Devils season preview

With the 2018-19 NHL season less than twenty-four hours away, it’s finally time to get back into hockey mode, especially for those of us who had their baseball season end months ago (albeit I did win a big fantasy league title), and football season already come to a virtual end in September.  Of course, Devil fans have a slightly longer wait with their season opening on Saturday afternoon in Sweden against the Edmonton Oilers.  At least it’s not as long as the wait to get back in the playoffs was, that took six whole years.  As the Devils themselves are keenly aware, most of the experts don’t think New Jersey will be back in the postseason as this quote from Taylor Hall shows:

Much as I don’t want to admit it, there are valid reasons to believe in the Devils falling back this year.  Other than Hall himself, there are few sure things on this Devils team.  Will the young forwards take a step up and give Hart winner Hall some much-needed support in the scoring department?  Can the young D become a more stablizing force?  And will Cory Schneider bounce back from two subpar and injury-plagued seasons to provide the Devils with the same top-shelf goaltending they got from understudy Keith Kinkaid down the stretch?  Not to mention how will the rest of the Eastern Conference shake out with teams like Florida (who we narrowly beat out for a spot last year) improving on paper more than we did in the offseason.

Sure, this wasn’t a Black July 1 the way some have been in the past but make no mistake, despite having a ton of cap space GM Ray Shero was more than content to sit back and replace outgoing players like Patrick Maroon and John Moore from within.  Unlike in prior offseasons, there wasn’t even a big trade to dissect although as Shero proved last year with the Adam Henrique-Sami Vatanen trade, he’s fully capable of making big in-season moves as well.  Until then, the 2018-19 roster will begin the season almost entirely with players either on the 2017-18 Devils, or from the farm system.  In fact, among the twenty-two players who were on the active roster for the team’s exhibition game in Switzerland, only recent waiver claim Jean-Sebastian Dea from the Penguins was not in the organization last year.

Arguably the biggest addition of the offseason was first-round draft pick Ty Smith, who impressed mightily in his first camp at eighteen years old but was the victim of a numbers game being sent back to juniors after the next-to-last preseason game in Winnipeg.  Although the final roster isn’t set in stone yet (and a couple of extra players are still allowed through the first game because it’s overseas), coach John Hynes had to cull the numbers before the team’s trip halfway around the world from Winnipeg to Switzerland, then Sweden.  There aren’t really any surprises among them, though former first-round pick John Quenneville had a strong early camp, he’s tailed off as of late and his hold on a third-line spot is tenuous at best.

So basically the question for the 2018-19 Devils is, can practically the same group up their game and take another step forward this season?  Answering that question starts in net with the aformentioned duo of Schneider and Kinkaid.  Though Cory’s returned to practice it still looks like he’ll miss at least Opening Day this weekend, and likely a few other games in October.  Thankfully the early schedule isn’t taxing on a goalie with no back-to-backs in the first month, so Kinkaid will probably get every start until Cory’s ready to return.  Who will play isn’t the question as much as how they will play.  Until Kinkaid’s season-making run from mid-February on last year, Keith was a streaky backup at best who was having a poor 2017-18 till he found another gear and stunningly helped lead the team into the playoffs, while Cory struggled through a hip injury he finally got surgery on in the offseason.  Whether Cory can return and find the form of a couple years ago now that he’s ostensibly healthy will be a big piece in the puzzle to piece together in terms of going back to the playoffs.

Certainly an improved defense would help both goalies.  In 2017-18 the defense could best be described as average at best.  Adding Vatanen early in the season helped stablize things, as he was the most valuable defenseman on the team, stepping into a first-pairing role alongside captain Andy Greene and eating up minutes on both the penalty kill and power play as well.  Vatanen’s importance was underscored in the last two playoff games when the team’s play fell off a cliff after he was taken out by Nikita Kucherov.  Still, they’ll need more than a decent first pairing including a solid but slowing down 35-year old defenseman to hold the fort down on the blueline.  Sophomore Will Butcher was a revelation offensively last year, but can he handle more minutes and up his game defensively this year?  Will mercurial Damon Severson ever find consistency defensively and take a step forward offensively?  Questions also surround young defensemen Mirco Mueller, who missed a lot of time with a broken collarbone but provided solid defense at times – though not a lot of offense.  You could only hope to say the same for Steven Santini, who got top-pairing assignments early on but eventually fell out of favor and was banished to the AHL.  Santini and vet Ben Lovejoy will compete for third-pairing icetime this year.

Almost as many questions remain offensively behind Hall – who’s role in leading the team to the postseason has already been canonized.  However, there are more reasons to believe in the young forwards beginning with last year’s #1 overall Nico Hischier – who began his NHL career with a solid 60-point season as an eighteen-year old.  Even better days should be ahead for the quiet, humble Swiss native who enjoyed a personal homecoming in the team’s final preseason game playing against his former club team.  With Hall, Hischier and vet goalscorer Kyle Palmieri heading one of the best first lines in the league, the main questions lie with the team’s middle two lines. Currently penciled into the second line are Marcus Johansson, Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt – all of whom have something to prove.

For the 20-year old Bratt, it’s whether he can maintain his stamina through the entire 82-game schedule.  Bratt was a revelation early in the season – giving the team unexpected production from a 6th round pick – but by the end he struggled to make an impact or find icetime.  Clearly he has the skill to make a bigger impact in his second season.  With Johansson the question is twofold…both can he stay healthy and will he provide the same level of production he did previously for the Capitals before being traded here last offseason?  Even accounting for his various concussions last year, Johansson didn’t really make much of an impact at all when he was in the lineup.  Being able to avoid spending time on IR will be the first step toward unlocking his talent.  Zacha (or Severson) might be the biggest enigma of them all, yes he’ll still be 21 years old for much of the 2018-19 season but his production last year only marginally improved from his rookie season in 2016-17.  Yes, he started doing more of the ‘little things’ right in the second half last year, but if you’re going to be a top six forward eventually production will have to follow.  And with the team’s question marks at center, Zacha is being counted on to fill that second-line role.

Our third and fourth lines are currently still under construction…will the third line be a checking unit with scrappy Texans Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen again flanking grizzled vet Travis Zajac?  Or will it have a more offensive component with Miles Wood – the recent recipient of a nice four-year contract – and fellow young gun Quenneville flanking Zajac?  Wood’s speed and talent is undeniable, and his scoring with limited icetime last year hints at potentially bigger things to come.  Surely the team was taking a calculated gamble he’d hit his potential by signing him for four years at $2.75 million per, but that deal might look like a bargain as soon as this year.  Quenneville took a more serious approach to camp this year, losing weight and earning enough notice to have an inside track on winning an open slot on RW.

Masterton winner Brian Boyle will head the fourth line with grit and the occasional big goal, thankfully he’s having a far less eventful camp than he did last year when leukemia derailed the start of his season, fortunately no more than that though.  Either Wood or Coleman will slot in on his left side with Noesen or possibly Dea – a young AHL foward who had 50 points in 70 games last year – slotting in on the right.  While it was often said Hall had little secondary support last year, the fourth and even third lines were above average for a lot of last season, that trend will have to continue.

Coachingwise, while John Hynes has won me and a lot of doubting Devil fans over, there still remains the question of how having two new coaches on the staff (Rick Kowalsky and Mike Grier replacing Geoff Ward and Ryane Clowe) will affect things.  Especially with the power play, which although it wasn’t pretty at times still finished in the top ten under Ward but will now be run by ex-Binghamton coach Kowalsky.  Special teams was a big factor last year with both the PP and PK finishing in the top ten, although the PK was made to look silly by Tampa’s big guns in the postseason last year.  Still, most of the key personnel will be back on the ice so it’ll hopefully just be a matter of how quickly the staff can adjust to the players and vice-versa.

I could offer a detailed prediction but really it won’t be any different than most who don’t have an anti-Devil agenda.  It wouldn’t be a homer prediction either.  Somewhat boringly, I see something of a rerun of last year with us fighting the Panthers and Blue Jackets for the two wild-card spots although both of those teams have their own questions – with the Panthers it’s the age and miles on starting goalie Roberto Luongo as well as a shaky defense, while with the Blue Jackets it’s general team chemistry after multiple key players have been rumored to be in trade talks or demanding trades in the offseason.  Of course with the NHL being the NHL there’ll always be surprises, just ask Vegas fans.  If any team that missed the playoffs were to make a big leap forward it might be the Islanders, if only for the respect I have for Barry Trotz and his ability to implement a system with a team.  He’ll have to do it with that group, with their offense being defanged after losing John Tavares in free agency while the defense was one of the worst in recent memory last year, and also lost Calvin DeHaan in free agency.

In the end I’d probably pick mostly chalk with the Panthers making it over the Blue Jackets this year and everyone else staying as is.  The top of the East – especially the top three Atlantic teams – are just too good to go far away from chalk, not to mention having the Cup champs in Washington and perennial Cup contender Pittsburgh heading the Metro.  In the case of the Flyers, they’re probably too talented to let even their annual goaltending merry-go-round sink them, at least in the regular season.  While I’d describe myself as cautiously optomistic with the Devils, another good start will be key just like it was last year.  Despite the early travel, after returning from Sweden the team won’t leave the tri-state area again until the 31st of October.  Yes, they’ll play some tough teams at home but they need to have a good showing before the doubts start creeping in before a tough November slate.

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