After landing the first overall pick in the June draft, the Devils are hoping Nico Hischier can help spark a franchise turnaround after some down years in New Jersey.
The Hockey News is rolling out its 2017-18 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds, until the start of the season. Today, the New Jersey Devils.
Stanley Cup odds: 120-1
Key additions: Marcus Johansson, RW; Brian Boyle, C; Drew Stafford, RW; Mirco Mueller, D; Will Butcher, D
Key departures: Mike Cammalleri, LW; Jon Merrill, D; Devante Smith-Pelly, RW; Yohann Auvitu, D
Is it really “not Cory Schneider’s fault?”
What if we’re being too easy on Schneider, one of the league’s most likable and articulate goalies and a guy who posted great, underappreciated numbers for years? We can blame his swoon last year on the bad team playing in front of him, but is that oversimplifying things? It’s not like he had elite defensemen in front of him for his previous strong years with the Devils. Per dispellingvoodoo.com, Schneider rated below average in most major advanced metrics last season, with high-danger save percentage the exception. He’s not ancient at 31, but he’s exiting his prime years and coming off by far his worst season.
He’s openly self-deprecating about his puckhandling skills, too. A weak puckhandling goalie isn’t a great marriage for what should be one of the NHL’s worst, least-talented bluelines. It’s the opposite of what the Nashville Predators have, with stellar stickhandler Pekka Rinne working so well with his highly mobile and skilled defense group. So even though the Devils made some noteworthy off-season adds, especially at forward, they’re unlikely to improve if they don’t get better puck-stopping this year. It’s easy to point the finger at anyone but Schneider for last season, but he quietly has a lot to prove in 2017-18. Another poor showing would suddenly have his contract taking on water. He makes $6 million annually through 2021-22.
First overall pick Nico Hischier has exceeded expectations at every step since coming over to North America. He was lightning for QMJHL Halifax and a terror for Switzerland’s world junior team, so don’t bet against the kid ripping it up in the NHL in his rookie campaign. With Hischier’s smarts, quickness and skill, Taylor Hall has a great playmate on the top line, and that duo could pile up points. With incumbent top center Travis Zajac out for at least four months (and as many as six) due to a torn pectoral muscle, Hischier’s path is clear. With Marcus Johansson and Brian Boyle also hopping on board, the Devils have two new veteran forwards with two-way games that can help shelter a young and thin blueline corps.
Furthermore, the rebuilding franchise has a great battle for spots up front with talents such as John Quenneville, Pavel Zacha, Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian all vying for bigger roles or their first NHL jobs. In net, Schneider is still one of the better goalies in the NHL, even if his stats didn’t show it last year. New Jersey won’t make the playoffs, but it’ll be competitive.
The Zajac injury makes a thin lineup even thinner. As electrifying as Hischier is, it’s a lot to put on the kid right away, especially since he’s not on the same level as a Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews. New Jersey’s offense was paltry last season, and Hischier, Johansson and UFA addition Drew Stafford only slightly improve matters now that Zajac is out. Beyond Hischier, the Devils have some good prospects but nobody’s a sure thing.
Defensively, New Jersey has one of the NHL’s weakest units and didn’t make any surefire upgrades over the summer, adding Mirco Mueller (who never established himself in San Jose) while losing Jon Merrill to Vegas. Nabbing Will Butcher as a college free agent was a coup, but he’s no lock to contribute right away. The Devils will most likely get thumped on a regular basis by every other team in the Metropolitan, since even Carolina is dangerous now. Expect the Devils to trawl the bottom of the standings straight out of the gate. The worst worst-case scenario would see them finish bottom-two, then get bumped out of the top four draft picks one year after the lottery balls bounced in their favor.
THN’s PREDICTION: 8th in Metro. The Devils are slowly adding young talent, and GM Ray Shero has the team headed in the right direction, but success remains a long way off. A talent-starved blueline should sink New Jersey in a very tough division.