Again, it was a huge weekend for fans of the New Jersey Devils. Drafting Jack Hughes number one was a significant step. Then, Ray Shero acquired P.K. Subban for Steven Santini, Jeremy Davies, a second round pick this year and next year.
There are still at least five improvements that New Jersey can still make for next season. Some are highly contested, and some are sorely needed. These are the five most critical needs.
First: Improve the defense
New Jersey was horrible on defense last season. Injuries did not help but too often, players made the same mind-numbing mistakes repeatedly. Was it coaching? That is something fans and management alike will find out quickly this season. If improvement is not seen after the upgrades, then there lies a systemic problem.
P.K. Subban is merely the first step in rearranging the defense. With the right side mostly set for now, the search for a top-four left-handed defenseman can begin. Ray Shero has several options at his disposal including $25+ million in cap space.
Free agency features several targets that would require significant overpaying of dollars. The trade market, however, seems to be a place the general manager could explore. Colin Miller is a big target from the Vegas Golden Knights given the team’s cap space issues. Vegas can go 10% over the salary cap until October but ideally it is not good to be that far over the salary cap. Even Jonas Brodin might be an option from Minnesota. Calvin de Haan is off the board after a trade to Chicago on Monday night.
Finding a left-handed top-four defenseman is a very high priority.
Second: Improve the coaching
Let’s get into a more argumentative topic. New Jersey suffered from some deficient coaching and development issues last season. Injuries cannot be used as an excuse for some teachable moments that were missed.
This is a “put up or shut up” year for Alan Nasreddine. For as good as the penalty kill has been, the defense at even strength was poor at best. Too many bad decisions could not be dismissed simply on lack of talent. Coaching takes its share of the blame and that goes for John Hynes as well. Hynes did not handle the adversity like one would expect.
New Jersey’s coaching staff must be more proactive this year. This will be a team that features more dynamic offense, defense, and goaltending. Getting this team off to a good start is crucial and that starts with better game planning. That was also deficient at times with New Jersey. Teams came in prepared to how to play the Devils and New Jersey had few or no answers.
Coaching must plan to make New Jersey harder to play against while solving opponents quicker and easier if necessary. It is paramount if New Jersey expects to make the playoffs.
Third: Blackwood or Schneider? Does not matter. Just keep it rolling.
MacKenzie Blackwood or Cory Schneider? It has been a question asked all Spring into the Summer. The answer is eventually Blackwood and that is crystal clear. Schneider still can play in 30-35 games or so. Blackwood showed an ability to play well in adverse conditions – going 10-10 with a 2.61 GAA and .918 save percentage.
Even Cory Schneider turned his season around after being called up again. The hip at least healed enough for him to get into a rhythm once more. The February and March Schneider may be the one we see more of in 2019-20 as he compiled a 6-7-3 record in 16 games with a save percentage of .924 and a goals-against average of 2.42. A little confidence went a long way for both goaltenders. If the offense scores just a bit more, watch the wins come.
Fourth: Add at least one more top-six forward
This may prove to be a bit more difficult of a task than it seems. Getting players to want to sign in New Jersey can be difficult. Again, the trade route may be a viable option. Players which may be out there include Jason Zucker and maybe even Phil Kessel. Free agency wise, Joe Pavelski, Anders Lee, and even Mats Zuccarello are out there among others. However, they will cost a lot of that built up cap space.
There is an offer sheet possibility for Mitch Marner but considering how seldom an offer sheet happens, it probably is time to explore all options. Exploiting teams with low cap spaces will be used often as it already is by some teams.
If desperate enough, does Ray Shero pull the trigger on signing a Corey Perry to a one-year maybe even a two-year deal. Perry can still play some top-six minutes and sheltered properly; Perry may just get his groove back.
Fifth: Play Nico Hischier more on the power play
Travis Zajac should be used sparingly on a power play other than the offensive zone draws. That’s pretty much it for the most part. Yes, Zajac is vital as a mentor for both Hischier and especially Jack Hughes. Hughes may get some second unit power play time. Eventually, there will be a transition of sorts for Zajac.
Hischier is one of the best playmakers New Jersey has seen since Scott Gomez. It is okay to see a few mistakes here and there. The top-unit center takes more risk than most and that is fine. The key comes down to coaching. This staff must start to maximize what it can get for players.
These are the five biggest ways for improvement and naturally there are always more for New Jersey.
By Chris Wassel