On Friday night, the New Jersey Devils will launch their 2021-22 season against Chicago. After a decade where they only made the playoffs twice, Devils fans are expecting the team to take a step forward starting this season. A flurry of signings during the offseason gave an indication that the franchise was serious about taking that step. What are some of the themes that will shape the season for the Devils? Let’s look in this preview.
Additions and Subtractions
The first theme in this New Jersey Devils preview is additions and subtractions. Just like every other NHL team, there is an ebb and flow of player movement. This past offseason, the New Jersey Devils had a flurry of movement. It started on July 12 when the Devils acquired defenseman Ryan Graves from Colorado for Mikhail Maltsev and a 2021 second round pick. On the first day of free agency on July 28, Dougie Hamilton signed a monster deal to come to the Garden State. Signing both defensemen shored up a defense that allowed 3.46 goals per game in 2021. (A pair of Ham and Gravy, anyone?) The same day, the Devils signed Jonathan Bernier to backup for Mackenzie Blackwood. A week later, Tomas Tatar was signed by the Devils to add depth scoring for a team that scored only 2.59 goals per game last season.
In addition to Maltsev, other players departed the Devils via free agency, trade, or the expansion draft. Forward Nathan Bastian was the player left unprotected by the Devils and selected by Seattle in the expansion draft. Defenseman Ryan Murray signed with Colorado, Will Butcher was traded to Buffalo, and Connor Carrick signed with Seattle as a free agent.
The second theme in this New Jersey Devils preview is higher expectations. The player under the most pressure but the highest ceiling is Jack Hughes. After struggling in his rookie season and making a slight jump in production last season, the Devils are looking at Hughes to have a big season. Forward Nico Hischier earned the captain’s C last season and his leadership is going to be key. Forward Pavel Zacha finally started to put his game together after leading the team in scoring last season, including a 10-game point streak. Defenseman Ty Smith starts the season on injured reserve, but is expected to be part of an improved power play. Blackwood hopes to have a breakout season with an improved defense in front of him. These five players are arguably the most important parts of a Devils team looking to trend upward.
(I know, you’re asking, “What about Dawson Mercer?” Don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll give us plenty to talk about this season.)
The third theme in this New Jersey Devils preview is bold predictions. Here are some bold predictions for individual players on the Devils:
- Jack Hughes breaks through and scores 65 points;
- Mackenzie Blackwood wins more than 25 games and has five shutouts;
- Ty Smith leads the team in power play points;
- Yegor Sharangovich leads the team in power play goals;
- Janne Kuokkanen (not Miles Wood) leads the team in hits.
Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios
The final theme in this New Jersey Devils is the best- and worst-case scenarios this season. The best-case scenario for the Devils is to get off to hot start and stay in contention for a playoff berth. If they’re over .500 by January, their chances at the playoffs are good. This is especially in a division that features aging squads in Pittsburgh and Washington and rebuilds in Columbus in Philadelphia. The worst-case scenario for the Devils is that they get off to a slow start and injuries start to mount, forcing the Devils to go to the well often in Utica. There’s also the ever-lingering COVID vaccination status of Blackwood, which could affect his status throughout the season. Another slow start and a way-below .500 record could mean another fire sale at the trade deadline in Newark.
The Devils are on the cusp of starting something special. They have a young core of excellent forwards, size and strength at defense, and steady goaltending. Head coach Lindy Ruff likes to play aggressive and general manager Tom Fitzgerald thinks he’s got the players to match Ruff’s style. I’m hoping for a Devils return to the playoffs, but I think they just might miss out. The Devils will be playing meaningful games in March, though, and that’s enough to sell hope for 2022-23.