Devils left wing Taylor Hall is congratulated by defenseman Will Butcher(right) and right wing Kyle Palmieri (21) after scoring a goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning on April 12, 2018, in Tampa, Florida.

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Steve Lichtenstein's 2018-19 Devils Preview: 5 Question Marks To Avoid A Step Back

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Steve Lichtenstein
October 05, 2018 - 11:12 am
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The 2018-19 Devils should be anything but unfamiliar. Aside from the loss of a few depth players to free agency, New Jersey will look nearly identical to the club that surprised the NHL last season by qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2012. General manager Ray Shero mostly opted to look within for reinforcements.

Coach John Hynes will make sure the club plays with the same identity -- a group of worker bees surrounding reigning Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall and sophomore sensation Nico Hischier. They’ll still come at you with waves of speed on every line. And they’ll be backstopped by the same tandem of Keith Kinkaid and, when he is cleared to play following offseason hip surgery, Cory Schneider. 

By the end of this season, however, I expect the results to vary from their merry 2017-18.

New Jersey’s 2-2-2 preseason, which included extended trips to Winnipeg and Switzerland, provided few hints as to whether last season was a launching point or a fluke. The Devils are still staring at a host of question marks, some of which they are dealing with through simple faith. 

MORE: Entercom Partners With Devils, Islanders To Exclusively Stream All Games During 2018-19 Season

With the regular-season opener versus Edmonton on Saturday in Sweden, here are the Devils’ five most important prayers that need to be answered to avoid a step back this season:

1) Will The Goaltending Hold Up?

The Devils had terrific runs to open and close last season. In both cases, their goalies were red hot. New Jersey won seven of Schneider’s first eight games in its 9-2 start. After injuries and ineffectiveness forced Schneider to the bench, Kinkaid, who previously had issues with consistency, stepped up. He went 7-0-1 with a .931 save percentage down the stretch -- all in games with massive playoff implications, considering the Devils squeaked in as the eighth seed by one point.

The Devils have been coy about Schneider’s return, so it will be Kinkaid’s net against Edmonton. The Devils were lucky that they had a hot goalie to turn to when they needed it most last season. What will happen if the pucks aren’t always bouncing either’s way this year?       

2) Can They Find Scoring Balance?

If the Devils’ top line of Hall, Hischier and Kyle Palmieri could withstand a full 60-minute game on the ice, this team could be a Stanley Cup contender. Unfortunately, they need rest. In that time, the Devils’ three other lines have to at least draw in their five-on-five shifts against their opponents. Few did last season, as Stefan Noesen, Blake Coleman and the departed Brian Gibbons were the only other forwards in the plus column. Hall recorded a league-high 41 points more than second-leading scorer Hischier. Fourth-line winger Miles Wood netted 19 goals, but no one else in the bottom nine contributed more than 13.

The Devils have to receive better production from players such as second-line center Pavel Zacha, who has 51 career points in 140 games, far beneath the expectations for the 2015 draft’s sixth overall pick. Marcus Johansson, last offseason’s marquee addition who then missed 53 games due to concussions, wasn’t all that threatening when he did dress, scoring just five goals. For the Devils to continue to ascend, it can’t be all Hall. 

3) Will The Defense Mature?

On the Devils’ back line, only Sami Vatanen, 27, is in his prime. Captain Andy Greene (35) and Ben Lovejoy (34) are on their last legs. Everyone else (not including eighth defenseman Eric Gryba, who belongs in the AHL) is under 25. Damon Severson is entering his fifth season, but, as I wrote in a recent post, he is still far from a finished product.  Youngsters Will Butcher, Mirco Mueller and Steven Santini will be counted on to play hard minutes to alleviate the strains on Greene and Vatanen. Mueller had success in his tiny sample size (22 minutes, per The Athletic’s Corey Masisak) last season paired with Vatanen, so Hynes tried them out as a shutdown pair this preseason. They had more mixed results. Butcher and Santini would seem to complement one another, but Hynes hasn’t used them together very often, preferring to keep Butcher with Lovejoy on the third pair.  

The Devils had major issues with their defensemen last season, from ending plays to tying up sticks in front to zone exits. The Devils are banking that the group will be better with experience. 

4) Will The Special Teams Remain Special?

The Devils owned the league’s 10th best power-play and seventh best penalty-killing units last season. Gone are Gibbons, who tied with Blake Coleman for the team lead in short-handed goals (three) last season, and 2018 trade deadline rentals Michael Grabner, a useful penalty killer due to his extraordinary speed and stickwork, and power-play net front presence Patrick Maroon. Assistant coach Geoff Ward, who oversaw the power play, also departed.  

Remember, the Devils were in the bottom half of the league in most advanced metrics at even strength last season. Some believe special teams success is kind of random anyway.  That means the Devils must integrate the new pieces -- Hischier on the top power play and Zacha on the PK -- quickly.         

5) Will Shero Save The Day?

Vatanen, Palmieri, Johansson and, most pointedly, Hall, were all game-changing trade acquisitions by Shero in the last three years. Shero chose to be quiet on that front this offseason in addition to bypassing the free-agent market. This despite the Devils projecting to have the most salary cap space ($15.4 million) in the league at the season’s start, per CapFriendly.com. Shero is antsy about eating into that asset with Hall extension talks coming after this season. 

Still, many of Shero’s moves, including the stunning go-for-it deals for Grabner and Maroon last season, have come out of nowhere. He absolutely should be on the lookout for upgrades throughout this season, if only to take advantage of having Hall and Hischier on team-friendly contracts. I don’t see the Devils standing pat, but it might be too late.

Prediction: 91 points (no playoffs)

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.