So What Does a Status Quo Lineup Look Like for New Jersey?
With “status quo” looking more and more like the overarching theme that will persist through the summer in New Jersey, eyes are naturally turning toward next season and how the Devils roster will shake out. With a number of subtractions from the roster via free agency and essentially no significant additions to this point, the Devils will be attempting to fill out the lineup with internal solutions and they will be banking on their youth being capable enough to step in and improve the lineup, or at least allow them to tread water. Whether they will be able to do that is certainly a fair question, but for the time being, this appears to be the course that Ray Shero and the Devils have set for themselves heading into 2018-19.
With no major incoming free agents, and the departures being mainly role players or guys on the fringes, the big drivers of the Devils’ success this coming season will largely be the same ones they leaned on this past season in their run to return to the playoffs. Starting at the top, Hart Trophy-winner Taylor Hall will again be leaned on as the primary engine to drive the Devils offense. It’s a tall order to ask him to repeat his unbelievable 2017-18 season, but based on his recent interview in The Athletic, he remains hungry and will be gunning for a repeat performance to the best of his ability. Behind Hall are the two other pillars of the Devils success last season: Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri. Hischier was a revelation at even-strength in his rookie season, leading the team in 5v5 primary points/60, and Palmieri was a bulldozer on the power play, landing in the top-10 in the league in power play goals/60. Each will look to improve on an aspect of their game, with Hischier trying to find his footing on the power play and Palmieri looking to make a little bit of a rebound at evens after seeing his production slide, but together with Hall they make up the core of the forwards group.
Behind them will be a similar cast of supporting players as last season, with veterans like Marcus Johansson and Travis Zajac and younger players like Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, and Miles Wood being looked to power a competent second-tier of forward contributors. The Devils are likely hoping that a healthy Johansson makes a difference for them after a injury-marred 29-game season. They will also be hoping for a solid sophomore campaign from Jesper Bratt that looks more like his first half than second half. Probably the biggest question mark, and perhaps most important given his position, is Pavel Zacha. He pencils in as the second line center for New Jersey right now, so they will be hoping for a big step forward for the young Czech. He was okay but didn’t really progress a ton in his sophomore season. The Devils will be hoping for a true top-six caliber effort out of the 2015 6th-overall pick. Whether that will be more than just wishful thinking, we shall see.
The Devils didn’t lose much but there are at least a few subtractions of note among the forwards. Brian Gibbons, who had a huge first two months before tapering off and dealing with injuries, has departed. Same with deadline acquisitions Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon, only one of which (Maroon) the Devils seemed to make an active effort to retain. After removing them, the depth chart will likely look quite similar to last season, for better or worse.
The Devils will perhaps look to the system to backfill positions in the lineup as necessary, though they are usually good for at least a couple tryout-type deals in September that could alter the calculus slightly there. Some of the most likely names to jump up into the NHL squad include players like Michael McLeod, Joey Anderson, and John Quenneville. Joey Anderson, the 2016 3rd-rounder signed out of college this spring, could perhaps have the inside track as a natural right winger, a position of need for New Jersey. McLeod, technically a center but another right shot, and Quenneville, the 2014 pick who has played on both wings in the AHL, could also figure into that right side. Despite the several departures, though, it doesn’t seem like there are a ton of spots to fill for the Devils, at least before the inevitable injuries. Here’s a stab at how the lineup might shake out:
Taylor Hall – Nico Hischier – Jesper Bratt
Marcus Johansson – Pavel Zacha – Kyle Palmieri
Blake Coleman – Travis Zajac – Stefan Noesen
Miles Wood – Brian Boyle – John Quenneville
I go back and forth on the likelihood of Bratt starting out back on that top line, but he performed there at least part of the season, and it allows the Devils to put Palmieri to use in a second-line role. If Zacha gets an extended stretch with Johansson and Palmieri, you have to think the Devils would be hoping for a significant step forward from him. It’ll be tough to find a better situation for him short of getting time with Hall. I kept the line of Travis and the Texans together (Texjac? Zajexas? Texipeg? the Frozen Texas Pickles?) because I really liked the way that line worked as an effective shutdown unit that could chip in some goals. That leaves a fourth line of Miles Wood and Brian Boyle, plus whoever is filling that final RW spot. I went with Quenneville for this exercise, because while I think there are definitely other internal options, I think the two most likely, Anderson and McLeod, may get a season in Binghamton to get used to the pro game. Neither dominated the previous level last year anyway.
The situation on defense is strikingly similar to the offense, in that there were no major additions, and the lineup is very much going to look like it did last season. The core of the defense, if you can really call it that, is probably some combination of Sami Vatanen, Will Butcher, and Damon Severson. Butcher had a very strong rookie season, getting a rookie all-star team nod in the year-end NHL honors. If this defense is to get better at all, it will pretty much come down to whether Butcher can thrive in a bigger role on the left side. If he can, that reduces the burden on others, particualrly the aging Andy Greene, which could produce positive second-order effects. Vatanen and Severson will more than likely be the mainstays on the right side, with some combination of Ben Lovejoy and Steven Santini filling in behind them. Mirco Mueller figures to land on the third-pairing on the left side if he can stay healthy and perform adequately. Ty Smith is perhaps a wild card, and could conceivably be at training camp for a bit, but he’s likely a major longshot to actually make the roster.
The one subtraction of note is, of course, John Moore, who signed a five-year(!) deal with Boston in free agency. Whether his loss is actually, well, a loss depends on who you ask. Many of the folks in this neck of the woods, with CJ in particular among them (seriously go ask him), would say that this amounts to addition by subtraction for the Devils at 5-on-5. I’m inclined to at least partially agree with that, the caveat being that I’m not sure the Devils have much behind him that makes me feel warm and fuzzy. At the very least, it probably shifts more time to Will Butcher that used to be Moore, which is almost certainly a good thing. A potential defensive depth chart could look something like this:
Andy Greene – Sami Vatanen
Will Butcher – Damon Severson
Mirco Mueller – Ben Lovejoy
Count me in the camp of people that really does not like going into the season with soon-to-be-36-year-old Andy Greene on the top pairing, but I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t at least start the season in that role. My hope is that Butcher can acquit himself well in a bigger role and slowly shoulder more-and-more of the load as the season progresses. I don’t know for sure that he can handle that, but given that Greene is out of his depth getting 1D minutes at his age, I will be crossing my fingers that he can. On the right, the Devils don’t have a player it confidently assert as a 1D, either, though I feel a little better about both Vatanen and Severson in such a role than I do for Greene in 2018. Ultimately, this will be a patchwork D in the same way it was this past year, and the Devils will look to try to be a bit better than the sum of their parts again.
I think the general heartburn that a lot of people in the Devils fanbase about a largely inactive offseason to this point is understandable. The Devils were very much a bubble team last season and they have not really done much to improve on paper. I think the major x-factor for the team comes down to the sophomore seasons for last year’s rookies and improvement among the other young Devils. If Hischier jumps to a 65 or 70-point player, Jesper Bratt puts together a full season of strong play, and Will Butcher builds on a great rookie campaign on the blue line, that probably bodes quite well for New Jersey. Additionally, they will be hoping for Zacha to put in a true top-six performance and maybe getting a solid contribution from one of their potential rookies. That’s counting on a lot of things to go right though. And if things like, say, a healthy Marcus Johansson come to fruition, there’s no guarantee that other injuries won’t cancel them out. I think the Devils have a non-zero chance to be better than this past season, but for now, the most likely outcome feels a bit like treading water.
What are your thoughts on next year’s lineup right now? Are there particular players you want to see in the lineup or getting a bigger role in the lineup? What positions are you most worried about? Who do you think most needs to take a step forward? Sound off with your thoughts below and thanks for reading.