Last season, the New Jersey Devils saw breakout performances from Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. All three players had career-best years, but as is the case with most teams, the Devils also had players that didn’t live up to expectations. Some of it was performance-related, while others suffered from the injury bug to no faults of their own. Which Devils could bounce back in 2022-23? Let’s take a look.
I won’t spend too much time on Tatar since I already wrote a longer standalone piece on why the Devils should expect a better year from him. Even though he didn’t produce to the levels a player getting paid $4.5 million a year should, his 2021-22 season wasn’t all bad.
Tatar was one of the Devils’ better five-on-five players, and he still found success in many of the things he did well in his three previous seasons with the Montreal Canadiens. For example, he still excelled in transition with zone entries and exits. He created shots and chances off the rush at a high level, even though his in-zone offense may not have been great.
Now that the Devils have an improved group up front after signing Ondrej Palát and trading for Erik Haula, Tatar should find himself in more of a middle-six/third-line role for this coming season instead of consistent minutes on the first or second lines. There are still signs of play-driving ability in his game, and being in a more suitable middle-six role with players like Haula, Jesper Boqvist, or even Fabian Zetterlund should benefit him. Will he produce at the 60-point paces he did in his time with the Canadiens? Probably not, but cracking the 40-point mark after only totaling 30 a season ago seems doable.
Dougie Hamilton’s first season with the Devils got off to a great start. He had 20 points through his first 29 games — a 57-point pace over 82 games — and had 16 games with four or more shots on goal, including two games in which he had 10 shots on goal. But then came the game against the Washington Capitals just after New Year’s, where he broke his jaw after an errant puck hit him in the face.
That, plus a broken toe that was nagging Hamilton, affected him quite a bit once he returned after missing close to eight weeks with the jaw injury. Over his final 32 games, he totaled 10 points and saw his five-on-five scoring and shot creation dip significantly. There’s no doubt that both injuries took a toll on him and caused him to look pedestrian during the second half of last season.
But entering 2022-23, Hamilton should be good to go healthwise. Devils fans saw what he was capable of through his first 29 games before the jaw injury, as he looked like a top-pair defenseman with high-end offensive abilities. A new look power play with Andrew Brunette, a Jack Adams finalist a season ago, overseeing it should help a Hamilton bounce-back cause as well, as he had long been one of the best power-play quarterbacks in the league prior to joining the Devils.
In his three seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes, Hamilton averaged 54 points per 82 games, similar to the pace during his first 29 games with the Devils. With 100 percent health and an improved power play, I’d expect him to return closer to those levels this coming season while being a dominant driving force at five-on-five.
Of Devils players who dealt with injuries a season ago, Miles Wood had it among the worst. After getting hurt in a preseason game against the Capitals on Oct. 4, the Devils announced a month later that he’d need hip surgery and would be out indefinitely. He’d return to play three games in late March/early April, but that’d be the only ice time he’d see before the team shut him down for the remainder of 2021-22.
Before the injury, Wood had a career year in 2020-21, finishing with 17 goals in 55 games — a 25-goal pace over 82 games. His two-way game improved, and he posted some of the best on-ice metrics of his career at five-on-five. He was a crucial part of the Devils’ bottom-six, and it’s clear coach Lindy Ruff missed his presence in the team’s lineup a season ago.
Hip surgery is no minor procedure, especially for a player like Wood, who plays physical hockey but also relies on his skating and speed to create havoc. It’ll be hard to know if it’s altered his game until he steps on the ice and plays in preseason games in about a week. But if he’s healthy and can play the same style of hockey he did before surgery, the Devils will be glad to have him back in the lineup.
When at his best, Wood is a player who can pot 20-plus goals and create havoc in an energy type of role in the bottom-six. Part of why he produced at a 25-goal pace in 2020-21 is he got back to how he played in his first couple of seasons in the league. That is by going to the front of the net and dirty areas and scoring goals on rebounds or redirects, not trying long-distance shots off the rush. If that type of player is still there after hip surgery, I’d expect a return close to his 2020-21 season, and the Devils’ bottom-six will be much better for it.
To say Mackenzie Blackwood’s 2021-22 was tumultuous would be an understatement. It started with him being one of a handful of unvaccinated players in the league that seemed to create a rift between him and Devils management. But in reality, that was the only start of what’d be season-long adversity. Instead, it was his heel that acted up after having surgery on it over the summer.
Blackwood got off to a solid start in 2021-22, totaling a .910 save percentage (SV%) across his first 10 starts. But it was soon after then that it became clear he wasn’t fully healthy. His SV% began to crater after the first month of play and reached .894 before the Devils shut him down in mid-January until late April when the season was all but over. Leading up to going on injured reserve, the Devils overplayed him when it was clear he wasn’t healthy, which fractured the relationship between him and management even more.
But all of that is in the past now, and it appears Blackwood is healthy heading into training camp. It’s a clean slate for everyone, which both sides very much needed heading into the new season. The question is, what kind of goaltender is Blackwood? Are his last two seasons a true indication of who he is? Or is he actually the goalie he was during his first two seasons in the league before COVID changed the way we lived?
From 2018 to 2020, Blackwood had a .916 SV% and a goals saved above expected of minus-0.97, meaning he stopped what was expected of him. In his last two seasons, he had a .898 SV% and had given up 27.19 goals above expected, a stark contrast from the first two years of his NHL career.
Context is important, though. In 2020-21, Blackwood dealt with a rough bout of COVID that tanked any chance of him having a productive season. And, of course, there was the heel last year. If he’s 100 percent healthy heading into training camp and the new season, I expect him to bounce back, especially since he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer.
Will Blackwood return to posting a .916 SV%? Perhaps, but that seems like an unreasonable expectation, given his last two seasons. Still, I’d expect above league-average netminding, which would be between a .905 to 910 SV%. If so, that’d go a long way for the Devils, especially if the newly acquired Vitek Vanecek continues to be the above-average goaltender he’s been in his first two seasons.
Devils Hoping for Better Injury Luck in 2022-23
Aside from Tatar, bounce-back seasons from Wood, Blackwood and Hamilton depend on their health. The most concern would be for Wood and Blackwood, who dealt with injuries that could change their style of play for the worst. But if they’re healthy and have no lingering issues, they should be meaningful contributors in 2022-23. Along with better health luck for Hamilton, and the Devils have the potential to be a surprise team in the Metropolitan Division with a core of Hughes, Hischier and Bratt.
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