Devils Lost Season Filled With Silver Linings

It’s not saying anything earth-shattering admitting that this New Jersey Devils season has been a massive disappointment. Perhaps they peaked a bit early last season when they qualified for the playoffs for the first time in the John Hynes/Ray Shero era. Would you feel better about the state of the franchise if last season and this season’s records were reversed?

Make no mistake about it, the Devils are in rebuild mode, and they’re doing it their way. They’re trying to collect assets through trades and the NHL Draft, which can be a painful process for fans at times. Not seeing immediate results is frustrating for sure, but not every draft pick is going to be an instant megastar. Winning the 2017 lottery and nabbing Nico Hischier with the first overall pick was a nice consolation prize after a dismal season. This season New Jersey will be picking high again and they can’t miss with their likely top-5 selection.

Nico Hischier
Nico Hischier after being drafted first overall by the New Jersey Devils. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Look at Tampa Bay’s current homegrown talent on the roster that Steve Yzerman has constructed. Nikita Kucherov was a second round pick in 2011 (58th overall). Brayden Point was a third round pick in 2014 (79th overall). Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde were undrafted free agents. There are ways to be field a successful team without picking at the top of the draft, but it’s always nice when you can add players like Steven Stamkos (1st overall/2008) and Victor Hedman (second overall/2009) following a lost season.

Devils in the Details

Tampa hasn’t had to make many big free agent signings because of the development of their own players internally. Instead, when they add a new piece from outside the organization it’s usually via a trade (JT Miller, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev) or an under the radar signing (Anton Stralman). It’s been slow and steady but we have seen some Devils developing right before our eyes. Having said that, they may need to dip their toe into free agency this summer to add a splash of talent to the roster.

Blake Coleman, Jaroslav Halak
New Jersey Devils center Blake Coleman scores a breakaway goal against Boston Bruins goaltender Jaroslav Halak (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Blake Coleman has earned a spot among the core players with his strong play the last two seasons. Mackenzie Blackwood has played well enough in goal for New Jersey that they traded Keith Kinkaid to Columbus at the trade deadline. With the myriad of injuries this season Kevin Rooney may have won himself a spot on next year’s roster with his tenacity at both ends of the ice. While he only has 40 games of NHL experience he has become an important penalty killer and is winning virtually half of the face-offs that he has taken.

Others have impressed too. Kenny Agostino was claimed off waivers and has put up ten points in 21 games for his hometown team. Nathan Bastian only had one point in four games before being injured but he was noticeable almost every shift and the coaching staff seemed to really like how he fit into their future plans. 

Jesper Bratt, Calle Jarnkrok
New Jersey Devils left wing Jesper Bratt and Nashville Predators’ Calle Jarnkrok (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Michael McLeod has only one assist in his first 15 NHL games, but he hasn’t been afraid to throw his body around (33 hits) and is winning more than half of the faceoffs he has taken. Sandwiched in between two bad luck injuries, Jesper Bratt has nearly duplicated last season’s point total of 35 in 23 fewer games (33 points in 51 games this season). At just 20-years-old Bratt and Hischier are the two youngest Devils in the NHL.

Big Summer Ahead

With most, if not all of the players mentioned above New Jersey knows what they have. There are a few others who have gotten looks this season and they are constantly being evaluated like everyone else is. But their position on the roster may be tenuous. There will be changes this summer, there always are. But after a season like this one it wouldn’t be shocking if players like Stefan Noesen, John Quenneville, and Blake Pietila aren’t back in red and black. Would it be a shock if someone like Damon Severson or Will Butcher or Pavel Zacha or Miles Wood is dealt at the NHL Draft or prior to free agency starting.

The Devils have some important free agents of their own to tend to this summer. Taylor Hall and Hischier can both officially sign contract extensions on July 1 and that will likely be Shero’s first order of business. Agostino is scheduled to become a UFA and likely wouldn’t cost much to bring back. He’s earned it and would be a nice fit in the bottom six. Quenneville, Butcher, Zacha, Noesen, Connor Carrick, and Mirco Mueller will all be RFAs. 

Last year’s first-round pick Ty Smith will almost definitely be on the opening night roster for New Jersey on the blueline. Shero will have money to spend and he has a few options on the free agent market that would definitely help move along the rebuild to its next stage. On defense he could make a heavy play for either Erik Karlsson or Toronto’s Jake Gardner – both would dramatically improve the Devils back end.

Ty Smith
Defenseman Ty Smith holds up a trophy after his team won the 3-on-3 tournament at the New Jersey Devils annual July Development Camp. (Photo Credit: Steven Wojtowicz)

If Shero strikes out on the trade front in his hunt for a top-six winger his best options to pursue would be either Jeff Skinner, Jordan Eberle, Matt Duchene or Brett Connolly. Maybe Anders Lee or Brock Nelson. That’s really it on the free agent forwards that fit with New Jersey’s game plan.

Ideally adding one at each position and adding another player with hopefully a top-2 draft pick would be the best scenario for the Devils this offseason. Which players do you want to see management pursue during the summer? Let us know in the comments below.