Follow me on Twitter @ToddCordell
It's not an exaggeration to say the New Jersey Devils had the best off-season possible.
They entered the summer with some glaring holes and, in one way or another, made significant moves to address almost all of them.
Scoring beyond the top line has been an issue for what feels like forever. The Devils added the KHL's most prolific point producer Nikita Gusev as well as perennial 20+ goal scorer Wayne Simmonds.
The center position was a bit of an issue as well. Nico Hischier has proven quite capable of playing 1C but, at this point, Travis Zajac is an ideal 3C and Pavel Zacha hasn't progressed as hoped. They needed another long-term solution in the top-6 and got that – and then some – with Jack Hughes at the top of the draft.
The Devils also really need another established top-4 defender. They used their financial might – cap space is a hell of a weapon! – to get P.K. Subban from Nashville for pennies on the dollar.
Understandably, optimism from Devils fans is the highest it has been in nearly a decade.
They're not a perfect team, though. There are still some real question marks, which is why they're considered more of a bubble team than Stanley Cup favorites by oddsmakers.
Let's take a look at three of them.
This is the team's Achilles heel. At least it's the area most likely to be. Yes, Cory Schneider finished the season on a very high note. Yes, Mackenzie Blackwood looked excellent during his cup of coffee at the NHL level.
But let's not just focus on the good and ignore the bad. Schneider was a subpar goaltender for the majority of last season. And the season before. And his numbers have dipped across the board several years in a row. And he's 33 with a pretty lengthy injury history.
Could he give the Devils competent goaltending now that a) he appears healthy and; b) the team in front of him is good? Yes. But it's entirely possible he struggles to find his form and is inconsistent throughout. In that case the Devils will be relying on someone who, for as much promise as he showed with the big club last season, posted a .902 save percentage over 20 games with Binghamton in the AHL.
2. Taylor Hall
There are two big questions with Hall: is he fully healthy, and does he want to re-sign with the Devils? For different reasons, the answers to those questions will drastically impact how successful the Devils are next season.
If Hall is healthy, he could very well contend for another Hart Trophy given the abundance of talent around him. If he's not and misses a significant chunk of games...well, the Devils probably won't be a playoff team; especially if they don't get good goaltending.
If Hall gets asked about his free agent status every five minutes – he's going to be questioned almost every time the Devils are on the road, especially in Canada – and gives a soundbite that puts his future with the team in any sort of doubt, it'd turn into a negative storyline and give the team distractions it doesn't need. Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes, Ty Smith, and co. are all new to this NHL thing. They've never dealt with big negotiations themselves, and they've never dealt with the attention high-end teammates garner when they're in need of a new contract. It can become a bit of a circus, which doesn't do the team any favors.
3. Penalty killing
The Devils were fantastic at killing penalties a season ago. Be it preventing shot attempts, chances, goals, or expected goals against, the Devils were a top-3 team across the board. While it may be difficult to replicate that level of success again, they do need to be an above average team or they'll run into some trouble. Why? There are quite a few players on the roster prone to taking penalties in bunches. Miles Wood (11th), Blake Coleman (16th), Wayne Simmonds (29th), and Kyle Palmieri (57th) all rank top-60 for most minors taken at 5v5 over the last three seasons. That's 3x the average in the top-30, and 2x the average in the top-60. That kind of penalty-taking prowess generally lends itself to a negative differential, which means the Devils need to be really good at killing them off. If not, a lack of discipline could become a real issue.
Numbers via NaturalStatTrick.com
best defense pairing in the Metro?
best 1-2 punch in the Metro?
best forward duo in the Metro?
Top-5 centers 22 & under?
top-5 wingers in the Eastern Conference?
On Will Butcher's three-year extension
On the Nikita Gusev trade
Pavel Zacha will play an important role in 2019-20
Wayne Simmonds' poor 2018-19 campaign was not a one-off