The New Jersey Devils’ 2021-22 season has come to a close, and it’s no secret that it was a massive disappointment given preseason expectations. Most projections had them as an 85-90 point team. Instead, they finished with a 27-46-9 record and 63 points, placing them 27th in the NHL standings.
While there are plenty of players to build around, such as Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt, significant changes are likely coming this offseason. What should those changes look like for general manager Tom Fitzgerald? Let’s examine the Devils’ biggest needs heading into the draft and free agency in the first half of July.
Veteran Scoring Depth
If there’s something that went well for the Devils this season, it’s their top young players turned into high-end scorers. Bratt was a 73-point player, while Hughes and Hischier produced at 94- and 70-point paces, respectively. Yegor Sharangovich turned into a legitimate 20-25 goal scorer, and Jesper Boqvist looks like he could finally be the team’s third-line center of the future.
Those were all positive developments under head coach Lindy Ruff, and the team’s offense was actually quite good. They finished 11th in shot attempts and expected goals generated per 60 minutes at five-on-five, and they averaged 3.03 goals per game at all strengths. The offensive potential in an increasingly offensive league is there. Now it’s about finding more scoring, and fortunately, Fitzgerald will have options this offseason.
At the moment, it looks like a pretty deep free-agent class if you need to add a winger or two to your lineup. Names to watch are Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, and Andre Burakovsky, to name a few. There are also UFAs that can score but are hard to play against, like Ilya Mikheyev, Valeri Nichushkin and Andrew Copp, that could interest the Devils. There are plenty more UFA wingers available than the few mentioned here, which is something we’ll dive deep into as the offseason progresses.
As for the trade market, the Devils were connected to Canucks wingers Brock Boeser and Conor Garland ahead of the trade deadline. They were also in on Brandon Hagel before the Chicago Blackhawks dealt him to the Tampa Bay Lightning for a king’s ransom. I’d expect the Devils to re-visit talks for Garland and Boeser, and I’m sure they’ll be in on other names who might be available through a trade. It might not be the pressing need it once was, but if it’s going to make the team better, adding a couple of veteran scoring wingers seems like a no-brainer.
Overhauling Devils Goaltending
This is easily the most important issue the Devils and Fitzgerald must address this offseason. They finished with a team save percentage (SV%) of .881 and gave up 61 goals above expected. The latter was the worst in the NHL, while only the Seattle Kraken had a worse team SV%. It doesn’t matter how good a team is when you have below .885 goaltending. You aren’t winning games. It’s just not possible. Per Shayna Goldman of The Athletic, the Devils’ goaltending cost them about 11 wins in the standings:
Injuries to Jonathan Bernier and Mackenzie Blackwood certainly didn’t help, as they missed significant chunks of the season or played through injuries that affected their performance. But if the Devils got average goaltending from someone, they would’ve been close to an 85-point team. That’s why it has to be priority No. 1 for management this summer.
Fortunately, they should have options to choose from either through free agency or the trade market. Free agents to keep an eye on include Ville Husso, Darcy Kuemper and even Jack Campbell. Trade targets like Alexandar Georgiev could make sense. And there will be plenty of other names to go in-depth on, both in free agency and the trade market, as the offseason progresses and who’ll be available becomes clearer.
Some Type of Changes to the Devils’ Coaching Staff
A coach is only as good as his goaltending. There are head coaches who owe their goalies a dinner at Peter Luger Steakhouse for helping them win Jack Adams awards they probably didn’t deserve. Goaltending undoubtedly made the Devils look worse than they are, but that doesn’t mean Ruff is in the clear.
Even though what happened in net was out of Ruff’s control due to injuries, moving on from him is very much on the table. The Devils produced at below 70 point paces in Ruff’s two seasons as head coach; they were on pace for 67 points in 82 games in the COVID shortened 2020-21 campaign, so they actually took a step back this year. The Devils play a run-and-gun style under Ruff, and while that seems like the right way to play given increasing scoring in the league, it probably would’ve been best to make defensive adjustments since the goaltending situation was so dire.
The second scenario is retaining Ruff but wiping his staff clean and starting it from scratch. One reason for that would be the Devils’ power play. For as bad as goaltending was, the power play was equally terrible. Mark Recchi was the assistant in charge of overseeing the power play, but the results have not been there since he joined the Devils ahead of the 2020-21 campaign.
The Devils’ power play finished converting on only 15.63 percent of their chances this season, ranked 28th in the league. Their shot and chance generation ranked in the bottom three of the NHL, as it did in 2020-21. It’s clear what Recchi wants to implement on the man advantage isn’t working and is unlikely to work moving forward.
Though there were times the power played clicked, it was because Hughes was doing things that maybe 95 percent of NHLers can’t pull off. If a team’s unit relies specifically on one player for it to be successful, it means there are deep systemic issues at hand. That point only strengthens, considering Dougie Hamilton had the worst season of his career on the power play. The Devils signed him to help bolster their man advantage, and I doubt he suddenly forgot how to quarterback a power play. So if Ruff does return, Recchi cannot be part of his staff moving forward.
Alain Nasreddine is far from the Devils’ biggest coaching issue. Other than the 2020-21 season, his penalty kills have generally ranked in the top half of the NHL. With that said, he’s been a part of the Devils’ coaching staff for seven years. Sometimes it’s just time to move on and get fresh ideas, specifically for a defense that could use a bit of a different look if Ruff does indeed return.
But whatever the case may be, the status quo is not acceptable. There cannot be zero changes to coaching. If Fitzgerald decides to move on from Ruff, that speaks for itself. But if he chooses to retain Ruff — Hughes did speak glowingly of Ruff yesterday, and he did go a bit out of his way to do so — then the rest of his staff will need an overhaul. It cannot be the same heading into 2022-23 because many of the same problems they had this season will persist.
Defensive Depth if Subban Leaves via Free Agency
I’m not even sure defensive depth is a need, but it’s something that it wouldn’t hurt to address. The Devils’ top two defense pairs are set with Jonas Siegenthaler, Ryan Graves, Damon Severson and Dougie Hamilton. Graves and Severson are about to enter the final years of their contracts, but it seems unlikely they get moved ahead of the start of 2022-23, so they’ll be around.
P.K. Subban will be an unrestricted free agent, so if the Devils don’t bring him back, there will be an opening on their third pair. If they fill it externally, pending UFAs like Mark Pysyk or Ilya Lyubushkin could make sense. With that said, they have prospects on the cusp of making the NHL in Reilly Walsh, Kevin Bahl and perhaps Nikita Okhotiuk. It’s possible they don’t need to look any further than their own farm system to replenish defensive depth.
The other question is, what happens with Ty Smith? He had a very difficult 2021-22 that saw him take a step back from an already so-so rookie season. Are the Devils and Fitzgerald ready to give up on him? Or do they still view him as part of the future? If it’s the latter, he’ll be playing on their third pair next season, so there’ll only be one spot to fill if Subban doesn’t return. But Smith’s status is something to monitor once the rumor mill starts churning.
Fitzgerald Has Work To Get Done, but It Can Get Done
The Devils and Fitzgerald have a good amount of work to do this offseason, but the team’s needs aren’t overwhelming as they were in previous years. Goaltending is an absolute must. That has to be priority No. 1, without a doubt, because it can have a massive impact on covering up other flaws. There also needs to be changes to coaching, whether it’s moving on from Ruff or retaining him and overhauling his staff.
Adding a scorer or two would go a long way, even if it isn’t the pressing need that it was just a few months ago. Those scorers should be veterans, and when I say veterans, I mean players who have enough NHL experience but still fit the team’s timeline (hence Burakovsky or Copp as examples). Not players who are 35 years old or older and past their primes.
There’s a path to the Devils becoming a playoff contender as soon as next season, and they can do it if they fill these needs, especially some coaching changes and finding goaltending. If they acquire a netminder or two that gives them average or better than average goaltending, it’ll be a game-changer in 2022-23. But they have to get it right. Otherwise, it’ll be the same dance a year from now.
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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