The New Jersey Devils received a number of updates to their star players prior to yesterday’s game against the Boston Bruins. Dougie Hamilton, who left Sunday’s game against the Washington Capitals after getting hit in the face with a puck, suffered a broken jaw and had surgery on Wednesday. Nico Hischier suffered a lower-body injury and was unavailable for Tuesday’s game.
Jonathan Bernier had season-ending surgery on his injured right hip and will be looking to make a full recovery for the 2022-23 season. Yegor Sharangovich and Pavel Zacha entered COVID health and safety protocols before yesterday’s game. Hischier, Sharangovich and Zacha could return during the home-and-home games between the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday and Saturday. Here are three players who need to take advantage of the chances they’ll have due to injuries and those in health and safety protocols.
The veteran finds himself with an opportunity to help the young defensemen on the team to a further extent with the injury to Hamilton. P.K. Subban is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent (UFA) at the end of the season and could increase his value with a strong second half of the year. He has two goals and 11 assists in 31 games played during 2021-22.
With the injury to Hamilton, Subban was moved from the third defensive pair up to the second for Tuesday’s game against the Boston Bruins. The 32-year-old was paired with Ryan Graves, who is in the midst of his fourth NHL season and first with the Devils. Subban has seen a notable drop in his point production since his previous stints with the Montreal Canadiens and Nashville Predators.
Since finishing the 2017-18 season with 59 points, Subban’s highest point total has been 31 in 2018-19. In his first two seasons with the Devils, he finished with 18 and 19 points, respectively. While he may not produce as many points as he used to, the 13-year NHL defenseman can provide leadership and experience for young defensemen on the roster, such as Ty Smith and Jonas Siegenthaler. Perhaps he can contribute more offensively than he has the previous seasons with the team as well, given that Hamilton will be out for a while with his injury.
The 11-year veteran, who was in COVID protocol previously, came back for the Devils in Tuesday night’s game versus the Bruins. He had one of the three goals for the team in his first game since Dec. 19. Tomáš Tatar has the opportunity to lead by example on a young roster. The 31-year old has had multiple seasons with 20 or more goals scored with the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens. He can provide experience playing with young centers in Hischier and Jack Hughes.
In 2020-21, Tatar was a part of the Montreal Canadiens, who made an unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He had 10 goals and 20 assists in 50 games last year and has seven goals and eight assists in 31 games in 2021-22. He has a history of playing in the majority of games during a season, as he has played in 82 games three times, one year with 81 games played, another season in which he was active for 80 games and one year in which he participated in 73 games.
Tatar brings consistency and has shown to be reliable throughout his career, which are traits that worked in his favor as to why general manager Tom Fitzgerald offered him a contract last offseason in free agency. His dependability meshes with a young roster where core players such as Hughes, Hischier, Sharangovich and Jesper Bratt can learn from the experience of the forward. If the Devils are to make a push toward a wild-card spot in the postseason, the veteran’s steadiness needs to be a significant contribution toward the organization taking the next step in their rebuild.
The second-year defenseman has the opportunity to take the next step in his development with Hamilton out of the lineup. While the young player will miss the presence of the Devils’ prized free-agent acquisition last offseason for the foreseeable future, Smith can work out of his offensive slump in 2021-22 after posting two goals and 21 assists in 48 games last season. The 21-year-old defenseman was on the third defensive pairing for the game against the Bruins after spending time on the second pairing in 2021-22.
Smith needs to continue to make progress in his young career with the Devils to avoid getting assigned to the team’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Utica Comets. He has shown himself capable of contributing as a depth player on defense for the Devils thus far. Head coach Lindy Ruff has paired him with a number of other defensive players throughout the season in order to help improve his play. It is fair to wonder if moving Smith throughout the defensive pairings instead of letting him work through his struggles with one other player on defense has backfired for the head coach.
The second half of the season is significant for Smith in order for the team to evaluate his future with the franchise. If he can turn around his year, he will prove to the team he is capable of being a top defenseman in the organization for years to come, along with Hamilton. If he continues to have issues this season, it is fair to wonder if he will get assigned to the Comets in order to improve his game.
The Devils continue to work their way past a difficult month in December in order to remain in contention for a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. With Hamilton out indefinitely, the team needs to find a way to endure the loss of its number one defenseman. Teams in the NHL will continue to deal with players entering health and safety protocols, which makes it even more challenging for coaches to put a lineup together on a game-by-game basis when also factoring in injuries. The franchise needs to continue to work on establishing consistency and not giving up multi-goal leads to teams such as in the game on Sunday against the Washington Capitals. And hopefully these three players can help them achieve that.