The New Jersey Devils have had a rocky first half of the 2021-22 season, to say the least. Through their first 41 games, the club is 15-21-5 for 35 points. While some feel the season is a wash as they are 16 points out of the second wild-card spot, anything can happen during these unpredictable times. They have been plagued with injuries, COVID, and non-COVID-related illnesses, but seem to be getting close to 100 percent. Some players have stepped up to the challenge and some haven’t – let’s roll into the 2021-22 Devils’ midseason awards.
Jesper Bratt is currently in the middle of his best season in the NHL. The 23-year-old has 37 points (14G, 23A), a career-best for the Swede. He leads his team in virtually every offensive category and has been the most valuable player on the Devils roster. Whether his linemates are Dawson Mercer, Jack Hughes, or Nico Hischier, each line that he has been part of has found success.
Ahead of the season, Bratt spoke to the media and expressed a want to become a leader on the team and take on more responsibility.
“I’m just trying to get stronger, faster, and in better shape,” said Bratt. “I’m looking to become a more complete player, and I feel like I had a good offseason…I want to take my game to the next step and become more of a leader-type player that the team can trust and take a little bigger role.”
He had a bit of a slow start not getting his first point until six games into the season but has since become the team’s most consistent scorer. Currently, he is on a six-game point streak (5G, 3A). Bratt is finally getting recognition around the league and should get a nice raise at the conclusion of the season when he is set to become a restricted free agent.
The obvious choice could be Dougie Hamilton, but when the obvious choice has been sidelined with injuries it makes way for another player. Damon Severson has been a workhorse for the Devils this season. He has played nine more games than Hamilton in addition to averaging two more minutes of ice time per game. He has stepped up when called upon and has been successfully quarterbacking the power play which has converted in their last five games.
“Damon has played against all the top lines,” said Coach Ruff. ” I’ve really liked his game, it has been solid, and has been for a long time. He’s running the number one power play in Dougie’s absence, and has done a lot of good things.”
The 6-foot-2 defenseman has also contributed offensively and has five goals and 19 points, and his 14 assists currently lead all defensemen. The 27-year-old has faced criticism over the years but has evolved into a leader and an invaluable member of New Jersey’s blue line.
Most Surprising Player
No one expected the Devils’ goaltending tandem would consist of Jon Gillies and Akira Schmid, but here we are. There has not been any stability in the crease and the loss of Jonathan Bernier has hurt in more ways than one. Six different goalies have played for New Jersey and the club’s weakness in net is a big reason for their struggles the first half of the season. Mackenzie Blackwood has played 19 games and has been battling a lingering heel injury that placed him back on injured reserve.
“What he’s been dealing with, we’re just trying to help him get through it,” coach Ruff said. “Really no update, no timeline. The goal is to get him healthy. Obviously, he struggled with the injury he’s had. It’s something that’s affected his play. We want to see him healthy and we want to see him play.”
The Devils will need to try to weather the storm and hope to find consistency between the pipes even if it takes a couple of goaltenders to achieve it. Blackwood has allowed 11.7 more goals than expected this season and the only choice New Jersey has is to keep him off the ice until he is 100 percent.
Most Disappointing Player
Last season, Pavel Zacha was New Jersey’s best forward with 35 points. This season he has struggled at times and has scored 18 points in 38 games. He has moved up and down the lineup and recently has been playing on the third line with Mercer and Andreas Johnsson. The 6-foot-3 forward found early success on the man advantage but once the power play began to struggle he was replaced. In the past, he has been a key penalty killer but has not been utilized in that role either. Since Dec. 2 he has earned points in only four games. Zacha is set to become a restricted free agent and at this point, it will be interesting to see what general manager Tom Fitzgerald decides to do with the former sixth overall pick.
What to Expect in the Second Half
The good news is the Devils are the healthiest they have been in a long time. Both Ty Smith and Dougie Hamilton, who are currently on injured reserve, traveled with the team on their current road trip and no player is on the NHL’s COVID protocol list. If the Devils can find consistency throughout their lineup and in all areas of the ice, they have a chance to climb up the standings and maybe compete for a wild card spot.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and is a credentialed correspondent covering the New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettos_NHL and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.