The New Jersey Devils have experienced a lot throughout the years but most recently the franchise has witnessed a great deal of change. The coaching staff and front office’s vision for the club is finally taking shape and the uncertainty that was previously surrounding the organization is dissipating. The Devils’ 2015-16 season was far from perfect but it offered hope and a preview of positive things to come.
Devils hockey has always been about a balanced and systematic approach, which means the team’s success cannot solely come down to their star players. It requires a full effort from everyone on the roster and while the spotlight will shine brightly on some new faces, like star forward Taylor Hall, it will also shine on some returning players that need to step up.
F – Reid Boucher
Forward Reid Boucher was a critical part of New Jersey’s youth movement last season. With the highly recruited forward Jimmy Vesey finally deciding to sign with the New York Rangers, Boucher’s path to locking up a top-six role is seemingly clear. Last season he often found himself playing on a line with forwards Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri. At the time, some wondered if the responsibilities of playing in a top-six role were too much for the 22-year-old, but as the season progressed, he answered those questions. He stepped in and looked comfortable. Additionally, Boucher played a key part in locking up several important victories when the team was still in the playoff hunt.
The expectations surrounding Boucher have always been predominantly focused on his goal scoring ability. Whether he will ever be able to top 30-goals remains to be seen, but realistically if Boucher can reach the 15-20-goal threshold this year, his contribution will dramatically help New Jersey’s playoff hopes.
D – Damon Severson
Defenseman Damon Severson may see the biggest role change among any of his returning teammates. Currently, Severson appears to be the frontrunner and the most obvious choice to take over as captain Andy Greene’s partner on the Devils’ top pairing. While he has played in this spot before, this time, there is no looking back as it will be fulltime. Not only does this mean that Severson will be facing the opposition’s best players, his minutes will also see a significant increase.
Nevertheless, Severson can certainly handle the responsibilities and pressure that come with a top pairing role. Although last season he took a step back, Severson possesses all of the qualities to be a top defenseman in the NHL. He proved his value and skillset two years ago when he forced former head coach Peter DeBoer to keep him on the big club’s roster straight out of training camp. Now Severson will have to prove again that he is ready to take the reigns as one of the Devils’ defensive stars.
F – Devante Smith-Pelly
Entering last season, former Devil forward Stefan Matteau was one of the team’s young players who had to make an impact on the ice and cement his place in the nightly lineup. However, it never happened and fans saw general manager Ray Shero make one of his best deals by trading Matteau to the Montreal Canadiens in return for forward Devante Smith-Pelly.
Smith-Pelly’s Devils’ career kicked off to a blazing goal filled start. While fans cannot expect Smith-Pelly to maintain his torrid pace this season, they do have to hope that he can help New Jersey’s secondary scoring issue. Smith-Pelly will likely see a line demotion, but the drop is in no way indicative of his play or worth. The acquisition of Hall means head coach John Hynes will have to shift line combinations and while it is not definite, Smith-Pelly will likely be one of the players to assume a new role. His value at the end of last season was already high but if he can help New Jersey by scoring approximately 15-goals in a potential third line role, his worth to the organization will only increase.
F – Pavel Zacha
Rookie forward Pavel Zacha is one of the most anticipated new faces to take the ice and the only new face to make this list. People around the league know what Hall and Beau Bennett are capable of, but Zacha has only provided glimpses in a small sampling size. New Jersey’s roster is far from set, but there would have to be a dramatic turn of events for Zacha not to make the final cut. It is still a mystery whether or not one of his idols, lifelong Devil Patrik Elias will be playing alongside him this season, but Zacha will be at the forefront of New Jersey’s refreshed bottom-six and likely centering the third line.
No one quite knows what Zacha’s ceiling is, but if the rookie can display the speed and skill that he exhibited in the Devils’ 2015-16 season finale, then his ceiling will be high. However, just as with all rookies entering the league, patience will be key as there are bound to be ups and downs throughout the season.
D – Jon Merrill
Defenseman Jon Merrill could be entering the most important season of his Devils’ career thus far. The defenseman encountered many struggles last year including being plagued by injuries which kept forcing him out of the lineup. But even when he was healthy his development appeared to stall. It is up to Merrill to show that last season was a fluke and that he can perform in pressure-filled situations. Otherwise, Merrill could find himself competing with a group of young defensemen who are going to be setting their sights on his lineup spot.
The players on this list are not the only ones that will be under the spotlight this upcoming season. The entire team will be expected to perform and most importantly win. However, if these players can step up, not only will it be beneficial for their careers, but it will also be highly beneficial for the Devils’ playoff aspirations.
Amanda Rosko is an avid hockey fan. This is her second year covering the New Jersey Devils for The Hockey Writers. She graduated with honors from Rutgers University in 2014 with a B.A. in Journalism and Media Studies.