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I recently looked at three question marks surrounding the New Jersey Devils
heading into the 2019-20 season.
Naturally, the post had more of a pessimistic feel so today I'm going to look at three of the many reasons you should be optimistic about the team.
1. Secondary scoring will not be an issue
*looks up to the sky*
SECONDARY SCORING WILL NOT BE AN ISSUE! No, this is not a dream. The New Jersey Devils, of the National Hockey League, will have a potent, multi-layered offense for the first time in franchise history. Okay, that might have been a bit of an over-exaggeration but it has been a long time. Even the team that made a run to the Stanley Cup Final was top heavy (only seven players had more than 20 points). If Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Patrik Elias weren't scoring, the Devils probably weren't scoring. It has been the same way during the Taylor Hall era. That should end this season.
Let me paint a picture for you guys. Hall is playing with Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt on the top line. They're hard matched against the Patrice Bergeron line and, understandably, don't create much. The Devils lose that game seemingly every time in each of the last two seasons. This year? That shouldn't be the case.
There is reason to believe the next wave of forwards, including Jack Hughes, Kyle Palmieri, Nikita Gusev, Wayne Simmonds, and Travis Zajac, can pick up the slack. Or maybe a defense core suddenly loaded with capable offensive contributors – headlined by former Norris winner P.K. Subban – can take matters into their own hands.
Either way, the Devils are no longer relying on Miles Wood, Pavel Zacha, and the guy from the corner store to step up if the top players have an off night. They're now plan E, not plan B. I think that'll make a world of difference.
2. Internal development
Having a core of quality players is a good thing. Having a core of quality, young, players is even better. Why? It's possible, if not likely, they get better with time. Luckily, the Devils core features a lot of good players on the upswing.
Nico Hischier played on a bad team and without his best linemate for all of 2019. He still graded out as a top-33 forward in terms of Goals Above Replacement and the kid is only 20. Jesper Bratt averaged more assists/60 than star passers like Elias Pettersson, Mathew Barzal, Mikko Rantanen and Nicklas Backstrom on a team that couldn't, you know, score goals. The numbers suggest Will Butcher has more to give if and when he's given a bigger role, which will almost certainly be this season. A cup of coffee in the NHL should only help Mackenzie Blackwood grow. Though I expect Jack Hughes to hit the ground running, he should be better in March than he is in October, and the same could be said of roster hopefuls like Ty Smith and Jesper Boqvist.
The Devils are entering the season with a lot of quality youngsters who, in theory, should take steps forward from last year. That alone – forget all the external additions – will make a big difference.
3. The defense could be...good?
Just five teams allowed more 5v5 goals than the Devils over the last three seasons. Part of that is on goaltending – Cory Schneider has been a shell of himself for most of this time – but a lot of that can be attributed to a real lack of talent. That shouldn't be an issue this season. Certainly not to the same extent, anyway.
Is P.K. Subban going to be the near point per game player we saw during his Norris Trophy winning campaign in 2011-12? No. But he is a clear upgrade in the top-4 for a team that really needed it. Butcher should get a deserved boost in ice time and Ty Smith just might be ready to contribute sooner than later. Add in Damon Severson, Sami Vatanen, and captain Andy Greene – who is still a high, high-end penalty killer – and suddenly the defense looks pretty competent.
Do I expect the Devils to be a stingy defensive side that can lock things down to the same extent as the Bruins and Blues? Not at all. But even average defense could be enough with the promising forward core the Devils now possess, and getting average defense from that top-6 does not seem like an unrealistic ask.
numbers via naturalstattrick.com and evolving-hockey.com
Three question marks for the Devils heading into 2019-20
best defense pairing in the Central?
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?
Pavel Zacha will play an important role in 2019-20