Eleven games into the season, the New Jersey Devils have a respectable 6-3-2 record, despite missing vital pieces of their roster for stretches. In any other division, their 14 points would mean a lot more than it does in the Metropolitan, where the highly competitive eastern hub has the Devils in sixth place and just two points ahead of last place. Still, playing without Jack Hughes, Dougie Hamilton, and Mackenzie Blackwood at different points of the young season, they have managed to stay afloat.
How have they done it? A ton of different ways, actually. But three players, in particular, have been integral to the Devils’ success, and, let’s just say, you might not have named these players as potential saviors before the season.
New Jersey signed Bernier this offseason to a two-year, $8.25 million deal, thinking that he’d be a solid backup option for Blackwood and could be a mentor and competition for their young goalie of the future. He did exactly that, and more, during Blackwood’s absence, posting a 4-1 record behind a fine 2.55 goals-against average (GAA) and .910 save percentage (SV%).
No, these numbers won’t blow anyone away. However, considering New Jersey’s backup situation last season, Bernier’s presence makes a difference. In 2020-21 (and three games this season), Scott Wedgewood served as the second goaltender, and the results weren’t there. In 16 games, the 29-year-old had a 3-8-3 record, a 3.11 GAA, and .900 SV%. In a smaller sample size this season, he posted an 0-2-1 record, a 3.19 GAA, and an unsightly .880 SV%.
Feel better about Bernier now? While he may not be a star, he’s come through for the Devils as a consistent presence in net to start the season. Without him, their record would be a lot worse than 6-3-2.
There’s no replacing Jack Hughes, but Dawson Mercer is exceeding expectations across the board, making up for the absence of the Devils’ top offensive weapon. The 20-year-old rookie is tied for third on the team in points, with three goals and four assists in 11 games – a performance that should have him in (very early) Calder Trophy discussions.
The former first-round pick is also a clutch performer if Wednesday night’s victory against the Florida Panthers is any indication. In the unexpected beatdown of the NHL’s best team, Mercer had the primary assists on both the tying and go-ahead goals when the Devils might have been demoralized after quickly giving away the lead. They never looked back, scoring three more goals in what became a 7-3 rout.
Mercer’s rapid development couldn’t have come at a better time. With Hughes sidelined for at least a month, rehabbing a separated shoulder, the Devils need all the help they can get down the middle. The young centerman has done more than his share so far.
In the best feel-good story of the Devils’ young season, Andreas Johnsson has rebounded from the worst statistical campaign of his career last season when he was marred by illness and the pains of joining a new franchise. He has completely flipped the script this season from being a massive disappointment to becoming an epic overachiever.
Johnsson leads the Devils in points (nine) and shares the lead in goals (six) with Pavel Zacha; the former Toronto Maple Leaf scored five goals in 50 games last season. He’s already exceeded that number in 11 games and is only two points from surpassing his total from 2020-21. While a massively inflated 37.5 shooting percentage is sure to come back down, Johnsson hasn’t just been getting lucky. His play is making an impact, and the 20-goal season he had in 2018-19 with the Maple Leafs is an indication that he’s a capable scorer.
In a statement that would have sounded bizarre last season: New Jersey’s offense wouldn’t be the same without Johnsson.
The Devils Must Tread Water Until Hughes Returns
Like every other team in the Metropolitan, the Devils are very much “in it” this early in the season. Considering the injuries, especially a lengthy one to their best player, what they have achieved to this point is pretty impressive. However, they will need to continue getting contributions from unlikely sources if they want to be in a good spot when Hughes returns, which could be as late as the end of the calendar year.
If the Devils can keep collecting points without their top center, the push for the playoffs should be extremely entertaining once he returns.
Vincent Velotta is an NYC based freelance journalist who covers the New Jersey Devils for The Hockey Writers. He has covered sports and entertainment for a variety of outlets including the Village Voice, Minute Media, and more.