With their recent win over the Philadelphia Flyers on the weekend, the New Jersey Devils ended a tough stretch of losing four of their last five, a stretch which coincided with the untimely injury to breakout rookie goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood, who had previously helped the Devils to a strong re-start after the Christmas break.
While things had been looking up two weeks ago, the Devils still find themselves toward the bottom of the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference, and the next four to six weeks prior to the trade deadline will have a significant impact on the remainder of the season and future of the franchise.
After making the playoffs last season for the first time since the team’s Stanley Cup run in 2012, and for the first time in the Ray Shero/John Hynes era, it would be clear the Devils expect progress moving forward. In a season where expectations were certainly higher than what has been produced thus far, progress can still mean missing the playoffs this campaign, whether fans believe so or not. Having a strong second half and seeing improvements from the core young players and key prospects will determine that progress.
Still, the question is can the Devils make a strong push for the playoffs in the next 4-6 weeks, closing the gap on the wild card spots in the Eastern Conference, and put themselves in position to buy at the deadline? Or will New Jersey struggle to find wins; continue to lose ground in the East, and become sellers at the trade deadline?
The latter scenario is more likely, as the Devils’ chances of making the playoffs has fallen below 2%.
The Devils are far enough behind at this point that even a good run over the next month or so may not be enough to swing the standings in their favor, as the teams currently in the 3rd place in the division/wild card battle (NYI, CLB, BUF, BOS, MTL) haven’t looked like slowing down. Don’t forget there are still other teams, including the surging Carolina Hurricanes within their own division, between these teams and the Devils who will also look to climb the standings.
Even so, convincing general manager Ray Shero to be an actual buyer at the deadline would take a miraculous effort over the next six weeks, and given what New Jersey gave up to acquire eventual rentals Michael Grabner and Pat Maroon at the last deadline, Shero would be reluctant to do the same this year.
The more likely move Shero makes is for New Jersey stay the course no matter their position in the standings, make a few minor moves to build for the future while trusting the current group to develop and attempt the climb without added help.
Over the next few weeks and the rest of the season, here are five things for the New Jersey Devils to consider:
1) Ben Lovejoy and the depth behind him
New Jersey’s excellent penalty kill would not be where it is without the “Reverend”, so he would be important to a playoff push, whether with the Devils or with another team looking to shore up their defense with a veteran 6th/7th D-man who has won the Stanley Cup.
However, playoffs or not, New Jersey may want to start handing more playing time to Steve Santini, Mirco Mueller or even Yegor Yakovlev, with the latter two of the three trying to earn new contracts this summer. All three will also be trying to impress going into next season, when top prospect and 2018 first round pick Ty Smith will push for a spot on the team and likely, in the top six. Lovejoy, meanwhile, is an unrestricted free agent this summer and is unlikely to be re-signed in order to make room for the younger crop of defensemen to come through.
2) Marcus Johansson
Had the current season and last season gone differently for the pending UFA, this conversation may not be necessary. Unfortunately for the playmaking left winger, his concussion trouble last campaign and recent upper-body injury this season have resulted in the team getting fairly used to finding their mojo without “MoJo”.
A healthy Johansson is a valuable top-6 forward who will be relied on to continue any potential success for the rest of the year and could earn a new contract this summer. The Devils would love to see if Johansson can re-discover some of his form from his years in Washington over the next month.
On the other hand, selling Johansson at the trade deadline would yield a significant return, even if not the original value they gave up to get him, and New Jersey will have more than enough salary cap space to replace him in the summer with one of a number of potentially available top-6 wingers. Jakob Silfverberg, Mark Stone or Jordan Eberle (a good friend of Taylor Hall from their Edmonton days) could be enticing to New Jersey on the right wing, a position which the Devils have used a number of left-handed shooters this year.
3) Brian Boyle
As a pending UFA, a physical presence, and a seasoned playoff veteran, Boyle would be enticing to a lot of playoff-bound teams. Even if the next few weeks don’t go in favor of the Devils, there is a chance New Jersey may want to hold on to Boyle past the deadline and bring him back on a new short-term contract past this season while their young forward prospects continue to develop.
Like Lovejoy, Boyle has been important to the team’s penalty kill, but has also found some success on the first power-play unit. Boyle is also on pace for 20+ goals, which is terrific production from a 4th line power forward, so a trade could bring a decent return.
4) The Goaltending Situation
At the moment, there is no debating Mackenzie Blackwood has earned the right to be the guy between the pipes for now, but Cory Schneider, winless in the last calendar year, is on a $6 million contract for three more seasons, leaving last season’s second-half hero and fan favorite, Keith Kinkaid, as the odd-man out in this situation due to his expiring contract.
However, with Schneider returning to practice recently, activating him (hopefully after another 2-3 game conditioning stint in Binghamton) will either require New Jersey to move Keith Kinkaid or send Mackenzie Blackwood back down to the AHL, which may not be the worst thing for New Jersey. Schneider needs to find his game again, and Kinkaid needs to play well enough to gain attention in the trade market, all the while Blackwood can continue to develop in Binghamton for a few more weeks and get a chance to play in the AHL All-Star game.
5) Prospect Development
The last thing the Devils have to consider is how trades affect the pool of prospects. While we discussed Blackwood above and the defense corps is likely to see the addition of Smith next season, the forward prospects have. Brett Seney has been given the chance to play significant fourth line minutes this season, and John Quenneville has been up and down from Binghamton as he struggles to produce points in the NHL.
Should the Devils pull off a few trades of expiring contracts like Boyle or Johansson, expect Quenneville to be right back up for another chance to prove himself, but time may be running out on the former first-round pick. Next season, he is waiver-eligible, and the Devils would prefer to avoid having another Reid Boucher-type of situation.
The other prospects New Jersey may give a chance to by season’s end include Michael McLeod and Joey Anderson. McLeod has taken strides forward in his first professional season while in Binghamton, earning a one-game call-up in November.
The same goes for Anderson, who has been out of commission since November, but was starting to find his game at the NHL level just prior to his injury. When he returns, he may need further time to get back into NHL shape with the B-Devils before returning to the big club.
For McLeod and Anderson, trading Boyle and/or Johansson will certainly open up spots in the lineup for the kids to prove themselves.
Overall, there are questions aplenty in Newark, but the time is now for the Devils to start answering them.
Ed is a 2010 graduate of Temple University with a degree in Sport and Recreation Management. A New Yorker at heart, he now resides in Philadelphia and supports the NY Giants, NY Mets, NJ Devils, West Ham United, and the Philadelphia Union. A former hockey coach and amateur scout, Ed is also the founder of the Prospective Hockey Central mobile app, connecting scouts and players in the recruiting process.