New Jersey Devils Still Have Holes to Fill in Lineup

Apr 9, 2016; Newark, NJ, USA; The New Jersey Devils salute the fans after their 5-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 9, 2016; Newark, NJ, USA; The New Jersey Devils salute the fans after their 5-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports /

The New Jersey Devils have had a busy offseason so far, including trading for Taylor Hall and signing free agent Ben Lovejoy. However, GM Ray Shero still has some holes in the lineup that need to be addressed before the Devils take the ice in October.

It’s tough to put a talented, well-rounded hockey team on the ice for 82 games. Devils fans have noticed that much since the Devils improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. In the four seasons since, the Devils have yet to return to the playoffs, and have gone a combined 124-120-50, otherwise known as a portrait of mediocrity (on a related note – man, those shootouts are killers). The view of the Devils among fans and analysts alike has been more or less the same for several years now – they are tough to play against, have great goaltending, a healthy defensive prospect system, and are absolutely starved for goals and offensive talent.

In his one year at the helm of the organization, general manager Ray Shero has done quite a bit (at least on paper) to remedy the lack of youth, speed, and scoring ability on this team. At the 2015 draft, he traded for Kyle Palmieri, who promptly rewarded the move by scoring 30 goals last year. At the trade deadline, he flipped Stefan Matteau for Devante Smith-Pelly, and Smith-Pelly contributed eight goals and 13 points in his 18 games with New Jersey. Last week, in a blockbuster deal, Shero dug into that defensive depth and traded the Devils most promising young blue-liner, Adam Larsson, to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for the dynamic LW, former first overall pick Taylor Hall. Shero is clearly prioritizing the addition of youth, speed, and scoring ability, which is a welcome sight for Devils fans who have watched their team sputter offensively for a few years now. However, all of this wheeling and dealing has not solved all of the New Jersey’s problems. As it currently stands, with free agency just under one week old, the Devils are still left with some notable voids in their projected lineup, and in the ultimate irony, they start on defense.

Next: New Jersey Devils Trade Adam Larsson to Oilers for Taylor Hall

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

On July 1, early on in free agency, Shero signed free agent defenseman Ben Lovejoy, formerly of the Penguins, to a three year deal worth $8 million. The 32 year old Lovejoy will provide solid defensive play and is capable of playing meaningful minutes. However, he should not be viewed simply as a replacement for Adam Larsson, and there is some question as to where and with whom exactly he will play. That brings us to the uncertainty in the Devils lineup.

For a team whose prospect system in terms of defense has been thought of quite highly for a while now, all of a sudden the Devils are left in a state of flux regarding their blue line. Certain prospects, such as Alex Urbom and Eric Gelinas, never quite panned out. Urbom is now playing in Europe and Gelinas was traded to the Colorado Avalanche last season. Others, such as Seth Helgeson, Steve Santini, and Joshua Jacobs, have seen either little or no time in the NHL to this point and it is still unclear as to whether they will be able to contribute to the NHL team in the long-term.

Last season, the Devils went into the year with the following defenseman slated to be regulars in the lineup – Larsson, Andy Greene, Damon Severson, John MooreDavid Schlemko, and Jon Merrill. As it stands today, only four of those six remain. Larsson is a member of the Edmonton Oilers, and Schlemko departed via free agency to join the San Jose Sharks. To further complicate things, Merrill struggled greatly last season before succumbing to a shoulder injury, eventually having surgery at the end of May, and it is unknown if he will even be available for opening night. For a moment, let’s assume that Merrill is unavailable to play at the start of the season. Because I believe that Devils coach John Hynes will not want to overload the offensively-talented Severson with heavy defensive minutes, I believe that Lovejoy will start the season on a pairing with Greene. Therefore, in my opinion, the Devils defensive lineup will look like this:




Of course, there is a chance that any of Helgeson, Santini, Vojtech MozikReece Scarlett, newly signed Karl Stollery, or Raman Hrabarenka (who remains an unsigned UFA) could step in and play, but there is no denying that quality defensive depth at the NHL level is now a question for the Devils.

Despite all of Shero’s dealings, there is also a high degree of uncertainty when it comes to the group of Devils forwards. The following project to play prominent roles on the Devils offense this upcoming season – Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac, and Mike Cammalleri – that comprises five out of a potential top six. There are candidates within the organization to fill that sixth spot, beginning with Reid Boucher and Joseph Blandisi. But are either of them ready to take on that role? Can Smith-Pelly reprise his scoring ability that he showed in his first couple of weeks in a Devil uniform? I believe that Smith-Pelly more ideally projects as a top-9 winger in a lineup that focuses on skill, which the Devils are set up to do this coming season. Will 2015 sixth overall pick Pavel Zacha force his way onto the NHL team? If he does, will he play center or wing, and will Hynes shelter him a bit by limiting his minutes? What sort of role will newly acquired Beau Bennett be given? Can Sergey Kalinin round himself into form and contribute offensively?

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports /

I am not even considering prospects such as Miles Wood and John Quenneville in this discussion, or the potential for Patrik Elias to return for one more season. By my count, the Devils have at least 12 forwards under contract who are capable of playing in the NHL – more than that if you include Zacha and other prospects. However, I’m not sure that the 12 they have are the correct blend to play in the same lineup. For example, I would be more inclined to have Blandisi play major minutes in Albany with Quenneville, rather than playing limited minutes with the big club on a fourth line. In my opinion, the five players I listed earlier should be playing in the top-six come opening night, but there’s still a chance that the sixth member of that group can be found outside the organization. I have gone on record stating that the Devils should go after free agent Brandon Pirri, who remains unsigned and would bring a nose for the net to the team.

Next: Devils Sign Smith-Pelley, Merrill and Bennett

There is still plenty of offseason left at this point, but one thing remains clear: we have no idea what the Devils opening night lineup will look like as of now. As far as forwards, they could be on the cusp of fielding a legitimate crop on a nightly basis. On defense, however, what was once considered a deep pool of talent is now a major question mark in terms of the NHL roster. We’ll see what else Shero has up his sleeve in terms of maneuvers in the summer to come.