It’s been nearly two months since the Devils’ 2017-18 season ended in Tampa Bay, five games later than most pundits thought it would end in the first round of the playoffs after a 97-point season that surprised the hockey world and ended the organization’s six-year postseason drought. Not too long ago a 97-point season and a first-round exit would have been considered a failure by Devils standards, but coming off a 70-point season the year before 2017-18 can only be described as a rousing success – with a resurgent star in Taylor Hall, young guns like Nico Hischier and a backup goalie in Keith Kinkaid leading them through a scintillating 10-2-1 run down the stretch to clinch a berth in game #81 against the Maple Leafs with former GM and franchise czar Lou Lamoriello in the building.
What’s changed in the two months since the Devils’ 3-1 defeat against the Eastern Conferences’s top regular season team? Not much yet, although there will be a couple of coaching changes on the docket with assistant Geoff Ward departing to take a similar position in Calgary, and fellow assistant Ryane Clowe leaving for a head coaching position with Newfoundland in the ECHL. For once there aren’t many pending UFA’s to have angst over leaving on July 1 – the biggest names are defenseman John Moore (not likely to return) and deadline acquisition Patrick Maroon, who it came out was dealing with a herniated disc in his back but still managed to contribute 13 points in 17 games after coming over to the Devils. Despite his lack of footspeed, Maroon fit into the team far better than fellow deadline acquistion Michael Grabner – who looked like he’d rather be elsewhere and was so bad he wound up being scratched for the team’s final two playoff games. Don’t expect Grabner to return either.
Maroon wasn’t the only Devil who went for offseason surgery…as it turned out Hart Trophy finalist Taylor Hall was playing with torn ligaments in his hand from late December on. Remarkable, considering he actually upped his game in the second half of the season. Also, Cory Schneider had hip surgery which is expected to sideline him for a whopping five months (re: it’ll be iffy at best if he’s ready for the start of the season in October). I’d be remiss if I didn’t start eating a plate of crow for downplaying the belief Cory was playing hurt after his groin injury in January, which actually wasn’t the cause of most of his issues physically since ostensibly the groin was fully healed when he came back into the lineup and struggled, but his cryptic comment about how this was he was as good as he was going to get when he came off IR, it would seem had to do with his hip more than his groin. At least for Cory’s sake he was able to get a form of redemption for a dissapointing 2018 in his last three games of the season, Games 3-5 against Tampa were clearly his best of this calendar year and re-established him as the starter heading into 2018-19 despite Kinkaid’s inspiring six-week surge that helped carry the team to the playoffs.
With the NHL playoffs now over after a thrilling climax where (as SI put it) The Great Wait ended at last with one of hockey’s transcendent figures in Alex Ovechkin getting his long-sought Cup, next week begins the transition from 2017-18 to 2018-19, with the NHL Awards on Wednesday night, schedules coming out the following afternoon and the draft on Friday and Saturday with the FA interview period early the following week, events will start to accelerate fast heading into UFA day two weeks from now. I won’t do a full preview of the Devils’ offseason in case some big draft-day deal happens although it would be hard to imagine the Devils dealing their first rounder considering they’ve already dealt off their 2nd and 3rd rounders in this draft.
I’ll say if you’re a fan looking for John Carlson to improve the defense, be prepared to pay through the nose after the recent eight-year contract at $8 million plus per season Oliver Ekman-Larsson signed to stay in Arizona. It would also be hard to envision the Devils throwing out a big contract to any RD given that’s clearly their stronger side headed by Sami Vatanen while the left side could use a serious upgrade given Andy Greene’s decline and Moore’s departure. And no, Mirco Mueller is not the long-term answer. He’s more like the new Jon Merrill – a third-pairing plodder who won’t hurt you but won’t really help you either. Will Butcher could develop into more of a two-way threat but how many top pairing defensemen do you see that are 5’10 and 190 pounds with average speed?
It’s also hard at this point to see them signing the key prize of this year’s FA crop in John Tavares. Given the Isles’ recent organization restructuring that booted GM Garth Snow and coach Doug Weight out in favor of new franchise czar Lamoriello (yep, another change of address for the ageless Lou this offseason, this time back into the Metro area), it would seem evident they’re bent on convincing JT that the Isles aren’t looking to stay in neutral any longer. With two early first-round picks, the smart money has Lou spending at least one of them in a trade towards an immediate improvement to a team that struggled last year but still has some talent worth building around. While it seems that JT will at least get to the FA interview period it’s still likely he takes the extra contract year – which is off the table on July 1 – and re-signs with the Isles just before FA a la Steven Stamkos in Tampa a couple years ago.
If the Devils can’t spend money on the big FA’s, it seems obvious they’ll keep going with smaller signings and more under-the-radar trades to supplement building from within, possibly using 2019 picks or their lone top pick in 2018 and their cap space as a wedge to help another team out of a cap bind. GM Ray Shero has come up with late-July surprises every year so far as Devils GM with his draft-day trade for Kyle Palmieri three years ago followed by the Hall for Adam Larsson heist a couple years ago. Last year’s post-draft trade for Marcus Johansson didn’t work as well as the first two did in part due to the winger’s injuries. It’s hard to envision a fourth at the moment but Shero’s patience has paid off in the past, and the GM knows this team still needs more to make the leap from upstart to contender.