It’s been a while since the New Jersey Devils have played competitive hockey. But that’ll change this week, as their regular season is set to begin on Jan. 14 against the Boston Bruins. That’ll mark the first time they play an NHL game in close to 10 months.
A lot has changed for the Devils since the last time they played a game. They have a new general manager in Tom Fitzgerald, as well as a new head coach in Lindy Ruff. They also have some new additions on offense and defense that should help them improve in each department.
It looked like the Devils would’ve had one of the best goaltending tandems in the league when they signed Corey Crawford in free agency back in October. But that took an unexpected turn this past weekend when he announced his retirement from the NHL. That leaves the Devils without a proven no. 2 goaltender and scrambling to find a backup to Mackenzie Blackwood before the season starts.
Had Crawford decided to continue playing, the Devils could’ve surprised some people in the East Division. Now without him, it could be another challenging season ahead, as they’re arguably in the toughest division in the league. With that said, they could still take steps forward if they get some breaks to fall their way. Here’s a look at what to expect from the Devils during the 56-game 2020-21 season.
Top Six in Limbo…For Now
Before diving into the forwards, there are a couple of notes worth going over. Nico Hischier suffered an injury in early December while training in Switzerland and is still working his way back. It’s highly unlikely he’s available on opening night, but the hope is he isn’t out much longer. When he returns, he should slide in on the top line.
It took a while, but Jesper Bratt finally has a new contract. He’ll need to get a work visa, plus quarantine for seven days due to the COVID-19 pandemic, before joining his teammates. That means it’ll be a minimum of 8-9 days until he’s on the ice, but there’s no doubt he’ll be a significant addition to the Devils’ top six.
With Hischier out, it looks like Jack Hughes will get an early chance to center the first line. Based on the Devils’ final three scrimmages, Nikita Gusev and Kyle Palmieri will be his linemates. Palmieri is the team’s best shooting talent, while Gusev is arguably their best playmaker. That line could be an adventure defensively, but the trade-off is they should be able to put up some points.
After that first line, there’s quite a drop-off in top-six scoring with Bratt and Hischier out of the lineup. For now, the best bet is the Devils’ second line consists of Andreas Johnsson and Travis Zajac. But who plays alongside them is a mystery. The team placed Nick Merkley on waivers, so it appears he’s headed for the taxi squad if he goes unclaimed.
It’s interesting to note one of the Devils’ top prospects in Nolan Foote remains with the team after a roster cutdown. Foote is a hulking 6-foot-4 winger with a howitzer of a shot. He has the skill set to play with Zajac and Johnsson, but that’d be a lot to ask of him after not playing competitive hockey for almost a full year. Still, it’s something worth keeping an eye on.
As of now, the Devils’ top six might not inspire a lot of confidence. But it should improve once Hischier and Bratt return to the lineup. When they do, it could look like something like this:
- Gusev – Hischier – Palmieri
- Johnsson – Hughes – Bratt
There are other ways to mix up the top six, but it’s not a bad looking group when everyone’s available. It’s just a matter of getting Hischier and Bratt back and playing.
Bottom Six Offers Intrigue
There are a lot of unknowns in the Devils’ bottom six. But based on how things have gone in camp, it appears Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Boqvist, and Janne Kuokkanen are good bets to make the team.
While we’re talking about those three, it’s worth mentioning they played together as a line in the Devils’ final three scrimmages. Boqvist played at center, with Sharangovich at left wing and Kuokkanen at right wing. The three of them even connected on this pretty goal in the team’s scrimmage on Friday.
Sharangovich was tremendous while on loan in the KHL, where he totaled 17 goals and 25 points in 34 games. Kuokkanen has three seasons of AHL experience and looks ready for a shot at a regular NHL role. While Boqvist primarily played left wing last season, he’s looked much more comfortable at center during camp. It may be a line of three rookies, but their performance as a unit during the scrimmages suggests they might offer the Devils some depth to start the season.
The fourth line, at least out of the gate, should have some familiar faces. Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha are likely to begin there, but there’s still one spot to fill alongside them. Nathan Bastian looks to be in the running for that opening, as does Michael McLeod, which would give the Devils some size and scoring punch on the fourth line.
All of this will change when Hischier and Bratt return, though. It’ll be interesting to see where everyone fits when that happens, especially if the Sharangovich, Boqvist, and Kuokkanen line clicks during game action. That could give Ruff some difficult decisions to make in the bottom half of the lineup, but that’s not a bad problem to have.
The Devils’ defense will have a mixture of new and old faces after a few offseason moves. They acquired Ryan Murray from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for a fifth-round pick. Despite having chronic lower back problems, Murray has been an effective top-four defenseman when in the lineup. If he can stay healthy, he’ll give the team a significant boost on their top pair.
Also joining Murray is Dmitry Kulikov, who the Devils signed during free agency to a one-year deal worth $1.15 million. Kulikov isn’t going to have the significant role Murray will, but he should provide the team with some defensive depth as their no. 6 or 7 defenseman.
Returning for his second stint with the Devils is Sami Vatanen, who signed a one-year deal worth $2 million less than a week ago. Like Bratt, he needs a work visa then has to quarantine for seven days before joining the team. So he’s likely to miss their first couple of games, at a minimum.
In addition to those three defensemen, the Devils return Damon Severson, Will Butcher, P.K. Subban, and Connor Carrick. Subban looks like he’ll start the season paired with Murray, while top prospect Ty Smith looks as if he’ll play alongside Severson on the second pair. Once Vatanen is eligible to play, the Devils’ defense pairs should look something like this:
- Murray – Subban
- Smith – Severson
- Butcher – Vatanen
- Kulikov – Carrick (extras)
No one will mistake the Devils’ blue line as the best in the NHL. With that said, it’s a pretty capable group. Subban had the worst season of his career in 2019-20, so giving him top-pair minutes won’t work if he doesn’t rebound to some degree. Though, it does help that Murray is the best defenseman Subban will play with since becoming a Devil.
Smith looked terrific during the Devils’ camp scrimmages, and he appears ready for the NHL. Severson was the team’s best defenseman in 2019-20, so Smith looks to be walking into a favorable situation to start his NHL career.
Once Vatanen is eligible to play, he and Butcher should give the Devils a reliable third pair. Butcher is one of the team’s more effective puck-moving blueliners, and he’s put up good numbers paired with Vatanen over the last three seasons. Vatanen should also get some meaningful minutes on both the power play and penalty kill.
And with Kulikov and Carrick as the team’s seventh and eighth defensemen, that makes the Devils’ defense one of their better position groups.
Goaltending looked like it was going to be a strength heading into this season. But it’s now the Devils’ biggest question mark after Crawford announced his retirement. Crawford had a .917 save percentage (SV%) last season and would’ve been a significant upgrade as a 1B to Blackwood.
Now the Devils are left scrambling to find a backup to Blackwood with just two days before the regular season begins. Scott Wedgewood is the de facto no. 2 goaltender with Crawford retiring, but he hasn’t played in an NHL game since 2017-18. His recent AHL numbers aren’t all that encouraging either – he had a .893 SV% last season and .908 SV% in 2018-19.
If the Devils want to be competitive this season, they need to find a veteran backup behind Blackwood. They could look to the trade market, but it might be a challenge finding a willing trade partner since teams must carry a goalie on their taxi squad.
The Devils’ best bet seems to be scouring the waiver wire and hoping someone useful ends up on waivers. One team to watch is the Toronto Maple Leafs. If Jack Campbell wins the backup job to Frederik Andersen, as expected, the Leafs could place Aaron Dell on waivers with the intent of sending him to their taxi squad.
Dell might not be everyone’s first choice, but he’s held his own in the NHL. He had a .907 SV% last season and has finished with an SV% above .905 in three of his four NHL seasons.
As for Blackwood, he’s the clear no. 1 goaltender with Crawford out of the picture. The Devils are going to be competitive most nights he starts, as was the case last season. But if they don’t find a backup for him, the Devils’ 2020-21 campaign could look all too familiar to last season, when their backups combined for a 6-15-4 record and .885 SV%.
Projecting the Devils’ Season
Prediction: the Devils finish seventh in the East Division, just ahead of the Buffalo Sabres.
Even before Crawford’s retirement, the Devils were a longshot to make the playoffs. Now they have an even more daunting task ahead of them. If they make the postseason, it’ll speak volumes to the coaching job Ruff pulled off in his first season.
But not making the playoffs doesn’t mean the Devils can’t have success. It appears their defensive system is going to be dramatically different than what they ran under John Hynes. They have enough puck-moving defensemen where their defense should see improvement, so that’d be a plus.
The Devils have some interesting young pieces too. Most of them are unknowns, but if players like Boqvist, Sharangovich and Kuokkanen produce, that’d be a positive development. And that’s not something the team got from their young depth pieces in 2019-20.
It’d also help if Hughes, Hischier, and Bratt take significant steps forward in their development. That might be the best thing to hope for this season too. And if they do, that’d give the Devils something to build on heading into the 2021-22 season.
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017