2017-18 NHL Team Preview: New Jersey Devils

New Jersey made Nico Hischier the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. (Bruce Bennett/Getty)

How much did winning the 2017 NHL Draft Lottery speed up the rebuild in New Jersey? The Devils have missed the playoffs in each of the five seasons following their 2012 trip to the Stanley Cup Final, yet there’s finally a sense of optimism surrounding this franchise.

Only two teams (Avalanche, Canucks) scored fewer goals than the Devils in 2016-17 and only five teams (Avalanche, Stars, Coyotes, Jets, Red Wings) allowed more goals against, which meant Ray Shero was going to be a busy man in the summer.

While some teams got worse over the off-season and others remained stagnant, Shero ensured the Devils got better—at least on paper.

Shero packaged a pair of extra 2018 draft picks the team had to acquire top-six forward Marcus Johansson, a significant upgrade to Mike Cammalleri after the team decided to buy out the final two years of the veteran’s contract.

In free agency, signing two-way centre Brian Boyle and four-time 20-goal scorer Drew Stafford adds some needed depth and veteran leadership to the forward group.

Shero also bolstered a blue line that was in dire need of some upgrades, as you’ll see below.

UP-AND-COMING PLAYER TO WATCH

This is a no-brainer, it’s Nico Hischier. No player shot up the prospect rankings more dramatically than the former Halifax Mooseheads star before he was taken with the top pick in the 2017 draft.

Hischier isn’t getting the same type of shine fellow first-overall picks Connor McDavid (2015) and Auston Matthews (2016) received prior to making their respective NHL debuts. There are a couple main reasons for this. One, he wasn’t drafted by a Canadian or big-market team and, two, Hischier isn’t regarded as a franchise-altering player the way McDavid and Matthews were. Instead, Hischier is viewed more as a Henrik Zetterberg type, elite at both ends of the ice.

“All the offensive stuff aside, his play without the puck, and his details and habits in his game were really good,” Rick Kowalsky, coach of the AHL’s Binghamton Devils, said of Hischier following his Prospects Challenge debut. “He was strong on the back check. He looks like the type of player that’s going to make players around him better.”

WHAT A SUCCESSFUL 2017-18 WOULD LOOK LIKE

Qualifying for the post-season is priority No. 1, but really as long as they’re in the playoff race late in the season it will be a sign of progress. At the very minimum, the hope would be this team can begin to resemble a worthy up-and-coming contender—similar to how the Hurricanes and Jets took positive steps forward in 2016-17.

They won’t be able to take a step in the right direction, however, if they can’t threaten opposing teams with offence. Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri led this team in scoring with just 53 points apiece in 2016-17 and Palmieri was the only member of the Devils to bury more than 20 goals.

Losing Travis Zajac to injury prior to training camp was a rough blow. The forward underwent surgery to repair a pectoral injury in mid-August and is expected to miss four to six months.

BIGGEST REMAINING QUESTION

Can the blue line give starting netminder Cory Schneider enough support? Schneider is coming off his worst season as a pro. His poor performance can’t be blamed solely on shoddy defensive play but it was a huge contributing factor to his 2.82 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.

Trading Adam Larsson for Taylor Hall in 2016 was a pivotal moment for this team. On one hand Hall was one of the most reliable players on the Devils in his first year wearing the red and black but Larsson’s absence was felt on the back end.

The team’s top blueliner now is Damon Severson, who earned a six-year contract Monday. Jon Merrill was taken by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft and Shero acquired Mirco Mueller, a 22-year-old with a high ceiling, from the Sharks.

The key addition on defence, though, was coveted college free agent Will Butcher, the 2016 Hobey Baker Award recipient. Butcher became the first defenceman in more than a decade to win the award and the Devils are hoping he can live up to the hype.

“He has an elite level brain and really good poise,” Jim Montgomery, Butcher’s former coach at the University of Denver, recently told NHL.com. “Every time he touches the puck, it’s going to be a positive outcome because he makes great decisions, so that’s the No. 1 thing that stands out to me. He’s improved as far as his gap control and with how he angles people and moves his feet to take away time and space, and another thing special about him is his transitional passing.”