It’s that time of the year again: September, where the hockey season is so close, yet so far. For New Jersey Devils fans especially, whose team has made some big splashes in free agency and has a massive amount of young talent ready to shine, the wait until the Oct. 15 opening night will be a long one. And in the torturous time we all must wait until the season begins, we’ll undoubtedly have the countless storylines surrounding the Devils swirling through our minds as the hockey withdrawal worsens.
So why not complete a fun exercise by consolidating a few predictions and recaps, then slapping an aptly named label on the player(s) it applies to? Making these superlatives helped me pass a little time until the puck drops, and hopefully it does the same for you.
Most Hyped Player: Dougie Hamilton
When you reel in the biggest fish of the offseason, there’s going to be hype. That’s exactly what the Devils and Hamilton have gotten since the former Carolina Hurricanes defenseman signed a 7-year, $63 million deal over the summer that brings a sorely needed number-one to the blue line.
Taking a look back at the offensive defenseman’s career, the fanfare is completely justified. Yes, Hamilton has swapped teams three times since making his NHL debut as a Boston Bruin, but he’s also seemingly improved with every change of scenery. In fact, with every stint in a new city, his points per game (PPG) has gone up by about one tenth of a point – most recently his 0.65 PPG in three years with Carolina. Alongside that improvement, his average time on ice (21:30 with Carolina) has also incrementally increased with every team. In fact, Hamilton is coming off his best season yet after finishing 2020-21 with 42 points in 55 games while finishing fourth in Norris Trophy voting.
But as good as Hamilton is, a lot of the hype surrounding the move to acquire him is likely because of the philosophy of the move itself. Bringing in a star defender, in his prime, on a huge contract signaled to Devils fans that the franchise is ready to exit the rebuild phase and enter the compete phase. In what will be a big season for the development of the team, 2021-22 will surely let us know if they were right to do so.
Now or Never Player: Andreas Johnsson
Johnsson’s first year with his new team was a very rough one for the former Toronto Maple Leaf. Dealing with a bout of Covid-19, being shifted around the lineup when he was healthy, and all the other tribulations that come with joining a new squad, the forward only managed to put up 11 points in 50 games. It was, needless to say, Johnsson’s worst season as a pro.
2021-22 will be a pivotal season for Johnsson and his future with New Jersey. Why? Because the Devils have a ton of young and hungry prospects that will surely be ready to challenge for roster spots in 2022-23, if not earlier. Of course, the most likely candidates at this point are highly touted youngsters Alexander Holtz and Dawson Mercer, but the competition runs deeper than that. Nolan Foote, Graeme Clarke, Chase Stillman, Tyce Thompson, and even more are all forwards that the Devils could turn to in the next couple of seasons should Johnsson fizzle out.
On top of that, Johnsson’s contract is good through the 2022-23 season with a $3.4 million cap hit and a modified No-Trade Clause (ten-teams) in the final year. Should he not have the bounce-back campaign that many hope to see, the team could very well move Johnsson before his NTC kicks in, thus avoiding a trade-block that would be cut by almost a third of the NHL’s clubs. At this point, it seems imperative that the 26-year-old proves his worth to New Jersey before he’s viewed as an obstacle to the development of their more youthful players. It’s now or never.
Most Underrated Player: Tomas Tatar
It’s completely understandable that Hamilton gets most of the spotlight for a Devils team that needed the star power, but are we really going to let the acquisition of Tatar go this far under the radar? One look at his most recent stint with the Montreal Canadiens should make anyone reconsider how great that signing (two-years, $9 million) really was.
Over the past three seasons with Montreal, Tatar scored at a 0.75 PPG pace including a stretch where he nearly scored 60 points in back-to-back campaigns. Last year’s Covid season saw a dip in production (30 points in 50 games), but that still would’ve been enough to tie for third on the Devils in total points for 2020-21. In fact, excluding last season, Tatar had scored at least 20 goals for six straight seasons – a milestone that no Devil accomplished in 2020-21.
A consistent scorer for years now, Tatar is not only someone New Jersey needs on the ice, but in the locker room. At just 30 years old, the veteran will likely be the oldest forward on the roster and the third-oldest player on the team behind Jonathan Bernier (33) and P.K. Subban (32). In that, Tatar will be a great resource for the extremely green forward group the Devils have put together and could even help shape their development. An extremely useful offensive talent with the potential to become a team leader, look for him to play a big role for New Jersey this season.
Darkhorse Breakout Candidate: Nolan Foote
With a ton of buzz surrounding the recent performances of both Holtz and Mercer, Foote may be starting to fall a bit under the radar compared to his teammates. But remember, the latter has more professional experience so far and (for now) is closer to a roster spot than either of his younger counterparts.
In addition to his impressive play with Holtz and Mercer at the Prospect’s Challenge, Foote performed well in 24 games of American Hockey League (AHL) action last season, scoring 17 points for the Binghamton Devils. He even got called up for a cup of coffee with the big club, where he managed to net a couple of points in six games. While it may be easy to overlook the 6-foot-4, 201-pound winger in favor of some of the flashier Devil prospects that are favored to be better assets in the longterm, Foote is still a player who has the potential to impress. The combination of his size, heavy shot, and the fact that New Jersey may not want to rush either Holtz or Mercer into the NHL at this point all make him a great candidate to get some opportunities this season. And at just 20 years old, the former first-round pick certainly has the talent to capitalize on them.
Most Important Player: Mackenzie Blackwood
While a debate between Blackwood and budding star Jack Hughes may ensue for this one, the decision is likely made by the fact that a team is far more likely to be carried by stellar goaltending than it is by one offensive player. The thing is, we know that Blackwood is capable of being that guy for the Devils – he just hasn’t been able to do so with consistency. In a season where progress will define New Jersey’s success, their netminder is the only player who has the talent and opportunity to solely change the narrative around the team for better or worse.
In all three seasons that Blackwood has played in, his save percentage and goals against average have worsened. While some of that can be explained away due to a rough time contracting Covid-19 last season, the young goalie still has some work to do. Yes, he’s been surrounded by one of the worst teams in the NHL during that time, but if he’s going to be the franchise goaltender, he must flip that script. That is, it should be his goal to instead of having his stats being indicative of his team’s play, have the team’s stats be indicative of his play. The potential he carries is unquestioned; the league has seen him shut down quality opponents, produce highlight reel saves, and look like the real deal. But doing that consistently over an 82-game schedule is the most crucial step.
The Devils have worked to help him out, too. Of course, they acquired a legitimate top-tier d-man in Hamilton, but they also traded for former Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ryan Graves, who’s another top-four option. Bernier was also added to the roster in order to get the 24-year-old Blackwood some needed rest during the season. The team is improving quickly, and Blackwood must do the same. He could be the difference between an inspiring effort and a playoff season.
Vincent Velotta is an NYC based freelance journalist who covers the New Jersey Devils for The Hockey Writers. He has covered sports and entertainment for a variety of outlets including the Village Voice, Minute Media, and more.