Devils defenseman Damon Severson

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Devils Training Camp Primer: GM Bets On Young Players To Take Next Step

Team Looking For Improvement From Within

Steve Lichtenstein
September 14, 2018 - 12:21 pm
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The Devils are approaching training camp as if they are starting from scratch.

If last season was all about changing their culture, this campaign should be about avoiding any semblance of complacency after their surprising surge from the Eastern Conference basement to a berth in the playoffs, where they fell to Tampa Bay in five games.

It shouldn’t be that difficult. After all, as veteran defenseman Ben Lovejoy noted at the team’s media day Thursday: “We finished in eighth place.We didn’t win the Stanley Cup. We want to be better.”

“You start over every year when it comes to your habits and how you want to play and getting your work level up,” Devils coach John Hynes said of training camp. “We don’t feel like we’re any more ahead this year than we were last year.”

MORE: Lichtenstein: Can Seney Be This Season's Sleeper To Get Into Devils’ Lineup?

Actually, they pretty much stood still, as general manager Ray Shero did not invest in any improvements in the offseason, nor did he replace certain key specialists who departed.

Instead, the Devils will have to look within when taking the next step.

“Last year was last year, and this year, really, we’re back to square one,” Shero said. “Talking about last year, the goal was just to be competitive and gain respect in the league, and I think we did that, but it’s easy to give it back. But I think we have a base of players and people that we’re beyond that now.”

The “base” is left wing Taylor Hall, the reigning Hart Trophy winner who carried New Jersey on his back last season with 93 points. That was 41 points more than the Devils’ second-leading scorer (the widest such discrepancy in the league), center Nico Hischier, the 2017 No. 1 overall draft pick who is looking to improve on a terrific 200-foot rookie effort. 

Other Devils assets include their veteran leaders, from Lovejoy and captain Andy Greene on defense to centers Travis Zajac and Brian Boyle. In goal, Cory Schneider will likely take the preseason off while rehabilitating from hip surgery, but the Devils are covered if he is forced to miss any regular-season action. Keith Kinkaid went 16-3-1 in games with playoff consequences down the stretch last season after taking over the crease from Schneider.

However, to make it back to the postseason in 2018-19, never mind advancing further than the first round, the Devils are going to need more from a host of developing players, some of whom are nearing the point where patience should be tested.

One such player is defenseman Damon Severson, who was a healthy scratch in several key games as well as playoff Game 1. Shero made a sizable long-term bet on Severson, 24, a year ago by signing him to a six-year, $25 million contract. Severson has good size and skill, but hasn’t put the package together in four NHL seasons.

Severson has been given every opportunity, receiving top-pair minutes at certain points in his career, mostly because the blue line has been such a weak link for the club.

“There’s one thing to play when we were a bad team; there’s another thing to play on a team when it’s a competitive team that makes the playoffs,” Shero said. “Two years ago, we had a lot of guys who played. They got games. But there wasn’t any accountability. We weren’t good enough. Last year, we finally had it where we were a good enough team. Damon’s no different than anybody else. He has to be accountable to his coaching staff, to his teammates, to me. 

"We like Damon. Defensemen are difficult to find. He’s got to be more competitive in certain areas of the ice. He’s got talent and -- I’ve seen this before with younger defensemen -- it happens at some point. I hope it happens sooner rather than later, because he’s good enough to get by, but he should be better than that. He’s got to be a go-to guy for us in different situations. When the game is on the line, I feel good about having him on the ice because he’s competitive, he’s got skill, he’s got hands, he can move the puck. If there’s any perfect defensemen out there, I certainly can’t acquire him. There’s not many.” 

Shero likely didn’t bother taking a stab at stud D-man Erik Karlsson, who was dealt by Ottawa on Thursday for a package of prospects and picks. Karlsson had a limiting no-trade clause and will be a free agent after this season. 

Nor did Shero deem it wise to spend exorbitant amounts on the scraps who were available in the summer’s free agent market. That included John Moore, the swift-skating but defensively suspect defenseman the Devils let walk to Boston for five years at a $2.75 million annual average value, leaving an opening in the top four on the left side. Will Butcher and Mirco Mueller, both 23 and each owning about one full season’s worth of experience, are the next men up for New Jersey’s back line behind Greene. 

All the youngsters in the Devils’ forward group have just as many question marks. Can Pavel Zacha, a candidate for second-line center, live up to his billing as the 2015 sixth overall pick? Does speedy left wing Miles Wood, assuming the restricted free agent is re-signed (Shero said he hasn’t had any discussions with the Wood camp in a week), have another gear to further boost his production after a 19-goal campaign? And can the Texas twosome of Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen evolve from checking line wings to become bigger factors offensively?

Shero and Hynes are confident that these younger returning players will be pushed by even younger prospects, with Joey Anderson, John Quenneville, Michael McLeod and Brett Seney chomping at the bit in camp to earn playing time in New Jersey.

The Devils have come a long way in the first three seasons of the Shero/Hynes regime. It was a hard process to make this team competitive last season. It may be even harder to take the next step.

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