30 IN 30 NEW JERSEY DEVILS (27th place)
Welcome to the Jersey Shore, a hidden land of great goaltending, talented forwards, and lousy defence (GTL). But don't feel too sorry for Devil fans, the luck of the Irish is with this team (in which I mean Taylor Hall, who is most likely not Irish) as they have nabbed the first overall pick in this years Entry Draft along with the rumoured return of a prior saviour (re - Ilya Kovalchuk and/or the assets they acquire by trading him). Despite being in the National Hockey League's group of death - the Metropolitan Division - the pieces are in place to make some regular season noise next year, although playoffs are probably 2 years away. Overall, things aren't as dire as initially expected, but a concerted effort must be made to improve their defence or risk watching offensive talent waste away.
Protection List Structure
The Devils are horrendously deficient of skill on the back end and could become reliant on patchwork options to fill the void. Andy Greene has been the best and fairest of the lot, but age is undoubtedly set to catch up with the 34 year old, who is signed for another 3 years at a $5M cap hit. Even though his goal differential (GF%) dropped dramatically this season (down from 52.7 to 40.0) he generally upholds very solid Corsi numbers after adjusting for his wildly high defensive zone start frequency (54.7 AdjCF% average over past 3 seasons). Damon Severson has improved tremendously, and with potential still left to unfold he remains the most important defenceman for the Devils to protect. Outside of these two, it’s gonna be a toss up between Jon Merrill, John Moore, and Ben Lovejoy for the final protection slot.
Going with the 7-3-1 model will protect all of the Devils key contributing forwards. With a load of talent in the forward pipeline, I see promise for this group, so much so that if they did happen to lose a guy, I believe they have enough depth to fill that spot internally. This would however, result in them leaving two out of the three defencemen previously mentioned unprotected and puts the pressure on Vegas to analyze the group.
The other more intriguing option from the Vegas perspective would be the 8-1 model. In this scenario the Golden Knights would have the ability to select a well-travelled veteran in Mike Cammalleri, or a 3rd line player in Beau Bennett. In the case of the Cammalleri, the Grey and Gold would hope he has a bit more left in the tank offensively to drive at least one of the scoring units for the team - something we've seen heavily dependent on his ability to stay healthy. Either way, if he's available I think Vegas scoops him up for his twilight years. Finding reliable 20 goal scorers through this Expansion process will be few and fair between, so if one's in your sights you have to pull the trigger.
Weeding through this defensive crop
Favouring the 7-3-1 structure, the breakdown of the Devils D-unit amounts to 3 men looking to fill the final protection slot. Even with the 8-1 model, this leaves at least one guy out in the cold. No matter the structure, let's rank the group accordingly.
At the top our list is John Moore. Although fairly unimpressive through an advanced stats micrsocpe, he is the most offensive of the group and only true power-play quarterback option in this lot. His outputs before reaching New Jersey were also significantly higher, with improved possession based numbers and goal differentials playing alongside guys like Michael Del Zotto and Connor Murphy. At an extremely cheap 1.667M contract for one more year, Moore is the smart choice with the 3rd defenceman selection.
The next two are a bit trickier. Fans of the Devils will assuredly scold Ben Lovejoy for the season they've just witnessed. His team leading Shots Against while on the ice and Defensive Zone Face-off starts tell a story of player who can't get out of his own zone. Understandably he has always played a rather 'stay at home' style, but his dip was so significant you begin to question the extent his previous totals were of his own doing and not that of his teammates on a strong Pittsburgh team.
Jon Merrill has come all the way down off the 'high' that was his first rookie and sophomore seasons. His goal differential has fallen well below the acceptable standard in the NHL, albeit with rather passable Corsi numbers. The inability to improve with significant enough effect from a disastrous 2015-16 season is a sign Merrill may never overcome bottom pairing status. Despite his restricted rights and arbitration eligibility after next year intact, his overall play hasn't rendered this contractual status as an advantage in our assessment. Overall, he's the cellar dweller of this group and the least likely to be protected.
When it comes down to it, New Jersey doesn’t have much to give up for a reason. They have struggled to compete as a unit even with some real talent present in their lineup. Proves a point long seen in Edmonton - improve your defence or watch offensive players struggle to win you games on their own. Nonetheless, protecting the forwards in this lineup who carry with them higher asset value is the smart play here. John Moore fills our last D-man protection slot in the 7-3-1 structure, while the final forward selection remains negligible based upon quality of forwards w/o exemption status remaining.
GOLDEN KNIGHTS SELECT...
Vegas will painstakingly evaluate Lovejoy and Merrill before this selection. The analysis above displays a duo who have had their struggles. Lovejoy may rank higher statistically on our list for the Devils, but I think the Golden Knights will select Jon Merrill instead. A change of scenery could serve him well in returning to his early career numbers and his contract status allows for more organizational control. Projected as a shut-down defencemen, Merrill could fill bottom pair minutes for this roster next season.
The Devils couldn't have gotten any luckier - winning the right to pick Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier. People will go overboard debating these two for the sake of media attention, but this pick will ultimately come down to team philosophy. Patrick should have the edge for his 200 foot game on a team looking for forwards that can help push the puck out of their own zone, but a more explosive offensive player like Hischier wouldn't exactly hurt this team either. A moot point for now.
P.S. dumping a truck load of money on a free agent defenceman wouldn't hurt. Just saying.
Next up: Buffalo Sabres