The New Jersey Devils find themselves in another lost season and a big reason for that is that their role players aren’t playing those roles to the level that was expected of them this season. After the trade of Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes, the Devils played better for a short stretch, but you are what your record says you are, and the record says they are 15-21-7 with the second-worst goal-differential.
GM Ray Shero said after the trade of Hall (and the firing of his head coach) that no one on the roster was playing to what the team expected of them. Probably the truest statement we’ve heard all season long. There was a lot of chatter from a lot of different people saying that the Devils and Shero won the summer with the moves they made. In the end, all they ended up being are Paper Champions.
Through the first 43 games Kyle Palmieri (16g/30p), Nico Hischier (16a/26p), Blake Coleman (14g/22p), and Nikita Gusev (18a/25p) are the only forwards that have somewhat played to their potential. Sure, you’d like to see all there of them (excluding Coleman because he’s about at a pace you would expect) have some more points on the board, but considering the state of affairs, they’ve been okay. Sami Vatanen (17a/22p) is the lone blueliner that has been somewhat consistent, and Mackenzie Blackwood has performed admirably in goal (14-12-6, 2.97 GAA) during his first full season in the NHL. But that hasn’t been nearly enough for New Jersey as they sit in 30th place in the league standings and second to last in the Eastern Conference (thanks Detroit?).
The defense corps has been a well documented hot mess and the Devils have surrendered 42 more goals then they have scored. Interim head coach Alain Nasreddine, who was running the defense under John Hynes, has guided the team to a 6-10-3 record and they have been outscored 57-46 since he took over in early December.
“We just didn’t do a good enough job of sticking to our game plan and it got away from us a bit,” is what Palmieri said after a recent loss. He or anyone on the team can copy and paste that answer for postgame interviews this season because it has been a refrain from game one when they blew a 4-0 lead at home to the Winnipeg Jets.
Stuck in a Rut
Unfortunately and perhaps not unexpectedly, 18-year-old Jack Hughes has already missed seven games (two separate injuries). His slender frame just isn’t 100% NHL ready. But after going pointless in six-straight to start his pro career he has accumulated 16 points (6g-10a) over his last 30 games. He will grow to be stronger and adjust to the rigors of the NHL season and will be a pillar alongside Hischier for years to come in New Jersey.
The depth scoring on the team just hasn’t been there and as we’ve written before in this space management and the fan base overvalued what they have on the roster. Even if the scoring chances are up and the underlying numbers look nice no one can deny that the group of Pavel Zacha, Jesper Bratt, Travis Zajac, Wayne Simmonds, Miles Wood, John Hayden, and Kevin Rooney just haven’t produced enough. Not enough to help the team win consistently. Some of them may just be having a down year or bad luck, but most of them shouldn’t be around next season. How can you consistently put out the same group and not get promising results?
“I think it was a little bit of an off game for us. Both in competitiveness and the way we wanted to play,” is another quote that Palmieri said after a recent loss. Again, something that has been said far too often by this group about each other.
Jesper Boqvist was excluded from the group above because he is just a rookie, but he hasn’t looked like he belongs at this level yet – aside from a few flashes here and there. His game isn’t developed enough yet to play in the NHL. He should’ve been sent back to Sweden for one more season.
With the trade deadline approaching GM Ray Shero should be having a fire sale. He needs to shake things up more, which is crazy because he already fired his coach and traded away the franchise’s lone Hart Trophy winner (which was necessary because he wasn’t re-signing in New Jersey).
Other than Hughes, Hischier, Gusev, Palmieri, Coleman, Vatanen, Blackwood, and Ty Smith, everyone else should be available. That is your current core, build around them. The best-case scenario is that Shero can find someone to take at least four-five players (and contracts) off his hands like Cory Schneider, Damon Severson, Wood, and Andy Greene.
Truly move into a new era with Hischier and Hughes as the faces of your franchise. Build around them and find wingers that best complement their styles and games. Get creative with your roster moves. You’re going to have a high draft pick again and maybe the only way you don’t trade that pick is if you become Edmonton Oilers East and win the Draft Lottery again.
Maybe reach out to the Buffalo Sabres and attempt to make a Zacha-for-Casey Mittelstadt one-for-one trade, swapping two players who each need a fresh start; Mittelstadt is currently buried in the AHL. Try to pry Kevin Labanc away from the San Jose Sharks, offer Bratt and Schneider for Labanc and Martin Jones. Think Schneider would waive his no-trade clause to get a fresh start on the west coast? Jones could be a decent 1B to complement your current 1A in Blackwood.
Defensemen are always in high demand as the trade deadline approaches. See if you can pawn off a package of Greene or Severson and Wood and grab some young assets from a contender. Think Vegas, Colorado, or Boston.
With their inability to string more than two or three wins in a row consistently the rest of the season is going to be a showcase. A showcase of a lot of players that may not and probably shouldn’t be back in New Jersey for the 2020-21 season.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.