Rosters are finalized, and the 2021-22 NHL regular season is upon us. For the New Jersey Devils, they’re looking to take a significant step forward from 2020-21 when they finished 19-30-7 and had a team-wide COVID outbreak that tanked their season.
While the Devils struggled yet again in 2020-21, it wasn’t just because of a team-wide COVID outbreak. There were defensive and goaltending issues that needed addressing, which general manager Tom Fitzgerald prioritized this offseason. His moves should help the Devils find progress in a Metropolitan Division that will still be competitive but saw some teams worsen their rosters with some questionable transactions. Let’s preview the Devils’ season and see how they might fare in the Metropolitan.
Devils Roster: Forwards
Notable Additions: Tomáš Tatar, Jimmy Vesey
Notable Departures: Nathan Bastian, Nick Merkley
- Yegor Sharangovich – Jack Hughes – Tatar
- Pavel Zacha – Nico Hischier – Jesper Bratt
- Andreas Johnsson – Dawson Mercer – Janne Kuokkanen
- Miles Wood – Michael McLeod – Vesey
- Mason Geertsen
While these could be line combinations at some point, it is a depth chart, so don’t fret over players’ placement too much. Aside from Tatar, who the Devils signed in free agency this summer, the team returns almost everyone up front from their 2020-21 roster. The most significant loss would be Bastian, who the Seattle Kraken selected at the expansion draft.
How well the Devils fare in 2021-22 likely depends on Hughes’ performance. If the end of last season was any indication, a breakout is coming. He finished with 15 points in his final 21 games — nearly a 59-point pace over 82 games. Over that stretch, he had a Corsi percentage (CF%) of 55.4 percent and an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 55 percent. Both those numbers were better than Connor McDavid’s over that stretch. That certainly doesn’t mean Hughes is better than McDavid, but he was playing at a very high level. It’s probably a good bet that continues this season.
The Devils will also need Hischier to stay healthy. He only played in 21 games in 2020-21 due to a series of unfortunate injuries and registered just 11 points. That won’t cut it if the Devils want to be playing meaningful games in March and April. Fortunately, he had a strong preseason and looks like he’s ready to get off to a hot start as the team’s second-line center behind Hughes.
Unlike previous seasons, Hughes and Hischier should have more help around them in 2021-22. Tatar was one of the league’s best five-on-five wingers in terms of possession and scoring during his time with the Montreal Canadiens, so he should help the Devils’ top six quite a bit. Zacha had a career-best season in 2020-21 and led the team in points during the preseason. As long as his primary position is left wing, he should provide scoring depth since his shooting talent is better suited on the wing.
And of course, there’s Bratt, whose even-strength impact has been among the best on the Devils over the last few years. His 2.12 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five over the last three seasons ranks second behind Tatar among Devils on the active roster. The Devils will also get meaningful contributions from Sharangovich and Kuokkanen, who can provide depth in the team’s middle six. And in Sharangovich’s case, even the top six.
If there’s an x-factor for the Devils’ forward group, it may be how well Mercer, who will start as their third-line center, performs. He has the versatility to play anywhere in the lineup, whether it’s at center or right wing, which is an added plus. He’ll also give the Devils some defensive prowess in their middle-six that they did not have in 2020-21. And though Alex Holtz isn’t on the initial roster, he’ll likely make an impact at some point this season.
Devils Roster: Defense
Notable Additions: Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Graves, Christian Jaroš
Notable Departures: Ryan Murray, Will Butcher, Matt Tennyson, Connor Carrick
- Graves – Hamilton
- Ty Smith – Damon Severson
- Jonas Siegenthaler – P.K. Subban
- Colton White – Jaroš
There’s no doubt the blue line was the focus of the Devils’ offseason. There was significant turnover from the 2020-21 roster, and Fitzgerald made sure to fill in the voids left by the departures. He even got started on the defensive retool last season when he acquired Siegenthaler just before the trade deadline.
As it turns out, Siegenthaler would be far from the only defenseman the Devils would bring in for this season. They acquired Graves from the Colorado Avalanche ahead of the expansion draft, then signed Hamilton to a seven-year, $63 million contract in free agency.
Graves measures 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, while Hamilton measures 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, but both defensemen are quite different players. Hamilton is one of the best puck-moving blueliners in the league and is an elite power play quarterback. He’s had a significant positive impact at even strength and on the man advantage and is a top 10, even borderline top 5 defenseman in the NHL. Graves, on the other hand, is more of a defensive defenseman. With that said, he’s a decent puck-mover and can contribute some offense too. They’ll likely form the team’s top pair and give them a significant upgrade on the blue line, as head coach Lindy Ruff should be able to lean on them heavily.
The acquisitions of Graves and Hamilton should benefit the rest of the blue line too. They’ll allow Smith and Severson to move into more suitable second-pair roles, while Subban will now play generally softer minutes with Siegenthaler on the third pair. Smith had a solid rookie season in 2020-21, considering the Devils asked him to do quite a bit given the circumstances. The same is true of Severson, who handled tough defensive minutes well. But they won’t have to worry about logging the hard assignments anymore and should give the Devils good depth behind Graves and Hamilton.
The biggest beneficiary among Devils defensemen should be Subban. His first two seasons in New Jersey did not go as anyone would have liked. It’s clear he’s not the defenseman he was in his prime, but playing a third-pair role with a solid defensive defenseman like Siegenthaler should help him. And he should still contribute offensively with ice time on the second power play unit.
The biggest question mark on defense is depth. Can Colton White and Jaroš give the Devils valuable minutes as seventh and eighth defensemen? Injuries happen, so they’ll have to play at some point, even as early as the regular-season opener on Friday. But in all, this should be a much-improved unit from a season ago.
Devils Roster: Goaltending
Notable Addition: Jonathan Bernier
- Mackenzie Blackwood
- Scott Wedgewood
- Nico Daws (AHL)
- Akira Schmid (AHL)
Goaltending has been a problem for quite some time. Fitzgerald thought he had it solved when he signed Corey Crawford during the 2020 offseason. But Crawford had a change of heart and hung up the skates before the 2020-21 campaign began. That left Wedgewood as Blackwood’s de facto backup.
Wedgewood had some good moments taking over for Crawford essentially on the fly, and he showed he was worth keeping around as a third goalie for this season. Still, the Devils needed to make up for the loss of Crawford. Blackwood’s season quickly tumbled downward after a rough bout with COVID just a couple of weeks into 2020-21, and it was clear he was a bit overworked when things were all said and done. The result was the Devils finishing with the third-worst save percentage (SV%) in the league.
Enter Jonathan Bernier, who the Devils signed to a two-year deal this offseason. He spent the last three seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, who are in the midst of a lengthy rebuild and are still working their way towards being competitive. That didn’t deter Bernier, though. He finished with a SV% of .908 in his three seasons in Detroit and had a goals saved above expected (GSAx) of -3.58.
Considering how much the Red Wings struggled in Bernier’s time there, those are pretty respectable numbers. He’ll be playing in front of an improved defense in New Jersey, so he should be able to give them league average to slightly above average goaltending. And as mentioned, Wedgewood is still around as added depth behind Blackwood and Bernier. The Devils may need that depth too.
One of the biggest storylines during training camp has been Blackwood’s COVID vaccination status, as he’s just one of a few NHL players who remains unvaccinated. He and the team already had a scare when he had an inconclusive rapid test that would’ve held him out of their preseason finale had there not been a power outage at the Prudential Center. Fortunately, further testing came back negative, and he’s cleared to return to play. The Devils would surely prefer not to go through that repeatedly all season long. Fortunately, that may be changing soon:
There are a lot of different scenarios that could play out here. Blackwood could miss games because he gets reinfected with COVID. He also would not be allowed to travel with the team for their nine games in Canada, as the Canadian government forbids unvaccinated individuals from entering the country. He also wouldn’t be able to participate in the Olympics with Team Canada. So the sooner this situation resolves itself, the better off everyone will be.
How Projections View the Devils & Metropolitan Division
One thing that’s emerged in the hockey writing/blogging world in recent years is point projections. From writers with their own models (Evolving Wild, Dom Luszczyszyn) to oddsmakers, there are quite a few sources where you can find how many points your team projects to finish with over 82 games. As a nerd, it’s something I look forward to most offseasons as training camp approaches.
Over the last few years, point projections have not been particularly kind to the Devils. But after their offseason, most models seem to like their chances of being competitive in the Metropolitan Division.
Most models seem to predict the Devils finishing with 88-92 points, which would put them on the playoff bubble. There are a couple of outliers above, like Evolving Wild projecting the Devils to finish with 97 points. But as they put it themselves, it’s because their model probably really likes the Devils’ addition of Hamilton.
There’s also the opposite end of outliers, as 538 predicts the Devils to finish with 81 points. Their model also projects the Buffalo Sabres to finish with 80 points, which, well…that’s probably not happening. But that doesn’t matter much at the end of the day. Average all the models in JFresh’s graphic (excluding fans), and the Devils come out to an 89 point average. That’ll put them in the playoff picture.
It’s also worth noting that aside from the Columbus Blue Jackets, most models seem to think every team in the Metropolitan Division will have a shot to be competitive. There is a pretty tight window in point projections from first to seventh place, so could the Devils finish in first place? I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s not impossible. They could even total 90 points and still end up in seventh.
Models are also not gospel; they could overrate (see: the 2019 Devils) or underrate any team. Are the Philadelphia Flyers due for a bounce-back? It depends if Carter Hart rebounds and improves their goaltending, because it’s likely Martin Jones continues to struggle. The Carolina Hurricanes traded away a Calder Trophy candidate in Alex Nedeljkovic and lost Petr Mrazek and James Reimer to new teams in free agency. They replaced them with Freddie Andersen, who’s struggled with injuries and on-ice performance in recent seasons, and Antti Raanta, who’s also dealt with injuries. The loss of Hamilton doesn’t help either. Could they still be a borderline 100 point team? They sure can, but they might be in trouble if their goaltending doesn’t hold up either.
Devils Should Live up to Expectations
Ultimately, the Devils should see improvement after their offseason moves. With how the Metropolitan Division is stacking up, they should be playing meaningful games in March and April. Injuries do occur, but they have depth in the AHL with prospects such as Holtz, Nolan Foote and Tyce Thompson that should help them down the stretch if they’re in the playoff race.
Will the Devils be a playoff team? My guess is they finish fifth or sixth in the division and just end up on the outside looking in. Either way, they should be a much more entertaining team to watch in 2021-22. And it should set the foundation for them to make a real push for the playoffs in 2022-23.
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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