Devils need to focus on prospects, blueline to create a brighter future

New Jersey is all alone at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, but there’s still a way for GM Ray Shero to turn his team back into a contender.

When it comes to futility, all eyes have been on the Western Conference. That’s not without reason, of course. The Colorado Avalanche are having a season that’s almost historically poor, on pace to finish with fewer points across a full season than any team post-lockout, and the Arizona Coyotes are once again in the league basement with a shot at a first-overall selection for the first time since relocating to the desert.

Things aren’t much better in the Eastern Conference, but when it comes to struggling clubs, most of the attention has been paid to the Detroit Red Wings. After all, the franchise’s incredible playoff streak which spans more than two decades will come to a close this season, and that’s worth dissecting. But sitting below the Red Wings in the East are the New Jersey Devils, and those same Devils are only a scant four points ahead of the Coyotes in the standings, sitting third-from-bottom in the entire league.

Unfortunately, it’s not an unfamiliar position for the Devils. Rather, sitting in the bottom half of the league — and near dead-last — has been commonplace for New Jersey. The last successful Devils team made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final in 2011-12, losing in six games to the Los Angeles Kings. Since then, though, the only teams who’ve fared worse in the regular season are the Toronto Maple Leafs, Carolina Hurricanes, Edmonton Oilers, Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes. And while that may seem a long list, there’s reason to believe every single one of those teams is taking steps in the right direction. The same is hard to say about New Jersey.

One of the biggest concerns for the Devils in an up-and-down season is its hard to see where the future lies. While other franchises are struggling, there are clear paths to success. The Oilers and Maple Leafs have already carved out theirs thanks to some luck in the draft lottery, the Hurricanes have made their way through it with clever dealing and strong coaching and the Sabres and Coyotes have built up a stock of prospects that has promise. The Devils, though, are struggling in that regard.

In THN’s Future Watch 2017, the five teams who have fared worse than New Jersey over the past several seasons all placed well ahead of the Devils in terms of prospect ranking. The Hurricanes, who finished 15th, were the closet to the Devils, who had the 22nd-best group of prospects, according to a panel of scouts. The gap between New Jersey and the other four franchises wasn’t so much a gap as it was a chasm, however. Buffalo ranked seventh, Edmonton fourth, Toronto third and Arizona landed in second spot behind the Winnipeg Jets.

A major factor for the Devils when it comes to prospects is that the team has maintained a middling status — never great, never awful, but somewhere between for the past several campaigns. Since picking Adam Larsson fourth-overall in 2011, the Devils have only selected in the top 10 once, taking Pavel Zacha sixth-overall in 2015. The next highest pick was 12th overall in 2016, followed by the 29th-, 30th- and 42nd-overall selections in the three other drafts following the Larsson pick.

There’s an element of luck to that, sure. No one could have guessed the Oilers would win the lottery ahead of the 2015 draft and land Connor McDavid and there has always been the chance for the Devils to shoot up the draft board with some luck in the lottery. Fact is, though, they haven’t had any and the prospect pool has suffered because of it.

This isn’t to say that New Jersey is barren of young talent. It wouldn’t be fair to pass judgment on Zacha quite yet and the Devils will be hoping he can grow on the eight-goal, 22-point rookie campaign he’s had. Miles Wood has also gotten into game action for more than half the campaign and shown some promise, as well. The next top prospect the Devils have coming is Michael McLeod, who might be a few years away yet, and defenseman Steve Santini has shown some promise in the AHL. However, after that, not a single Devils prospect ranked among the 100-best in Future Watch.

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Building a better stock of prospects is going to be immensely important for future success in New Jersey, but that will do little for success in the near future. So, how do the Devils get back into a battle for a post-season spot in the next few seasons? It would seem that utilizing the front office is the best way. Already, we’ve seen signs of New Jersey GM Ray Shero’s ability to make moves to improve his team. That could be the quickest way up the standings.

The jury is out on how well the Larsson-for-Taylor Hall swap has worked out for both sides, but Hall undeniably gave the Devils an extra bit of offensive punch they didn’t possess before the trade. Hall is tied for the team lead in scoring with 50 points and had he not been forced to miss time due to injury he would have been on pace for a 63-point campaign. What the Hall deal shows, though, is that Shero can make sizeable trades to improve his squad. He did that well in Pittsburgh, too, coming out on the winning-side of deals while acquiring the likes of Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz and James Neal.

That’s important, too, because New Jersey has some of the pieces of a competitive team without having completed the entire puzzle. Hall gives the Devils a top-flight offensive weapon and he’s joined up front by Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique and Mike Cammalleri, who’s still impactful in his mid-30s. In goal, Cory Schneider has the ability to be a top tier starting netminder and Keith Kinkaid has proven to be a steady backup. The glaring hole is on the back end, however, and that’s something Shero will need to address through a trade or free agency.

It’s not as simple as signing one stud defenseman to turn the tides in New Jersey, but it would certainly help. Lucky for the Devils, this off-season could give them the opportunity to do just that. There has been speculation that New Jersey could be in line to throw big money at top free agent rearguard Kevin Shattenkirk in the off-season. He’d automatically become the centerpiece of the defense. However, there will be other options for defensive improvement who aren’t necessarily No. 1 options. If the Capitals let him slip away, Karl Alzner could fit the bill, as could Michael Del Zotto, Dmitry Kulikov, Michael Stone or Brendan Smith.

The Devils will have money to spend to improve their blueline, too. Shero will hit the off-season with nearly $19 million in cap space with the potential for more if the salary cap rises. Throwing money around on long-term deals would be ill-advised unless it’s for a top free agent, but finding a few pieces to attempt to fix a struggling blueline would almost certainly improve the Devils’ situation. And don’t count out the possibility of taking on a bad contract to land a player worth having. That’s a method the Hurricanes have become familiar with, and Shero pulled the trigger on a deal for the retired Marc Savard in order to bring back a second-round pick. He knows how to use cap space as an asset.

It’s become clear this season that turning things around in New Jersey isn’t going to be easy, nor is it going to happen overnight. But starting to create a brighter future through the draft and putting focus on strengthening the blueline could be two ways for a bleak outlook to brighten in a hurry.

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