New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils 2021 – 2022 Season Preview: How Close are They? (image from sportsnet.ca)

Recently, The New Jersey Devils Have Been Irrelevant

Since their magical Stanley Cup appearance run in the 2011 – 2012 season, the New Jersey Devils have battled mediocrity for eight of nine NHL seasons. Apart from ’17 – ’18, when league MVP brought them to a first round exit to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Devils have missed the playoffs every year.

The Devils roster will look much different from that of just four seasons ago. Hall is gone, as well as other key contributors from that roster, such as Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac, and Blake Coleman. There has been a complete gutting of the goaltending room by letting go of both Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid for nothing in return. Since that last playoff appearance, it was clear management was going into rebuild mode.

Offseason Moves

The Devils seem to be tired of being bottom dwellers. General Manager Tom Fitzgerald and his staff put together arguably the most impressive offseason this summer. With over $37 million available in cap space, the Devils found themselves in a position with their roster that allowed them to be aggressive on the market. Fitzgerald did just that by acquiring the biggest fish, signing defenseman Dougie Hamilton to a 7-year, $63 million ($9 mil AAV) deal.

New Jersey also added veteran goaltender Jonathan Bernier to a 2-year deal worth $8.25 million ($4.125 mil AAV) to serve as a backup/relief to youngster Mackenzie Blackwood, who the Devils believe is their goalie of the future. As a split-timer, Bernier sported a 9-11-1 record last season with a 2.99 GAA on a horrendous Detroit Red Wings team that refused to play any defense. The Devils have not gotten much production from their offseason additions over the past few seasons. Two names that come to mind are defenseman PK Subban and winger Nikita Gusev, who New Jersey decided to waive in the middle of the season. Subban, once a Norris trophy winner, has just 37 total points and rocks a -37 +/- in two full seasons with the Devils. This season is the last year under contract with New Jersey. Gusev had 49 points in 86 games, which doesn’t look awful until you remember he was a former MVP in the KHL. Many consider New Jersey to be the winners of the 2021 NHL offseason. Hamilton, Bernier, and now Tomas Tatar (signed a 2-year, $9 mil, $4.5 mil AAV deal) and Ryan Graves (traded from COL for a +59 career +/-) will be immediate and, more importantly, positive impacts.

Youth Movement

Last season’s New Jersey Devils, after the trading of veterans at the deadline, boasted the youngest roster in the entire NHL. Management has focused on putting their young prospects on the NHL ice, and why wouldn’t they? After all, the Devils boasted the sixth best farm system according to Chris Peters of ESPN entering last season.

The way the Devils are going to get back to the playoffs is if they get production from their new additions AND if their youth takes another leap forward – and they have plenty of youth. Jack Hughes is ready to be an NHL star. Nico Hischier was named captain of the team at just 22-years old. Pavel Zacha is coming off his best season where he led the team in points. Yegor Sharangovich and Ty Smith both finished top-10 in voting for the Calder trophy. All these players are 24 or younger. There’s certainly plenty to be excited about for Devils fans. With inexperience comes sloppy play, and New Jersey was very sloppy last season. They finished in the bottom eight for both goals scored per game, goals allowed per game, powerplay percentage, and the atrocious penalty kill percentage (they finished dead last). With a year under head coach Lindy Ruff and his young cores’ belts, fans can expect those rankings to improve.

Lineup Projection

Now for the fun; let’s look at my ’21 – ’22 New Jersey Devils projected roster:

Tomas TatarJack HughesYegor Sharangovich
Pavel ZachaNico Hischier (C)Jesper Bratt
Miles Wood (A)Janne KuokkanenDawson Mercer (R)
Jesper BoqvistMichael McLeodAndreas Johnsson
Forwards

New Jersey has built up depth down the middle of their forward core with guys who are flexible to play either center or winger. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a few guys shift around from position to position to find the best-fitting trios, especially early in the season. Aside from Tatar (30), this projection also doesn’t have a single forward over the age of 26.

Hughes is the X-factor here. After showing flashes of brilliance last year, the former first overall pick has been getting some serious hype for a major breakout year. Zacha – Hischer -Bratt have the best chemistry, so it would be hard to see them be broken up. Tatar should help Hughes rack up more points, because last season Hughes bounced around from line to line for most of the season and had many instances where pass recipients did not finish off a great play by him.

Ty SmithDougie Hamilton
Ryan GravesDamon Severson (A)
Jonas SiegenthalerPK Subban
Defensemen
Mackenzie BlackwoodJonathan Bernier
Goaltenders

The defensive core has been reloaded. Hamilton, who towers at 6’6”, should offer security for Ty Smith who is undersized and still developing his defensive skills. They are both offensive wizards and should add a lot of offense both 5-on-5 and the powerplay. Graves and Severson are both large bodies with heavy shots from the point. Siegenthaler and Subban as a third pairing sounds like a luxury at this point, considering Subban has been playing first pair minutes for two years too many. As for the goalies, a Blackwood – Bernier tandem looks like pretty solid.

I projected a rookie to crack the Devils roster this year, and it isn’t super prospect Alexander Holtz. Dawson Mercer, 19, was picked in the same round as Holtz two drafts ago and look more NHL ready. Mercer racked up 53 points in 32 games including the playoffs last year in the QMJHL for the Chicoutimi Saguenéens. He plays hard, meaning he can give penalty kill minutes while having center and wing flexibility. If Holtz wants to snag a spot on the NHL roster, he needs to have a showstopping training camp. Otherwise, he is ticketed for AHL Utica.

Last year New Jersey had what seemed like a million call ups from their AHL squad. This year should be different. An 82-game NHL season brings injuries and more, however, so these 20 won’t be the only ones on NHL ice this season in the Garden State. Some of those names include skaters Christian Jaros, Nolan Foote, Kevin Bahl, Tyce Thompson, Graeme Clarke, and Nikita Okhotyuk.

Where Will They Finish?

The Devils played in the brutally competitive one-and-done East division last season and will rejoin the Metropolitan division this year which is looking just as good. On paper, New Jersey has the 7th best team in the division. However, I’m predicting they finish 5th, beating out the Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. The balanced look in the goalie’s crease and blue line talent for New Jersey outweighs those three teams’ lineup talent.

Take a look at how one of New Jersey’s division rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, project to look like this upcoming NHL season.

But can they make the playoffs? In a short answer, no. That doesn’t mean they can’t be competitors during the final month of the season, which would be the best-case scenario for this team. Anything better than that is a major success, but I think Ruff will just be looking to compete and get out of the bottom of the division first. The following year will be the one where everything should click for this team.

The Devils opened at +6600 odds to win the cup, so don’t get your hopes too high, Devils fans. But I do think New Jersey will be more than just a write off this season. They’re going to give good teams a hard time this year. Unfortunately, inexperience will catch up to them throughout the full 82-game stretch. Still the Devils roster is the best it’s been in years, and the NHL world is ready for Jack Hughes to breakout into an NHL superstar.

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