For the Devils, at least, another NHL hockey season has come and gone, but there is still a lot to talk about. The Devils have some business to attend to before hitting the ice for 2016-17, but we also need to take a look at 2015-16 and how they can go about dealing with that business. You cannot know where you are going unless you can clearly see where you have come from.
The Devils were not supposed to be playoff contenders in 2015-16. Most prognosticators had them out of a running for an Eastern Conference playoff spot by Christmas, if not sooner. But the team surprised everyone by competing, not being mathematically eliminated until the final week of the season. And, were it not for some ill-timed injuries (which, admittedly, every team needs to deal with) to some key members of the team, we may be preparing for a first round playoff matchup right now.
Losing leading scorer Michael Cammalleri to an injury did hurt the team, but in his stead, both Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique did all they could to pick up the slack, each ending the season with 30 goals. Of course, the man who took over the scoring lead when Cammalleri went down, Lee Stempniak, was traded to Boston at the trading deadline, hurting the team’s offense a little bit more. But the Stempniak trade was made to strengthen the Devils’ future. The draft picks obtained for him shores up the Devils’ stockpile and gives them room to maneuver in terms of trades or drafting. I come back to it time and again, but the Devils, last season, basically flipped Jaromir Jagr (who was not getting the ice time he wanted in New Jersey) to Florida for the draft picks that became Palmieri. Not a bad return there.
This brings us to our next topic: free agency. Kyle Palmieri is the most pressing signing for the Devils. He is a restricted free agent next season according to the website GeneralFanager.com and someone the Devils seemingly need to re-sign and want back as well. He is a local kid and brings a lot more value to the team than just his scoring ability. He brings marketing opportunities and other avenues for the Devils.
But beyond Palmieri, the Devils have five other RFAs, including forwards Sergey Kalinin, Devante Smith-Pelly, Jacob Josefson, Reid Boucher and defenseman Jon Merrill.
Add to that their unrestricted free agents: forwards Stephen Gionta, Jordin Tootoo, Tyler Kennedy, Bobby Farnham, Tuomo Ruutu and Patrik Elias and defensemen David Schlemko and David Warsofsky. In addition, Jiri Tlusty (who missed the majority of the year with injury) will also be an UFA. And that is just the main roster, as there are a slew of free agent-to-bes in Albany.
How will the Devils balance who they want to resign and who they want to poach from other teams? Among the big free agents available this July 1, according to GeneralFanager.com, are Steven Stamkos of the Lightning (of course, this would be a pipe dream as it would take a lot to reel in one of the big superstars of the game), Milan Lucic of the Kings and Kyle Okposo of the Islanders. Luckily, the Devils have made cap room and can afford to make a signing or two.
And then there is the Draft. The Devils have stockpiled a good amount of picks over the next three years: nine in 2016, seven in 2017 and eight in 2018. I would like to cover the Draft as we get closer to late June, but the Devils could also use many of these picks to make trades.
Back to the on-ice performance, the Devils made huge strides this season. The new regime has seemed to have settled in well. The coaching staff has successfully implemented their new system (we will see what they can do even more when they get more finely tailored pieces brought in) and the players seem to have bought in to it. Losing goalie Cory Schneider to injury late in the playoff drive was a major factor. Cory was the heart and soul of this team, its All-Star and one of its most important players outside of guys like leading scorers Cammalleri, Palmieri and Henrique and captain Andy Greene. Although backups Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood filled in admirably, especially so considering their young ages and relative lack of NHL experience, losing Schneider was a huge blow to the team.
The Devils are also young. The late season call ups showed the future of the club and the future is pretty good. Pavel Zacha came in and scored his first two NHL points with two assists in his first game. Think about Steven Santini and Miles Wood going from playing their final college game last Thursday to their first NHL game on Saturday and playing well to boot. The Devils have youth just coming into their own and veterans, like Adam Larsson, who are still young and just coming into their prime, making strides every game in improving. Joseph Blandisi was a breath of fresh air and guys like Damon Severson continue to grow.
But all of this is a building process. Yes, the Devils missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year and the fifth time in six is disappointing, but they are on an upward trajectory. With some experience comes knowing how to win the close ones, the ones which make the difference in the standings. A point dropped here or there in November or December could cost the team come April.
Although it is almost cliché (and a little bit futile) to say, should the Devils stay healthy next year, they could definitely make a run of things. In the situation they were in this year, they contended until the very end. A healthy team could do so much more it would seem. Add to that a little bit more secondary scoring to give Cory and the other goaltenders some “run support” and you could be looking at a playoff team next year. Are they going to be Stanley Cup contenders next year? Of course not, but they will be better and able to cope with issues like injuries much better than they did this year. They did not give up this season when the injury bug hit and the young guys made the most of the opportunity that they were given.
This is all a learning process, the Devils are a young team now and just need some more NHL experience under their belt to get things going.
Have a great summer everyone!