The biggest issue of the post-Martin Brodeur era for the New Jersey Devils was supposed to be finding a top-end netminder to replace the sure-fire Hall of Fame goalie. He hasn’t been in goal for the team since the end of 2013-14, and since then, a totally different problem has plagued the Devils.
While Cory Schneider continues to be one of the league’s most dependable goalies, and a more than adequate replacement for Brodeur, New Jersey’s ability to score goals has seemingly dried up.
The Devils were never a run and gun club, but their inability to find the back of the net has cost them dearly over the last three seasons. Over that time span, only Buffalo Sabres have scored fewer goals on average, with New Jersey’s 2.24 average coming in at 29th.
General manager Ray Shero has done his best to accumulate enough talent to take the score-by-committee approach, tabbing stopgap forwards like Devante Smith-Pelly and Beau Bennett as low-cost options over the last few seasons. That hasn’t worked, though, and since the last offseason, he has taken a more aggressive approach to fixing the bewildering goal scoring issue.
First came the Taylor Hall trade last summer. The left wing arrived from the Edmonton Oilers with high expectations, and he was a solid addition in New Jersey during his first season there. He scored 20 goals and added 33 assists, tying Kyle Palmeri for the team lead in points scored.
Maybe Hall didn’t produce as much as some had hoped, but again, this is a team that is at the bottom of the barrel in terms of their ability to generate offensive chances. In 2016-17, they finished 29th overall in average shots taken per game, clipping out the Vancouver Canucks by 0.1 shots each contest.
He did his part a year ago, and the 25-year-old still has a lot of good hockey left in the tank for the Devils. In fact, 2017-18 should see New Jersey become a considerably better team on the offensive side of the puck.
Hall will still be in place, but there are a few other cogs joining the Devils up front. This year’s No. 1 draft pick Nico Hischier probably isn’t going to take the league by storm like an Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid did, but he’s still going to be an outstanding player for years to come.
By most accounts, he is an NHL-ready prospect. If he plays as well as he can during training camp, it’s not unreasonable to expect him to be a member of the Devils for the 2017-18 season. Projecting the production of rookies is a tricky thing, but Hischier is going to have every opportunity to secure a lot of playing time in New Jersey.
Odds are good he’ll at least get a look as the team’s top center, but that isn’t the only option that could lead to Calder Trophy consideration for the Swiss-born forward. Where he plays in the lineup isn’t what is ultimately important — at least not when it comes to our subject matter here.
What is significant is that Hischier is going to be an upgrade at forward down the line, even if it takes him a bit of time to find his game at this level. We haven’t even seen him in an NHL scrimmage against another team yet, so making guesses would be doing just that. Making guesses.
Smart money seems to be on Hischier becoming an impact rookie, though, and that means the Devils will have another go-to forward besides Hall and Palmeri. They might even be able to squeak out two whole scoring lines following the slick and smart addition of Marcus Johansson.
He wasn’t the most recognizable part of the Washington Capitals’ attack a year ago, but he was vital none the less. He scored 24 goals and 58 points while averaging 17 minutes of playing time in 2016-17. Usually, goal-scoring forwards like Johansson cost an arm and a leg, but New Jersey only had to give up a second- and third-round pick to acquire his services.
That’s a home run of a trade for Shero, and one that will pay dividends quickly. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the Devils added around 40 goals to their lineup just by drafting Hischier and trading for Johansson. That kind of output alone would allow New Jersey to at least approach getting out of the NHL’s bottom third of goal scoring teams.
Don’t underestimate the impact Brian Boyle will have from the fourth line, either. With Pavel Zacha primed to take a step forward, it appears that each and every one of New Jersey’s four lines has received a big upgrade. Hischier could slot in on the top line, while Johansson skate on the second unit and Zacha centers the third line. Boyle will bring up the rear as the fourth-line pivot.
It’s also important to recognize that Shero is building the Devils from the middle out. That approach could allow the Devils to approach the middle of the NHL pack in terms of average goals scored per game. There has been too much positive movement forward for New Jersey to continue to sit in the league’s basement as far as offense goes.