New Jersey Devils Roster: Position Battles on the First Line


The New Jersey Devils will have a new roster from top to bottom in 2015-16. Losses like Jaromir Jagr, Steve Bernier, Scott Gomez, Dainius Zubrus, Marty Havlat, and Michael Ryder will all need replacements. I have already started to account for this by looking at new Devils forwards like Sergei Kalinin (here) and Jim O’Brien (here), but now I want to examine the top of the Devils’ lineup, namely the first line of forwards. While many have written this line off as a given, starring Mike Cammalleri, Travis Zajac, and Kyle Palmieri, the reality is that the competition is fierce and the chemistry thus far has been unclear.

First, people rely on the notion that Zajac and Cammalleri played well with one another last season. Statistically, Zajac had more scoring success by playing with Cammalleri, but that is not saying much. First, it was Zajac’s worst scoring season in several years, with just 13 points scored at even strength. Just because the center was mediocre with Cammalleri and pathetic without him does not mean that the two are a great match.

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  • In addition, some may point out that both players’ possession statistics were also stronger when together, but again, the numbers do not tell the entire narrative. Zajac, when without Cammalleri, started 25.2% of his shifts in the offensive zone and 37.6% in the defensive zone. When together, Zajac’s numbers were 31.6% and 33.1%, respectively. Those numbers are so lopsided that only Adam Larsson and Dainius Zubrus had less sheltered starts. Zajac only looked better with Cammalleri because of how difficult the coaching staff made it for the center when apart from his winger.

    Already, fans have arrived at a misconceived notion that Cammalleri and Zajac are a dynamic duo. Then, as if through predestination, people slot Palmieri into that open right wing spot. I do not blame anybody for deciding on these lines; after all, Palmieri is one of the better young forwards this team has had since Zach Parise. That said, the Montvale, NJ native has never played for the Devils and few fans have seen him play more than a few games.

    Kyle Palmieri has never played like a top-line guy nor has he seen time on the first line. Why does he deserve that spot in New Jersey? Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

    Palmieri has been accustomed to sheltered minutes and starts over the years. It is nice to have a first line that tends to shoot, but keep in mind that this trio will go against most teams’ top lines, meaning that this combination must also play solid defense. Palmieri offers little defense and Cammalleri’s two-way play is virtually nonexistent, leaving just Zajac to anchor the wingers.

    Finally, there are several players who could stake a claim for one of those top-line spots, including Adam Henrique and Patrik Elias. Adam Henrique has shown 20- to 25-goal potential over his four-year NHL career. That already makes him just as valuable as Mike Cammalleri, who had 27-goals in 2015, with five being on an empty net finishing with an unrealistically high shooting percentage of 17.9. As Adam Braun of Bleacher Report examines, it is unlikely that Cammalleri repeats his 2015 performance next year. That number stands five percentage points higher than his career average. Couple in Henrique’s stout two-way game and one can easily see why fans are hopeful for #14.

    It is hard to sing praises for Elias after his dreary performance last season, as I outlined here, but there is reason to believe he could return to his normal success in 2015-16. Elias’ career points average lies higher than both Zajac’s and Palmieri’s. Although his faceoff success has been rather subpar, Elias could upset Zajac and steal the 1C role.

    Overall, the situation reminds me of summer 2014 when fans concluded that Jaromir Jagr, Travis Zajac, and Mike Cammalleri were to be the Devils’ first line. Those three played just a handful of games together before Jagr wore out his welcome and packed his things for Sunrise.

    What do you think? Who will the first line be? Is Cammalleri-Zajac-Palmieri the right trio? Leave me a comment with your thoughts. Thanks for reading!

    Next: New Jersey Devils Roster: Room for Improvement

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