Well, at least the Devils will be heading into training camp on an upbeat note – for what that’s worth – after announcing earlier today that they’ve come to an agreement with defenseman Damon Severson on a six-year $25 million deal. With Severson signing the Devils now have all their key players locked up at least through next season and many longer than that. Ironically enough, that was the exact same deal Adam Larsson signed a couple years ago, of course I don’t expect Severson to be traded after one year like Larsson was given the current state of our defense. Although the unexpected signing of sought-after college free agent Will Butcher might actually have an immediate impact on a troubled blueline. By most accounts Butcher was one of the Devils’ best players in the recently completed prospects challenge in Buffalo with underage players from the Sabres, Penguins, Bruins and Devils competing in a three-game, four team round-robin over the last four days.
Other than that, I really couldn’t give any kind of analysis from the tournament – which was the unofficial open of Devils camp. I had wanted to watch some of the games (better that I didn’t watch the last two anyway!) but of all things on Friday night I was watching the US Open semifinal between Nadal and del Potro. I’m not a tennis fan the way Derek is, but it was nice to actually spend the day at Flushing last Saturday and I got into the tournament a little more than normal after that. Plus let’s face it, the prospects tournament was basically All-Star type hockey with kids and there isn’t much else to watch in the present with any of my current teams. The Mets are a disaster that even the Red Cross can’t fix, the Jets are a historic disaster in the making and while the Devils at least have some reason for optomism down the road, the limited optomism any Devils fan could have going into this season to have a respectable campaign vanished when word came down that Travis Zajac suffered a torn pectoral muscle and would miss the first few months of the season after surgery. Unfortunately this year is just not going to turn out the same way as 2012 did when Zajac missed most of that regular season after another August training accident. Memo to Travis: you CAN go to the beach during the summer, dude.
Zajac’s injury pretty much confirms #1 overall pick Nico Hischier will start the season with the team (not that there was really much doubt), and also gives more of an opportunity for him and other kids to play big minutes early. Hopefully it’s not because they’re being rushed though. If Michael McLeod needs another year in juniors, so be it. If Hischier needs to play bottom six minutes early, so be it. If John Quenneville needs a full season in the AHL, so be it. This year isn’t going to be about winning anyway so might as well do whatever’s best for the kids’ development, whatever that is. Of course it’s hard to tell what’s right for each individual, some kids will rise to the challenge while others might get hurt by playing too much too soon. Plus you do want the kids to have their growing pains this year, so that doesn’t become what next year’s about. As uninspiring as having a guy like Drew Stafford become a top six RW, maybe it’ll be the best thing for Blake Speers to go back to juniors and then get called up after Stafford hopefully plays his way into some trade deadline value.
Perhaps the three biggest questions for the team going into camp:
- What line will Hischier start off on and how much of a learning curve is there going to be for the 18-year old #1 overall who had just one year in North America before his meteoric ascent to the top of the 2017 NHL Draft?
- Who will be the second top six RW, exactly? If you assume Taylor Hall and Marcus Johansson will be the LW’s, while Adam Henrique and either Pavel Zacha or Hischier are down the middle, the RW slot past Kyle Palmieri is still very unsettled. Either Stafford will slot in, a kid like Speers, Quenneville or McLeod impresses enough in camp to be slotted there, or they just move one of the other wings over though that option’s less feisable post-Zajac injury.
- How, exactly will this D shake out? Especially with the bottom pairing, what kind of roles will the recently acquired Butcher and Mirco Mueller have and how much will Steven Santini improve? Can Butcher and Santini both make the team? Mueller probably will given he’s out of options but it’s debatable what either of their roles will be. At the moment, Severson, Andy Greene, John Moore and Ben Lovejoy probably comprise the top four although ideally Moore and Lovejoy would be a back pairing on a decent team.
Right now my focus isn’t on the season in terms of results. At the risk of sounding like coach cliche, my focus is on being 1-0 on October 4, which is our season opener at home against the Avs. Even for this Devil team that’s a winnable game and one that can at least give the franchise and the fans a little good feeling to start out with. Of course before that comes camp and we’ll see which kids have taken enough of a step to make the Opening Night roster or be bumped up in their roles.