One of my favourite things about writing for SB Nation is the teamwork that each blog participates in. It is fantastic that we have experts from all 31 NHL teams helping each other out. With that in mind, I would like to introduce you to John Fischer, who is a writer at All About The Jersey, The SB Nation blog focused on the New Jersey Devils.
I recently spoke with Fischer and had the chance to ask him a few questions about the New Jersey Devils ahead of tonight’s matchup with the Oilers. As we should all know, the Oilers and Devils have an illustrious history. Wayne Gretzky put the team on blast in 1984 calling the Devils a “Mickey Mouse Organization” after the powerhouse Oilers clobbered the team 13-4. The Devils would have the last laugh, albeit 32 years later, as the they would fleece the Oilers in a trade that saw them acquire Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson. Hall would become New Jersey’s first Hart Trophy winner in 2017/18.
Outside of these two infamous events, the teams have not crossed paths that often. That is why John Fischer makes a cameo in today’s blog to get us Oiler fans up to speed on today’s opponent.
Without further ado, let's get into it.
1. The Devils had a HUGE offseason this summer, acquiring PK Subban and drafting Jack Hughes 1st overall. How have they looked so far?
Fischer: The Devils indeed have a big summer with the drafting of The Big Deal, Jack Hughes; acquisitions of P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev; signing of Wayne Simmonds; and keeping Jesper Boqvist in New Jersey. Among the new Devils, Subban has made the largest initial impact. While nobody did well against Buffalo, Subban was a constant contributor in the home opener and really pushed the play forward. It will not be long before he starts racking up power play points along with even strength play. He does have some moments where he gets lost on defense, but he has been a far sight better than the Devils’ worst defensive pairing. He has been a joy to watch. In a more negative spin on surprising, Jack Hughes has been run over in the run of play. Hughes very much looked like an 18-year old getting used to the NHL and the coaching staff did him no favors with his linemates and match-ups. He has shown some flashes of making some great passes, but he has yet to shine. Of course, it’s the first 2 NHL games in what should be a long and productive career. If anything, I’m more annoyed that the coaching staff decided to make his line as defensively weak as possible and not help it or even change his match-up when it was obvious it was getting wrecked.
2. New Jersey has hd some troubles in the goaltending department in recent years. Corey Schneider has fallen out of favour and Keith Kinkaid is in Montreal now. Can Mackenzie Blackwood step up and bring stability to the crease?
Fischer: The hope in New Jersey is that Schneider is truly recovered from his hip issues and Blackwood would progress from his relatively impressive 20+ games last season. Schneider did look real good in net all preseason and in the Winnipeg game until he cramped up and left that game. Blackwood was thrown into a difficult situation and struggled and he did not look any better in Buffalo. Blackwood did perform well in preseason, but it was a sobering reminder that Blackwood has some ways to go to really establish himself. Hope is not much of a plan but it is that those two appearances will become an exception and not the norm. Blackwood was never a good AHL goalie so there is some concern that his 2018-19 appearances are the exception and the first two appearances this season give some credence to that. I am still positive based on what he showed in September and in 2018-19 that he can recover; but he will have to demonstrate it soon to really solidify the crease. Even then, the Devils need Schneider to be much better than he was in past years for the goaltending to not be as big of a worry that it is among the Devils faithful.
3. The Devils boast two first overall picks in their lineup in Nico Hischer and Jack Hughes. Hischer, who was drafted 1st in 2017, has had a fairly quiet career for such a high draft pick. How has his play been in New Jersey and in what role do you envision him finishing the year in?
Fischer: Quiet? Hischier is the first player from the 2017 draft class to hit 100 points (he picked up the 100th point against Buffalo) and he has been New Jersey’s #1 center since he practically came into the league. No one is quiet for Nico in New Jersey. The Devils faithful get hyped for Nico - as they should. He’s the team’s top center, he functions well next to Taylor Hall, and he is burgeoning to be more than just a 5-on-5 player. He is expected to take a larger role on the team’s second power play unit, he has received more shorthanded shifts where he could really help, and continue to hang and succeed in tough match-ups against the opposition. As Hughes is still getting his NHL game in order, Hischier is expected to remain as the team’s top center until then. I think he’ll stay there this season short of Hughes blossoming very quickly.
4. New Jersey’s forward group is headlined by, Hart Trophy winner, Taylor Hall, first overall picks, Jack Hughes and Nico Hischer. On defence they brought in one of the league’s premier defenders in PK Subban. Ignoring goaltending for a moment, which one of these groups still need to be improved/tweaked to ensure that the Devils are a lock for the playoffs?
Fischer: The position that needs the most help is the left side of the defense. The acquisition of Subban strengthened the right side considerably. It features Subban, Sami Vatanen, and Damon Severson. Three defensemen who can move the puck, who have an offensive component, and are not CF% anchors even if they do not fit the traditional mold of what a defenseman is. However, the talent there contrasts with the left side of the blueline. Will Butcher had very good stats last season and really deserves more and more ice time in this league. He may get it this season. However, the left side is still led by a soon-to-be-37 year old Andy Greene who is definitely declining as a player. He has been for years, such as when he helped Mark Fayne look like a boss until he signed out of New Jersey. Greene was great earlier this decade but Father Time continues to be the All-Time Champion in that match-up. The other left defender is Mirco Mueller, who is the definition of a non-flashy, un-impressive looking defender. He had decent enough stats last season but he has been abysmal in his first two games - especially next to Damon Severson. The addition of Subban means he will at least lead the blueline so Greene does not have to eat up tons of minutes in difficult match-ups he used to win three to four seasons ago but rarely does not. But, other than Butcher and Greene having a good night every so often, the left side of the blueline is a weakpoint on paper and on the ice. If GM Ray Shero can strengthen this part of the defense, then the Devils will be more balanced on defense as well as more competitive when they take on teams with deep forward cores.
5. Predictions revolving around the New Jersey Devils seem to be all over the place. Some people see them being a bottom feeder once again, while others think that the new additions will be enough to push them into a playoff spot. Settle it for me right now, are the New Jersey Devils a playoff team?
Fischer: I want the Devils to be a playoff team. I did predict at AAtJ that they will take the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. The first two games notwithstanding, I am sticking with that. It will be very tight. The Metropolitan Division figures to be incredibly close where a couple of good weeks or a hot/cold goaltender run can make the difference between finishing second and finishing seventh. When you add Montreal, Florida, and Buffalo in the Atlantic as potential wild card foes, there is a lot of volatility. I think whichever team gets consistent goaltending and avoids cold sticks and injuries will come out ahead. The Devils can be one of those teams. I want them to be one of those teams. I think it will happen, bias aside.
Bonus: The Edmonton Oilers could really use Taylor Hall back...any chance we can execute a take-back? Please?
A huge thanks to John for answering these questions which, with the exception of the painfully blunt bonus question, provided a wealth of knowledge and expertise that I couldn’t possibly have come up with.
The Edmonton Oilers are looking to make it a smooth 4-0-0 start tonight at the Prudential Center and now you know what to expect from the opponent!