The New Jersey Devils have to feel good about their recent offseason. Even though they’ve lost top-line center Travis Zajac for four to six months due to a pectoral injury, the moves they’ve made over the last few months have been some of their best in recent history.
General manager Ray Shero had a lot of work to do this offseason to help the Devils offset a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference. The team still had Cory Schneider in between the pipes last season, but the All-Star netminder had a career-low year in his second-most games played. While they also added Taylor Hall in the previous offseason, the Devils still were 28th in the league in goals for on the season and finished third-last in the league with 70 points overall.
As New Jersey’s general manager, Shero had reasonably sized holes to fill for the upcoming season. Unlike the Avalanche, who have yet to really attempt to solve their problems, the Devils have come out of the recent offseason having some of their most productive few months.
Given the strength of the Metropolitan Division, and the Eastern Conference in general, the Devils may still falter this season with how much quality of competition there is around them. It’s hard to say exactly where they’ll be after another 82-game slate is finished, but it’s clear they’ve been set back on course. Here’s a deeper look into some of the moves Shero and the Devils have made this offseason that have set them apart from many of their competitors.
Will Butcher signing
The most recent acquisition for the Devils may not have been as highly sought after as last year’s college free agent, but Butcher is quite the defensive prospect. The 22-year-old defenseman won the Hobey Baker as the NCAA’s best player of the year after putting up 37 points in 43 games in his final season with the University of Denver. Butcher then chose the Devils among a slew of suitors that included the Penguins, Blackhawks, Maple Leafs, and Wild after becoming a free agent on Aug. 15.
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That’s quite the pickup for Shero and crew. Butcher had an outstanding senior season in Denver and after spurning the Avalanche, he had 30 other NHL teams to pick from. The Devils were chosen likely because they can give Butcher what he wants: significant ice time in a role where he can grow and make mistakes outside of a microscope environment.
In return, the Devils are getting a quality defensive prospect to put alongside 23-year-old Damon Severson and 22-year-old Mirco Mueller. Butcher can fill in immediately on the Devils’ roster, likely pushing Ben Lovejoy into the seventh defenseman spot and improving New Jersey’s back end. The Devils are also just one offseason removed from the Adam Larsson trade and they are already stronger on the blue line than they were with the 24-year-old right-handed defenseman.
Drafting Nico Hischier
The Devils had an 8.517 percent chance to draft No. 1 overall this year. Thanks to their down season, New Jersey lucked into an unexpected lottery position and drafted Hischier in the top spot as the result.
Of course, nabbing the top lottery pick in a draft is essentially all luck, as the Edmonton Oilers can attest to, but grabbing Hischier at No. 1 overall is quite the boon for the Devils. With Zajac out for a good portion of the season, Hischier will likely slide into New Jersey’s top-six with ease. In the QMJHL last season, Hischier had 86 points in 57 games as his stock rose just enough to knock Nolan Patrick from the top spot in the draft.
Hischier is a highly skilled prospect, and he has said his style of play most resembles creative genius and top notch two-way forward Pavel Datsyuk. Lucking into a Datsyuk-style player will make any team giddy, and the Devils got one just in time to give their offense a much-needed boost. Hischier will have an impact on the Devils right out of the gate, and he could very well lift New Jersey back into contention in just one season.
Depth free agent signings
Outside of adding Butcher and drafting Hischier, the Devils have put together a nice crop of depth free agent signings and trades. Since June, the Devils organization has added:
Marcus Johansson, left winger
Mirco Mueller, defenseman
Drew Stafford, right winger
Brian Boyle, center
Only Boyle and Johansson command a real chunk of salary cap — between the two of them, the Devils have sunk $7.33 million in cap space for the next two years — and even then New Jersey has the second-most cap room available behind the Arizona Coyotes. Stafford is on a very friendly $800,000 deal for the next season and Mueller is sitting at a two-year, $1.7 million contract. All in all, the Devils didn’t reach to overpay for big-name stars. Instead, they opted to sign veterans and young players on reasonable, short term deals.
Johansson is the big prize of their offseason grabs, as the 26-year-old forward put up 58 points in 82 games for the Capitals next season. He’ll likely slide into the Devils’ top six, along with 31-year-old Stafford. While Stafford had a down season with Winnipeg last year, he flourished more after being traded to the Bruins at the end of the year.
Boyle is also a solid depth signing, as he put up 25 points in 75 games played between the Lightning and Maple Leafs last year.
While these moves weren’t nearly as flashy as their trade for Hall last offseason, the Devils added support pieces to a very stable core of players. After 40-plus point players in Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, Hall, and Zajac, the Devils had a 10-point drop off from their next productive teammates. While the loss of Zajac stings, adding Hischier, Stafford, and Johansson tips the scales back in their favor.
It’s going to be tough for New Jersey to rise above the Pittsburghs and Washingtons of the East, but the shrewd moves of Shero has put the Devils in their best position yet to break into the playoffs for the first time since 2012.