Hockey season is here at last. The season officially begins tomorrow for Oiler fans, as Edmonton will face the New Jersey Devils in Gothernburg, Sweden. It’s a clean slate for the Oilers, who will no doubt look to Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to help fans forget about last year’s disappointing finish.
On the other hand, the New Jersey Devils made the playoffs in 2017-18 for the first time in six years. What can the Oilers expect from the Devils tomorrow? I sit down with John Fischer who is editor of All About The Jersey for some answers.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.
Copper and Blue: Taylor Hall won the 2017-18 Hart Trophy as league MVP. He finished the regular season with 93 points (39-54-93) in 76 games played, and he also put the Devils on his back and lead them to their first playoff berth 2011-12. What can we possibly expect from him this year?
All About The Jersey: Taylor Hall will continue to be the team’s offensive leader and their most important skater. Hall put in one of the greatest seasons in Devils history. The majority of those 41 goals and 58 assists were legitimate. Hall was the MVP of the whole league last season. And he did it while not being 100% healthy; he had torn ligaments in one of his hands. That all said: I do not expect he will repeat his numbers. All this plus another 26-game point streak and shattering the expected goals model while having some goals taken away by video review is a lot to ask of any player. That said, Hall will absolutely be the dominant force on offense. He will fly down the left wing, he will make killer passes, and he will bomb away with pucks as needed. He will continue to be a leader on the team’s primary power play unit on either wing of their 1-3-1 formation. He can only be contained. I think his production will drop in the 70-75 point range, but I think he’s a safe bet to lead the team in most/all offensive categories.
Copper and Blue: Does anyone over there miss Adam Larsson? Even just a little bit?
All About The Jersey: No, not really. As much as Devils fans have lamented the defense at points (which wasn’t that bad last season), the team has Sami Vatanen, Damon Severson, Steve Santini, and Ben Lovejoy as right-handed defensemen. They’re not hurting for RHDs. Only the most contrarian fan would suggest that Larsson is missed - but even they wouldn’t want to reverse one of the greatest trades in Devils history. They’d say something like, “Yeah, but really, the trade was one for one” and go back to appreciating a Hall that gives teams one of these.
Copper and Blue: Who is a player who made the 23 man roster that you might not have expected?
All About The Jersey: Technically, the answer would be Jean-Sebastian Dea but that’s because he wasn’t a Devil until the team claimed him off waivers on September 28. And to send him down, he’d have to go back on waivers. So Dea made it the moment he was claimed. That’s a cop-out answer for a question that’s really asking about who surprisingly made the roster out of camp. To that end, the surprise is defenseman Eric Gryba. I know Gryba did not stick in Edmonton and was sent down to Bakersfield. From what I saw of him in preseason, he’s like a more mobile version of Dalton Prout - with a better slapshot. I was not thrilled with how he played in preseason even if it was not a disaster and no one really surpassed him that was not already a NHL player. He’s still not fast, which goes against what the Devils have been aiming for under Shero. He’s not all that impressive on defense; others can do what he did and better. If you want a guy with some experience to throw his body about, then he can do that. As an #8 defenseman on a roster, that may be fine. But I don’t think the Devils need to carry eight defensemen to begin with, so I am surprised he’s with New Jersey in Europe right now.
Copper and Blue: Goaltender Cory Schneider underwent hip surgery in May of this year to repair torn cartilage. Recovery time was slated between five and six months. We’re at month five, and Schneider isn’t ready to play against the Oilers on Saturday. Is there any concern with Schneider’s overall health, and are you OK with running with Keith Kinkaid for a while if necessary?
All About The Jersey: The Devils really do not have much of a choice but to go with Keith Kinkaid and Eddie Lack as the goaltending tandem. The recovery time, as you noted, is five to six months and it has not been six months. Schneider did practice with the team at times in training camp, but he has not been cleared for games yet. I do not think he even played in a scrimmage in camp either. The Devils had to resort to Kinkaid being the #1 when Schneider was hurt earlier this year and Kinkaid put in some of his best work from February 2018 to April 2018, even starting over Schneider in the playoffs (which lasted until Game 3). Kinkaid is a solid, by-the-numbers goalie in that his fundamentals are good and if he can stick to them, then he’s usually fine. But he is not exceptional and I fear his little run last season was just a hot streak. In fact, Kinkaid before February 2018 was awful last season from a save percentage standpoint with an abysmal 88.9% EvSv%. If the Devils won games with him in net then, then it was usually due to superior scoring. But he rebounded in time for a stretch run that did secure the playoffs. I think that short two-month run gives fans some confidence that the team can make do with Kinkaid-Lack for a few weeks. While the list of opponents is rough, it’s still early in the season, the Devils will have a long homestand in their actual home in Newark, and Kinkaid did play the lion’s share of minutes in preseason so he should be in shape.
The larger concern in New Jersey for Schneider has more to do with his performance in 2017-18. In the 2017 portion of the season, it looked like Schneider was back to being one of the better goalies in the league. A 92.8% EvSv% and a 87.8% PKSv% are strong percentages and Schneider was a key reason why the first half of last season went so well for the Devils. In 2018, Schneider had some bad games, got hurt, came back for more bad games, got hurt again, and had some more bad games before re-appearing in Game 3 against Tampa Bay and showed everyone that he still had the goods. I’d like to think he was not 100% then and it was affecting his performances. That is supported by the fact that he needed significant surgery at all after the season. Now Schneider is 32 and there’s a concern that even after this surgery, we may not see the Schneider that earned the 7-year, $42 million contract in 2014 or the 2017 Schneider from last season again. I agree that older players tend to not improve, but Schneider has not played as much as most 32 year old starting goaltenders and that he did so well for three months suggests to me that he is not “done” because he had three poor months afterward. That said, when Schneider returns, the expectation will be that he can be a good goaltender. He should not have Kinkaid take his job again. I am a fan of Schneider and I’m confident he can re-take the crease upon returning. If it means three or four more weeks, then so be it.
Copper and Blue: Finally, will the Devils make the playoffs for a second consecutive year? Why or why not?
All About The Jersey: We have our multi-day season preview for the Devils conclude on Friday with predictions by the staff members. I will spoil a part of mine for you. I am leaning against the Devils making the playoffs. While I can agree with CJ that the Devils were not totally luck-driven last season, quite a bit went right. From Schneider being good for three months and Kinkaid being good for the most part for two more to Hall putting up one of the best seasons in franchise history to getting hot runs at timely points from “lesser” names like Brian Gibbons, Blake Coleman, Brian Boyle, and Stefan Noesen, the Devils had been buoyed by some impressively unexpected performances They also were supported by the fact that the Metropolitan Division was very tight from first to fifth and the Atlantic was weaker. The Devils edged Florida, but Florida needed to play like they were on fire after the All-Star Break to claw their way back into the playoff picture. I do not expect it all to happen again. I don’t think the Devils power play will out-perform some less than exceptional rate stats. I don’t think the Devils’ 5-on-5 play was good and consistent enough from a possession standpoint to be a consistent threat. I think the Devils could stand to drop some points beyond regulation after being a net positive in both overtimes and shootouts. While I think Hall will still be awesome and a first line of Hall-Hischier-Palmieri will scare a lot of teams, the forwards behind them have a lot to prove from an offensive standpoint. Most of all, I don’t think the division will necessarily be as up-for-grabs as it was last season. I am confident that the Devils will not be the worst team in the area. The two New York teams will be worse and, for all we know, Carolina’s goaltending will sink them again. But are they good enough without major additions to be with Columbus, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington, and while staving off Florida and maybe Buffalo in the Atlantic? I am doubtful for a repeat of 2017-18. I want it to happen, but based on how I see the team, I have to say that the team will likely miss the playoffs. That said: I am strong enough to be wrong and I want to write another post like this one in April 2019.
Thanks to John for his time.
Find John at All About the Jersey