower divisional spot. Besides the Washington Capitals and Penguins, the Devils have the talent to surmount anyone else in the division.

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