Lichtenstein: What's Next for Devils After Turbulent Season?

Steve Lichtenstein
May 27, 2020 - 3:19 pm

Much about the NHL’s plan to return to the ice amidst the COVID-19 pandemic remains uncertain. What is clear following commissioner Gary Bettman’s announcement on Tuesday is that the Devils’ 2019-20 season is over.

For the seventh time in eight seasons, New Jersey will be Stanley Cup playoff spectators. With a record of 28-29-12 when the league shut down, the Devils needed two more points in those 69 contests to overtake Montreal for the 12th Eastern Conference slot in the newly-created play-in round.

There is no other way to describe the Devils’ campaign other than disappointing. Well, you can add turbulent.

Forecasted to at least make a run at a playoff berth following last summer’s haul at the NHL Draft (first overall pick Jack Hughes) and trade market (defenseman P.K. Subban and wing Nikita Gusev), the Devils’ season was pretty much shot in the first 10 days. The club never recovered from an 0-4-2 start that included three blown third-period leads at home.

Subsequently, the organization, in order, fired its coach (John Hynes), traded away its best player (2018 MVP Taylor Hall), and, when all else was exasperated, canned general manager Ray Shero.

Fortunately, interim GM Tom Fitzgerald, having been at Shero’s side since 2015, had the experience to be able to orchestrate New Jersey’s annual tradition of trade deadline dumping. In February, Blake Coleman, the Devils’ second-leading goal scorer, and pending free agents captain Andy Greene, Sami Vatanen and Wayne Simmonds were all sent packing for picks and prospects.

Though the Devils had virtually no shot of moving up into a wild card slot when the league shut down, the organization lost important evaluation time, including an opportunity to watch interim coach Alain Nasreddine develop the remaining youngsters.

So, the Devils are back at square one. They first need a new vision, whether it’s Fitzgerald’s or an outsider’s. Continuing the course by building around this core isn’t workable, despite the public declarations from Fitzgerald and co-owner Josh Harris that this team should be better than it is.

It isn’t. Shero’s emphasis on adding speed and skill to the program came at the expense of size and toughness. The defense was comically bad throughout his tenure, too often soft in the hard areas around their net. Only Ottawa and Detroit surrendered more goals per game than New Jersey this season.  

The lousy goaltending the last two seasons beyond MacKenzie Blackwood’s 64 career starts was a huge contributing factor (though how Blackwood managed to win exactly half those games was downright Herculean). This franchise can no longer wait around expecting Cory Schneider to rekindle the form that made him an All Star in 2016. His save percentage has dropped every season since, all the way down to a ghastly .887 in 13 games this season. Whether he’s bought out or stashed in AHL Binghamton, Schneider can’t be relied upon in 2020-21.

As for the forwards, the group can most kindly be labelled as unproven. Despite all their recent top picks, the Devils finished 24th in the league in goals per game. Kyle Palmieri, 29, led New Jersey with 25 goals.

Hughes could benefit from the long layoff if he adds bulk to his 19-year old frame following a relatively unproductive (21 points in 61 games) rookie season. I’ll also be curious to see what Gusev, 27, brings in his second NHL season. A summer 2021 unrestricted free agent, Gusev needed an adjustment period at the start of the season before registering 36 points in his final 47 games.

Unfortunately, other than Nico Hischier, who is developing nicely at 21 into a two-way, first-line center, there isn’t much more to brag about. While the minor league depth chart has been drastically improved in recent years, it lacks high-end talent. To me, center Michael McLeod (12th overall, 2016) looks like a bust. I’m not as bullish as others on standout junior defenseman Ty Smith (17th overall, 2018) either. Maybe two prospects acquired in trades this season—defenseman Kevin Bahl and wing Nolan Foote--can alter my overall perception at next season’s training camp.

Since the Devils have no choice but to bank on young talent, they’re going to need a coach with a better development record than Nasreddine. I’d love to see the Devils go after Gerard Gallant, who took Vegas to the 2018 Cup Final in their expansion season.

Of course, another coronavirus outbreak consequence has been the cessation of in-person interviews for open positions in this organization’s restructure. However, as one of seven teams who are no longer playing, they have the opportunity to get out in front of the pack for Gallant’s services.

This isn’t a bad job. The Devils have won two of the past three lotteries and could also have as many as three first-round picks in the 2020 Draft—their own, Arizona’s (top-three lottery protected), and Vancouver’s (if they beat Minnesota in the qualifying round). Per, the Devils finished the season with the league’s most unused cap space and only have two must-sign free agents—Blackwood and wing Jesper Bratt, both of whom are restricted.

Competent talent evaluation and roster construction will go a long way to turning around New Jersey’s fortunes. To appropriate a line from a first-season Law & Order episode, Shero’s intentions were noble, but his execution stunk.

That stench permeated yet another wasted Devils hockey season.

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