Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2017-2018, 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 are insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around till the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2017-2018 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on the Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2017-2018 New Jersey Devils.
Puck Drop Preview: 2017-2018 New Jersey Devils
The 2016-2017 New Jersey Devils season was one to forget. They finished last in the Eastern Conference with 70 points, eight points behind the 15th place Buffalo Sabres. The season started with some excitement after an off-season trade with the Edmonton Oilers landed the Devils Taylor Hall. However, not even the arrival of an offensive star could cure the teams main issue: scoring. New Jersey finished 28th in the NHL in the goals for category, putting just 180 pucks in the net. Their powerplay was subpar, ranking 22nd in the NHL, scoring on 17% of their chances. A lack of depth beyond their top line was a major factor in the scoring problems. Only seven players recorded double-digit goals.
When they didn’t have the puck, the Devils weren’t much better. They allowed 241 goals last season, ranking them 24th in the NHL in that department. On the penalty kill, it was more of the same. Their short-handed unit finished 23rd in the league, killing off 79.6% of their penalties. The Devils depth issue on the back end hurt them. Relying on 34-year-old captain Andy Greene to be the workhorse of your defense core is not a great recipe for success. Greene lead New Jersey in minutes played, averaging just under 22 per game.
Cory Schneider had an uncharacteristically down year. The Devils goalie posted a 2.80 goals-against-average, a career worst when playing more than 25 games. He also recorded a save percentage of .908%, another career low. Schneider is hardly to blame for the Devils defensive struggles, however his performance certainly didn’t help.
Despite the teams poor year, some Devils players did have decent seasons. Taylor Hall enjoyed a solid individual offensive year. Playing in just 72 games, Hall recored his fifth career 20 goal season. He also added 33 helpers for a team leading 53 points. Hall was tied for the most points on the team with Kyle Palmieri, who was one of the other bright spots for the Devils. Palmieri scored 26 goals, giving him a second straight 25-plus goal campaign. Adam Henrique saw a dip in his 2015-2016 production. Henrique netted 20 goals last season, a 10 goal drop off from the previous season. Heading into 2016-2017, all three will be counted on to produce if the Devils have any hope of improving.
When you finish as one of the three worst teams in the league, it is pretty hard to go anywhere but up. For the Devils, their off-season should help them be better in 2017-2018. Their first move of the off-season wasn’t really a move, but rather a stroke of luck. With just an 8.5% chance, New Jersey won the 2017 NHL draft lottery. Securing the number one pick was a massive win for a team in desperate need of young talent. With the pick, they selected Swiss sensation Nico Hischier from the Halifax Mooseheads. Hischier put up 86 points in just 57 games for Halifax. He also had an impressive showing for Switzerland at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships.
The Devils also made some solid signings in free agency. They inked veteran centre Brian Boyle to a two-year deal. Boyle had 25 points in 75 games for the Tampa Bay Lighting and the Toronto Maple Leafs. He is a strong face-off man and penalty killer and should give the Devils some flexibility up the middle.
They also acquired Marcus Johansson via trade. New Jersey sent a second and a third round pick to Washington in exchange for the Swedish forward. The 26-year-old Johansson enjoyed his best season in 2016-2017. He racked up 24 goals and 34 assists for a career best 58 points. He will provide some much needed secondary scoring help. Later in the summer New Jersey signed a veteran forward to a one-year deal. Stafford only managed eight goals in 58 games. However, Stafford scored 21 goals in 2015-2016 and the Devils are in no place to turn down potential offense.
The most recent win for the Devils came in late August in a series of events involving the Colorado Avalanche. New Jersey failed to sign Harvard forward Alexander Kerfoot to a contract. The Devils selected Kerfoot in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and the two sides could not come to agreement on a contract. Kerfoot instead signed with Colorado. The Avalanche were having a similar problem signing Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher. Butcher was taken in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft and was not willing to commit to Colorado. Instead, the University of Denver star opted to sign with New Jersey, giving the Devils a potential long-term piece on their back end. Butcher had 37 points in 43 games for the University of Denver. He also lead the Pioneers to a national title.
The 2017-2018 Line Combinations
The Devils received horrible news that Travis Zajac would be out 4-6 months with a pectoral injury. Zajac was solid in between Hall and Palmieri last season and will be missed. Before the year, most assumed Henrique would play on the wing. However, with the injury to Zajac he should to move back to the middle to start the season.
After the first line, the other three lines could change frequently, specifically on the wings. Devils management has stated that they would like Hischier to play centre. Pencil in fellow top five pick Pavel Zacha and Brian Boyle into the other two centre spots and New Jersey is set down the middle. Pairing Hischier with veterans like Johansson and Stafford will help the rookie settle in.
With Zacha on the third line, Miles Wood and Stefan Noesen can slide into the winger spots. Wood is a physical player, racking up 86 penalty minutes in 60 games. He can provide some scoring, netting eight goals last year. Noesen is a former first round pick who was acquired by New Jersey from Anaheim last year. He had only ten points in 44 games, but can provide some energy on the third line.
On the fourth line, Boyle could see a number of wingers. Blake Speers made the Devils roster out of camp in 2016. Unfortunately, he was eventually sent back to the OHL. Speers bad month continued when he broke his wrist on October 28th. However, the Devils prospect turned things around. He represented Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships. He also had 37 points in 30 games for the Soo Greyhounds. Joseph Blandisi plays a hard game and can provide a spark lower down in the line up.
The Devils have a number of other young forwards who could see time this year. John Quenneville lead the Albany Devils in scoring last season with 46 points in 58 games. The former Brandon Wheat King appeared in 12 NHL games last year and has the potential to provide offensively. Blake Coleman was second in scoring for Albany. He had 39 points and appeared in 23 games for the big club. Throw in Nick Lappin and Blake Pietila and New Jersey has plenty of options up front.
Mirco Mueller – Will Butcher
Fresh of signing a six-year contract extension, Damon Severson is poised to be part of the Devils top pair. Severson had his best season in 2016-2017. He recorded 31 points in 80 games and played over 20 minutes a night. The 22-year-old should continue to progress in his development and is ready for top minutes. Captain Andy Greene can’t provide much offense anymore, but can continue to be a steadying presence on the top pair.
John Moore lead all Devils blue liners in goals last year with 12. The 22 points was a career best for the 26-year-old. Ben Lovejoy is a nice compliment to the offensive-minded Moore. Lovejoy led the Devils in blocked shots with 149. The two seem like a nice fit on the second pairing.
The third pairing is up in the air. After such a stellar senior year, Butcher should make the big club out of camp. He will experience growing pains, but can help the New Jersey powerplay. Mirco Mueller was acquired from San Jose Sharks at the NHL Draft in June. Mueller has played in 54 NHL games, but only played four last year. The former first round pick in 2013 will get a shot to compete for a spot. Steven Stantini should compete with Mueller for a slot on the bottom pair. The New York native appeared in 38 games for the Devils last year.
The crease in the swamp belongs Cory Schneider. He started 60 games for New Jersey last year and there is no reason this season should be any different. Behind Schneider is the steady Keith Kinkaid. Kinkaid had a strong season in 2016-2017 and was rewarded with a new two-year deal. Kinkaid posted a 2.64 goals-against-average in 26 contests last season. He has appeared in at least 19 games for the Devils the past three years, and 2017-18 should be no different.
Players To Watch
Being the number one overall pick comes with expectations and attention. The entire hockey world will keep an eye on Hischier this season. He may not come with hype of fellow first overall picks Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, but Hischier can play. Offensively he should produce, especially given powerplay time.
After his free agency saga, Butcher will have pressure on him. The Hobey Baker winner was the center of attention at the end of the off-season and will be expected to put up some numbers. It will be interesting to see how the jump from NCAA to the NHL goes for the former college star.
Players on the Rise
Severson will be expected to produce after inking his new deal. There is no indication that he is due to take a step back. The Devils blue liner has increased his point total every season and should see more ice time. Playing in New Jersey means flying under the radar from hockey fans outside the state, but Severson could become a household name.
Quenneville can fit into both a player to watch and one on the rise. He had a stellar year in his first season in the AHL and seems NHL ready. As outlined before, New Jersey have a ton of young forward options. However, Quenneville appears to have the most upside, especially offensively. If he can prove he can play an all around game at the next level, he should put up some points with the big club.
Players on the Decline
There is no denying that Greene’s best days are behind him. Not exactly a bold claim when talking about a soon to be 35-year-old defenceman. Greene is still a decent player, but is counted on far too much in New Jersey. On a team with young players, Greene will provide a leadership presence. However, he shouldn’t be counted on for much more.
If Stafford was on a better team, he may not see much more than fourth line minutes. The Milwaukee native does not appear to have the scoring touch he used to. He is a nice pick up for a New Jersey squad looking for all the help they can get. However, don’t expect Stafford to rack up the goals.
2017-2018 New Jersey Devils Season Prediction
The good news for the New Jersey Devils is they got better and their future looks brighter. Bringing in established forwards Brian Boyle and Marcus Johansson will improve the team in the short-term. Long-term, adding Hischier and Butcher gives them two potential long-term pieces. The bad news for the Devils is: other teams got better. The Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes could contend for playoff spots. After “years from hell” both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers expect to be challenging for the playoffs. So while the Devils made some great moves, it won’t be enough to contend for a postseason spot this year.
The Devils are still not deep enough, especially on the back end, to compete for a playoff spot. The Eastern Conference has too many up and coming teams that are further ahead than the Devils. New Jersey will finish 15th in the Eastern Conference. However, a strong season from their young players and another top pick may be seen as a successful season in the Swamp.