Last week we wrapped up our questions to Atlantic Division blogs. Today, we move on to the rest of the east: the Metropolitan Division. We’re kicking it off with the Devils, with answers from John Fischer of All About the Jersey.
1. The Devils are supposed to in the middle of a rebuild, but they played much better than expected last year, and challenged for a playoff spot until late. How do you think they will do this coming season?
I think the Devils have a good chance to do about the same. While the team added Taylor Hall, the Devils have continually been a low-event, low-attempt, low-shooting, low-scoring hockey team for the better part of the last nine seasons. Those seasons included playoff runs and superior players running things. Hall will help but the Devils as a whole need a more talented roster in front of an ace goaltender like Cory Schneider to really go anywhere. Because they've succeeded in so many close games last season, I think their record was inflated at least a little bit. Because Schneider is so good, the team will still find ways to be competitive, but I don't think they'll be flirting with a wildcard spot in the East all the way through early February. I expect them to miss the playoffs and finish about where they did last season as Ray Shero continues to strengthen the team and beef up the prospect system.
2. To me it looks like the Devils' biggest hole is at centre. Do you think that's true? Do you think they can fill their biggest hole this season?
I'm not sure it's at center. At least from a quantity perspective. Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac, Jacob Josefson, Vernon Fiddler, Sergey Kalinin, Joseph Blandisi and prospect John Quenneville all can play the position. Add Patrik Elias if he's healthy enough to play. That being said, from a quality perspective, it's not a strong crew. Henrique can handle top-six minutes, Zajac absorbs a lot of tough situations, and Fiddler is a fine fourth-line center. Yet, the others aren't so strong. Josefson is just depth; Kalinin and Blandisi are better suited at wing; Elias is close to being 40 and plays like it; and Quenneville is just entering pro hockey. I could see Henrique thriving more at wing, actually; so an upgrade at center would be welcome. However, I think right wing and defense have bigger, more immediate concerns.
Right now, the right wing depth chart in New Jersey appears to be Kyle Palmieri, Devante Smith-Pelly, Beau Bennett, Kalinin and perhaps Zacha if he makes the NHL roster. Palmieri is the only one who can handle top six minutes and he did a good job on the production side of things last season. Past him, it's just guys taking up spots and/or hoping Zacha is good enough to warrant burning an ELC year. (I have my doubts as to whether that's a good idea.) That's not good and that is going to be sore spot all season unless Shero can find another Lee Stempniak-like finding to fill in the position for a season.
Defense requires a bit of a breakdown. Bringing in Hall meant losing Adam Larsson. Adam Larsson was paired with Andy Greene and took up a lot of tough minutes at even strength and on the penalty kill. He may not have brought much offense to the table, but he's long earned the coaches' trust and the fans' respect for how he played in his own end. There isn't a clear replacement for his minutes right now. The hope is that Damon Severson can grow into it, but he didn't have a good 2015-16, so it's an open question if he can do it. Ben Lovejoy would be the veteran answer, but he's been better suited for lesser minutes on a second (or even a third) pairing. The other defenders have other issues. Opposing teams put up quite a few shots against John Moore, which is bad on a team that has to be stingy to be competitive. Jon Merrill is an enigma in terms of what he can actually do on the ice. The remaining spot on defense will be a battle between some unknowns: European pros Vojtech Mozik and Yohann Auvitu, prospect Steve Santini, or the recently signed Brandon Gormley. Out of all of those defensemen, none of them are all that offensive at the NHL level. I can't help but think for the Devils to actually become a more offensively threatening squad and pull themselves out of the depths of the CF% listings at Corsica and other stats sites, they'll need an offensive-minded defenseman who can handle big minutes. Unfortunately, those players come at a premium and they aren't easy to obtain. Worse, the Devils may actually be a leakier team when it comes to SA/60 and CA/60 at evens, which can make the games more difficult for Schneider to bail out, yielding another bad record as noted in the response to the first question. We'll see.
3. One year in to the Ray Shero regime, how has the philosophy of the organization changed since Lou Lamoriello was at the helm? How confident would you say you are in the ability of Shero to lead the organization forward?
Many Devils fans have noted that the team is much more open. Gone are the rules of no beards outside of the playoffs, wearing suits before games, and bans on social media. Given no Devil has yet to cause any lasting drama or issue via social media, it's hard to say those rules are missed. In terms of the philosophy, under Lou, the goal was to do what it took to be a playoff contending team. That strategy worked with some great drafting in the 1990s by David Conte and his crew. While Lou has had his growing pains with the Cap and a perceived issue of bringing back guys he knows (I think most GMs have this issue), the relatively poor drafting in the 2000s ultimately caught up to Lou and led to the situation the team basically cratered a few seasons after a remarkable run in 2012. The greats that were the foundational players that kept the team going all got old and/or retired. The prospects weren't always there to make that amazing deal for now. The Devils continued to try and be a defensively strong squad with the hopes of winning games by close margins. With Lou gone, the Devils realized that they needed to re-build and have gone through that with that approach. That would be the biggest philosophical change. After Lou brought up the team from the late 1980s, there wasn't rebuilding, they were reloading. That changed.
Much more has to change. The team still running on the mindset of being as stingy as possible, only they don't have the players (and maybe the tactics) to still not get run over by opposing squads in terms of possession. That was the case last season. The good news is that I do feel confident that Shero can do this. Lou picked Shero before he went off to Toronto and I can see why. While the team's rules have changed, Shero remains quiet as ever about moves to be made. Nobody saw Hall-for-Larsson coming until it happened. Shero has been willing to take a few chances on some players to fit the mold for the future. When it seemed tempting to "go for it" given where the team was last season at times, Shero relented and opted to make moves for the future. Some teams would have kept Lee Stempniak, then the team's leading scorer, and figured on trying to push for the postseason with the Devils on the bubble in the Metropolitan. No. Shero knew the team wasn't a playoff-quality squad, got some picks for Stempniak, and looked ahead. So far, Shero really hasn't made any bad moves. While I may have wanted Logan Brown over Michael McLeod, the 2016 Draft looked like a good one after the dust settled, fourth-round-goalie-pick aside. There are still many holes to fill on the roster, as noted in my response to the second question. At the same time, I think the fans understand that re-building will take some time and that Shero has an idea of what he's doing. I'm pleased with Shero as the Devils' general manager so far, even though the team is now in a playoff drought.