After finishing with a 32-36-14 record in the regular season, the New Jersey Devils knew it was time for some big changes. They only managed to score 176 goals last season, with only the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres scoring less. The Devils allowed 209 goals, which was their saving grace, but they weren’t able to put together many wins. They went 1-6-3 for their last 10 games, too.
Failing to qualify for the playoffs will do something to the psyche of a team. Failing to do so three years in a row will do even more. In the case of the Devils, it meant finding some new blood in the front office. New Jersey saw Ray Shero replace Lou Lamoriello as general manager on May 4, which eventually set the wheels in motion for the former GM to join the Toronto Maple Leafs in July.
New Jersey also brought a new coach into the fold with the hiring of John Hynes. He’s the fourth Devils coach in five years and joins the team after serving as the bench boss for the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins for the last five years. The 40-year-old Hynes is the youngest coach in the National Hockey League.
On paper, it’s hard to see where the goals will come from. The Devils don’t exactly boast any breakout offensive talents, although there’s a lot of leadership on this hockey team. That should help 25-year-old Adam Henrique, who’ll be entering his fifth full season with New Jersey. In 2013-2014, he had a 25-goal season. His totals fell off a little last year, with just 16 goals and 27 assists in 75 games, but he’s still one of the Devils’ top players.
33-year-old Mike Cammalleri could be counted on to shoulder most of the scoring load. Acquired as a free agent in 2014, Cammalleri scored 27 goals last season and is probably the biggest offensive threat this team has. He has tremendous positioning and is usually able to find openings, which should fit well with Shero’s stated desire to turn this team into a faster club.
For the most part, though, this New Jersey team plays a lot of two-way hockey. Travis Zajac and Patrik Elias hold it down with veteran leadership, with new arrival Kyle Palmieri is capable of finding that extra gear and playing an energetic game. Ryane Clowe can also muck it up as a power forward, as can 21-year-old Stefan Matteau. Lansing native Reid Boucher could also see some ice time this season.
The Devils have historically prided themselves on defensive play, but that may change under Hynes and Shero. The new coach wants his players attacking and playing a more dynamic brand of hockey, with more offensive production to give goalie Cory Schneider some room to stretch out. That may mean that the Devils activate their defence more often, which wouldn’t be a bad thing for this young group.
Andy Greene leads the way. The 32-year-old can move the puck and has been capable at leading the rush, which could mean he’ll see more points on the scoreboard. Adam Larsson can score, too. He has a great shot from the point and could see an upgrade in his minutes.
Other young defencemen include 21-year-old Damon Severson, 23-year-old Jon Merrill and 24-year-old Eric Gelinas. Gelinas had 19 points last season and likes to shoot the puck, which should make him a nice fit for Hynes’ new system. Merrill is another puck-moving blueliner, while Severson has a strong shot and will work himself into a quality power play quarterback.
Schneider has every opportunity to prove himself as an elite goaltender in the NHL. He has terrific size at 6’2, 205 pounds and he can slip into the butterfly position with aplomb. Schneider is also adept at reading the play, which means he’s rarely out of position. The book on him suggests he can go down a little too quickly, however, and needs a bit of work in handling his stick.
26-year-old Keith Kinkaid is currently slated as the backup for Schneider. He’s a swift lateral goalie and likes to get in front of the shooter, plus he has super reflexes and can make up for it when he finds himself out of position. In 19 games last season, Kinkaid put together just six wins and posted a goals against average of 2.59 with a .915 save percentage.
2015 NHL Entry Draft first-rounder Pavel Zacha has a lot of people excited in New Jersey and for good reason. The Devils are expected to give the 18-year-old a shot to make the team out of training camp and they’ll have nine games to make the decision before he’ll either make the big club or get sent down to Sarnia in the OHL. He’s a strong player and he’s hard to knock off the puck, plus he was mentored by Petr Nedved.
Steven Santini is coming along on defence and he’s just about ready for the NHL game. At 6’2, 207 pounds, he owns the size he needs for the big leagues. He spent last season at Boston College and many are projecting him as earning a full-time roster spot on the Devils very soon. Santini plays a shutdown game but there’s not a lot of offensive upside to look at.
The Path Ahead
This is a team in transition and that’s a necessary thing, but the Devils aren’t exactly ready for prime time yet. It will take a while for the roster to grow into something playoff-ready, plus buying into Hynes’ system will take some time. The Devils could pull something off with their young players and a game-changing goalie, but that would certainly be a long shot.
For the time being, it’ll be fun to watch some of these players grow into prominence. Zacha, Boucher and Matteau will see some time up front and that could open things up creatively, while Henrique will have the opportunity to develop into a true Devil. They may be a way off from finding a superstar, but at least there are some reasons to hope for a brighter New Jersey future.