It’s back to the drawing board for the New Jersey Devils. One year after they put together an offseason for the ages only to fall well short of expectations by missing the playoffs, their mandate is crystal clear. They just need to get better.
Here are the ways the Devils can, in terms of what their top priorities should be this coming 2020 offseason:
5. Make a Play for Taylor Hall
It’s not going to be easy, but the Devils should at least try to get Taylor Hall back. Even as he was slated to become an unrestricted free agent, the Devils arguably shouldn’t have traded Hall as their season was far from lost at the time. Instead, they gave up the fight with half a campaign left.
What’s done is done and ultimately the Devils need to take advantage of the hand they’ve been dealt and continue their rebuilding efforts. However, as Hall is only going to be 29, he’s far from exiting his prime in theory and can still contribute for many years to come.
From Hall’s perspective, the 2018 Hart Memorial Trophy winner hasn’t so much as made the playoffs on any other team (if you exclude the Arizona Coyotes this year, who just barely qualified for the play-in round). In effect, Hall has enjoyed the greatest degree of professional success with the Devils and that would have to factor into the decision of anyone in his shoes.
It’s obviously going to be a hard sell, but consider how the Coyotes have the misguided belief they have a shot at re-signing Hall. The Coyotes don’t so much as have the cap space. The Devils do.
Furthermore, if the Coyotes’ thought process is such that Hall should like what they’re building in the desert, the swamp is arguably going to be the place to be sooner rather than later. The Devils have simply got higher-end talent developing up front at least (especially down the middle). Hall, on the wing, would be the focal point of that attack, which so badly needs him after scoring just 185 goals in 69 games this past season. It may not have worked out in the end the first time, but it is undeniably a good fit.
4. Draft Defenseman Jamie Drysdale
Assuming the rebuilding Devils do the wise thing and keep their lottery pick this upcoming 2020 NHL Entry Draft, they should end up happy. It’s a very deep draft after all, with potentially franchise-altering players available throughout the top 10.
The Devils themselves have up to three first-round picks (Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks). So, regardless of their actual selection, they’re in a good position. However, if they can land the best projected defenseman in the draft in Erie Otters star Jamie Drysdale, they’ll end up happier in the long term.
The only consensus top-10 defenseman available, hitting the top three in some mock drafts, Drysdale would be just what the doctor ordered for the Devils. They simply lack a high-impact player on the blue line outside of P.K. Subban right now and, not only does he just have two more seasons left on his deal, but he looks to be already in decline, so who knows how much good hockey they’ll get out of him.
While the Devils do have blue-chip prospect Ty Smith in the system, he can’t go at it alone. Plus the idea of a pairing made up of him and Drysdale should be enough to get any Devils fan salivating for the future. And, right now, it’s all about the future.
3. Hire a Head Coach
Interim head coach Alain Nasreddine did relatively well in his first stint as a bench boss. He went 21-15-7 after taking over for the fired John Hynes, so it would not be outside the realm of possibilities that the Devils keep him on permanently.
Nevertheless, there are a slew of other candidates with more head-coaching experience outside of the organization. Like him or not, John Stevens has reportedly interviewed for the position, as one example. And, ultimately, Nasreddine, who served under Hynes from the get-go of his disappointing tenure since 2015, would arguably be just another voice delivering the same message. It’s up to Devils’ management to determine if that’s what they want.
2. Hire a General Manager
It theoretically goes without saying, but, even before the Devils decide on their coach, they should be doing the same with regard to their general manager.
Interim GM Tom Fitzgerald performed admirably at the trade deadline, positioning the Devils for a quicker rebuild. However, similar to the situation with Nasreddine behind the bench, he served under the since-fired Ray Shero in that role since 2015. Unlike Nasreddine, Fitzgerald has more of an extensive resume in that department though, winning a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins as their director of player development in 2009, before being promoted to assistant to the GM.
True, he did largely serve only under Shero during his management career, just like Nasreddine did solely under Hynes as a coach. And, while Fitzgerald did leave the Pens before their back-to-back Cups in 2016 and ‘17, he helped to position them for that success, acting under Jim Rutherford as assistant GM the season immediately beforehand.
In other words, Fitzgerald may be more ready for the role. He’s already familiar with where the Devils are as an organization, has an idea of what needs to be done based on what he’s accomplished so far and arguably deserves a shot to make his vision for the team a reality. That should include hiring the head coach of his choice, whether that means keeping Nasredinne on or not, but first things first.
1. Re-Sign Mackenzie Blackwood
The new GM, whether it’s Fitzgerald or someone else, will have their hands full signing several players critical to the future of the organization. They include key restricted free agents Jesper Bratt, Joey Anderson and John Hayden. However, no RFA (or free agent in general) is as important as goalie Mackenzie Blackwood.
Blackwood remains one of the better-kept secrets in the NHL. Part of that stems from the poor season the Devils admittedly had. However, that sentiment doesn’t necessarily extend into the net (at least not Blackwood’s; Cory Schneider is another story).
In fact, this No. 1 ranked heading could just as easily be reworded to “Buy Out Schneider.” The difference is the same, as either way the Devils would be betting on Blackwood moving forward and that’s the way it should be. He’s done nothing but prove himself as the guy for the Devils ever since he was thrown into the fire following an injury to Schneider in 2018-19.
Since that point, Blackwood has gone 32-24-8 with a 2.72 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. Those are very good numbers considering the 26th-ranked 32.7 shots they gave up per game this past season (31.6 in 2018-19). They don’t tell the whole story though, namely how Blackwood went 14-6-5 with a .927 save percentage since early last December.
In other words, Blackwood is growing into his own as a still-young 23-year-old goalie who has yet to theoretically enter his prime. There can be no higher priority for the Devils than locking him up this coming offseason.