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Previewing the Metro: New Jersey Devils

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Can Taylor Hall drag the Devils to the playoffs for a second straight year?

Tampa Bay Lightning v New Jersey Devils - Game Three Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils were one of the NHL’s bigger surprises last season, as they squeaked into the playoffs after many expected them to finish last in the division. A big reason for their playoff appearance was the spectacular individual season from Taylor Hall, who had 39 goals and 54 assists for 93 points to finish sixth in the league in scoring. The rookie seasons of Nico Hischier, Will Butcher, and Jesper Bratt were also a bright spot for the Devils in John Hynes’ fourth season behind the bench. Following a rather quiet offseason, can Jersey reach the postseason for a second straight year after missing the previous five playoffs?

Additions and subtractions

New Jersey Devils 2018 offseason moves

Additions Subtractions
Additions Subtractions
Eric Gryba Michael Grabner
Jean-Sebastien Dea John Moore
Kurtis Gabriel Patrick Maroon
Eric Tangradi Brian Gibbons
John Ramage Jimmy Hayes
Joey Anderson Ken Appleby
Yegor Sharangovich Ben Thomson
Yegor Yakovlev Yaroslav Dyblenko

The Devils decided to not bring in any big names to help them at the NHL level. They did, however, decide to let a few adequate contributors, as well as their trade deadline additions last season, walk. On top of letting Michael Grabner (five points in 21 regular season games, zero points in two playoff games) and Patrick Maroon (13 points in 17 regular season games, one goal in five playoff games) depart, New Jersey decided to move on from John Moore and Brian Gibbons. Moore had 18 points in all situations while posting an 0.88 relative corsi for percentage in 1,350:25, the second-most 5-on-5 time on ice among Devils’ d-men, while Gibbons posted 26 points in 59 games during his first season with NHL action since 2014-15.

Joey Anderson, Eric Gryba, and Jean-Sebastien Dea are still with the team, but it doesn’t look as thought any of the three are locked into a spot. Anderson is the most exciting possible addition to the Devils’ team. A third-round pick in 2016, Anderson is a 20-year-old right winger who had 27 points in 36 games as a sophomore with the University of Minnesota-Duluth last season and also had seven points in seven games as the captain of the U.S.A. team at the most recent World Junior Championship.

Strengths and weaknesses
The biggest strength of this team at the moment is special teams play. The Devils provided a pair of top-10 units last season, as they finished 10th with a power play that converted on 21.4 percent of their opportunities and a penalty kill that denied 81.8 percent of the opponents’ power-play chances to finish tied for seventh. The power play should remain a productive unit, as Hall finished last season tied for 10th with 13 power-play goals and fifth with 37 power-play points. Moore and Gibbons both played a fair amount of time on the penalty kill, but a possible bounce back season from Cory Schneider could help keep New Jersey in the top third of the league in this department.

To go along with mediocre-at-best 5-on-5 possession numbers, the biggest concern surrounding New Jersey is probably their lack of secondary scoring.

Hall obviously had a spectacular season, but something that was highlighted often in his run to winning the Hart Trophy was the gap in point production between him and Hischier, who finished second on the Devils with 41 less points. It was the biggest point difference between the leading scorer and the player who finished second on a team in scoring across the league, as Connor McDavid’s 38-point edge over Leon Draisaitl and Anze Kopitar’s 31-point advantage on Dustin Brown were the only other teams in the league where there was anything over a 30-point gap.

On top of that, Hall was the only Devil to break 55 points, and Hischier was the only other Devil to post over 50 points. Adding in Kyle Palmieri’s and Will Butcher’s 44-point campaigns, New Jersey only saw four of their players produce over 35 points last season. In their defense, Palmieri (62 games), Bratt (35 points in 74 games), and Sami Vatanen (28 points in 57 games) could have reached that plateau as well if they didn’t miss any time, but five or six (if you include Miles Wood) half-a-point-per-game players isn’t exactly a dynamic offense. If the team wants to lessen the burden on Hall and Hischier, one or two of these guys probably needs to step up in terms of point production.

One big question: can Hall do it again?
The Devils finished 21st in the league with a 48.63 corsi for percentage and 18th with a 50.32 expected goals for percentage, so they aren’t exactly a dominant 5-on-5 team. Schneider had hip surgery over the summer and is already out for the season opener. He could have a big bounceback season, but hip surgery isn’t exactly the easiest thing to come back from. Considering their lack of secondary scoring, if this team doesn’t see an uptick in puck possession or goaltending stability (which doesn’t look guaranteed) Hall is going to need to have another MVP-type season.

Hall’s 39 goals last season were 12 better than his career high of 27, which he completed in both 2011-12 and 2013-14. His 278 shots on goal were the second-most he’s had for any season in the NHL, but he was fortunate enough to find the back of the net on 14 percent of those shots. Only 12 players took 275 shots or more last season and the only other player to shoot 14 percent was Nikita Kucherov, who has connected on 14 percent or higher in four of his five seasons in the league. It’s possible he’ll produce nearly 40 goals again, but there’s a good chance he drops closer to the 30-goal mark if not a little lower.

Another aspect of the game where Hall will still thrive but maybe perhaps not as strongly is on the power play. He posted 37 power-play points last season, which was good enough for fifth in the league and was 16 more than his career high in 2011-12. With no major personnel changes going into this season, Hall will most assuredly have full range to do what he did on the man advantage last season. However, teams may focus on taking away his time and space forcing the Devils to turn to Palmieri and Butcher. New Jersey’s power play might still produce enough to be a top-10 unit, but Hall just might not be involved in all the points.

There are areas of his production where it’s easy why it should fall off compared to last season, but it’s not impossible for him to do it again. Saying it’s a guarantee, however, is kind of belittling just how impressive Hall was in 2017-18. Using a 26-game point streak to help post a 93-point campaign while none of your teammates crack 55 points is absurd. Devils’ management, based off their lack of roster additions, is banking on Hall to do it again.

2018-19 outlook
Last season, everybody expected the Devils to finish last in the Metro and they proved us wrong. They accomplished this feat, however, without really being a force in any particular aspect of the game. Perhaps Hischier’s second season in the NHL and Anderson’s first is enough to energize the offense. Maybe Schneider is able to only miss a small part of the start of the season and stay healthy all year. Even if these particular things happen, the Devils aren’t guaranteed to make the playoffs this season. The Washington Capitals are bringing back essentially the same roster that just won the Stanley Cup, the Pittsburgh Penguins are essentially the same (with Jack Johnson), and both the Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets made moves to improve their teams this offseason. The Florida Panthers, who finished one point behind the Devils in the standings, added Mike Hoffman. If the Devils want to make the postseason again, let alone improve off of last season’s finish, they’ll need a few things to go their way.

*Stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Corsica