To say the New Jersey Devils’ season was a disappointment would be an understatement. After a surprise postseason appearance in 2017-18, they found themselves back where they were in 2016-17, the bottom of the NHL. There are plenty of reasons why things went south, and no one person is to blame.
The Devils’ goaltending turned it around in the calendar year 2019, but it was among the league’s worst through New Year’s. That was compounded by poor defense and injuries to key players such as Taylor Hall. That may make things seem bleak, but general manager Ray Shero has set up the team to reset in short order. They have 10 draft picks at the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, and they’ll have over $30 million in cap space come July 1. Here’s how those assets should be put to use.
Devils Need Secondary Scoring
It became clear after Hall’s injury that the Devils didn’t have enough offense to make up for his loss. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise considering he was the NHL’s MVP last season. He finished with 94 points in 2017-18 and was on pace to finish with 91.9 this season. So there’s no easy way to make up for his loss.
The good news is the Devils have some pieces in the organization who can help. Jesper Bratt was slowed down by injuries, but he took a step forward this season and produced at a 53-point pace in the 50 games he played. He should be in a top-six role in 2019-20, especially since he’ll be at full health.
The Devils also got strong closes to the season from Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha. Wood had 16 points in his last 28 games, while Zacha had nine points in his last nine games, and 20 points over his last 30 games. That’s something each player can build on heading into next season because the Devils will need consistent production from them.
The bad news is the Devils relied on growth from within the organization to take a step forward this season, and it did not work. Shero can’t take that approach this offseason, and I don’t expect him to either. Hall has one year left on his contract and is eligible for an extension on July 1, so it’s time to get pieces around him.
Shero has been adamant about not wanting to build through free agency, so I doubt he spends to the cap, but there are a few free agents up front who should get his attention. Jordan Eberle is having a down year and could come on a cheaper deal. It also doesn’t hurt that he was Hall’s teammate when with the Edmonton Oilers, so that could work in his favor.
Other targets include Gustav Nyquist and Anders Lee, who’d bring valuable scoring on the wing. If Shero is looking to add depth down the middle, someone like Kevin Hayes or Brock Nelson would be good options too. But that could depend on who the Devils select at the draft, where there’s a chance they get an NHL-ready center with a high pick.
At Least One Top-Four Defenseman Needed
The Devils’ blue line was in much worse shape earlier in the season. But they played better down the stretch, even with Sami Vatanen out with various injuries. Damon Severson stepped up in a big way and became the consistent top-four defenseman the Devils have been hoping he’d be. Connor Carrick also proved to be a nice addition and helped give them a solid depth on their third pair.
The right side of the Devils’ blue line looks to be set for next season — with Vatanen, Severson, and Carrick — but they need to improve the left side. Andy Greene had a decent season, but he should not be playing top-pair minutes in 2019-20. Will Butcher’s production was down from a season ago, but he played against tougher competition than he did last season and handled it well. He finished the season with a goals above replacement (GAR) of 9.8 (via Evolving Hockey), which ranked ahead of Rasmus Dahlin and Miro Heiskanen.
The Devils also have a couple of prospects in Jeremy Davies and Ty Smith who are close to contributing in the NHL. Davies just signed his entry-level contract earlier this week, after three seasons at Northeastern University. He’s already 22 years old, so I’d be surprised if he’s not on their NHL roster next season. Smith is still playing in the WHL, but he’s also a good bet to be playing pro hockey next season. They’re both left-handed shots, so they’d help fill a need.
Even though there’s a good chance Davies and Smith are in the NHL, Shero shouldn’t hesitate to add another defenseman. The free agent class isn’t as deep as it once was, but Erik Karlsson and Jake Gardiner could still hit the market. Karlsson will probably be out of the Devils’ price range, but Gardiner is someone who should interest them. He’d be an upgrade for the left side of the blue line and would, at worst, be the second-best defenseman on the team.
If free agency isn’t an option, their abundance of draft picks will benefit them. With six picks coming in the first three rounds, Shero will have the assets he needs to make a trade for someone who can help the NHL roster. And he isn’t afraid to do so as he used second and third-round picks to acquire Kyle Palmieri and Marcus Johansson. Maybe it’s for a defenseman this time around.
Devils Can Turn It Around Quick
The organization has a lot of needs heading into the offseason, but it’s a doable task. They can select no lower than sixth overall at the draft, and they’ll have a bunch of other draft picks at their disposable. It’s in free agency where things will get interesting. Shero’s most expensive signing as Devils’ GM has been Brian Boyle, at $2.75 million a season. That’s going to have to change this summer.
There’s no way he should spend to the cap, especially with Hall and Nico Hischier due for extensions soon, but the class up front has forwards Shero should be willing to pay. They should also be looking to acquire a defenseman, whether it’s Gardiner in free agency or someone else through a trade. If those additions pay off, they can get back in the playoff picture in 2019-20.