The Devils have made the playoffs just one time since 2012 and have been rebuilding since 2015. Is this the year that the organization finally returns to contention?
The last 10 years have not been an easy time to be a New Jersey Devils fan. There has been a lot of losing, followed by off season excitement, followed by more losing. Is this the year things change? I believe it is. I believe that this season, the Devils move from being a rebuilding team to a playoff team and here is why
The most coveted free agent in the NHL this past off season, Dougie Hamilton, decided to sign in the Garden State for the next 7 years. The 6 foot 6 inch 230 pound defenseman is 28 years old and just committed to be a Devil until he is 35. For the past three seasons, Hamilton has been a Carolina Hurricane and one of the best defensemen in the entire NHL. In those three seasons, he has played 184 games and produced 121 points while averaging over 21 minutes of ice time per game. In 2021, he finished 4th in Norris Trophy voting for the best defenseman in the NHL. Hamilton plays and produces in all situations but especially at 5 on 5 and on the power play. Considering New Jersey had an absolutely putrid power play last season, Hamilton is exactly what the Devils need. Additionally, he adds size and strength that the Devils have been sorely lacking for years as they have been easily pushed around by true contenders. To further help on defense and in physicality, Tom Fitzgerald also acquired 6 foot 5 inch defenseman Ryan Graves from Colorado this past summer. Just 26 years old, Graves has played the last three seasons on the Avalanche blue line.
The Devils also signed Tomas Tatar in the off season. Tatar is a 30 year old left winger under contract for the next two seasons. He has been an NHL regular since 2013 and played in Detroit, Las Vegas, and Montreal. In his career, he averages 49 points per 82 games played while also averaging 15 minutes of ice time per game. For a young team with a ton of cap space, bringing in an experienced and reliable middle six winger for $4.5 million over the next two years makes perfect sense. The Devils were among the youngest teams in the NHL last season so Tatar’s experience and reliability could be a calming presence in the locker room.
One of the flaws the Devils have had for the past few seasons has been a lack of goaltending depth. Mackenzie Blackwood has proven himself to be a capable starter in the NHL since the 2019-2020 season. However, the Devils hve struggled to find a reliable backup for the games Blackwood is not playing. in the 2019-2020 season, the Devils collected 59% of the possible points. Over 82 games, that would be a 96 point season and very likely a playoff berth. Without Blackwood however, Giles Senn, Cory Schneider and Louis Domingue collected only 32% of the possible points, or only 52 points in an 82 game season which would be the bottom of the league. The Devils attempted to address this issue by signing Corey Crawford prior to last season. However, he retired before playing a game for the Devils. This need for goaltending depth was addressed again this off season by signing Johnathan Bernier to a two year deal. Bernier is 33 years old and has played in 393 NHL games with Los Angeles, Toronto, Anaheim, Colorado, and Detroit. In those games, he has saved over 91% of the shots hes faced and allows just under 3 goals per game. If he can do that while backing up Blackwood, the Devils will have a solid goalie tandem that can help them to the playoffs.
This will also be the third season for 2019 number one overall pick Jack Hughes. Hughes made huge strides between his first and second NHL seasons and at just 20 years of age, there is still plenty of time for Jack to continue to improve as an NHL player. His points per game production jumped by nearly 20% between year one and year two so I see no reason not to expect another step up from his 31 points in 56 games last season.
2020-2021 was essentially a lost year for Nico Hischier, despite being named Devils captain in February. He started the season by recovering from a broken leg he suffered while training in Switzerland. Then he got COVID just as he was preparing to come back. Shortly after making his season debut, a shot from PK Subban took an unlucky bounce and broke multiple bones in Nico’s face. That is a lot to over come in a shortened 56 game season. With a more normal lead up to this season, there is no reason to expect Hischier not to continue to develop along with other young stars on the Devils who have been producing more over the past two seasons such as Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt.
The 2020-2021 Devils were one of the youngest teams in the NHL. They also had a new head coach in Lindy Ruff and several NHL rookies playing important roles. Namely, Yegor Sharangovich playing on the first forward line and Ty Smith playing big minutes as a top 4 defenseman. As a result of the shortened season and COVID protocols, the Devils had very little time to practice. As this new season approaches, Lindy Ruff has had a full training camp with his players and will have a regular practice schedule to get to work with them. Lindy Ruff doesn’t have the 6th most wins as an NHL head coach all time by accident and he will be able to teach the Devils how to win with a full practice schedule.
So, to quickly recap, the Devils added an elite defenseman in Dougie Hamilton. They added veteran scoring depth with Tomas Tatar. They added goaltending depth by signing Johnathan Bernier. Jack Hughes, Ty Smith, and Yegor Sharangovich are all a year older and more experienced while heading into a normal season with a full training camp and practice schedule. Nico Hischier (hopefully) won’t have to battle through several unrelated injures and a virus just to get on the ice. The 2021-2022 Devils will be the most talented and exciting version of this franchise we have seen in the last decade and I cannot wait. I think they will earn a wild card sport and finish ahead of Columbus, Carolina, Philadelphia and the Rangers. None of whom improved as significantly as the Devils did in my opinion.
Here is what I think this years lines will look like
Sharangovich Hughes Kuokkanen
Zacha Hischier Bratt
Tatar Mercer Johnsson
Wood Mcleod Vesey