The Devils finished among the bottom three teams in goals for this season, but they were above average defensively thanks to a lineup of young, skilled blueliners. However, with an aging offense, New Jersey will have to choose which of their fresh-faced defensemen to keep and which to ship out to boost scoring.
The New Jersey Devils have some decisions to make this off-season. Chief among them, however, is finding a way to bring in scoring. Unfortunately, that may come at the cost of at least one of their young defensemen.
In the regular season, the Devils were the third lowest scoring team in the league, potting 181 goals, only 20 more than the lowly Buffalo Sabres. Had it not been for goaltender Cory Schneider, New Jersey’s season would have been much more bleak, but Schneider’s play along with an encouraging defense corps gave a glimmer of hope for Devils fans. While they were a bottom-rung team offensively, they gave up the 14th fewest goals in the league.
This off-season, though, New Jersey needs to retool. Up front, the team isn’t getting younger, and three of their top four scorers – Mike Cammalleri, Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez – are over the age of 30. To get quality scoring, the Devils are going to have to at least explore trading away one of Eric Gelinas, Jon Merrill, Damon Severson or Adam Larsson – all blueliners and all under 25.
That’s not to mention Steven Santini, the 20-year-old bruising defenseman the Devils drafted 42nd overall in 2013 who has drawn comparisons to Scott Stevens, but don’t expect him to be going anywhere.
So who does New Jersey choose to ship out? While the most intriguing answer would be Larsson, the 2011 fourth overall pick, the strides his game took this season were impressive.
After two seasons of bouncing back and forth between the AHL and NHL, Larsson finally found his legs under the tutelage of the Devils’ three-headed coaching monster of Scott Stevens, Adam Oates and Lou Lamoriello. In 64 games, Larsson netted a career-high three goals and 24 points, while logging the highest average ice time of his career at 20:57 per outing.
More than that, though, is that his underlying numbers were impressive on a bad team. Larsson started roughly 40 percent of his shifts in his own zone, yet managed a shot attempts for percentage of 47 percent. On a bad team, that he was able to at least manage to end up near even in puck possession metrics shows that, finally, Larsson’s game is starting to adjust to the North American style.
Keeping Larsson makes sense – he took a while to develop, but to give up on him now would be a terrible mistake. That leaves Gelinas, Merrill and Severson. Trading Severson would come as a major shock, though.
Before injuring himself and being forced to miss the final 31 games of the season, it would have been difficult to build a case against Severson as a Calder Trophy finalist. Through 51 games, he had five goals and 17 points but was playing nearly 22 minutes per night and taking on top competition every single outing. At 5-on-5, he was the only Devils defenseman to post a positive shot attempts for percentage. It’s too soon to call the 20-year-old blueliner the future of the Devils back end, but after his rookie year, he looks like he could be just that.
Which leaves the Devils with a tough choice between Gelinas and Merrill. What, then, New Jersey’s decision will come down to is simply preference. If you were to look purely at their builds, it’s a wash – Gelinas stands 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Merrill at 6-foot-3 and 205. Statistically speaking, they put up similar numbers, too.
Over the course of 61 games, Gelinas netted six goals and 19 points, with three of his tallies coming on the man advantage. He averaged 16:27 per outing and mustered 112 shots on goal. For Merrill, he managed two goals, 14 points and 47 shots in 66 games, with both of his markers coming on the power play. Merrill, however, played 20:33 per game. The big difference, though, is that Gelinas’ minutes were what is referred to as sheltered: he played third- and fourth-line competition and took his starts in the offensive zone. For Merrill, he took a higher percentage of his faceoffs in the neutral and defensive zones and faced tougher opponents.
So the choice, then, is do the Devils stick with the pure offensive defenseman Gelinas or go with Merrill, who can play a bit in each zone? For an offensively starved team, Gelinas might be the answer purely because of his knack for getting pucks to the net, but it’s anyone’s guess. What’s known for sure, though, is that if the Devils don’t want to waste another spectacular season by Schneider, they’ll need to choose someone to part with if they want to start scoring some goals and winning some games.