New Jersey Devils: Is it time to worry about Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev?

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(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

Heading into the 2020-21 NHL season, many an expert expected Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev to be the top-two scoring options for the New Jersey Devils.

In theory, it made sense. The dynamic duo finished out the 2019-20 season as the lone forwards on the Devils’ roster who put up 40-plus points in an abbreviated season and likely would have hit the 50-point mark had they played 13 more contests.

With Nico Hischier out with a leg injury and the #JackHughesRevolution still a ways away, why wouldn’t any red-blooded hockey fan from the Garden State want to support their favorite team by picking up Palamari or Gusev in fantasy hockey, especially when they were going outside the top-150 in preseason power rankings?

I know I certainly would have – assuming I played fantasy hockey and didn’t opt to instead buy-low on Hughes and the best goalie this side of the Delaware River, MacKenzie Blackwood.

So what gives? Why are a pair of players many assumed would be closing in on spots in the double-digit club by now averaging less than a point a game without a goal between the two of them?

Do the New Jersey Devils have a player problem or a personnel problem?

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Through the first six games of the New Jersey Devils’ 2020-21 NHL season, Kyle Palimari and Nikita Gusev are a combined 0-28 on overall shots on goal – 0-13 by Palimari and 0-15 by Gusev.

While Palimari has been a bit more effective as a facilitator, as he’s logged two of his three assists on the power play, neither has been particularly impressed with their shot select, and one has to wonder how long things can go on before Lindy Ruff and company decide to start making changes.

In a way, he already has.

After spending the first four games of the season playing right wing on the second line next to Pavel Zacha and fellow underachiever Andreas Johnsson, Gusev was kicked down a line to play left wing with a similarly demoted Zacha, and taxi squad elevatee Nick Merkley to make way for Miles Wood, Travis Zajac, and Janne Kuokkanen.

While the Devils’ new third line is finding some success, as Zacha is on a two-game goal streak – and both Merkley and Gusev have earned their first point of the still-young season as a result – the Devils haven’t suddenly become offensive juggernauts thanks to the move, and their 28-year-old former KHL standout hasn’t suddenly become a player facing off against lesser line competition.

And as for Palmieri? Well, I imagine the Devils would consider dropping him down a line, too, if they had a viable option to soak up minutes on the right side next to Hughes and rookie standout Yegor Sharangovich.

That very well might be the most disheartening thing about Palimari’s play as of late: It’s all on him.

Hughes is playing incredibly well and has assisted on four goals in addition to three of his own. He’s assisted on all three of Wood’s goals, helped Ty Smith land his first goal in his first game as a pro, and has skated like the kind of on-ice point guard floor general many expected when he was the universally ordained number one overall pick in 2019.

If 2021 Palimari was playing more like 2016 Palimari – or honestly, even 2019-20 Palimari – maybe Hughes would be above Anze Kopitar, Mark Stone, and his brother Quinn on the leaderboard and earn the honor of NHL points king for the month of January. Maybe the Devils’ offense wouldn’t be so hot and cold, and opposing teams would instead have to play them tough for a full 60 minutes.

Huh, in a weird way, I guess opposing teams do have to play the Devils for a full 60 minutes but not for the reason you might think.

New Jersey Devils: Overlook Ty Smith at your own risk. light. Trending

If you happen to be a non-Devils fan looking over the team’s depth chart, you’ll likely be hard-pressed to pick out many of the team’s goal scorers from a sea of NHL faces. You likely know – or at least recognize names like – Hughes, Wood, Palmieri, Zajac, and maybe even Smith after his monster start to the season, but what about Sharangovich, Michael McLeod, and “Big” Nate Bastian? Those players aren’t even on one-way contracts yet, and they somehow each have more goals than Johnsson, Gusev, Palmieri, and P.K. Subban combined.

So, what gives? How are the Devils seemingly always getting a goal out of nowhere from a youngster or a “cult hero” but can’t seem to get either of their top-line goal scorers going?

Maybe the Devils are just a team devoid of legitimate top-line talent.

I mean think about it, how many other East Division teams would Palimari be a top-line right wing on? One or two? And how about Gusev? I know his hype train was strong heading into the season, but would, say, the Flyers let him take five shots a game, game after game when they aren’t going in?

Next. How the Columbus Blue Jackets can actually keep hold of Patrik Laine. dark

In a perfect world, the New Jersey Devils would be operating on full strength. In an even more perfect world, they’d have an elite scoring right wing – Alexander Holtz? – to pair up with Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and company and Lindy Ruff would be able to configure a lineup with goal scorers and shot facilitators more evenly spread out. But unfortunately – or maybe fortunately, depending on your take – the Devils objectively aren’t a finished product – they are very much still a work in progress. Because the team didn’t hotshot their way back to contention with a blockbuster trade for a player like Patrick Laine, the roster is still a bit of a melding of the old and the new and will likely remain frustratingly volatile as a result.