The ice has been removed from Prudential Center, and the locker rooms have been cleaned out as the offseason has officially begun for the New Jersey Devils. On Sunday and Monday Devils players met with the media for their exit interviews, as another season is in the books for the club. While it is not the result the players or fans were looking for, the team took a step in the right direction, and there is reason to be excited for October because, after what seems like a decade, the term “rebuild” can finally be put in the rearview mirror.
Devils’ Rebuild is Over…
The first player to address the media was veteran defenseman Damon Severson, who once again spoke like a true leader by not making any excuses for the team’s play this season. Devils reporter Amanda Stein wasted no time asking him if the line of “we are still a young team” needs to be in the rearview mirror. He said yes, and continued to explain that their young players need to take pride in saying age is just a number. The Manitoba native has made it clear that expectations will be even higher next season, and they will need to find a way to compete.
“Next year if we’re standing here talking this time of year while other teams are gearing up for the playoffs, it would be a huge disappointment.”
He understands that although it was a season that ended in disappointment, positive steps were taken, and he is right. The Devils finally have a core to build around, and for the first time since the 2011-12 season, New Jersey had four players reach the 20-goal mark. On an individual basis, there are a handful of players who have had their best seasons under coach Lindy Ruff, including Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier. Severson made no mistake that the time is now for this team to elevate their play.
“The rebuild per se is hopefully over now, and it’s time.”
Injuries Are Not an Excuse, but Reality
At this point, fans may be sick of hearing about the injuries the Devils have battled this season, but it can’t be overlooked when accessing this group’s performance. Besides the loss of its most physical forward in Miles Wood, the team was also without Jack Hughes for 33 games. The biggest loss was obviously in the crease, as New Jersey couldn’t make up for the loss of Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier.
“When you look at the teams that do make it, a lot of the wins will fall on consistent goaltending. For two years now we have dealt with injuries and loss of important pieces,” Ruff said. “We lost both of our goaltenders this year that we were counting on, which forced young goalies in the lineups, which forced other goalies in the lineup. It is one of the factors that hurt the opportunity for us to play meaningful games.”
This was Ryan Graves’ first season in New Jersey after being dealt by the Colorado Avalanche. Offensively, he had the best season of his career, putting up 28 points in 75 games. The 6-foot-5 blueliner may have summed it up on Sunday when he addressed the media.
“We had a lot of injuries you have to take into account,” he said. “Both goalies going down is something that is hard for a team to overcome… it’s really hard to replicate someone like Bernier who’s been in the league for so long and Blackwood who is working his way to be a bonafide starter in the league. It’s tough to overcome and then Jack who got injured a lot and with Wood was out for the season. Not that it’s an excuse because we should have been better.”
Related: Devils’ COVID-19 Cases & Injuries Forced Next Man up Mentality
It is easy for fans to dismiss all the injuries and say it’s an excuse, but it is a reality that plagued the team this season. Should the team have performed better, as he said? Yes, because every team battles through injuries, but fans also need to examine the number of players who missed time. Ruff again said he has never been in a situation where he used so many goaltenders over two seasons, or dealt with so many injuries to key personnel.
Devils Injury Report and Updates
- Defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler played his last game of the 2021-22 season on April 7 against the Montreal Canadiens. The team announced he was shut down for the remainder of the season due to a broken hand, which was another tough blow in a season that was overcome by injuries. On Sunday, he met with the media during the team’s end of the season media availabilities and said his hand is not 100 percent yet but said he should be able to represent Switzerland at the World Championship. The 24-year-old blueliner had a breakout season and could be considered the team’s unsung hero as he surpassed everyone’s expectations becoming the most reliable defenseman on the team.
- Hughes appeared in 49 games this season, putting up a career-high 56 points. When he stepped up to the podium on Sunday, he first addressed his recovery and said he feels good confirming he is pretty much back to 100 percent. The young star continued to say he only skated once since the injury, which occurred on April 3. The 5-foot-11 forward stated he will not be representing the United States at the World Championship and his only focus is to get healthy and prepare for next season in New Jersey.
- Goaltender MacKenzie Blackwood said he feels fresh, and is not planning on taking a lot of time off to rest this summer. He can finally focus on progressing his game instead of rehabbing an injury. It was a difficult season for the goalie who only played 25 games and finished with a goals against average of 3.39 and save percentage of .892.
- Speaking of goaltenders, Jonathan Bernier also spoke on Sunday, and explained that his progress has been a bit slower than expected as he only began skating last week and it was without equipment. His hope is to be ready to go by training camp in September, which confirms that general manager Tom Fitzgerald needs to be aggressive this summer in acquiring a goaltender. This team simply can’t risk another season where they don’t have a healthy 1B in net.
- Defenseman Dougie Hamilton dealt with a few injuries this season, playing only 62 games. He told the media that he did not feel the same after his jaw injury, but thinks he will be good to at the start of the 2022-23 campaign. The blueliner admitted his jaw is still not back to normal as he is dealing with some nerve problems and numbness in his lips and teeth. During a sit down with Sam Kasan and Matt Loughlin, Hamilton said the game before he broke his jaw, he broke his toe which he dealt with for the remainder of the season.
Devils’ Need for a Veteran Presence
If there was one takeaway from New Jersey’s exit interviews, it was that the players are hungry to take their team to the next level. Changes are coming, and the organization has some tough decisions to make in the upcoming weeks. There were two player quotes that jumped out to me over the past two days, and they came from Miles Wood and Jack Hughes.
“I think we have a great core group here. I think we need a few more guys, a few more veteran players. We are super close,” said Wood.
“The team right now is not the team we are going to win with or be successful with. We have a lot of work to do and guys need to be much better,” said Hughes.
Both forwards made interesting points, and Ruff agreed with Wood saying, there is no replacing a good veteran presence. There are a handful of unrestricted free agents that are worth inquiring about, and it seems that it is a need that could be addressed when free agency begins on July 13, especially considering New Jersey is already losing a veteran voice in P.K. Subban. With regards to Hughes’ statement, it is hard to disagree when you compare their current roster to those teams competing in the playoffs. The team’s top six are close to being solidified, but the bottom six are a bit of a different story. As my colleague Alex Chauvancy pointed out, there are options to upgrade their third and fourth lines, whether it’s through a trade or free agency.
There was a lot of information to process from the Devils’ exit interviews, and because of that, I will be submitting a part two including coach Lindy Ruff’s interview with the media and what your favorite players will be up to this summer. Stay tuned, Devils fans!