Jordin Tootoo, Bobby Farnham, Tuomo Ruutu, Stephen Gionta, Paul Thompson, Jim O’Brien, Brian O’Neill, Jiri Tlusty, and of course, Mike Sislo.
Those are just some of the names that played in the bottom six forward group for the New Jersey Devils for a majority of last season. One thing they all have in common? They are no longer with the Devils organization and many people, fans and writers alike, consider it a good thing. In fact, some of those players probably had no business playing in the NHL.
No one can say that the aforementioned players never gave their best when they were on the ice. However, they lacked strong possession numbers and never really generated much offense, which is a predominant reason why the Devils ranked last in the league in goal scoring last season and why the players are no longer in New Jersey.
Now it is true that a team’s top six should always provide a majority of the scoring, but having a bottom six that can contribute offensively as well is the key to winning a championship. Case and point, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Another example? Every team that has won the Stanley Cup ever. Depth wins championships.
Fan favorites such as Bobby Farnham and Jordin Tootoo will be missed, but more for their tough guy antics. It is also important to point out that an era has come to an end with the departure of Stephen Gionta. The famous “CBGB” fourth line, which helped carry the Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012 is now a thing of the past. It’s time for a new era to begin in New Jersey.
So who’s left after this mass exodus of bottom six forwards? Some players, such as Jacob Josefson, Reid Boucher, Joseph Blandisi, Sergey Kalinin, and Devante Smith-Pelly performed well enough last season to earn new contracts and be kept in New Jersey for the foreseeable future.
Jacob Josefson will never be the top line center the Devils hoped he would be when they drafted him in the first round in 2009. However, he has been remarkable in shootouts, which is likely the reason he is still in New Jersey. Every team needs a shootout wizard and Josefson, along with the newly acquired Taylor Hall, should make for an exciting tandem that will have opposing goalies feeling nervous.
Next, are the young “Killer B’s”, the sniper Boucher and the jack-of-all-trades Blandisi. Both have their own unique skill sets, and both have tremendous upside. The two youths were exciting to watch last season and it will be interesting to see how they progress entering this season.
Last but not least, every team needs a gritty power forward, and the Devils luckily have two with Devante Smith-Pelly and Sergey Kalinin. Smith-Pelly has more offensive upside, but both have the ability to create space, battle for pucks along the boards, and be a strong presence in front of the opposing team’s net. Kalinin also had one of the best goals for the Devils last season.
This season, the Devils will likely be featuring two new centers in their bottom six who are separated by 17 years of age. Those centers are the reliable, veteran fourth liner Vernon Fiddler and the extremely talented prospect Pavel Zacha.
Fiddler, who was signed by the Devils to a one-year contract in free agency earlier this month, brings a strong two-way presence that New Jersey has been missing in their bottom six, as well as veteran leadership. He will be effective on the penalty kill, in the faceoff circle, and should be able to contribute some offense every now and then.
Zacha on the other hand figures to one day be a lock in New Jersey’s top six, but with veterans like Zajac and Henrique ahead of him on the depth chart, he will have to work his way up. The talent is there, though, with the ability to be a difference-maker in all situations of the game. If that talent translates effectively in the NHL, Zacha may find himself in the top six sooner rather than later.
Pavel Zacha could likely be the key factor in this new bottom six forward group. His ability to score goals and set up plays with his big frame and passing skills could generate more offense than Jacob Josefson, Stephen Gionta, or any of the other forwards ever could. All eyes will be on him to be one of the Devils’ saviors.
Also brought aboard this offseason by Ray Shero is the talented, but injury-prone forward Beau Bennett. Bennett, a former first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is looking for a fresh start with the Devils and is hoping to finally showcase a full season of the talent that once made him a highly touted prospect before injuries stunted his career.
Ray Shero has stated that the Devils will likely sit tight for the rest of the offseason and unless he has a change of heart, it looks like Fiddler and Bennett, along with Taylor Hall, will be the only new forwards in New Jersey while Zacha will be the only prospect realistically looking at a roster spot come October.
What To Expect
The Devils top six is likely to be composed of Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac, Mike Cammalleri, and Taylor Hall. The final spot will likely be battled for by Smith-Pelly, Bennett, and possibly Patrik Elias if he chooses to return for one more season. It will be a good, healthy competition in the Devils training camp and John Hynes will be watching closely.
As for the bottom six, game on. Josefson, Kalinin, Blandisi, Boucher, and Zacha will also be battling for their spots in the Devils lineup. Smith-Pelly and Bennett will also be in the mix, with Vernon Fiddler appearing to be a lock for the fourth line. Do not forget about Patrik Elias either. He will be vying for a spot as well, should he choose to return. Again, game on.
One thing that will certainly help this group succeed is the veteran presences of Fiddler and possibly Elias combined with the skill sets of the younger players, who will all be more comfortable in their second year under John Hynes’ coaching scheme. Provided they continue to work hard and play with confidence, there is nowhere to go but up for New Jersey’s bottom six, especially after last year’s abysmal performance.
No matter how the bottom six looks by the end of training camp, it will certainly be a much stronger and better group than the one composed of the players mentioned in the beginning. The same nine players who combined for a total of 41 points. This group should certainly be able to provide much more offense than that given the talent that will be there. If they can do that and the top six does their part as well, the New Jersey Devils could be an offensive threat in the NHL for the first time in years.