Jack Hughes

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Lichtenstein: 6 Bold Predictions For Improved 2019-20 Devils Campaign

Steve Lichtenstein
October 04, 2019 - 10:16 am

In the four years of the John Hynes era, the Devils have alternated between over- and underachieving.

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Should the pattern continue, the Devils will rise from the ashes of their last-place finish in the Metropolitan Division last season to compete for a berth in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

General manager Ray Shero’s offseason haul (first overall draft pick Jack Hughes, free agent Wayne Simmonds, and trade acquisitions P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev) make the Devils, who open the regular season Friday night against Winnipeg at the Prudential Center, one of the league’s most intriguing teams. However, it takes more than talent to win in the NHL. The best clubs, even after all the rule changes, are still the ones that play with grit and a nasty edge.

Can the Devils get back to being, in Hynes’ favorite expression, “a hard team to play against”? Here are six predictions for what’s in store for the 2019-20 Devils.

1) Hughes Wins The Calder

Devils fans got a taste of what the 18-year-old center brings to the table during the preseason. Hughes is simply a marvelous skater and playmaker with a deceptive shot. Hynes will give Hughes enough power play time to enable him to reach 60 points this season, which will top all rookies, including the one across the river.

2) Save Percentage Remains Below Average

Goalie Cory Schneider is one of the biggest storylines as the Devils enter this season. He was terrific in the preseason, suggesting that the injuries that hindered his performance in the past few seasons are behind him. MacKenzie Blackwood stepped in over the second half of last season to stabilize the position, going a remarkable 10-10 playing behind a minor league-level lineup. The Devils were third from the bottom in team save percentage in 2018-19. They’ll be better, certainly above .900, but I’m not buying the prevailing Schneider narrative that has him returning to All-Star form. It won’t be entirely his fault because ...

3) Sub-50% Corsi Percentage

Even during their 2017-18 playoff campaign, the Devils placed in the bottom 10 of this advanced metric that measures shot attempt differential. They were a lowly 27th in Corsi percentage last season at 47.49. It’s not a perfect stat, but in this case, it has put a spotlight on the Devils’ difficulties in their own zone. The Subban addition will help somewhat, but he’s another undersized defenseman on a team that also counts sub-6-footers Sami Vatanen, Andy Greene and Will Butcher in its top six. The Devils will continue to struggle with the league’s heavier teams in winning battles to end plays and clearing out the net front.

4) 22% Power Play

Barring another devastating avalanche of injuries, the Devils have enough quality skill to boast two capable power play units. Taylor Hall, who seems to be fully recovered from the knee surgery that limited him to 33 games last season, is one of the best power play drivers in the league. His presence opens up space for Kyle Palmieri to unleash his rifle from the opposite flank. Subban at the point and Simmonds at the net front bring a ton of experience to PP1. If that doesn’t work, the Devils can bring out a second unit that is potentially more dynamic, with Hughes and Gusev threading needles from the half-walls and third-year center Nico Hischier poised for a breakout season. This is a top-10 power play.

5) Hall Traded In February

The painful reality is that Hall and the Devils have not yet reached an agreement to extend his contract that expires after this season. No matter what both parties say, this is a distraction. When he gets to unrestricted free agency, Hall has every right to decide where he will spend the next chapter of his life. He may not know by the Feb. 24 trade deadline. Given that, under no circumstances can Hall be allowed to pull a John Tavares or Artemi Panarin and walk out the door with nothing coming New Jersey’s way in return. There will be a huge bidding war for the 2017-18 Hart Trophy winner, even as a rental, and the Devils will take the best offer of picks/young players to build around Hughes and Hischier in the future.

6) Playoff Charge Falls Just Short

The Hall uncertainty casts a cloud over the shiny new objects that make this a much more fun team to watch than last season. In addition, the Devils are just too weak on the back end to make a similar surge into the playoffs like they did two seasons ago. Get this team a monster horse d-man (not an easy get) next offseason and then they can be taken seriously as a legitimate Stanley Cup threat.

Prediction: 93 points (no playoffs) 

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