In the days leading up to the opening of the NHL's unrestricted free agent market on July 1, New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider wasn't expecting his team to make one of the biggest splashes of the summer.
"It's funny," Schneider said. "I was talking to my dad and brother right around free agency and my whole career in the NHL, I've never been on a team that's made that big move. … Then, literally a week later [the Devils] go out and trade for Taylor Hall."
The Devils acquired Hall from the Edmonton Oilers for defenseman Adam Larsson on June 29. Suddenly, their offense looked far more dangerous. Hall, 24, is one of the top left wings in the League and led the Oilers last season with 26 goals and 65 points.
His arrival should provide a much-needed boost to an offense that ranked last in the NHL last season, averaging 2.22 goals per game. As the Devils' last line of defense, Schneider, 30, welcomes any additional offensive support and, from his days facing Hall in the Western Conference with the Vancouver Canucks, understands what he can bring.
"You look and he's a bona fide superstar in the League," Schneider said. "We've had a very blue-collar mentality with our team, which we like, but it's good to have that kind of talent and a game-breaker like that. Unfortunately it cost us Adam, who is a great player and a great person. It's been fun watching him mature and develop. You have to give something to get something in this League, but the coaching staff and [general manager Ray Shero] have done a great job identifying our weaknesses and trying to address them."
The Devils haven't qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2012, a year before Schneider arrived in a trade with the Canucks. But he can see how Shero gradually has reshaped the Devils' forward group since becoming their GM on May 4, 2015, adding speed and skill that fits the attacking style coach John Hynes wants to play.
Over the past two offseasons, the Devils acquired two top-six forwards by trading for Hall and Kyle Palmieri, who scored an NHL career-high 30 goals last season after being acquired from the Anaheim Ducks. In addition to the trade for Hall, the Devils also upgraded their forward depth this summer by trading for Beau Bennett and signing unrestricted free agent Vernon Fiddler.
"You see teams do it in this league that in a couple of years, they're able to turn things around pretty quickly and establish that culture of winning or getting in the playoffs," Schneider said. "It can change in a hurry. We haven't had the luxury of a top pick -- first overall or top three, top five -- so maybe that makes it a little bit harder because that's where you find those talents. But Ray has done a good job of clearing out some older guys. You loved playing with all of those guys, but he wanted to make us younger and faster, and I think he's been doing that."
As excited as Schneider is to have Hall on board, he does not underestimate how important Larsson was to the Devils. Playing in the top defense pair with Andy Greene, Larsson regularly was tasked with trying to shut down the opponent's first line.
Larsson was second on the Devils in average ice time per game (22:30) and fifth in the League in average ice time per game on the penalty kill (3:20) last season.
The signing of unrestricted free agent defenseman Ben Lovejoy will help fill some of that void, but the additional offense Hall will bring might come at a price and put more pressure on Schneider.
"I was joking that we might have to win 4-3 this year instead of 2-1," said Schneider, who is completely recovered from surgery on May 12 to repair a core muscle injury. "But Lovejoy was a great signing, a little under the radar. He works hard as a penalty-killer, so I think he'll replace some of the minutes that Adam gave us, but it's going be tough to replace [Larsson] in his entirety. I think it's going to be a group effort. We're going to need everybody this year, and it's up to me to keep the puck out of the net regardless of who is in front of me. So I think this will be a good challenge for me to maybe raise my game and play better than I have been."
That might prove difficult considering Schneider played at a pretty high level last season. He ranked fourth in the NHL with a 2.15 goals-against average and sixth with a .924 save percentage.
That helped him earn a spot in the NHL All-Star Game for the first time in his career and a selection to Team USA for the World Cup of Hockey 2016, which opens on Sept. 17 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
Schneider was one of the main reasons the Devils remained in playoff contention until they faded late in the regular season. He believes that experience and the additions they made this summer will help them in their pursuit of a playoff berth this season.
"I think we're definitely in the mix," he said. "You just have to be better than eight other teams in your conference. I think that's our objective and once you get in, you're in and anything can happen."