In a span of literally a day, New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero may have done the impossible. He went from picking first overall at the NHL Entry Draft to transforming his team into a legitimate playoff contender… maybe even one for the Stanley Cup after acquiring defenseman P.K. Subban.
Devils Add Subban, Hughes
Many might argue that’s being overly optimistic. After all, the Devils just finished with the third-worst record in the league, 26 points out of the last Eastern Conference playoff spot.
Look at their additions though, primarily a No. 1 defenseman of Subban’s caliber. He may be a polarizing player, but Subban is just 30 and a multi-time Norris Memorial Trophy candidate (one-time winner) who fits into a suddenly impressive blue line rounded out by the likes of Damon Severson, Sami Vatanen and Will Butcher, each of whom are either in their respective primes or just entering them. Captain Andy Greene meanwhile provides additional stability on the heels of a decent 25-point bounce-back season.
Up front, Shero just drafted a supposedly generational player in Jack Hughes. While it’s not a foregone conclusion Hughes will be able to hit the ground running, it’s not like he’ll be expected to pick up the team offensively on his own. He will have the benefit of backup in the form of leading-scorer Kyle Palmieri, perennial-40-point, two-way forward Travis Zajac and former-first-overall picks Nico Hischier and Taylor Hall, the latter of whom is a season removed from winning the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.
Hall Yet Another Addition
Hall is obviously key here, in more ways than one. For starters, the fact that he only played 33 games last year (37 points) is at least one explanation for the Devils’ failure to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons. Add a healthy Hall (and an upstart Hughes) to the mix and suddenly the team’s anemic No. 25-ranked offense doesn’t look bad.
Secondly, with Hall scheduled to become a free agent at the end of next season, the Devils really have no choice but to go for it now. Subban, who has three seasons left on his $9 million-per-year deal, is a sign that Shero recognizes that fact. Going all-in may also be the best way to give Hall a reason to re-sign.
As such, while all logic indicates the Devils should take this opportunity to trade Hall, they should ignore it. Sure, they could build around Hischier and Hughes and get a massive haul for the 28-year-old Hall, who would undeniably fetch a king’s ransom, maybe from a team like the Edmonton Oilers, who I hear could use a winger of his stature. Too soon?
In any case, the Oilers are the perfect model for what not to do. Even with their one Round 2 appearance in 2016-17, they effectively failed to take advantage of Connor McDavid’s entry-level deal. Now, they’re paying him an average of $12.5 million per year. So, that projected $25 million in cap space the Devils have? They really only have a small window of opportunity in which they can truly capitalize on it. It starts now.
Schneider vs. Blackwood
The return of Cory Schneider in net is a wildcard here. The Devils opted to keep him around and there are at least decent odds it was the right decision. His $6 million-per-year deal runs out at the time Hughes’ entry-level one would, so that’s not an issue. Plus, Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood, who exceeded expectations as a starter in Schneider’s absence due to injury last season, could conceivably form a serviceable duo in net.
It depends on which Schneider shows up, though: The one who went posted a 3.06 goals-against average and .903 save percentage over the course of the entire season or the one who went 6-6-2 down the stretch on a bad team with a .927 save percentage?
If it’s the latter, so be it. If it’s the former, hopefully the Devils as an organization acknowledge they can’t force a round peg into a square hole and try to justify Schneider’s salary by continuing to give him starts at the expense of Blackwood’s development.
The fact that the 22-year-old Blackwood will be a restricted free agent at the end of next season is one more reason why they need to go for it now. Blackwood needs to continue to get looks in net, as the heir apparent to Schneider’s role as the team’s starter. Because of that fact, he will be in line for a big raise as well. Hischier will be due for the same then too, with Butcher already at the end of his first contract.
Raise the Devils
If there were any doubts that cap space will evaporate quickly, they should be long gone by now. As a result, the Devils are really only capable of signing one key free agent this summer, but only if they do so responsibly. That’s if they even need to.
There are admittedly a lot of “ifs” that can throw this plan off course should they go the wrong way: the health of Hall and Subban, Hughes’ ability to adapt to the NHL right away and whether one or both of Blake Coleman and Jesper Bratt can take the next step and become a top-six fixture up front. Should each go the right way, though? All the pieces are there, except for a little luck.
Hall technically gives them that and more, namely the depth on the wings the Oilers haven’t had since they traded him. Subban more than makes up for the subtraction of Adam Larsson in that swap and they didn’t need to give up nearly that much to get him.
Those two additions along with Hughes would transform any team into a threat, most of all one everyone else doesn’t see coming. The Devils may have just finished third from last, but it’s all the more reason why they’ll surprise in 2019-20.