The New Jersey Devils’ season may be winding down, but there’s still been plenty of news during this final week of games. They signed goaltending prospect Nico Daws to his entry-level deal and announced their AHL affiliate would be relocating from Binghamton, New York to Utica, New York. Plus, a look at Mackenzie Blackwood’s resurgence and the play of Kevin Bahl since his call-up.
Utica Comets to Become Devils’ AHL Affiliate
In a move that seemed to become inevitable over the last couple of weeks, the Devils officially announced a 10-year agreement with the Utica Comets as their AHL affiliate. The Comets had been the Vancouver Canucks’ AHL affiliate since 2013. But they’ve decided to move things closer to home and have their AHL team play in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
Utica originally served as the Devils’ AHL affiliate in the late-1980s to the early-1990s and had the Devils moniker at the time. Their nickname won’t change this time around, so they’ll remain as the Comets. Per the press release, they’ll be an unveiling of colors and jerseys at a later time.
In a press conference last night, New Jersey general manager Tom Fitzgerald mentioned he expects the Devils’ current AHL coaching staff to remain in place for next season. It’s been a tough season for Binghamton, as they have just six wins in 30 games, but there are several factors for that.
For starters, many players who were supposed to be on Binghamton’s roster are on the Devils’ NHL squad or have spent most of it on the taxi squad. They also have one of the youngest defense cores in the AHL, and they’ve had shaky goaltending. With that said, there should be reinforcements coming to the Comets for the 2021-22 season.
Dawson Mercer will be old enough to play in the AHL next season, and he’ll likely begin the campaign with the Comets. With Daws signing his entry-level contract, he’ll presumably start the season there. Akira Schmid is expected to join the organization as well, so their AHL goaltending should be much-improved. If Alexander Holtz doesn’t make the NHL squad out of training camp, he’ll play a significant role for the Comets. As long as they add an AHL veteran or two for the Comets’ blue line, I’d expect next season to go much better for the Devils’ AHL affiliate.
Daws Signs His Entry-Level Deal
A third-round pick (75th overall) at the 2020 Draft, the Devils signed Daws to his ELC, which will begin for the 2021-22 campaign. He had a .924 save percentage (SV%) in his draft-eligible season playing for the Guelph Storm in the OHL. With the 2020-21 OHL season canceled due to the COVID pandemic, the Devils loaned Daws to ERC Ingolstadt in the DEL (Germany), where he had an .898 SV% in 10 games played. The DEL isn’t to the level of the AHL, but having some pro games under his belt could help make his transition to the AHL a bit smoother in 2021-22.
The Devils’ goaltending situation is pretty murky after Blackwood. They need immediate help and will likely look to a strong free-agent class to do so, but they also need to develop one of their prospects to be a 1B to Blackwood. Daws seems to have the most upside, along with Schmid. If one of them turns into a reliable 1B to Blackwood, the Devils should be in good shape in net for quite some time.
Bahl Impressing Since Call-Up
I’m not one to take much out of small sample sizes, such as the one Bahl has at the NHL level, but he hasn’t looked out of place in the NHL so far. His five-on-five numbers aren’t great — his Corsi-for percentage is 45.6 percent, while his expected goals percentage is below 35 percent. But he’s played well and has earned the trust of head coach Lindy Ruff, as he’s rewarded Bahl with some significant minutes on the penalty kill as he did in the team’s 2-1 win against the New York Islanders.
You’ll hear plenty of people make note of Bahl’s 6-foot-6, 230-pound frame. It’s a factor, no doubt about it, but not necessarily how you might think. In five games since his call-up, he has 10 hits. He’s not afraid to throw his body around, but trying to lay down a big hit is not his first intention.
Instead, he uses his long reach to cut off passing and shooting lanes, and he’s effective out-muscling players in one-on-one battles without trying to destroy someone. He has work to do, but he’s shown some promise in his brief stay in the NHL. And with his high-end skating ability for a big man, he could be a valuable piece for the Devils’ blue line for quite some time.
Blackwood Coming Out of Rut
It’s been a challenging season for Blackwood. From a rough bout with COVID to the condensed schedule, he hadn’t looked like himself for long stretches of the season. But he seems to have found his game with little time to spare. He’s 5-0-1 in his last six starts to go along with a .921 SV%. His goals saved above average is 2.54 during this stretch, and he’s saved 1.48 goals above expected. As a result, his SV% has climbed to .904 for the season, which is right around league average.
These wins from Blackwood might not mean anything in the short term. After all, the Devils aren’t going to the playoffs. But with two games remaining on the schedule, it’s safe to say he will start both those contests. If he can put together two more quality starts as he has during this six-game span, that will mean something down the road. He’s the future of the club in net, and with as rough a season as he’s had, it’s good to end the campaign on a high note. That should restore his confidence heading into 2021-22.
That wraps up this edition of Devils News & Rumors. Make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers as we conclude the regular season and shift to offseason coverage.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
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