COVID continues to wreak havoc on the NHL’s schedule, and that’s no different for the New Jersey Devils. Their contest tonight against the New York Islanders will be their first since a 4-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 8. It’ll also be their only one until Jan. 19, when they play the Arizona Coyotes. The Devils will get a handful of players back from COVID protocols tonight. But they’ll also be without more than a few who still remain in protocols. Let’s catch up on all the news.
Blackwood, Schmid Enter COVID Protocols
The Devils have not had any goaltending luck the last few years, but it’s somehow been its worst in 2021-22. Jonathan Bernier is out for the remainder of the season after undergoing hip surgery, leaving the Devils without an established backup netminder to Mackenzie Blackwood. And when you thought things couldn’t get worse, they’ll be without Blackwood and Akira Schmid tonight after they both entered COVID protocols over the last 24-48 hours.
Assuming he’s asymptomatic, the time off could serve Blackwood well. He’s struggled quite a bit this season, as he has a .898 save percentage (SV%) and the fourth-worst goals saved above expected in the NHL. Perhaps the time off will give him a chance to reset, especially mentally. It also wouldn’t hurt to see what Gillies has to offer because he’s probably the best option the Devils have to replace Bernier for the rest of 2021-22. Schmid showed promise in the AHL to start the season, but he should return to the Utica Comets to continue his development once he leaves protocols.
With Blackwood and Schmid out, that leaves Jon Gillies as the Devils’ lone healthy goalie, as prospect Nico Daws is out with an injury. Gillies has made one start for the Devils since they acquired him from the St. Louis Blues, stopping 19/22 shots against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 19. Since Gillies is the Devils’ only available goalie, they’ll have to dress a backup with zero NHL experience tonight.
Severson, Kuokkanen in Protocols as Well
In addition to missing their top two goaltenders, the Devils will be without a top-pair defenseman in Damon Severson and a third-line winger in Janne Kuokkanen. Both players entered COVID protocols earlier this week and are not eligible to return tonight, as they’ve been in protocols for less than five days.
Not having Severson is a pretty significant blow to the Devils. With Dougie Hamilton out indefinitely due to a broken jaw, he’s taken over top-pair duties to form a true shutdown pair alongside Jonas Siegenthaler. Since he won’t be available tonight, Ryan Graves will move up to the top pair alongside Siegenthaler. Colton White and P.K. Subban will likely operate as the team’s second unit, while Ty Smith and Christian Jaroś round out the third pair. That’ll leave the Devils with some depth issues on defense, which could make an already difficult situation for Gillies even more challenging.
As for Kuokkanen, he had been playing a bit better lately. Over the last seven games, he had 14 shots on goal to go along with two goals and an assist. With that said, the Devils are getting some reinforcements up front, with a few players returning from COVID protocols. So while they won’t have Kuokkanen tonight, their forward depth should get a significant lift.
Sharangovich, Johnsson and Zacha All Cleared to Return
Now about those reinforcements. Yegor Sharangovich, Pavel Zacha and Andreas Johnsson have all been cleared from COVID protocols and will return tonight against the Islanders. For Zacha and Sharangovich, this will be their first game since Jan. 2. For Johnsson, this will be his first game since Jan. 4.
Both Zacha and Sharangovich were on quite different trajectories entering COVID protocols last Tuesday. Sharangovich was playing his best hockey of the season, with four points in his previous three games. A big reason for that was head coach Lindy Ruff reunited him with Jack Hughes after the Devils returned from the Christmas break. That move seemed to pay dividends for both players, and it’s likely they’re linemates tonight.
As for Zacha, he was trending in the opposite direction from Sharangovich. He had only two goals in his previous 19 games before entering protocols, so the time off could have done him some good. Based on practice lines Tuesday, it looks like Zacha could find himself on a line with Hughes and Sharangovich, at least for tonight. Hughes and Sharangovich seem to have something special as linemates, so perhaps that helps spark Zacha. The Devils sure hope that’s the case, because they need him to score more often than he has lately.
Finally, there’s Johnsson. After starting the season on a shooting bender, he has no goals in his last 15 games. That’s not a surprise, though, as his shooting percentage was unsustainably high. He’s now shooting 14.1 percent, which is just above his career 12.4 shooting percentage. Eventually goals will start to come for him again now that he’s more in line with his career norms. He’ll likely find himself on a line with Dawson Mercer tonight.
Bastian & Bratt Still in Protocols
Last but not least, there’s Nathan Bastian and Jesper Bratt, who are also in COVID protocols. Both players entered protocols on Jan. 8, making today the fifth day they’ve missed. If they test negative before tonight’s game, they could return. However, that seems unlikely since they’ll have had no time to practice or skate since testing positive for COVID on Jan. 8.
Fortunately for Bratt, Bastian and the rest of the Devils’ players in protocols, this should be the last game they miss since they don’t play the Coyotes until six days from now. The other good news is that COVID is running out of players to infect on the team. And under NHL protocols, players who test positive don’t have to get tested again for 90 days. With the team fully vaccinated and mostly having prior infections from last season’s outbreak plus this season’s, they shouldn’t have too many COVID concerns once they get through this stretch. At least, let’s hope that’s the case.
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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