A year ago at this time, the New Jersey Devils were wrapping up a disappointing season. They finished seventh in the Metropolitan Division and were never really in playoff contention, yet still landed just high enough in the standings to have very little chance of winning the coveted Draft Lottery. When all was said and done, they landed the sixth overall pick, with plenty of work to be done.
Making matters worse was the simple fact that the Devils had an overabundance of vets on the roster. So it was tough to tell if they were even really in rebuild mode yet.
True, clubs that are looking to restructure for the future need to have a few experienced players for the young guys to look up to and learn from. Problem was, New Jersey didn’t actually have the young guys.
Things have improved dramatically over the span of 12 months though — to the point where the Devils are still technically alive in the playoff hunt with under two weeks left in the regular season. Will they actually sneak in? It seems unlikely, given the number of teams they’d have to jump and the injury to team MVP Cory Schneider. But still, at least this is progress.
The future looks brighter as well. They used that sixth pick to grab Pavel Zacha, an impressive 6’3″ pivot with dynamic offensive skills, finally giving them a potentially elite center in the system. Plus, they have John Quenneville working his way up, and youngsters like Reid Boucher and Joseph Blandisi already logging NHL minutes. And they’ll likely have a decent pick to work with in this summer’s draft as well.
It’s not the most loaded prospect pool in hockey by any means, but at least there’s more upside now than there was just a short time ago.
The most pleasant surprise this year, however, has to be Kyle Palmieri. In fact, that title probably extends beyond just the Garden State. The New Jersey native has been one of the better stories in all of hockey, notching 29 goals so far for a club that was desperately in need of an offensive jolt. The deal to acquire him for a second and third round pick is suddenly looking like one of the best moves anyone made last summer.
Best of all, Palmieri just turned 25 last month. So it’s not like the Devils got one good season out of a guy near the tail end of his career. If he can harness what he’s done this season, they may have found a solid building block for years to come.
There is a caveat, of course. Palmieri isn’t actually signed beyond the 2015-16 campaign. But he’s only set to become a restricted free agent, so New Jersey likely won’t have to break the bank to retain him. And he’s obviously somebody that the front office was interested in, so he’ll be a priority. After all, he has more than delivered on the upside that got New Jersey to look at him in the first place.
Assuming Palmieri is back and this isn’t just a one year outburst, the Devils suddenly have a few young forwards to lean on.
Adam Henrique just turned 26, and is locked up through 2019. Devante Smith-Pelly has been on an absolute tear since joining New Jersey at the trade deadline. While he obviously can’t keep up the near point per game pace (seven goals and four assists in 12 games) he’s been on since he arrived, the 23-year-old could be a nice asset going forward. And he’s a restricted free agent this summer as well, meaning it’s likely he’ll be back.
None of this is to say the Devils are suddenly going to be Cup favorites next year. But they’re clearly in a much better position than it seemed they’d be in. They’ve gotten younger and — perhaps most importantly of all — they have one of the game’s top netminders to lean on.
When healthy, Schneider can keep them in almost any contest. And that allows this next wave of players to gain meaningful experience in crunch time, as they compete for wins, rather than simply getting lit up every night while they adjust to life in the NHL. In a way, it’s similar to what the Florida Panthers have done, with Roberto Luongo backstopping a gifted young crop of prospects on a nightly basis.
Granted, the Devils don’t have the same stockpile of high draft picks and elite youngsters that the Panthers have had. In fact, it’s not even close. But the basic concept is the same. And it seems to be working pretty well in Florida.