It might have been overshadowed by the Shea Weber-P.K. Subban deal, but it's possible that the New Jersey Devils' offseason acquisition of former No. 1 overall draft pick Taylor Hall from the Edmonton Oilers for emerging young defenseman Adam Larsson will end up being the most impactful offseason move in the league.
The Devils, who are finally beginning to look like a Ray Shero team, hung around the edge of the playoff picture last season far longer than most had expected them to. But with Michael Cammalleri hurt, New Jersey lacked that go-to offensive guy, as it finished dead last in goals per game. In Hall the Devils have one of the top left wingers in the game. And, at age 24, he should be the centerpiece of New Jersey's offense for years to come. It cost him, but Shero has accelerated the process of rebuilding the barren cupboard he inherited when he became the Devils' general manager in May 2015.
"We had to take a bit of a step back to be a better team," Shero said in a recent interview. "We needed more talented players, younger players."
Among the positive elements for New Jersey is ownership that's committed to winning and to spending to win, a sudden plethora of draft picks, and cap space. So stay tuned if the Devils are close come the trade deadline.
Best new faces
Um, did we mention Taylor Hall? Four times in his young career, Hall has topped 20 goals -- and now that's he's playing in a more structured offense, likely with his former Windsor Spitfires junior teammate Adam Henrique, look for Hall to be north of 30, and maybe closer to 40, goals if he stays healthy.
Shero didn't want to give up on Larsson, whose absence leaves a sizeable hole on the blue line, especially when you factor in the departure of the underappreciated David Schlemko. But look for a rejuvenated Ben Lovejoy, fresh off a steady turn for the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins last season, to help stabilize the blue line. Veteran Kyle Quincey was signed during training camp, adding to the team's blue-line depth.
Beau Bennett, whom Shero drafted in Pittsburgh, may be looking at his last chance to revive his injury-marred career up front, while Vernon Fiddler, an important glue guy, could add veteran leadership on a team that shed a bevy of aging players, including Tuomo Ruutu, Stephen Gionta and Jordin Tootoo, and presumably Patrik Elias, the Devils' all-time leading scorer who is still recovering from offseason surgery on his right knee and remains unsigned.
Let's start with Cammalleri, who is reportedly at full strength after a wrist injury kept him out of action from the All-Star break on. His absence was a killer for a Devils team that was not particularly deep up front. When he's healthy, Cammalleri is one of the most creative, productive players in the game. But the 34-year-old has struggled to stay healthy in recent years. If he's in the lineup, the Devils' offensive depth goes up exponentially.
How will Hall fit in? He wasn't happy about being traded, and if you assume he's motivated to prove Edmonton wrong, this should be good news for New Jersey. Shero has been candid in saying he wished he didn't have to trade Larsson, who was finally emerging as a top-four defender. Now the Devils have to hope they can fill that gap by committee as the team's identity continues to coalesce.
Cory Schneider didn't get much of a shot for Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey -- he played one period in the tournament -- but he's an elite netminder, and if the Devils are going to jump into the top eight in the Eastern Conference, Schneider will have to shoulder a mighty load. Schneider's U.S. teammate Kyle Palmieri had a breakout season for the Devils in 2015-16, scoring 30 times and adding 27 assists. He could get a look on the top line with Hall, but either way his work ethic and determination are as important to the team as is his goal production.
OK, almost as important. The Devils were eighth in goals allowed per game and on the penalty kill and surprisingly ninth in power-play efficiency last season, a testament to the game plan implemented by first-year head coach John Hynes. Hynes' comfort level with this team should increase his second year.
The Devils are close, maybe closer than people give them credit for being, and if they can stay healthy, they're going to be in the hunt for a postseason berth next April. Sixth in the Metropolitan Division.