The New Jersey Devils have reached their bye week, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. They entered their week off on a three-game losing streak to fall to 18-23-7 on the season and sit at the bottom of their division.
The chance at a playoff spot is all but gone, but the Devils can’t let up just yet. There are plenty of things they need to fix before heading into a crucial offseason. Ending the season with a high draft pick will benefit the organization, but they also need something to build on for 2019-20. Here’s what they should focus on over their final 34 games.
What Goaltending Tandem Do the Devils Use?
It’s pretty clear Keith Kinkaid doesn’t fit into the Devils’ future plans. He’s 29 years old, is on an expiring contract and is in the midst of the worst season of his career. The Devils would be best off moving him by the trade deadline, even if the return is minimal.
What comes next is one of the Devils’ biggest questions for the remainder of 2018-19 and the offseason. Mackenzie Blackwood has shown he has the potential to be the Devils’ goalie of the future, and even though that’s the case, he still needs a backup.
Cory Schneider is signed through 2020-21 and comes with a cap hit of $6 million a season. It goes without saying, but the Devils need him to finish 2018-19 on a high note. His contract is not going to be easy to move, especially since he has well below a .900 save percentage (SV%) over the last calendar year.
I don’t think Schneider is as bad as the last year indicates, and it’s no doubt injuries played a factor in his poor play. Staying healthy for the rest of the season is going to be big for Schneider. He needs to play, and if Kinkaid is traded, the Devils don’t have anyone to back up Blackwood. If Schneider can show he’s still serviceable, it’ll be a big plus.
As for Blackwood, the Devils seem to have a solid prospect on their hands. He shouldn’t be starting six or seven games in a row, but he needs playing time, too. Sharing the net with Schneider is the best option the Devils have to end this season. It’ll allow them to evaluate their goaltending situation before the offseason, which they’ll need to figure out if they aren’t satisfied.
John Hynes Needs to Show He Can Adjust
The Devils signed head coach John Hynes to a long-term extension a couple of weeks ago, so he isn’t going anywhere. The Devils made the right decision in handing that extension out, given what their offseason looks like, but he needs to show he can adjust.
One thing he needs to figure out is how to fix the Devils’ power play, which has been woeful this season. They generate the eighth and sixth-fewest shot attempts and scoring chances per-60 minutes in the league while up a man. Rick Kowalsky was promoted from their AHL affiliate to run the power play, but it hasn’t worked out to this point. If another change needs to be made, then so be it.
Another issue that has plagued the Devils is how Hynes optimizes his lineups. And that’s been most apparent on the road, where they have an abysmal 5-17-3 record. Teams have taken advantage of the last change and have exposed mismatches against the Devils.
Finding the right balance up front will help solve that a bit. When healthy, the Devils have used a top line of Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri more often than not. That works at home when you can control matchups, but that isn’t the case on the road. When a team’s three best forwards are one line, it exposes the weaker lines, especially in the Devils’ bottom-six.
Their roster isn’t great for obvious reasons, so trying to balance the lines out this season is a challenge. That’ll change once they get better players and Hynes can better spread his talent throughout the lineup. But if it continues to be an issue with an improved roster in 2019-20, then the Devils will run into the same problems.
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Young Devils Need to Continue to Develop
It hasn’t been the season the Devils hoped for when it comes to internal development, but there have been some positive steps.
After missing the first 14 games of the season with an injury, Jesper Bratt has performed well. He has 20 points in 34 games, which comes out to a 48-point pace over 82 games. He’s one of the best passers on the team and can create chances most of his teammates can’t.
Miles Wood got off to a rough start, but had picked up his play before going down with an injury last week. He had eight points in his previous 10 games and moved into a top-six role with Hall out of the lineup. Wood is under contract through 2021-22, so he needs to keep up the strong play when he returns to action.
It may not seem like Hischier has taken the next step in his development, but he’s been one of the Devils’ best forwards. He has an expected goals for percentage of 54.6 percent and is averaging 2.15 points per-60 minutes. He may only be on-pace for 56 points, but the improvement is noticeable, especially on defense.
The Devils also need their prospects to continue to perform well. Marian Studenic has been a surprise for the Binghamton Devils (AHL), with 23 points in 36 games. Michael McLeod, the Devils’ first-round pick in 2016, is having a decent first pro season with 23 points in 39 games. Jesper Boqvist is having a strong season in the SHL (Sweden) where he has 22 points in 34 games. And we can’t forget about Ty Smith, who’s lighting up the WHL with the Spokane Chiefs. These players could be essential to the Devils getting it turned around next season.
Time for the Devils to Reset
They aren’t going to make the playoffs, and that’s pretty clear at this point. Their focus should be on putting together some strong performances to have something to build on for next season. It’s also about evaluating some of the issues they have and addressing them, that way they don’t become long-term problems.
Chances are the Devils will have a high draft pick come June, and that will help, too. They’re also going to have a ton of cap space in free agency, so the pieces are there to get things turned around. But they have to make the right decisions, otherwise they’ll be among the league’s bottom dwellers once again.
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