There’s an arms race going on in the Metropolitan Division.
The division already had the two-time Stanley Cup champions and two-time Presidents’ Trophy winners. Then this offseason, the Columbus Blue Jackets added Artemi Panarin and the New York Islanders traded for Jordan Eberle. Furthermore, the Philadelphia Flyers, a team not that far from making the playoffs, picked second in the NHL Draft, and the Carolina Hurricanes made a series of moves that have turned them into a popular sleeper pick for next season.
There’s another team fans shouldn’t sleep on — the New Jersey Devils. While they might not break their five-year playoff drought next spring, the Devils have an argument for being the most improved team in the best NHL division.
Drafting Nico Hischier No. 1
This one required luck, but surprisingly winning the NHL Draft Lottery gave the Devils the opportunity to select first. While there wasn’t a slam-dunk selection such as Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews this year, New Jersey has to be pleased with landing 18-year-old Nico Hischier.
The highest selected Swiss of all time, Hischier could factor into the Devils’ top-six as early as next season. He figures to be the face of the franchise for years to come. He already possesses a strong two-way game and is an excellent skater with top speed and quickness. He’s perfect in today’s NHL.
With the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) this past season, Hischier scored 38 goals and 86 points in 57 games. He has been a point-per-game guy everywhere he has played junior hockey.
Acquiring Marcus Johansson
To say the Johansson trade was sheer robbery might still understate how much the Devils won this deal. New Jersey gave up just a second- and third-round pick to trade for the 26-year-old forward from the Washington Capitals. The two selections weren’t even the Devils’ picks, because general manager Ray Shero had acquired them in trades.
To put that in perspective, the Pittsburgh Penguins gave up the last pick of the first round and a prospect for a fourth-liner. New Jersey received a top-six forward for just two selections, neither of which were firsts. That’s how desperate Washington was to shed salary, and New Jersey “capitalized” (sorry for the pun).
Johansson is coming off his best season, having scored a career-high 24 goals and 58 points with a plus-25 rating in 2016-17. He has averaged more than 20 goals the last three seasons.
Because he can play both center and wing, Johansson will provide position flexibility and help the Devils with scoring, which they desperately need. New Jersey was the third-lowest scoring team in the NHL last season. Playing without all the superstars in Washington, Johansson might not replicate his 2016-17, but he’s a candidate to score 20 goals.
Signing Center Brian Boyle
This move wasn’t necessarily a slam dunk like the first two, but never underestimate the importance of signing a veteran with a lot of playoff experience to help a young team. New Jersey will still be very young at center, so Boyle fills an immediate experience need and will be a mentor to Hischier and others.
Boyle scored 13 goals and 22 points in 75 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs last season, yet all but three of his points (all assists) came in 54 contests with the Lightning. He wasn’t able to find a scoring rhythm in Toronto, but he helped a young Maple Leaf team make the playoffs and force a sixth game versus the Capitals in the first round.
The 32-year-old will fill a similar role the next two years in New Jersey at a very affordable cap hit of $2.5 million per season. If the Devils make the playoffs, New Jersey can lean on Boyle’s 106 postseason games of experience.
- New-look New Jersey will be able to score more goals
- Cory Schneider’s bounce-back now in Melanson’s capable hands