Sitting here on Opening Night of the NHL season and the night before the Devils open their season in Florida, I’m finally ready for hockey. This season couldn’t have started at a better time as a sports fan considering my Mets flamed out in the one-game playoff after a great stretch run, while the Jets’ season was seemingly DOA. That said, I can’t say that I’ve been sitting there watching every preseason game, catching every video clip from the Devils – who’ve done a good job on social media interviewing most of the key players and coaches on Devils access – or reading every article from our new beat guys (Chris Ryan and Andrew Gross, taking over for the retiring Rich Chere and departing Tom Gulutti respectively). Shoot, I didn’t even buy my normal pre-fantasy draft magazine this year and more or less just went by ADP’s, instinct and quick news briefs in my epic 14-team 23-man league fantasy draft. Maybe I’ll save team Swamps’ analysis and my attempt to get over the hump after an unprecedented four straight second place finishes for another random first-week post – spoiler alert, my one token Devil is Mike Cammalleri – and my best value pick was (gasp!) Henrik Lundqvist, as my second goalie along with keeper Jake Allen. I drafted Lundqvist in basically the eighth round factoring in three keeper selections, which even for a league of mostly Devils fans is kind of insane.
Digression over though, this post is just about the Devils’ upcoming season. Our offseason of twists and turns took another one with the acquisition of P.A. Parenteau yesterday off waivers after the Isles cut him. At least it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience for his family in terms of location, although he did admit to having to throw out the new Islanders jerseys he got for his kids. Parenteau’s arrival fills out the top nine with another 20-goal scorer and led to offseason acquisition Beau Bennett skating with the extras today. If fast, attacking and supportive were the buzzwords of GM Ray Shero and coach John Hynes last year, improvement and upside is the hope of all fans this year after a steady talent infusion and youth movement to a team that finished 38-36-8 for 84 points last season, a winning record by NHL standards though still a ways out of the playoff hunt in the end.
Goaltending – Nobody needs me to say that the Devils’ best chance of making a playoff push this year starts in goal with Cory Schneider. In some ways Schneider’s still one of the best-kept secrets in the league considering he was in a messy timeshare with Roberto Luongo in Vancouver before starring here for a team that’s yet to make the playoffs in his three years. Only the most craven fans would blame Cory for that considering his numbers during those three seasons – highlighted by his 2.14 GAA with a .924 save percentage and twelve shutouts in 169 starts. Clearly the fact that Cory’s record is under .500 with the Devils is a function of the team’s offensive woes and not anything he’s done wrong in goal. Only a late-season injury last year kept Cory’s games played total down at 58 compared to the 68 he played two seasons ago, and will be counted on to play this year. Understudy Keith Kinkaid‘s won the backup job for the third straight year while Scott Wedgewood cleared waivers and will again be starting in Albany. Management’s clearly hoping for the Kinkaid of two seasons ago (2.59 .915) as opposed to last season (2.84 .904 in twenty starts). After all, if this Devil team is going to be on the bubble for the playoffs, the fifteen or so games played by a backup could prove decisive.
Defense – Although last season’s no-name unit finished in the top ten both in shots allowed and goals against, there are still many questions surrounding the d-core this year with the trade of Adam Larsson, losses of David Schlemko and David Warsofsky to free agency and early-season injury to Jon Merrill. Replacing those four on the roster are free agent signings Kyle Quincey and Ben Lovejoy – a vet presence on a championship Penguins team last year – along with rookie Steve Santini and overseas addition Yohann Auvitu. How both rookies fare are among the most compelling storylines surrounding the 2016-17 Devils. Much has been expected of Santini since he was drafted early in the second round of the 2013 NHL Draft and in college he lived up to expectations, his one-game cameo late last year only serving to heighten expectations. Santini should bring a physical element we’ve largely been lacking on our defense the last several years, and a stay-at-home bruiser still mobile enough to keep pace in the new NHL. Auvitu was a camp revelation, showing enough offensive flair not only winning a spot in the top six but also getting power play minutes. Although he hasn’t played in the NHL before he has been a professional and is an older (27 years old) rookie.
While it’s still a bit unclear how the seven-man defense will draw out tomorrow night in Sunrise, the one sure thing is that captain Andy Greene will be on the top pairing and play in all situations. If the staff wants a shutdown first pairing reminiscent of Greene-Larsson last year it might be Lovejoy slotting in on the right next to Greene. Third-year man Damon Severson (who still doesn’t seem to have the staff’s full trust yet) will probably slot in on the second pairing with the up-and-down John Moore. Severson’s got all the talent in the world but managment’s been hard on him, and until Larsson got traded I actually thought he might be the defenseman on the block. Now that he’s still here, hopefully they get the most out of him this year and he takes a step forward. Although I thought he got too much grief for his defensive work, offensively he was a massive dissapointment scoring one lousy goal in 72 games. On a team where an overseas rookie might lead the unit in scoring, they need everyone to chip in offensively they can. Our third pairing will be some combination of Auvitu-Santini with Quincey drawing in if one of them doesn’t do the job and/or gets sent back down to the AHL. I thought Quincey would be a starter and give us another vet presence on the blueline until Auvitu came out of almost nowhere to win a job, now the starting six is a bit more murky. Whoever plays will have to create more offensively than our d-core did last year – Severson himself actually led the group in points, but only put up 21 – and step up defensively to match or surpass the production of last year’s unit in that area.
Forwards – Offensively there’s only one way to go after the Devils finished dead last in the NHL in goals in 2014-15 with just 184. In the four seasons since the lockout the Devils’ rank in scoring has been: 28th, 27th, 28th and 30th. Small wonder then that the Devils traded a young top-pairing defenseman in Larsson to get the offseason’s biggest fish – acquiring former #1 overall pick Taylor Hall (pictured above) from the Oilers. At times Hall was criticized in Edmonton for being merely very good, not great but the potential’s clearly there for a player that put up 130 points in 120 games from 2012-14, and he’s still only 24 years old. Even last year’s modest total of 65 points would have led the Devils by eight. An added bonus to acquiring Hall is the instant chemistry he has with one-time OHL teammate Adam Henrique, currently the most popular and well-known Devils forward despite his still relatively young age of 26. Although Henrique’s two most iconic moments came in his rookie season of 2012 (series and conference-winning OT goals against the Panthers and Rangers, respectively), his best NHL season actually came last year when he hit the 30-goal mark for the first time, and finished with 50 points playing in all situations for nearly twenty minutes a night as the team’s top center. While Hall and Henrique should again make beautiful music together, the team’s leading scorer last year was Kyle Palmieri, a local boy who broke out in a big way in 2015-16 with 30 goals of his own and 57 points. Like Hall and Henrique, the 25-year old Palmieri’s best years may be in the near future. Along with the young guns, vet Cammalleri will be called on to help pace the offense. Unfortunately Cammalleri’s season got cut short with a wrist injury last year, but he produced at a high level when he did play with 14 goals and 38 points in just 42 games.
What seperates this year’s forward core from last year’s isn’t just the acquisition of Hall or the return of Cammalleri from injury though, it’s the youth and improved depth up and down the lineup. Tomorrow’s season opener may well feature no fewer than three rookies among our twelve forwards – spearheaded by 2015 first-rounder Pavel Zacha, who’ll be looking to show he belongs in the NHL at age 19, starting out as a center on the third line. Also somewhat surprisingly both Blake Speers and Miles Wood also made the Opening Night roster and will probably play tomorrow. Speers is still 19 himself, and was a third-round pick in the same draft as Zacha. Though small, he’s still impressed the staff enough with his intelligence and awareness to merit at least the nine-game tryout juniors players get before management has to decide whether to fish or cut bait. Wood was a fourth-round selection in 2013 but was a bit of a late bloomer in college and could be a sneaky two-way forward in the making though right now he and Speers might well start out on the fourth line.
Complementing the youth are fellow vets Travis Zajac – who’ll once again assume the top defensive center responsibilities and hopefully chip in 40-45 points, Parenteau who’ll open the season in the top six and will be expected to chip in roughly the same production he gave the Leafs last year while improving the team’s horrid 5-on-5 play, and free agent signing Vernon Fiddler who’s an instant upgrade over the fourth line centers we’ve had in recent years and could take some of Zajac’s faceoff duties. Late-season revelation Devante Smith-Pelly will also be counted on to chip in some garbage goals, early on it appears as if he’ll be on the third line, while amazingly Jacob Josefson appears to be getting another chance in the top nine, skating on a line with Zacha and Smith-Pelly in the most recent practice. Somewhat surprisingly it appears that Reid Boucher is in the doghouse enough to be scratched on Opening Night in favor of the speedier Josefson, who plays special teams and fits into the organization’s style more. Also on the outside looking in at the moment is ex-Penguin and one-time Shero draft pick Bennett, bumped down the depth chart as fast as a person falls down an elevator shaft by Parenteau’s acquisition and Speers crashing the party. Sergey Kalinin, who is beginning the season temporarily on IR with an illness, can also fill in at center or wing at a moment’s notice. And then there’s franchise icon Patrik Elias, still in limbo not knowing whether his surgically repaired knee will hold up enough for him to come back at 40 years old and play a twenty-first NHL season.
Albany – Down on the farm in Albany the Devils also have players that can contribute if called upon, such as Wedgewood who shined in a four-game stint last year and played well for the most part in Albany. On defense the Devils have guys like Seth Helgeson and Vojtech Mozik who would likely be the first considerations for a callup considering both played a number of games on defense last season. Up front there are kids like speedy grinder Blake Pietella, highly thought of college FA signing Nick Lappin and second-year player Joe Blandisi, who fell off after initially making an impact his first month with the Devils last year. Now he’ll start this season in Albany, still waiver-exempt and hoping to improve his overall game without the diving that marred his rookie season. As a unit Albany probably won’t be as strong as they were last year but between the kids down there and with the Devils there should be no shortage of younger players competing for jobs.
Coaching – There isn’t much to say about coach Hynes, last year he did a fine job in his first season looking the part of a dynamic, confident leader who knew what he wanted and expected out of a team that overachieved for much of the season. Going forward the challenge will be to maintain a scrappy work ethic while dealing with higher expectations and continuing to integrate far more youth than was on the roster last year. Hynes and coaches Geoff Ward, Alain Nasreddine with new staff addition (also former Devil) Ryane Clowe will be looking to get the most out of this group of players while pushing the right buttons in terms of lineup selections and line/d-pairing construction. Slowly but surely help is coming, but the turnaround’s still going to take time. This year the goal is to at least be competitive for a playoff spot the entire season this time, and hopefully make it in an Eastern Conference that appears top heavy with a group of four terrific teams – Pittsburgh, Washington and the two Florida teams (though the Panthers are hurt by the camp injury to Johnathan Huberdeau) and a whole bunch of teams with little margin for error after that, whether they’re up-and-comers like the Flyers or vet teams trying to hang on like Detroit, or retooling teams like the Islanders.
It’s hard to make a prediction since over an 82-game season there are so many variables – hot starts, injuries, breakout performances…but my general feeling on this Devil team is that while they come closer to a playoff spot than the pundits think and should be more fun to watch than the last few seasons, they’re still about a year or so away from a true breakout when the young forwards hit their prime and other younger players get valuable experience, while Shero has one more offseason to add another top four defenseman and top six forward. I’ll pencil them in for 88 points, four short of a playoff spot this time around.