With the Devils’ preseason now concluded and final roster decisions just days away, it’s time to look forward to the upcoming campaign, which for the Devils will start on Friday in Newark against the Winnipeg Jets. Even though the team’s 5-2 preseason record is now irrelevant, there were still a lot of positive signs from the team’s seven-game preseason, starting with the return to the ice for franchise bellcow Taylor Hall. Hall had not played a game since last December but in typical Hallsy fashion, made an instant impact with two goals and two assists in those two games.
Hall will have to be the engine that the rest of the team’s forwards can feed off of, starting with young centers Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes – all former #1 overall picks. Hischier is going into his third NHL season and is looking to improve on an already strong all-around game, stating that working on his faceoffs was a goal of this offseason. Improvement there would only add to the threat the 20-year old poses, and he was certainly a factor in the preseason with five points in five games. Hughes obviously has much to prove having not played in a game that counts, but early returns are promising after a preseason where Hughes got the first star in his first two home games while scoring three goals total in four games played, including a game-winner against the Bruins in his first game (see above). Although vet Travis Zajac’s always available to fill in during a pinch and will still have a pivotal role as the team’s top faceoff man and checking center, it’ll be the two youngsters counted on to center the Devils’ much improved top lines.
Along with a healthy Hall and crack goal scorer Kyle Palmieri, KHL import Nikita Gusev should fill a role in the top six, and early returns on the talented winger were also promising as Gusev scored four points (two goals) in five games, already inspiring GOOOSE! chants at the Rock. The team’s last top six slot is a bit open-ended but will likely start with either third-year pro Jesper Bratt at 2RW, or FA signing Wayne Simmonds. They couldn’t be more different as players but the team will need both the talented Bratt and gritty Simmonds’ skillsets throughout the year, and a proportedly healthy Simmonds should give the team needed physicality and play a big role on the team’s power play. Bratt on the other hand is looking to take the next step forward this year after steady improvement throughout his first two seasons. Only a fluke jaw injury early last year prevented Bratt from at least a 40-45 point season, as he talled just 33 in 51 games.
With the team’s top six improved, the back six up front should also be better starting with Simmonds or Bratt on the wing. Zajac and 22-goal grinder Blake Coleman should provide solid PK work while Pavel Zacha will look to build on the improvement long-in-coming he showed late last year, and with a new long-term contract (and a new visa!) to boot. Speedy Miles Wood took a step back last year after a camp holdout but still should add both skill and bang to the team’s back six. If Wood doesn’t take a step forward this year he could be pushed for playing time by offseason import John Hayden, who was singled out for praise by coach John Hynes during camp. And what of Jesper Boqvist? A former second-round pick in 2017, Boqvist won’t turn 21 till the end of October and seemingly has won a job with a strong camp. Assuming he’s on the roster, Boqvist could very well push for top six time as well as some power play usage. Although he didn’t make the team, malinged 2016 first-round pick Mike McLeod defied my expectations and had a strong camp, putting the staff on notice and himself toward the front of the callup line.
On the blueline the picture is still a bit unsettled. If the Devils had a dissapointment during camp, it was defenseman Ty Smith (as much of a dissapointment as a 19-year old can be, to be fair) having some rocky games and being squarely on the bubble to be returned to juniors. Many – including me – figured on Smith to make the club after a strong camp and outstanding season in juniors last year but fortunately the team at least has roster flexibility and seven defensemen already under contract, plus career depth guy and camp wonder Matt Tennyson hanging around. I’d still be surprised if Tennyson made the club but they could very well carry eight defensemen and extend the competition for the final spot into the regular season. Still, the battle between Smith, Tennyson, Connor Carrick and Mirco Mueller for the #6 spot shouldn’t make or break the d-core.
What will determine how good the d-core is, will be how healthy and effective the top five of P.K. Subban, Damon Severson, Sami Vatanen, Andy Greene and Will Butcher can be. Subban was GM Ray Shero’s key acquisition this offseason, a #1D at even strength who can add some punch to a previously suspect power play. After an off year due to injury last season, Subban should thrive in Newark. Severson showed improvement last year and should be just fine on the second pairing. Butcher didn’t look as good offensively as I hoped last year following his sensational rookie campaign but he did improve defensively in the second half as well. In many ways the biggest question marks are the vets…can Vatanen return to 2017-18 form? Especially if he’s playing on his off (left) side given the addition of RD Subban to Severson on the right side of the top four. And will Andy Greene be able to maintain a viable presence in the top four and being the top PK defenseman while staying healthy at 36 going on 37? Both are free agents providing another level of intrigue to the d-core.
Of course in many cases the d-core is only as good as the goaltending, which was horrible early last season but did a 180 in the second half with the return of Cory Schneider to the form of a couple years ago, and the spectacular debut of 22-year old Mackenzie Blackwood in trying circumstances. There’s some question as to who is going to play how much, the chalk would have Cory getting the first opportunity to regain his starting job and despite my personal skepticism of him he did everything he needed to do to give himself a chance to take back the starting job.
Cory concluded his preseason in style with a 30-save shutout of the Blue Jackets last night, silencing the infamous cannon in Ohio. It’s not as if Blackwood was any slouch in the preseason either with a 2.28 GAA and .912 save in three games. Either taking the job and running with it, or both playing well and providing a tag-team would dramatically improve the team from last year when bad goaltending sank the team in the first half before Hall’s injury kept them submerged in the second half.
With the improved talent and expectations surrounding the team you would think perhaps coach Hynes would be feeling pressure for the first time in his tenure here, but Shero has shown a lot of patience with the coach in the past. To his credit, what Hynes lacks in x’s and o’s, he so far has more than made up for with locker room leadership and showing he’ll give younger players chances while getting on vets – at least sometimes. Will that remain enough to stay off the hot seat with a slow start? Or will the team get off to the dynamic start they did two seasons ago and play from in front? That would certainly be more ideal than the former scenario.
I can’t even fathom making a prediction though…I do feel this team will be improved but I also think a lot of teams we’re competing with in the East are also improved. And certainly if just a couple of our question marks go south, things could head off the track in a hurry. All you can really ask from the preseason is good health and signs of improvement, and so far so good on both those fronts.