Thursday, May 17, 2018

Pool Outlook for New Jersey

I'm not afraid to say it... my expectations of the New Jersey Devils at the start of the year were still pretty low.  It's a true credit to this team's management and coaching staff, that the pieces were put together and it all seemed to really click, making the Devils a very good team in the 2018 season.  Sure, they had some stumbles, but earning the last wild card in the Eastern Conference is a true testament to the improvements made after finishing 27th in the league a season ago.

Sure, an NHL draft lottery win helped a fair bit, but the Devils were still going to end up with a very good player at the 4th overall pick, if they didn't get the 1st overall pick.  The Devils swung some deals both in the off-season and early in the season, which helped their cause, goaltending was a bit of an issue, until Keith Kinkaid stepped up and earned the number one job in net.

The Devils were also brazen enough to be buyers at the trade deadline, trying really milk their regular season success, which actually looked pretty good on them, adding a couple of unrestricted free agents-to-be to their roster, trying to get past the number one seed in the east and keep that Cinderella story going.

I think there are still some question marks to this Devils team, heading into this off-season, but there's nothing that can't be handled by a good management group.  There's reason for optimism in the swamp and us poolies are set to reap the benefits, I'm sure.

How good was Taylor Hall's 2018 season?  Well, how about jumping into the top 10 of overall pool scoring?  Is that good?  No, it's great.  Hall was a dynamo for the Devils this past season, potting 39 goals and 93 points in 76 games, ranking him 9th overall in pool scoring, 6th among forwards and it has earned him Hart Trophy finalist honours as well.  Yes, he was certainly a very important piece to this hockey team and one of the key reasons why they made the playoffs.

The Devils did see some depth in their side as well, 12 players in total, worthy of the hockey pool.  12 players does seem to be the minimum, as I'm going along, to make the playoffs.  Joining Hall up front were rookie Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmieri, Patrick Maroon, Michael Grabner, rookie Jesper Bratt and Miles Wood.  Sure, Maroon and Grabner were late season adds, but they did contribute down the stretch and they had good seasons.  On defense, rookie Will Butcher led the way, followed by Sami Vatanen and Damon Severson.  Both goalies qualified for worthiness honours, Keith Kinkaid and Cory Schneider each finished in the top 50 of goalies this season, although Kinkaid really had the breakout year.

What I Said Last Year, At This Time...

The Devils are still retooling and there isn't a lot to hang their hats on in their organization, past the 1st overall pick this summer. Hall, Palmieri, Severson and Schneider do give the team a reasonable core group of players to start from, but some inconsistencies in their other pool worthy players continues to hurt this team. Even if the Devils can insert their top pick into the lineup next season, there isn't enough evidence to suggest that this team will improve by leaps and bounds and will likely continue to suffer for lottery picks. The blueline should be their biggest focus in the off-season and it will likely be the balance point between improvement and still being last in the Eastern Conference.

You know what?  As dominant as Hall was and as helpful as Hischier was out of the gate, there was a real turning point when the Devils were able to add Will Butcher and Sami Vatanen at the start of the season and their blueline became so much stronger, helping the guys up front and the goaltending situation in the back, that making the playoffs was greatly helped by those two adds.  Hall having an MVP-type season did help too.

How did my intriguing or breakout player fare?

The 1st overall pick in the entry draft last summer, Nico Hischier, was indeed the better of the two top prospects before the draft and I had chosen poorly in last year's outlook, opting for Nolan Patrick instead.  Hischier really turned it on in the 2018 season, showing that his size and skill were indeed worthy of his draft selection, finishing with 20 goals and 52 points in all 82 games.  This kid is a gamer and will be a good pick for years to come.

2019 Pool Outlook

Forwards Cap Defense Cap Goalies Cap
Taylor Hall 6.000 Andy Greene 5.000 Cory Schneider 6.000
Travis Zajac 5.750 Sami Vatanen 4.875 Keith Kinkaid 1.250
Kyle Palmieri 4.650 Damon Severson 4.167
Marcus Johansson 4.583 Ben Lovejoy 2.667
Brian Boyle 2.750 Will Butcher 0.925
Nico Hischier 0.925 Mirco Mueller 0.850
Michael McLeod 0.894 Brian Strait 0.675
Pavel Zacha 0.894
John Quenneville 0.812
Jesper Bratt 0.749
Blake Speers 0.728
Blake Pietila 0.668

All in all, there are a few names on the list, that should have been better in 2018 than they were, Marcus Johansson and Pavel Zacha should have been there, if it weren't for injury, Travis Zajac and Andy Greene could have contributed more for their dollar value, Ben Lovejoy was also down, so the Devils have some added potential in their roster, that we didn't really get to see last year.  There will probably be a little bit of added excitement around this team at the draft, but it could be buyer beware here too.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

Rental players Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner are headed to unrestricted free agency, the Devils could take or leave them for next year and they are the only pool worthy free agents heading to market for the Devils.  They do have some prospects coming to restricted free agency, including Stefan Noesen, who was a bubble player among the pool worthy candidates.

The Devils are just brimming with cap space, as they're currently looking at $17 million in cap space, even before the cap ceiling goes up this season.  That's a lot of tinkering money and they will have to spend some, because they're more than likely going to fall below the floor, when it goes up to, at this rate.

Those reports of Michael McLeod being closer to a 2019 roster player from this time last year, seem to be coming to fruition.  McLeod had a strong, yet short, season in the OHL, 44 points in 38 regular season games and even got a cup of coffee with the Devils' AHL club, before the season was out too.  His skating has been one of the focal points of his game and there is plenty of expectation around what he can bring offensively to the Devils, as soon as next year.  There might just be some room for him, so stay tuned!

Needs at the 2018 Entry Draft
I think the Devils just go into this draft looking for the best player available for their pick, maybe trying to find a fit somewhere on their roster down the road.  Play-making Czech forward Martin Kaut sounds like a great prospect, already appearing in the top league over there and playing in numerous tournaments for his country in the 2018 season.  It sounds like this kid is a power play specialist, both passing and shooting, and could be a hard player to pass up, come time.

With so many emerging rookies on the Devils roster in the 2018 season, it does make me weary about getting too high on them in the 2019 season.  Sure, Taylor Hall and Keith Kinkaid did a lot of the heavy lifting in New Jersey this past season, but you can't turn away from the freshman contributions that they had as well.  The sophomore curse can be a real thing and if any combination of their top rookies fall into that trap next season, they could be treading in some troubled waters next year.  This Devils team could vie for a wild card spot next year, all things being equal, but I can also see them have a season of regression, only to rev the engines for 2020.
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