Before the break, the New Jersey Devils’ season was plummeting faster than Peleton’s stock prices after the first episode of And Just Like That. Nothing went right for the team in the first half with five players, including Nico Hischier and Ryan Graves, in NHL COVID-19 protocol. Non-COVID-related illnesses, like the flu, bronchial issues, and colds, affected the rest of the roster, and then, of course, they had to deal with injuries to players like MacKenzie Blackwood, Jonathan Bernier, and Miles Wood.
The Devils were on a six-game losing streak when the NHL paused the season. General manager Tom Fitzgerald was concerned for the safety and wellness of his players and e-mailed the league to request a break they desperately needed. The COVID-19 pause came at an ideal time for the Devils, and when practice began on Monday, a handful of familiar faces rejoined the club.
Devils Remove Five Players From League Protocol
Hischier and Graves were joined by P.K. Subban, Christian Jaros, and Jesper Boqvist to be off the ice for the required COVID time. Graves and Hischier were the first Devils placed in protocol on Dec. 11 and did not skate for 14 days. They met with the media after practice to talk about their experience.
“I feel good. I was lucky I didn’t have any symptoms or anything like that,” said Graves. “I just stayed home and took the needed time. I have no lingering symptoms, so I feel fine.”
Like Graves, the Devils’ captain did not have a bad case but felt some effects of COVID-19.
“I had one night of symptoms, but then the rest of it was totally fine,” Hischier told the media. “I think people know that have been in quarantine. It’s not your favorite thing to do. But it is what it is. I tried not to think about it too much.”
While the Devils can breathe a sigh of relief knowing their blue line is getting Graves and Subban back, they recently put forward Tomas Tatar and goaltender Jon Gillies in COVID-19 protocol. Gillies was in the net for the Devils’ last game before the pause and became the sixth goaltender to appear in goal for New Jersey this season.
Devils to Reevaluate and Prepare for the Rest of the Season
Now that the Devils have healthy bodies back, they must reset and prepare for the rest of the season. Head coach Lindy Ruff took it easy on his players at practice on Sunday, and Devils reporter Catherine Bogart noted that he focused on odd-man rushes, special teams, and conditioning. Yesterday, practice was back to a normal pace, and the coaching staff spent time going over the power play.
The Devils have lost a handful of games this season because of their inability to consistently score on the man advantage. Trying to find a solution, Ruff added Nathan Bastian to the first power-play unit and placed him in front of the net. The last goal scored by the Devils before the pause was on the power play courtesy of Bastian.
During yesterday’s practice, Ruff opted to keep Bastian on the first unit and moved Pavel Zacha, who leads the team with two power-play goals, to the second unit.
“With us adding Bastian as a net-front guy, it kind of pushed some pieces around,” Ruff said after practice. “Making the other team’s goaltender fight to see through a bigger player is maybe an aspect that we’ve been missing. The fact that he’s a right-handed shot allows a little bit more playmaking down with our left-handed players on that side of the ice.”
The COVID-19 pause came at the perfect time for New Jersey. It gave players time to get healthy and mentally take a break. After their loss to the Detroit Red Wings, defenseman Damon Severson summed it up by saying it’s not fun right now. However, reporters have noticed their high energy and smiling players since their return as the team tries to get back on track.
Their next scheduled game is tomorrow against the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres have the same record as the Devils (10-15-5) and will be a great test as New Jersey tries to walk away with two points for the first time since Dec. 8. The game will be televised on MSG and MSG+.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and covers both the Nashville Predators and New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a co-host of Chicks & Sticks, a weekly Youtube show produced by THW. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettos_NHL and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.