Changes are on the horizon in New Jersey. With the eight unrestricted free agents and a large amount of cap space, the Devils’ roster is bound to look different than it did during 2015-16 season. From the team’s first day of training camp to its final game, the roster had already evolved.
New Jersey will look to rebound after an injury riddled year in which its lineup was often a carousel of players entering and exiting games. If the team is fortunate enough to avoid any major setbacks during the 2016-17 season, the roster will become infinitely more stable. Nevertheless, if there is any benefit to enduring an injury plagued year, it is that prospects get a chance to show what they are capable of.
Most of the roster changes will come as a result of free agency and potential trades but general manager Ray Shero and head coach John Hynes will also have to consider several prospects. It is no secret that the Devils need secondary help, which is where the prospects will likely slot in and the more help that can come from within the system, the better. While most of the young players will still have to showcase why they deserve a coveted roster spot, forward Reid Boucher has probably already earned one.
As one of the Devils’ most anticipated prospects, Boucher previously struggled to achieve the level of consistency needed to stay in the NHL. However, he proved to be an asset when the team needed his production the most. Boucher made visible strides in his development during the 2015-16 season. He often looked like a bona fide NHL player and flourished on a line with forwards Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri.
When he first arrived in the NHL, Boucher appeared to favor certain spots on the ice. While every player has his so-called sweet spot, as the season went on, Boucher definitely began embracing a shoot first mentality and as a result scored more. Currently, Boucher may be the team’s best forward prospect as he also offers the team depth and lineup flexibility. He can be slotted within the bottom six as well as the top. However, the more skill Boucher is surrounded by, the better off he will be.
While Boucher is almost guaranteed to make the final roster, forward Joseph Blandisi is more of a wildcard. Blandisi exhibited plenty of raw skill when he finally made his Devils’ debut. Unlike Boucher though, last season was Blandisi’s first taste of the NHL and he is still refining his game. He could make the team straight out of camp but he may not remain on the big club’s roster throughout the year or play regularly if he does.
Similarly to Blandisi, defenseman Seth Helgeson may also be a wildcard. Hynes proved that he trusted Helgeson’s game when he kept the Minnesota native in the lineup even after the team’s defensive core returned from injuries. Nonetheless, Helgeson will need to force the Devils to keep him, which is why he may be facing his biggest training camp yet. Helgeson has always been a victim of numbers because unlike the offensive side of the puck, there are not many available spots within New Jersey’s defensive unit.
Helgeson will also have to contend with defenseman Steve Santini, who will be battling for a place on the roster. Santini appeared in the Devils’ final game of the season, so fans only saw a sample size of what he could bring. He may be one of the more intriguing training camp stories as people have high expectations for him. New Jersey already injected speed into its core, but now the Devils need to add more physicality and that is one of Santini’s calling cards.
Both Santini and Helgeson will be impacted by the team’s offseason moves. Realistically, New Jersey has no reason to go out and look for another defenseman but there is one that will be seeking a new a contract and he has already worn the uniform.
Defenseman David Schlemko proved to be a valuable part of the Devils’ defensive core. He not only provided stability at the blue line but he also contributed on the scoreboard. He along with a handful of other Devils are not guaranteed to return to the team in 2016-17. But while New Jersey cannot re-sign every player facing free agency, Schlemko and forward Jordin Tootoo should receive contracts from Shero.
Tootoo has repeatedly displayed that he is the ultimate teammate. He may not be the biggest guy on the ice but he is willing to stand up to the biggest guy in the league if needed. Although, Tootoo’s numbers did not match his stats from two seasons ago, he has previously shown that he can contribute offensively.
While Schlemko and Tootoo bring value to New Jersey, the team’s most notable unrestricted free agent is Patrik Elias. The lifelong Devil has faced many free agency markets but has remained a constant in New Jersey. However, this year is different. The regime is different. The makeup of the team is different and the team’s recent performance does not mirror what Elias was accustomed to throughout most of his career.
Elias recently underwent successful surgery after missing the majority of the season due to a lingering knee issue. Nevertheless, fans were still able to witness him take the ice and score the last goal of the regular season. It may be easy to argue that it is time for New Jersey to move on from Elias. However, if he is healthy, can play and wants to return, then he should be a Devil once more. Hockey is a business and sentimentality does not belong in business. But Elias is an asset in every way for New Jersey. This is different than when Devils’ iconic goaltender Martin Brodeur left so that Cory Schneider could become the team’s full-time starter. There are more options when it comes to forwards and more spaces.
Regardless of what so many around the league believe, New Jersey does not need much more to become a legitimate contender. Winning is not only about skill but also staying healthy and getting the most out of what you have available. The Devils will undoubtedly be active this offseason to ensure that the franchise returns to its winning ways. But Shero will certainly have options within the organization as well that could be key pieces in helping the team get back to the top.