Our New Jersey Devils 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season.
The past two seasons have been hot and cold for the Devils. The season prior to last was great for the club. In the 2017-2018 season the team had 97 points, and made the playoffs. Taylor Hall won the Hart Trophy as league most valuable player with 93 points in 76 games. Hall willed the team into the postseason, and finally got a taste of playoffs 8 seasons into his career. The team appeared to be trending upwards, but last season the Devils were last place in the Metro Division and 29th in the league. Taylor Hall was injured on December 23rd and would remain out of the lineup for the rest of the season.
Upon first glance it looks as though the Devils’ fate is tied to that of Taylor Hall. And to a large extent I would say that is accurate. It should be no shock that a team’s success is inherently linked with the performances of their best players. Taylor Hall had a league wide MVP season and it showed just how important he is to the team. With a great start to the season with 37 points in 33 games, Hall was on pace for another great season right up until his injury. Without him in the lineup, the team was dramatically worse.
Outside of Hall, the New Jersey Devils also had some other injury concerns, and relied heavily upon young players all season. Last season the team had many issues, but the most prominent was scoring and goaltending. Hall was still fifth in scoring for the team last season, even with only 33 games played. The club was bottom 10 in the league for both goals scored and goals against, and ended the season with a -53 goal differential. This is a bad combination of problems to have, and the club ended up missing the playoffs by a wide margin in the basement of the very competitive Metro Division. The Metro Division has beat up on New Jersey for a few years now which fortunately has allowed the Devils to gain some great draft picks. The team has drafted some ready now forwards recently, and is seeing a lot of their later round picks start to make the push to become roster players.
Ultimately it was a combination of a lack of scoring depth, and the poor performance by Cory Schneider that broke the team last season. For the team to be on the upswing, they need to fix both of these issues. They made some moves this off-season to bolster their offensive production, and to provide Cory Schneider some more run support.
From the top down, the Devils are set to be a pretty deep group on forward.The top line will be set to be Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri. Hall will be looking to stay healthy this year to make his goal of making playoffs a reality. If Hall can keep himself out of some dangerous situations and stay healthy, the team will have a pretty great first line. The Devils will have to impress Hall this season, as his contract expires at the end of the season. If New Jersey cannot show him that the team is a real contender in playoffs, Hall could be on his way out in search of a Stanley Cup.
Kyle Palmieri will be his partner on the opposite wing. Last season, Palmieri had a great performance. He put up 27 goals and 50 points in 74 games. If Hall can stay healthy, that number could jump up substantially.
Nico Hischier, Devils 2017 1st overall draft pick, showed the last two seasons that he is ready to play in the NHL all season long. Nico played in all 82 games his rookie season and potted 52 points. Last year he was on pace to beat that but only played in 69 games and earned himself 47 points. Look for Nico to play up the middle between Hall and Palmieri, that is, if he isn’t bumped down the depth chart by Jack Hughes, the 2019 1st overall draft pick. Hughes looks like he’s ready for NHL action right out of the gate, and if he plays as well as anticipated, he could put some pressure on Hischier for that number one centre job. It is highly likely that the two young centres will secure the top two centre spots. If Hughes isn’t quite ready for NHL action though, the Devils have plenty of centre depth to make due.
Travis Zajac will be playing in his 14th season for the Devils, and the 34 year old centre still looks to have plenty of gas left in the tank. Zajac played in all but two of the regular season games last season, and picked up 46 points. He’ll be a great third line centre for the club.
Behind Zajac is Pavel Zacha, who is a bit of a question mark at this point. Zacha was a 6th overall pick by the Devils in 2015 who hasn’t surpassed 25 points in his 3 NHL seasons. He has never played more than 70 games either. His development has appeared to stagnate in New Jersey and his relationship has seemed strained with the club. This off season it was rumoured that Zacha was considering his options outside of the NHL, which prompted general manager Ray Shero to state he didn’t care where Zacha planned on signing, since the Devils had his rights. A Day after Shero’s comments, the team announced that Zacha had been signed to a three year contract extension with an average value of $2.25 million. This season, Zacha could get it together and push Zajac out for third line centre or it’s entirely possible that he could not do well in a diminished role with Hughes bumping him down in the depth chart. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Devils moved Zacha at some point this season, as they do have a better option for more traditional 4th line centre role in John Hayden. If Hughes does not stick around at the NHL level this year, I think the Devils will keep Zacha for the time being.
On the wings, the Devils could have some of the best depth they’ve had in years. They had a number of low-risk, potentially high reward pickups in the off season.
They acquired Nikita Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights this summer, in exchange for a couple draft picks. At 27 years old Gusev has never played in the NHL, but has absolutely dominated in the KHL. Last season he was KHL MVP with 82 points in 62 games. In 2017-18 he had 62 points in 54 games, and 71 points in 57 games the year before. In the 2018 Olympics, Gusev impressed with 12 points in 6 games on the way to the gold medal. The Devils signed Gusev to a 2 year $4.5 million contract, so even if he is a major flop, they’ve only got him on the books for two years. He’ll most likely need some adjusting to the NHL ice size, but the left winger is poised to succeed on the second line.
Free agent right winger Wayne Simmonds signed a one year $5 million contract with New Jersey this summer. Simmonds was traded from Philadelphia to Nashville at last season’s trade deadline, and failed to impress in his stint there. The 31 year old is looking to bounce back and prove that he still has what it takes to perform and contribute in the NHL. He’ll likely slot in on the second line and make up an imposing net presence and bring some energy to the team. Simmonds is a great pickup for the team, and again at just one year contract length, is pretty low risk. Simmonds impact will perhaps be best measured off the score sheet, as he will provide some great leadership for a young group of players.
Jesper Bratt impressed the last two seasons, and was relied upon for around 30 points of secondary scoring. The young 21 year old winger could see a boost in responsibility and ice time this season, but with both Gusev and Simmonds likely to round out the top 6, he will most likely play on the third line with Blake Coleman. However, touted prospect Jesper Boqvist will be looking to make the jump to the NHL this season right out of camp. If he doesn’t impress early in camp, he’s ineligible to play this season in the NHL and would return to Sweden to play in the SHL. The two Jespers would provide a talented, fast winger group on the third line. If Coleman secures that spot, he has plenty of speed and talent too.
Miles Wood will play on the fourth line, and could see time with Blake Coleman if Boqvist makes the squad. We could see Michael McLeod, a 2016 first round pick, big power forward get some more time on this line too.
The big news for the Devils blueline is that they acquired P.K. Subban. Subban, now 30, definitely improves the defense lineup, and will bring some much needed offense to the back end. Subban will slot into the first powerplay unit as well, and give another option for a heavy shot. New Jersey has Subban on contract for 3 years at $9 million. It’s a lot of money locked up in a defenseman, but Subban definitely brings some exciting star power to the club and will also bring some pressure off of Taylor Hall.
Subban coming in will immediately push captain Andy Greene down to the second, or more likely, third pairing. Greene is 36, (turns 37 in October) and has played some hard minutes for the team. He plays hard on the penalty kill and top line pairing minutes. With Subban coming in, he can play some more reasonable minutes and still contribute to killing penalties. With Greene being demoted down a pairing or two, the question arises of who will play with Subban? The next best defenseman on the squad is Sami Vatanen. Vatanen is yet to play a full season with the Devils, being acquired two seasons ago from the Ducks and losing 32 games last year due to injury. Vatanen is the obvious choice based upon skill, but he is right handed just like P.K., so it is a questionable move to force him to play his off side. Will Butcher is a left handed defenseman, but could be a risky addition to playing with Subban since he also is offensive minded. The only real other left handed defenseman the team has is rookie team hopeful Ty Smith, a 2018 #17 overall Devils draft pick. The young defenseman almost made the team out of last year’s camp, and if he does not make the team again this year, will have to go down to play in the WHL as an overage player. He won’t be able to join the Devils, or their AHL affiliate mid season. He’ll be fighting for a roster spot with Mirco Mueller, who played 53 games with the Devils last season.
Back on the right side, the Devils have Damon Severson who can play on the second pairing if Vatanen moves up. Severson has been hitting his stride as a capable defenseman and has stayed healthy and put up some respectable numbers. My money is on him getting some more ice time on the roster, and taking advantage of a diminished role for Andy Greene. Behind Severson are right handed depth defensemen Connor Carrick and Matt Tennyson, who will see time with the club when spots need filling.
Goaltending is where this promising young team can potentially fall apart quickly. Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood pose a very real question mark going into this season. The team’s success will not lie on Taylor Hall this season, but Cory Schneider. Is he still capable of playing in a starter role in the NHL?
Cory Schneider went fourteen months without a win in the NHL. Now fourteen months sounds much more dramatic than the actual number of games he played in that span, which was 22. Still, a 21 game losing streak is atrocious for any goalie at any level of hockey. After snapping the streak, Schneider did play better down the stretch, but by that point the damage was done.
New Jersey flipped their other starter option, Keith Kinkaid, to Columbus for a draft pick at the deadline. Kinkaid had his own struggles last year, and had a save percentage of 0.891. He never played for Columbus and ended up signing with Montreal this off season.
Mackenzie Blackwood will be backing up Schneider this season. Blackwood played in 23 games last season, and had a 2.61 goals against average and a save percentage of 0.918. Ok numbers, but a very small sample size. Blackwood will still have to prove himself as a goaltender in the NHL, and depending on how Schneider plays, he may have to prove himself very soon.
New Jersey Devils 2019-2020 Prediction
5th-7th Metro Division
The Devils will be hard pressed to beat out the other metro teams for a divisional playoff spot but if their gambles pay off, they could very well eke out a wildcard playoff seed. Wayne Simmonds and Nikita Gusev pose low risk, high reward acquisitions. These two and P.K. Subban have the potential to provide some great secondary scoring. The team has definitely improved in terms of forward and defense depth, but they will need Cory Schneider to bounce back as a starter to have any hope of being successful. The team will have to be successful this season in order to show pending UFA Taylor Hall they mean business.