The New Jersey Devils, like every team in the National Hockey League, will be on a mission to find themselves with a playoff berth once the 2021-22 regular season comes to an end. The moves they’ve made to reinforce this goal have been undeniable; the team signed top free agent Dougie Hamilton, traded for a quality defenseman in Ryan Graves, added a solid veteran backup goalie, and to clear all doubt, has stated publicly that they’re ready to start playing in meaningful games. However, as a rebuilding team still waiting on the majority of their assets to develop, the odds of a postseason appearance this season are slim. But we can still dream, right?
Now, let me be clear: this is not a prediction. Once again for the record: I do not believe that New Jersey is ready to claim a playoff berth at this point.
But it’s not impossible. A ton of things would have to go perfectly for this young team, and it’s certainly interesting to pinpoint which specific aspects of the roster would be the focal points of an unexpected playoff run. Again, a lot more than the few points I’ve highlighted – let’s call them the Core Four – would be required of this team to complete this miraculous feat, but these are the contributions that I believe would undoubtedly be realized should the Devils find themselves in such a position.
Without further ado, here are four things that must happen for the Devils to claim a 2021-22 playoff spot:
Hughes Comes Up Huge
Unsurprisingly, the most important piece of the puzzle for even a chance at a playoff berth this season comes in the form of the franchise’s most important asset: Jack Hughes. If the Devils manage to find a spot in the postseason while competing against a Metropolitan Division that includes the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, and Carolina Hurricanes, Hughes’ developmental leap will have resulted in nothing less than superstardom. But what would that entail, precisely?
First and foremost, production. The days of Hughes’ visible raw talent and telling underlying possession metrics as a projection of his future success in the league must come to an end. If Jersey plays a playoff game this coming season, the only question about the young centerman’s potential will be if he has vaulted himself into the top 10-15 forwards in the NHL yet. Yes, Hughes will have had to convert all the spectacular plays Devils fans saw in 2020-21 into consistent first-line point production by 2021-22. This actually spurs the second quota he must fill: dependability.
Hughes would have to unequivocally become New Jersey’s best player, top-line anchor, and main supplier of sorely needed offensive production. In other words, he must become a Connor McDavid or Nathan MacKinnon type; one who can mask some of his own team’s deficiencies while rarely taking a night off production-wise. Why? Because a lot of the teams New Jersey will be competing against for a playoff spot already have a superstar anchor (think Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, Toronto’s Auston Matthews, Florida’s Aleksander Barkov, Boston’s Brad Marchand – should I keep going?) while also having the depth to support them. The Devils do not have that latter part yet, and Hughes is the only guy in the building who’s anywhere close to being a player who can solely carry a club game after game.
To be clear, Hughes doesn’t actually have to transform into McDavid or MacKinnon’s skillset over one offseason. Even that is too unreal for this article. The point is that he’d have to inherit similar responsibilities as those players have. So, no, a 100-point season isn’t a requirement. But becoming New Jersey’s unrivalled offensive leader with a penchant for consistent scoring against opponents great and small would be. That’s a ton to put on a kid who’s only 20 years old, which is part of the reason why most peg the Devils as a team that’s still a few years away from contention.
The Captain Returns
Easy one here. If Nico Hischier is on the ice this season as much as he was last season, the Devils will be in a very bad way. Forget the playoffs. Hell, forget any form of meaningful games. Hischier needs to play close to a full 82-game season in 2021-22, and he’ll have to play very well on top of that.
In 2020-21, the Devils’ captain played in just 21 games and recorded 11 points during that abbreviated span. For obvious reasons, the pipe dream of a playoff berth this season cannot come to fruition if that happens again. The top-six for New Jersey will be incredibly important for this team as many question marks surround the remaining forward lineup as we inch closer to October. The top two lines will likely need to heavily carry the forward group overall, and Hischier is such an important piece to the second line considering his effective two-way play and established chemistry with winger Jesper Bratt.
Plainly, nearly all of New Jersey’s players will have to outperform expectations – by a significant margin – in order for the team to reach the playoffs this season. If a skater as important as Hischier is out for any extended periods of time, the odds will rapidly dwindle.
Not Throwin’ Away His Shot
Defenseman Dougie Hamilton, newly signed to a 7-year, $63 million deal, must completely and utterly live up to the hype that got him a $9 million average annual value.
It’s no secret that the Devils brought Hamilton in this summer to fill out the number one defenseman role on the team; you don’t commit that kind of term and cash to someone who can’t. But the 28-year-old will be asked for more than defense – he’ll be a big part of Jersey’s offensive game plan as well. He’s clearly got the capability to do so. Over the past seven seasons, he has averaged over 42 points per campaign. His presence on the power play will be a big one as well considering 18 of his 42 points in 2020-21 came while on the man advantage. For reference, if you combine the points of Sami Vatanen, P.K. Subban, and Ryan Murray from last season for the Devils, you only get 39. Yeah, the Devils needed a guy like Dougie.
Despite Hamilton’s growth as an offensive defenseman, though, there still seems to be a noticeable group of doubters when it comes to the defenseman’s abilities. That line of thinking has somewhat been reflected in the trajectory of Hamilton’s career. At just 21 years old and coming off of his best season yet with the Boston Bruins in 2014-15, he was dealt away to the Calgary Flames for one first-round pick and two second-rounders. Allegedly, Hamilton and the Bruins couldn’t come to an agreement on a new contract and Boston felt that whatever they could pick up in the draft would be more valuable than their young d-man. (Cue the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme song as you realize who Boston selected – and didn’t select – with three consecutive first-round picks in the 2015 Entry Draft.)
Then, after three quality seasons in Calgary that launched Hamilton into Norris trophy consideration, he was dealt again to the Carolina Hurricanes in a multi-player deal. Why? Well, that one’s a little murkier. Some really odd contentions about his personality following the Flames-Canes deal (including one infamous rumor about museums) attempted to explain the decision to move the star defenseman, still just 25 years old at the time. We may never know the true reasoning behind the trade, but the most we can gleam at the moment is that Calgary no longer saw Dougie as a locker room fit.
Finally, there was the recent decision by Carolina to let Hamilton walk in free agency after three outstanding seasons with them. This move, however, was the most understandable of the bunch. With the Hurricanes pressed for salary cap space and a handful of important free agents coming up following 2021-22, the team decided it wouldn’t break the bank for him. Still, top defensemen caliber players are rarely allowed to walk these days, which begs the question: did the Canes even view Hamilton as that? Boston and Calgary didn’t. But the New Jersey Devils clearly do. Jersey has shown Hamilton the commitment no other team has in the past, and if the instant returns of a playoff berth are to be met this season, the defenseman will have to unquestioningly live up to the investment his new team has made in him.
Hamilton finally has the opportunity to prove his remaining doubters wrong. Carrying this Devils team to playoff contention would likely do the trick.
As the NHL becomes more and more of an offensive league with each passing season, it only makes sense that the value of a great goaltender is equally affected. The Devils now hope they have two legitimate options that can be relied upon to win some games. That duo of Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier will be instrumental to the success of New Jersey this season.
Overall, last season was Blackwood’s worst statistical campaign in his young career. Playing to a .902 save percentage and 3.04 goals-against average, the young netminder took a bit of a step back following a 2019-20 season that saw him finish sixth in the Calder Trophy race. Of course, there’s more to the story than the numbers. Blackwood contracted COVID-19 during the season, which he cites as one of the contributing factors to his struggles, and also suffered from a less than desirable Devils’ defensive corps when he was healthy. Still, there were flashes of greatness here and there from the goalie, but – and stop me if you’ve heard this before – consistency with his play will be key moving forward as the presumed puck stopper of the future.
New Jersey hopes that the addition of veteran goaltender Jonathan Bernier will help Blackwood out in that regard. The 33-year-old, signed for 2 years and just over $8 million total, put up okay numbers last season with a terrible team in the Detroit Red Wings. Presumably, the goal is for Bernier to take a chunk of the games off of Blackwood’s shoulders and provide some quality veteran presence – and competition – in the goalie room. The Devils can only hope that the mixture of extra rest, motivation, and insight from signing a player like Bernier will push Blackwood to the next level.
Of course, this was the plan last season when Jersey signed goalie Corey Crawford to the team. Unfortunately, he unexpectedly retired before playing a game for the Devils, leaving Blackwood as the only reliable option on the roster. Barring some similarly bizarre sequence with Bernier, there will be a longtime veteran alongside Mackenzie for the 2021-22 season. Quite plainly: they’ll need it.
Goaltending can make or break a team. It can mask the flaws of a franchise, carry a team to a Stanley Cup, and can also do the opposite. In that regard, a resurgent Blackwood with steady and reliable play from Bernier would be a godsend to a Devils team that will have noticeable flaws because of its youth. If New Jersey gets to a playoff spot, it’ll be because this goalie tandem absolutely carried them through stretches of the season. Their postseason bid could not survive another season of average and inconsistent goalie play.
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.