The New Jersey Devils had one of the most active summers of any NHL team. And that should’ve been expected with how they ended last season at the bottom of the league. It also was no time to sit back, with Taylor Hall entering the final year of his contract. General manager Ray Shero needed to make moves to show they’re serious about contending soon, and he wasted no time. So where does the team stand after their busy offseason?
Devils’ Forwards Set up for Improvement
Shero’s biggest moves this summer came up front, and he did it in different ways. It started by drafting center Jack Hughes with the first overall pick at June’s Entry Draft. The next move came during free agency when right winger Wayne Simmonds signed a one-year deal worth $5 million. Things concluded when the Devils linked up with the Vegas Golden Knights to acquire left-winger Nikita Gusev, the reigning KHL MVP.
There’s a reason why the 2019 draft class was dubbed “The Hughes Draft.” He broke numerous records, whether it was with the U.S. under-18 National Team or in the USHL, finishing with 187 points in 92 games across all competitions. He has the potential to be a cornerstone player for the Devils. And while it may take a little time for him to adjust to life in the NHL as a rookie, there’s no doubt he’ll be a significant contributor right away.
Simmonds finished this past season with 30 points in 79 games, his worst total since 2010-11, where he finished with 30 points in 80 games. His decline in production wasn’t a case of bad luck, either, as his five-on-five scoring rates have dropped in each season since he tied a career-high in points (60) in 2015-16.
Even with the declining scoring rates, Simmonds still managed to tally 17 goals in 2018-19. He knows how to create havoc in front of the net and should still manage to score some goals as a result. This will be especially true on the power play, where he should help the most.
Gusev is the biggest wild card of the Devils’ acquisitions. He’s never played in the NHL but has dominated the KHL for some time now. He finished with 62 points in 54 games in 2017-18, followed by 82 in 62 games in 2018-19, the latter of which translates to 79 points in 82 NHL games.
He’s not the biggest player, at 5-foot-11, 181 points, but there’s no denying Gusev has plenty of scoring potential. He’s a natural left-wing but is a right-handed shot and has expressed being open to playing right wing in the NHL. That’ll give head coach John Hynes some options in finding the right spot for him in the lineup. If the transition goes smoothly, and he comes close to some of his projections, he’ll be a significant boost for their top six.
Going All-In on Subban
Shero may have focused on upgrading the team’s offense the most. But his biggest move yet came on defense when he acquired P.K. Subban from the Nashville Predators in exchange for a couple of draft picks, Steven Santini, and defense prospect Jeremy Davies. Subban may have struggled in 2018-19, but injuries played a part in that, and he seems due to rebound.
Since 2014-15, Subban’s goals above replacement per 60 minutes (GAR/60), which shows many goals he adds to his team relative to a replacement-level player per 60 minutes, has been between .035 and .045. But that changed last season, with it finishing at minus-.029, the worst of his career.
Given his steady GAR/60 in the previous four seasons, 2018-19 looks more like an outlier rather than a player’s performance falling off a cliff. He may not contend for Norris Trophies anymore as he did during his prime. But he should get back on track and be a significant improvement for a blue line that needed a major shakeup.
The rest of the Devils’ defense shouldn’t look too much different. The most notable changes will be where players fit into the lineup. Sami Vatanen has played top-pair minutes before, but he may do so playing on the left side, which is his off-hand. The same is true of Severson, who could be a fit alongside Subban, too.
Related: Seven Things About P.K. Subban
Will Butcher has excelled in softer minutes and looks ready for a top-four role. If Vatanen doesn’t work as a first-pair defenseman, he’d be a great fit alongside Butcher, given their excellent track record together. Top prospect Ty Smith looks primed to make the Devils’ opening night roster. He might not crack the top four, but he could help give the team a formidable third pair with Andy Greene as a potential partner.
Schneider and Blackwood Need to Be Solid
The Devils’ goaltending was all over the place in 2018-19, and that’s being generous. Their team save percentage (SV%) ranked fourth-worst in the league, but it wasn’t all bad. Mackenzie Blackwood finished with a .918 SV% in 21 starts, while Cory Schneider had a .921 SV% over his final 15 starts.
The league average SV% fell to .905% last season, thanks to an increase in goal scoring. Assuming it holds around there for the foreseeable future, the Devils may not need a goaltender posting a .920 SV% every night. At the same time, they’re going nowhere if their goaltending ranks in the bottom five again.
If Schneider and Blackwood give the Devils above-average netminding, they should be in good shape. Their offense and defense could be dramatically improved, but it won’t matter if they aren’t getting timely saves. And that could determine their place in the standings by the time April rolls around.
Does Shero Need to Do Anything Else?
The Devils are pretty set at forward. If they add anyone else, it’ll be a prospect like Jesper Boqvist or Joey Anderson making the team. Where they could still use an upgrade is on defense, specifically for a left-handed shot. And there are two players available that may interest Shero.
For whatever reason, Jake Gardiner remains an unrestricted free agent. He’s spent his whole career with the Toronto Maple Leafs and is quietly one of the better defensemen in the league. His GAR since 2015-16 ranks ninth in the league for defensemen, and he has a significant positive impact on offense. He’d be a great fit alongside Subban, but Shero would have to shed salary to make things work. Trading Vatanen, who has one year left on his deal, would be the most likely move.
Another player worth considering is Andrei Markov, who is looking to make an NHL return after two seasons in the KHL. The now 40-year-old defenseman played with Subban during their time with the Montreal Canadiens. So is a reunion in the cards as members of the Devils?
I can see why the two sides would be connected, given Markov is a left-handed shot and has a history with Subban. But at his age, he might not be able to handle the hard minutes Subban will be getting. It wouldn’t hurt to bring Markov in on a professional tryout to see what he can do during the preseason. But signing Gardiner would be the smarter move, considering he’s a left-handed shot, 11 years younger, and can play top-pair minutes.
Outlook for 2019-20
There’s no question the Devils got better this summer, but how much better? Subban is coming off a down season, and even though he’s a good bounce-back candidate, it’s not a guarantee. The same is true of Simmonds, who the Devils could use 20 goals from in 2019-20. Will he be able to do it? Or will his production continue to fall?
Then there’s Gusev, whose hype train has pretty much turned into a high-speed train at this point. The hype is warranted, however, as his KHL production isn’t an accident. But how will he produce in the NHL? Does he put up 70-plus points? Or is 50-55 a more realistic target? It’s hard to say without him having ever played an NHL game.
Finally, there’s Schneider and Blackwood. Schneider had the highest of highs and lowest of lows last season, at one point having an SV% of .852, before finishing strong. If late-season Schneider shows up, then the Devils will be fine. And the same is true if Blackwood proves the start to his NHL career wasn’t a fluke.
So are they a playoff team? It’d be a stretch to say they’re a lock, but the potential is there if everything falls into place the right way. They’ve added more talent, and they should be playing meaningful games in March and April. And given the work Shero put in, it’ll be a disappointment if they aren’t.
* * *