The New Jersey Devils have been mathematically eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a horrendous game against the Boston Bruins that resulted in an 8-1 loss on March 31. It is the fourth consecutive year they will miss the postseason – the team has only made the playoffs once since their magical run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. While some fans would say the Devils took a step back this season, I disagree. They made progress but ultimately couldn’t overcome the three major issues that plagued them since October.
Losing Players to Injuries and COVID-19
The Devils began this season with a few key injuries, and the theme continued even as we approach the end of the 2021-22 campaign. Before their season opener on Oct. 15, Miles Wood, Ty Smith, and Damon Severson were battling injuries and missed the club’s first game of the season against the Chicago Blackhawks. After only three games, both goaltenders Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier were out with lower-body injuries, and so began the goalie carousel in the crease.
In the past six months, 25 different players were taken out of the lineup either due to injury or COVID-19, and some multiple times, like Jack Hughes and Dougie Hamilton. According to Fox Sports, New Jersey had multiple injuries each month: six in October, five in November, seven in December, 15 in January, four in February, six in March, and so far, six in April.
Now, if you’re thinking every team in the league dealt with injuries and COVID and Non-COVID-related illnesses this season, you are correct. Look at what the Pittsburgh Penguins had to overcome. It is not an excuse, but it partly explains why the young team was so inconsistent this season. It is hard to build chemistry when linemates are being switched every few games to accommodate the ever-changing roster. The Devils have used 23 different forwards this season along with nine defensemen as the injuries were too much to overcome.
Devils’ Inconsistency in the Crease
The lack of goaltending consistency has been New Jersey’s main storyline this season. Blackwood only started 22 games after heel surgery during the offseason, and the recovery has unfortunately taken longer than most anticipated. In late October, he met with the media and said he was about a week away from getting back on the ice.
“I’ve been pushing myself to be back as quick as I can, and I’m getting on track,” Blackwood said at the time. “Starting to feel back to my top form. I was okay last week, but the jump from last week to this week has been great. I’m really close to coming back.”
In the first few games of the season, Bernier and Scott Wedgewood managed the net, and the team did well, winning three of their first four games. Youngster Nico Daws made his NHL debut on Oct. 23, but a few days later, head coach Lindy Ruff went back to Bernier and Wedgewood. Blackwood returned to the ice in early November, which meant management had to place Wedgewood on waivers and, unfortunately, the Arizona Coyotes wasted no time claiming the goaltender.
Blackwood made his season debut on Nov. 5 but was again shut down on Jan. 19. The timing was tough since the team had already announced a couple of weeks before that Bernier would be out for the rest of the season after undergoing hip surgery. From that point, the team juggled Jon Gillies, Akia Schmid, and Daws. After a rough stretch, the coaching staff relied heavily on the 21-year-old Daws and, in March, started him in every game except for one.
The Devils were unable to find the necessary consistency among the three goalies, and at the trade deadline, they brought in veteran Andrew Hammond. The 34-year-old has played two games, giving up a combined 13 goals. The goaltending situation will have to wait until the offseason to be solved when general manager Tom Fitzgerald will be forced to go back to the drawing board.
Devils’ Unreliable Special Teams
At points in the season, “Fire Recchi” chants broke out at Prudential Center. While most games were lost by inadequate goaltending, there have been a handful of losses because of unreliable special teams. The Devils’ power play is ranked 27th in the league, and despite flashes of success, the club has not been able to find consistency.
One of the biggest concerns is the number of goals allowed on the man advantage. In 72 games, New Jersey allowed 11 shorthanded goals, which leads the league. On the flip side, the penalty kill has found a bit more success and is ranked 13th in the league, allowing 37 power-play goals this season. Forwards Jimmy Vesey and Michael McLeod have performed well in their respective roles killing penalties along with Jonas Siegenthaler and Severson.
Fitzgerald must be active during the offseason to ensure a competitive team hits the ice in October. The core pieces are there, but they will not be able to compete in the Metropolitan Division if they don’t have reliable goaltending. The Devils finally have a young group that fans can be excited about, and the emergence of Jesper Bratt and Siegenthaler shows the club is taking steps in the right direction. While there is no denying it has been a frustrating season, there are a few new positives to take away that have been missing the last few seasons.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and is a credentialed correspondent covering the New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettos_NHL and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.