Why we should hold our horses with the Devils' summer hype

Acquiring Subban was one of the Devils' flashy off-season moves. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Acquiring Subban was one of the Devils' flashy off-season moves. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

No question about it, the New Jersey Devils have had a very nice summer.

For the cost of little more than a few draft picks and prospects, a lot of cap space, plus an unwatchable season of hockey, they got PK Subban, Nikita Gusev, Wayne Simmonds, and Jack Hughes.

Of course, the thing with cap space is you can burn a lot of it when you bring in some solid talent if you have a lot of it already, and that’s just what New Jersey did. I know a lot of people have been saying Ray Shero “weaponized” his team’s cap space and that’s maybe a bit of an overstatement.

Sure, he paid less than the theoretical market value for Subban, but Subban is coming off a career-worst year (he was below replacement level) and he’s 30, so this is a gamble. It’s one I think they should have made, but it’s not like he got three-years-ago Subban for Steven Santini and some other stuff.

They needed a puck-moving defenceman and bought low on a guy who is ostensibly a puck-mover. Concerns about his ability to keep up last season should have been duly noted, but when you get the chance to get a guy who’s still not totally over the hill with his skill level on the cheap, you do it. There’s no guarantee of a rebound, but it’s a good bet he’ll be better than leaving that cap space open.

Likewise, he made a better offer than someone else for Gusev, who looks like he can put the puck in the net but who certainly comes with some question marks of his own. Here, too, it’s a gamble worth making because he might be the next Artemi Panarin, albeit as an older KHL import, but he might also be the next Steve Moses. I’m erring away from the latter assessment but you never know, and if his skating is as bad as the doomsayers project, well…

As for Simmonds, let’s just say it’s a good thing he’s on a one-year deal and the cap hit doesn’t really matter much. I think they can probably put him in a position to succeed, but he’s been below replacement level the last two seasons and it’s tough to see that changing.

Hughes was obviously a great add but you get a great add No. 1 overall by being actively bad the season prior. Getting Hughes was certainly a best-case scenario for the team and its organizational centre depth is starting to look decent all of a sudden.

The problem is you can’t necessarily count on him, Simmonds, Subban, and a full season of Taylor Hall (remember, he only played 33 games last season) to make up the 25 goals needed to get back to even the league-average offensive output. I think it’s well within their wheelhouse, but you’re probably counting on Hall and Hughes to bear that load, because the Devils’ power play wasn’t terrible, and I wonder about the extent to which Subban and Simmonds can help it go to the next level in a way that Hughes and Hall wouldn’t have anyway.

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While offence was certainly a big problem for the Devils last year — as it would be with almost any team losing the reigning MVP for 49 games — let’s not forget that like the Sharks, the Devils got sub-.900 goaltending as well. A big part of that was Keith Kinkaid putting up an .891 in 41 games (costing the Devils about seven standings points below expected), and Kinkaid is no longer on the roster. That’s addition by subtraction.

So the Devils are left with the battery of Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood that, for all the potential improvements made this summer, is likely to make or break them as a legitimate playoff contender. Schneider was just .903 last season but the splits here are very interesting. He started the season late following hip surgery and was, in a word, dreadful; the team basically pulled the plug on him after nine appearances to start the season in which he went a stunning .852. Once he came back from a mid-December abdominal strain in February, he played 17 games and went .921 in them.

If that Schneider — or really any Schneider resembling him — shows up next season, Blackwood doesn’t even have to be all that good. And the thing is, Blackwood’s track record is solid. He was drawing comparisons to Carter Hart for a chunk of last season, and in the end they both ended up right around the same place: Not there yet, but promising.

New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider (35) and goaltender MacKenzie Blackwood (29) celebrate after defeating the Buffalo Sabres 3-1 during an NHL hockey game, Monday, March 25, 2019, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Goaltending could make or break New Jersey's season. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The thing you have to keep in mind is that even if the Devils added 20, 25 goals to their season total, that keeps them in the bottom half of the league offensively, and it wasn’t like they were deeply unlucky. They underperformed their expected-goal total by about 1.5, and a full season of Hall and Nico Hischier would certainly add to that, but not to the extent needed to get them back to the post-season.

At the other end of the ice, the Devils not only couldn’t get a save, but they were also below average in expected-goals against (almost 232, 18th in the league). A full season of a healthy, effective Schneider/Blackwood pairing gets them to outperform that number, but it would need to be by kind of a lot.

Put another way, this team missed the playoffs by 26 points and finished last in a mediocre division. That’s a lot of ground to make up, and a lot of teams to leapfrog.

So while you should definitely be encouraged with the steps the Devils made this summer (and will likely continue to make), penciling them in as any more than a bubble team right now seems like recency bias run amok.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, CapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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