Taylor Hall. Image by: Getty Images
The present and near future look hellishly bleak for the Devils, who are early in a long rebuilding process.
Welcome to 2020 Vision, our new feature taking a look at how the roster of each NHL team may look three seasons from now when the 2019-2020 season begins.
Over the next month we’ll profile one team, in alphabetical order, each day and project what their roster (12 forwards, six defensemen, two goalies) will look like.
There were some ground rules for this exercise. We didn’t allow any blockbuster trades or free agent signings, but we did make assumptions about teams re-signing their own UFAs and RFAs.
Therefore, this isn’t intended to be a fantasy-like look at the league in 2019-20. Instead, since this is part of the THN Future Watch family, it’s meant to be a realistic, best-case-scenario projection for each team based on players already under contract, and prospects in their system.
Channel your inner Jacques Lemaire, Devils fans. He sculpted New Jersey into a patient, opportunistic trap team that defined the Dead Puck era. Now it’s time to apply his same patience to your understanding of the modern Devils. Don’t expect success any time soon. Understand this is a long con. And maybe, just maybe, GM Ray Shero will start turning this franchise around a few years from now.
But even asking the Devils to compete for a playoff spot by 2019-20 feels very optimistic. When Shero arrived in 2015, he inherited the NHL’s most talent-barren roster. The Devils have since acquired Taylor Hall and started stockpiling prospects, including 2017 No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier, but don’t expect this team to start rattling off wins because of it yet. The Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs, suddenly everyone’s pet rebuilding examples, suffered for years and years before finally breaking through as playoff teams last year, and the Devils will have to do the same.
Their farm system finished 22nd in THN Future Watch 2017, and Hischier isn’t enough to drastically alter the outlook yet. It’s telling that underachieving 2013 first-round Mirco Mueller, acquired from San Jose with a fifth-rounder for a second-and-fourth rounder, immediately slides in to rank No. 3 among Devils prospects behind Hischier and Michael McLeod. The Sharks deemed him relatively expendable.
Since their surprise run to the Stanley Cup final in 2011-12, the Devils have finished between 28th and 30th in goals per game five consecutive seasons. Offense is a major long-term problem for the franchise. It’s no surprise, then, that New Jersey has looked for scorers in recent drafts. Hischier doesn’t have the ceiling of generational talents like Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, but he could become a Claude Giroux-like player, making Hischier a viable No. 1 center. Keep in mind that’s his ceiling, though, not his guaranteed fate. McLeod, drafted in the first round in 2016, brings big-time speed, and his OHL Mississauga teammate Nathan Bastian is an intriguing power forward.
If there’s a silver lining to New Jersey’s bleak current roster outlook, it’s that the kids shouldn’t be blocked. It’s the opposite of the New York Islanders’ situation. Hischier has the upside to leapfrog Travis Zajac and become the Devils’ No. 1 center this year. McLeod hasn’t even played in the AHL yet and would be brought along slowly on contending teams, but if he’s playing for Binghamton by 2018-19, surely his pure skill gives him a chance to crack the Devils by 2019-20 as a top-two center. Pavel Zacha’s stock has dipped a bit since Devils nabbed him sixth overall in 2015. Now a guy with franchise center potential a couple years back has a third-line floor. Still, he’ll play in New Jersey’s top nine for years to come. Hardworking John Quenneville should secure a long-term roster spot, too. Other than Hall and underrated goal scorer Kyle Palmieri, none of the current Devils veterans possesses untapped offensive potential. Note my depth-chart exclusion of Marcus Johansson, acquired via trade from Washington this summer. He’ll be a nice addition for the Devils, but after 2018-19 he’s a UFA. Johansson will be 28 then and should attract a nice little bidding war. If you’re him, will you want to stay with New Jersey when Cup contenders come calling with big money and term? I predict Johansson walks or, if the Devils are out of contention by the 2019 trade deadline, he winds up dealt for picks and prospects.
Shero was prudent to trade defenseman Adam Larsson for Hall. It’s the right move 10 times out of 10, as Hall is simply the better player. But the unfortunate element to that deal: it’s not like the Devils had Larssons to spare. They already had a weak blueline, and with no Larsson, the situation looks even uglier. Mueller immediately gets a chance to become a post-hype breakout player simply because he’ll have so little competition for minutes. Veterans Dalton Prout, Ben Lovejoy and John Moore become UFAs over the next two summers and should wind up deadline trade bait for contenders looking for defensive depth. Don’t expect to see them in the 2019-20 lineup.
Puck-moving blueliner Damon Severson will get a chance to blossom into a difference maker on offense in the years to come, and stay-at-home banger Steve Santini shouldn’t have trouble cracking the lineup this season. Still, the level of talent and top-end prospects on New Jersey’s blueline is appalling compared to that of almost any other franchise. The Devils need projected top-two 2018 draft pick Rasmus Dahlin in the worst way, maybe even more than the Colorado Avalanche do. He’s a true game-changer as an offensive defenseman.
Poor Cory Schneider entered last season with the highest save percentage in NHL history. Now he sits at third all-time among qualified leaders at .9218 behind Tuukka Rask (.9228) and Dominik Hasek (.9223). Schneider can only do so much with no help in front of him. He’s signed through 2021-22 but is already 31. What comes first: a competitive Devils team that can make the most of Schneider’s ability, or an age-related decline? Some data suggests the latter has already begun. He was outplayed by Keith Kinkaid according to most metrics last year.
GOT IT: The Devils just picked first overall, so it’s no shock to say they don’t have much. At least they finally have some talented forwards starting to populate the depth chart, led by Hall and Hischier and eventually joined by McLeod. If, say, Hall-Hischier-Palmieri develop chemistry this season, the Devils could have their best true scoring line since the days of Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise. Their future lineup looks solidly deep at center, enough so that someone like Zacha might be better off shifting to the wing to maximize the talent in the top nine. Take the above depth chart with a grain of salt. He obviously won’t be the centering the fourth line.
New Jersey also (probably) has a legit No. 1 goaltender for now in Schneider, even if his 2016-17 numbers suggested otherwise. He deserves a mulligan. Backup Kinkaid becomes a UFA by 2019, but Mackenzie Blackwood may be NHL-ready by then. He’s progressed nicely, completing his first pro season with AHL Binghamton and looking especially good in the playoffs.
NEED IT: The Devils obviously have holes galore to fill going forward. Center has long been a low-upside position for them, but Hischier, Zacha and McLeod, at least on paper, should fix that problem. The Devils could use another true goal-scoring winger. For all the love Hall gets, he’s never scored more than 27 goals in one year, and Palmieri is likely at his peak right now. Most of all, of course, they desperately need to stock their prospect pool with defensemen of all shapes, sizes and types. They need to draft a do-it-all franchise stud in the mold of Ivan Provorov.
CAP WATCH: The Devils sit near the bottom of the league in cap spending, albeit they haven’t signed RFA Severson yet. Other than that, they don’t have any major contract landmines on the horizon. Hall and captain Andy Greene are signed through 2019-20, Palmieri through 2020-21. Schneider’s $6-million contract may become a problem in seasons to come, and the versatile Zajac feels a bit overpriced at $5.75 million given he doesn’t score a ton. But the cap isn’t a problem for New Jersey overall. The Devils are in position to take on some salary in trades in exchange for picks if they fall out of contention again in 2017-18.
BOTTOM LINE: The Devils don’t quite belong with Vegas, but few teams are as far away from a Cup as a New Jersey is. Shero still has a lot of dirty work left to do before we can envision this team in the playoffs, let alone contending for Cups again.
Previously: Anaheim Ducks | Arizona Coyotes | Boston Bruins | Buffalo Sabres | Calgary Flames | Carolina Hurricanes | Chicago Blackhawks | Colorado Avalanche | Columbus Blue Jackets | Dallas Stars | Detroit Red Wings | Edmonton Oilers | Florida Panthers | Los Angeles Kings | Minnesota Wild | Montreal Canadiens | Nashville Predators
Up next: New York Islanders