The 2018-19 season was a season of misfortune in Newark. From Cory Schneider‘s nagging injury troubles and Keith Kinkaid‘s early inability to prove his worth as a starting goaltender, to Taylor Hall‘s mysterious injury which left Devils fans playing an impossible-to-win game of “Where’s Hall-though?” (which can only be described as a sick and twisted version of Where’s Waldo?), New Jersey had a number of excuses to turn to for such a poor season. The summer months, however, saw a number of reasons for optimism entering the 2019-20 campaign.
First Key Game: October 17, 2019 vs. New York Rangers (Hughes vs. Kakko – Episode 1)
Odds to win the division
5:1 (t-3rd overall) (via Betway)
Is this a bet worth taking?
New Jersey undoubtedly improved on paper, and though last season’s troubles aren’t to be forgotten, the Devils team which qualified for the playoffs two seasons ago is a more likely indicator of what kind of group this team can be (a team, by the way, which did not have a Hughes, Gusev, Simmonds or Subban).
Nico Hischier, Blake Coleman, Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher were all rookies then, and now each enter their third seasons in the league having shown steady improvement. Don’t forget, the 2017-18 Devils held first-place in the Metropolitan Division from week one of the season until after Christmas. The potential is there with a healthy Taylor Hall and solid goaltending.
Keys To The Season
Story to watch
Goaltending. The Devils will give Cory Schneider(‘s contract) every chance to reclaim his status as the team’s starter, and his performance in the final few weeks of last season showed he may finally be over the injury issues that have cost him time over the last season and a half. After a healthy summer of rest without rehab, Schneider will enter training camp with Mackenzie Blackwood providing healthy competition for starts.
Blackwood’s debut season last year was a pleasant surprise, posting an impressive save percentage of .918 along with a 2.61 goals against average in 23 appearances. Even after Schneider’s return from injury, the log-jam in goal allowed Blackwood to play more minutes in the AHL before Kinkaid was traded at the deadline.
The technical “rookie” looks like the longer term solution in New Jersey, but the opportunity to claim the starting role could come sooner rather than later should Schneider, or the team itself, hit a rough patch.
Player to watch
While there are a plethora of reasons to watch other players on this roster, it is Hischier who needs to have a breakout season. Hughes may be touted as the “generational” talent, but is still a rookie. Hischier’s role as the experienced center in the top half of the lineup could not be more important. Hall himself applauded the Swiss native for helping him earn league MVP honors two seasons ago, but even in Hall’s 93-point MVP season, Hischier amassed just 20 goals and 52 total points while playing all 82 games.
Last season saw a slight improvement, as his 47 points came close to his rookie year total, doing so in 13 less games played and more than half of the season without Hall (injured). In fact, oft-injured winger Marcus Johansson should credit Hischier with helping him find his game in the weeks leading up to being dealt to Boston at the trade deadline.
In year three, the 2017 first overall pick needs to re-discover chemistry with Hall early in order to stave off Hughes from the top line, and despite his underrated two-way forward abilities, it’s about time Hischier broke through with 60-65 points, with or without Hall as a linemate.
Too early to tell, but depth isn’t an issue. Shero resolved much of what the Devils’ needs were this past summer. With Hughes, a second top-six center role was filled, pushing Pavel Zacha down the lineup where he could be more effective as a 3C/4C. Wayne Simmonds replaces the role left by Brian Boyle in the bottom-six as well as the net-front presence on the power play unit. Gusev comes in looking to take Johansson’s place as a top-six winger, but needs to prove he can produce consistently in the NHL as he did so well in the KHL.
On defense, the acquisition of Subban solved New Jersey’s need for an elite defenseman who can play all special teams situations. Ideally, Subban’s arrival provides a trickle-down effect which could limit the ice time and certain situational pressure from over-worked blueliners Andy Greene, Damon Severson and Sami Vatanen.
If the Devils were an animal, what would they be?
Best to approach with caution. You don’t know what you’re getting, but you do know the potential is there with some training. This breed is attack-minded, and faster than you think. Still, you won’t want to underestimate them, as they’re capable of making any dog back off with its tail between its legs.
With Hall’s future uncertain, Ray Shero and coach John Hynes will need to tighten the leash with this group.