It was a long offseason for the New Jersey Devils, but it didn’t come without some sweeping changes. They had the first overall pick at the Entry Draft, which they used to select Jack Hughes. They also entered the summer with over $30 million in cap space, which they weaponized into trades for P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev.
Now, it’s time to see what they can do in meaningful games. Will Gusev live up to the hype? Is Subban heading for a rebound season after a tough 2018-19? Can Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood give the team the goaltending they need? Here’s an in-depth look at the Devils as the puck gets ready to drop on the 2019-20 season.
2018-19 Record: 31-41-10, 72 points, (Eighth in the Metropolitan Division, 15th in the Eastern Conference)
Key Roster Additions
- Jack Hughes
- Nikita Gusev
- Wayne Simmonds
- P.K. Subban
- Jesper Boqvist
Key Roster Subtractions
- Drew Stafford
- Steven Santini
- John Quenneville
- Stefan Noesen
2019 Entry Draft
- Jack Hughes (1st round, 1st overall)
- Nikita Okhotyuk (2nd round, 61st overall)
- Daniil Misyul (3rd round, 70th overall)
- Graeme Clarke (3rd round, 80th overall)
- Michael Vukojevic (3rd round, 82nd overall)
- Tyce Thompson (4th round, 96th overall)
- Case McCarthy (4th round, 118th overall)
- Cole Brady (5th round, 127th overall)
- Arseni Gritsyuk (5th round, 129th overall)
- Patrick Moynihan (6th round, 158th overall)
- Nikola Pasic (7th round, 189th overall)
As far as the front office goes, the Devils made no significant changes, but a few executives did get promotions. Tom Fitzgerald was elevated to Executive Vice President and assistant general manager (AGM), while Dan MacKinnon became Senior Vice President and AGM. MacKinnon will also play a significant role in integrating the Devils’ analytics department, which is headed by Tyler Dellow and Matt Cane.
John Hynes remains the Devils’ head coach, with Alain Nasreddine, Mike Grier, and Rick Kowalsky all returning as his assistants. Mark Dennehy returns for his second season as the Binghamton Devils’ (AHL) head coach. After signing a multi-year extension in the offseason, Ray Shero begins what will be his fifth as Devils’ general manager.
- Taylor Hall – Nico Hischier – Jesper Bratt
- Nikita Gusev – Jack Hughes – Kyle Palmieri
- Blake Coleman – Travis Zajac – Wayne Simmonds
- Jesper Boqvist – Pavel Zacha – John Hayden
- Extra: Miles Wood, Kevin Rooney
Gusev was the Devils’ most significant addition up front, at least in terms of a trade or free agency. Shero acquired him for just a second and third-round pick after the Vegas Golden Knights couldn’t come to terms on a new contract with the Russian forward.
Gusev was the KHL MVP in 2018-19, with 82 points in 62 games, which translates to 79 points in 82 NHL games. That might be a bit much to ask in his first NHL season, but he’ll be playing alongside some skill in the top six. So expecting him to finish with around 60 points isn’t unreasonable.
Hughes has been a highly-touted prospect since playing midget hockey in the Toronto-area. He broke multiple records with the USNTDP, as well as Alex Ovechkin’s scoring record at the U-18 World Championships, with 32 points over 14 career games. His speed and creativity is something the team hasn’t had in their pipeline for years.
Hughes should be able to produce right away. He’ll be playing as their second-line center, with Gusev and Palmieri as his potential linemates. Hughes is a pass-first center, so having a shooter like Palmieri on his wing should help. He may not produce 75-80 points as a rookie, but he should come in around 55-65 points over a full season.
Bratt may not be the first player you think about regarding the Devils’ offense, but his role will be crucial. He played in only 51 games last season due to injuries but finished with 33 points, which equates to a 53-point pace over 82 games. He also took a noticeable step forward in his play at five-on-five.
Bratt’s versatility should work in his favor. He can play either left or right-wing, and he has positive results with Hall and Hischier if that’s where he ends up starting the season. He also spent time alongside Zajac and Boqvist in a third-line role during the preseason. Bratt played with Boqvist on Sweden’s national team at the youth level, so pairing them on a line together could net positive results. If with the right linemates, finishing with 50-plus points isn’t out of the question.
- Sami Vatanen – P.K. Subban
- Will Butcher – Damon Severson
- Andy Greene – Connor Carrick
- Extra: Mirco Mueller
There’s no doubt that Subban is the most important of the Devils’ defensemen. He did not have a great 2018-19, finishing with a goals above replacement (GAR) of minus-0.7 and wins above replacement (WAR) of minus-0.1, both of which were career lows. Injuries were likely a factor in his downturn, but he’s looked healthy during the preseason. And that’s a positive sign for the team.
Subban will be asked to play in all situations, from the power play to the penalty kill and the top pair at five-on-five. His health will be something to watch, too, as the Devils’ blue line does not have great depth. If he misses extended time, the team will have to get creative to make up for his loss. But when he’s on the ice, there’s no doubt he’ll have a significant impact.
Butcher is one of the Devils’ top young players, and expectations will be high in his third season. His counting totals fell in 2018-19, but he still had some of the best underlying numbers among the team’s blueliners. He signed a three-year extension in the offseason and will be expected to step into a top-four role after playing lesser minutes in his first two seasons.
It’s a possibility Butcher finds himself as a partner to Subban on the top pair. But the more likely scenario is him sliding in alongside Severson to round out the top four. The two have only played in 335 minutes together since 2017-18, but they have a 51.98% expected goals for percentage (xGF%). If Vatanen and Subban find chemistry, the Devils should have a decent enough top four.
Goaltending can define a team’s place in the standings, for better or worse, and it won’t be any different for the Devils. There were plenty of reasons why 2018-19 was a failure, but goaltending may be at the top. Schneider had a brutal start to the season, with a .852 save percentage (SV%) in his first nine appearances. It also didn’t help that Keith Kinkaid had his worst season as an NHL pro. The result was the team finishing with the fifth-worst SV% in the league.
Fortunately, things seem to be looking up. Schneider had a .921 SV% in his final 15 games last season, and Blackwood closed it out with a .918 SV%. That seems to have carried over into the preseason, too — Schneider had a .952 SV%, while Blackwood had a .912 SV% at all strengths and a 933 SV% at five-on-five. If the Devils get anything remotely close to that in the regular season, they should be in good shape.
Breakout Player: Nico Hischier
It seems more than a few pundits have Hischier poised to break out in what will be his third NHL season. He hasn’t topped 52 points since entering the league in 2017-18. But the production has been there, as he’s averaged 2.11 points per 60 minutes (P/60) at five-on-five, ranking him ahead of Nicklas Backstrom, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Mark Schiefele.
Hischier’s offensive game was among the Devils’ best as a rookie, but his defensive game still needed work. Despite the team’s trudge to the bottom of the standings, he took a noticeable step forward defensively last season. He had a positive impact on defensive_xG and had a neutral impact on defensive shot attempts (Def_CF), a big swing from where he was as a rookie.
Given his improved two-way game and his ability to produce offense, Hischier could be heading for his best season yet. He’ll have a healthy Taylor Hall on his wing and either Palmieri or Bratt on the opposite side. He could be looking at 20 minutes a night and will get some time on the power play. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect 65 to 70-plus points from Hischier if he plays 82 games.
Player With Most to Prove: Miles Wood
Wood did not have a great 2018-19. He missed the start of training camp after holding out for a new contract, which he eventually got, and it seemed to affect him. He had eight points in his first 33 games, with only three goals. However, he picked things up during the second half, finishing with 16 points over his final 30 games, a 43-point pace over 82 games.
That strong close hasn’t carried over into 2019-20, though. Wood had the worst preseason imaginable, with no points in four games. His five-on-five numbers don’t help his case, either, as he had a 38.95 xGF%. And it’s probably not the best sign that he was a healthy scratch in the team’s final exhibition game.
There isn’t any doubt that Wood is capable of being a solid bottom-six forward. He’s only one season removed from totaling 19 goals. He’s one of the Devils’ fastest skaters and having a player like that in the bottom six can do wonders. But he needs to find consistency in his game at five-on-five, especially since he won’t play on special teams. Otherwise, he’ll be a regular healthy scratch, and that’s less than ideal for a player making $2.75 million annually.
First Players in Line for Call-Ups
Since Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian were among some of the Devils’ final cuts, they’ll likely be the first called up to the NHL. The team likes the physicality Bastian adds as a fourth-line winger, while McLeod can add some speed and a bit of offense to their bottom six.
Other forwards who’ll be right behind McLeod and Bastian are Joey Anderson and Brett Seney. Both players had extended NHL looks last season, with Seney playing in 51 games and Anderson in 34. Either one should be able to fill a bottom-six role if an injury or two strikes the Devils in the NHL. This is especially true for Anderson, whose penalty-killing abilities will help his cause for a call-up.
The Devils did not have great defensive depth in the AHL last season, but that has changed a bit. Matt Tennyson made it to the final weekend of the preseason but was placed on waivers Monday afternoon and made it through without getting claimed. If an early-season injury strikes, he’ll likely be the first blueliner called up.
Two other defensemen who could find their ways to the big leagues are Colton White and Josh Jacobs, both of whom made their NHL debuts in 2018-19. White has some puck-moving abilities and did well during the Binghamton Devils’ preseason. Jacobs is more of a stay-at-home defenseman and could add a physical presence to the Devils’ blue line.
The hype has been building around the Devils, given all their offseason moves. While things look promising on paper, that goes out the window once games begin. With that said, their offense should see improvement with the additions of Hughes, Subban, Simmonds, and Gusev. And it helps to have Hall healthy, too.
Where the question marks lie are on defense and goaltending. Subban is a significant upgrade from what they had a season ago, but there’s not a ton of depth behind him. Between Butcher, Greene, and Mueller, the Devils could use another left-handed defenseman, specifically one who can play top-four minutes. And I imagine Shero addresses that through a trade at some point.
Goaltending is a concern, but maybe not as much as it was before the start of the preseason. Blackwood, and especially Schneider, stood tall in net, with the latter looking his old self when he posted a .920 SV% or above in every season. If that’s what the Devils are going to get in net, it could help mask their deficiencies on defense.
Although it’s not impossible, it’d be a reach to say the Devils will finish in a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division. The Carolina Hurricanes made significant improvements to a team that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals a season ago. And until someone knocks out the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals from the top of the division, it’s hard to pick against either one.
With that said, the Devils have the pieces to compete for a wild card spot. If their core players can stay healthy, unlike last season, they have a talented enough roster to make some noise. And if Schneider and Blackwood continue to perform the way they have since the second half of last season, the team should experience the turnaround needed to get back to the playoffs.
2019-20 Prediction: 44-32-6, 94 points (Fourth in the Metropolitan Division, Eighth in Eastern Conference)
* * *
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017