The New Jersey Devils will continue to improve their roster this offseason to break their postseason drought in 2022-23. General manager (GM) Tom Fitzgerald will go back to the drawing board during the summer to solve the Devils’ goaltending dilemma to find the right netminder for the team. Goaltending was one of the ongoing issues for the 2021-22 Devils that hindered their success as seven goaltenders – Mackenzie Blackwood, Jon Gillies, Scott Wedgewood, Jonathan Bernier, Nico Daws, Akira Schmid, and Andrew Hammond all started between the posts for them this year.
Beyond improving the goaltending, the Devils need to get better on the power play (PP) in 2022-23 as they were awful with the man advantage this year. They also have a lot of restricted free agents (RFA) and some unrestricted free agents (UFA) on the roster and will be open to improving it through free agency and trades. Here are three players that may be on the trading block during the offseason.
Mackenzie Blackwood dealt with multiple injuries in 2021-22 as the heel surgery he had last offseason impacted his performance during the year. He struggled in 25 games played this season as he finished with a record of 9-10-4, a 3.39 goals-against average (GAA), and a .892 save percentage (SV%). During the last two seasons, he has not looked like the number one netminder the Devils were hoping to rely on.
None of the six goaltenders that played this year – Wedgewood is no longer with the Devils – inspire confidence. Blackwood is supposed to be the netminder that they can rely upon, but his inconsistent play and problems with durability raise concerns. Fitzgerald needs to revisit the position and find another goalie the team can depend on. The team defense did not always play well in front of him, but Blackwood was not sharp enough in goal regularly for the Devils.
Earlier in April, Elliotte Friedman reported on an episode of 32 Thoughts: The Podcast that Blackwood and the Devils had their share of issues. The organization was not happy about the goalie’s decision to not get vaccinated for COVID-19 initially, and there was a difference in opinion between him and the club on the treatment of his heel injury. The disagreements between him and the Devils may signify it is time for the two parties to part ways.
Blackwood has one more year remaining on his current contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $2.8 million before he will be an RFA. If he remains with the team for the 2022-23 year, he needs to have an excellent season to appease the fan base and management that he can be the Devils’ number one goaltender for the next several years. After seven goaltenders suited up between the pipes for the Devils in 2021-22, they need to find a number one netminder to improve their chances of competing in the Metropolitan Division next season. During the 2022 NHL Draft, he could be traded for a draft pick – a second or possibly a first-round selection.
Pavel Zacha had a third consecutive season of finishing with over 30 points and was inconsistent for the Devils in 2021-22. His production during his sixth year with the team raised the question of whether they should take offers for him this summer if that’s his ceiling. That kind of offense is replaceable either in free agency or within the organization as the Devils’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Utica Comets, has a lot of young talent with the success of the team during the AHL regular season this year.
Zacha is an RFA this offseason and there was speculation the Devils were looking to deal him at the trade deadline. Given the other RFAs on the roster this season, next season, and the other additions from free agency and trades, he has a good chance of being elsewhere in 2022-23.
Jesper Bratt is one of the Devils’ RFAs this offseason and he was their best offensive player during 2021-22, which will earn him a multi-year deal between $4 and 5 million annually for the next several years. Zacha looks like he is a player that will be featured in the bottom six regularly for the Devils if he remains with the franchise beyond this offseason. As such, they should be able to find other options to replace the 25-year-old. He looks like he could be dealt for a draft pick or a prospect with top-six potential if a team thinks the Devils forward can succeed elsewhere with a fresh start.
Based on his numbers the last two seasons, Janne Kuokkanen is a bottom-six forward that did not have as good of a season as he needed to in order to have a better chance of remaining with the Devils after next year. He is scheduled to become an RFA after next season and it is debatable as to whether he will remain with the team beyond 2022-23. Given the plethora of young players on the roster and with the Comets, the 23-year-old forward could be elsewhere at the start of next year, as it appears he is not a player that will not contribute regularly to the Devils’ offense whether it be due to injury or a healthy scratch. He participated in 57 of 82 games during 2021-22, which is less than last season when he played in 50 of the 56 games in the shortened 2020-21 year.
The Devils could receive a draft pick or a depth player for Kuokkanen if they decide to trade him during the offseason. He is in a similar position to Zacha as far as having reached his potential with the organization, especially if he is missing games due to being a healthy scratch. If he remains with the team next year, he could be traded during the season or next offseason when he will be an RFA.
The Devils are in another season of transition as they attempt to make improvements to the roster and potentially the coaching staff to compete for a playoff spot in 2022-23. They need to improve their goaltending and the power play as their poor performance in those areas hampered the progress of the young organization. If they can find a reliable netminder via trade or free agency, that will provide a boost to a franchise looking to make the postseason regularly.
The Devils also need to improve their overall defensive play, specifically from the forwards who turned the puck over in their zone or at center ice which led to goals or chances against them. Fitzgerald has a significant offseason in front of him, as the team’s performance during the regular season has become tiresome for the fan base in terms of continually finishing at the bottom of the division. Frustration is mounting, as doubt begins to arise as to whether the Devils will make the right personnel changes to improve the team’s fortunes in the future.