The New Jersey Devils are halfway (plus one game) through the 56-game 2020-21 seasoned they’re probably about right where most people expected they’d be. Through 29 games they sit seventh in the eight-team East Division with 26 points (11-14-4).
In the first game of the second half of the season, the Devils rallied from a 0-1 hole and beat the Penguins 2-1 in overtime in Pittsburgh. “We wanted to compete and we wanted to win this game really bad. That’s how it should be,” Jesper Bratt said after his game-winning goal helped the Devs take two of three consecutive games against the Pens.
Here’s the wacky part of New Jersey’s first half – they won two of three against Pittsburgh and they’ve beaten the Boston Bruins in three of the four matchups between the two so far. They are arguably two of the top teams in the division.
Against the New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, and Washington Capitals they are a combined 1-9-1. When they’ve played the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers they’re 5-4-1. The first three teams are all tough, top-tier teams, which the opposite can be said for the Sabres and Rangers.
The Devils do have a very inexperienced roster, we all knew that was going to be the case going into the season. And they’ve certainly experienced some growing pains with the blown leads, faulty special teams, and sometimes average goaltending. But this was always going to be a tough year, and there have been quite a few bright spots in what is likely to be the weirdest season any of us will ever see.
Here are my three takeaways from New Jersey’s first half (plus one game) of the season.
1) Find a Winger For 86
Jack Hughes is showing everyone why he was picked first overall in the 2019 NHL Draft. He currently is second on the team in points and goals and every night he suits up for the Devils he is the most talented player on the roster. What is most noticeable to us is that he needs another alpha player on his line. Problem is, that player probably isn’t on the roster or in the organization right now.
Like Batman needed Robin, like Mork needed Mindy, and like Troy needed Abed, Hughes needs a partner, a running mate, someone who can form a dynamic duo that will help the Devils become a relevant team again.
The Devils already have a Nico Hischier, but he’s better served on his own line (when he returns from injury). And how great would he look in between Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kukkonanen, a slot currently held by Travis Zajac? That has the looks of a nice, young, energetic line that could cause some havoc.
Back to Hughes. In a dream world, GM Tom Fitzgerald finds a way to pry Johnny Gaudreau from the Calgary Flames roster and place him right next to no. 86 on the top line for the next ten years in New Jersey. Even if it’s a hefty price, make the deal. Can you convince them to take a blue-chip prospect (Dawson Mercer), an NHL player (Pavel Zacha), and a first-round pick? Probably not, but we’ve seen stranger deals go down in the NHL.
Others who we think would be a good fit on Hughes’ wing: Timo Meier (San Jose), Brock Boeser (Vancouver), Troy Terry (Anaheim), and Filip Forsberg (Nashville). All of these players would likely cost a hefty bounty, but it is nice to dream sometimes. It will be interesting to see who gets to ride shotgun with Hughes as he continues his ascent to stardom in the league.
2) The Kids Are Alright
New Jersey has had 51 points scored by rookies this season – the most of any team in the NHL right now. Defenseman Ty Smith leads the blueline with 15 points (2g-13). Sharangovich is fourth on the team in goals (6) and tied for the team lead in game-winning goals (2).
“I think our rookies have come a long way. For guys that haven’t played, with little or no experience in the league – I’ve seen really good growth from all of them,” said head coach Lindy Ruff after his team’s most recent win, “in a demanding schedule. You look at our schedule – playing 18 games in a month, six games in nine nights. They’ve gotten accustomed to knowing how to prepare from game to game, back-to-back games, making sure they’re getting enough rest. Overall I would say their performance has exceeded where I thought they’d be at.”
Let’s try to keep in mind the players are performing at this level with little to no on-ice practice time, and a shortened training camp after ten months off the ice as a team.
When The Hockey Writers asked Ruff if any one player has really stood out to him in his first year behind the Devils’ bench he mentioned Sharangovich. “I thought he played great, he’s really played well.”
He is one of four players on the team that hasn’t taken a penalty yet this season.
“Honestly there are quite a few players who I didn’t know a lot about. I’ve trusted a lot about what Tom and his staff have told me about players,” added Ruff. “Probably the guy that has surprised me the most is Sharangovich.”
While veterans like Nikita Gusev and Andreas Johnsson have struggled this season, players like Kuokkanen, Sharangovich, Mikhail Maltsev, Nate Bastian, and Smith have shined. The kids are indeed alright.
3) Home Blues
Home is where the losses are, apparently. At 4-11-2 inside Prudential Center, the Devils have one of the worst home records in the league. The only team with a worse home record this season is (drum roll) the Buffalo Sabres (2-11-2). After losing 11 straight games at home (a franchise record, and not the good kind) New Jersey ended that streak when they beat the Sabres, who had lost 11 straight overall.
The low point: back-to-back blowout losses to the Rangers in early March by a combined score of 12-4. The bright spot: the next five games are all on the road where the Devils are a respectable 7-3-2.
Next month will not be easy (no month is with this schedule) with two home games against the Flyers, Rangers, Penguins, and Capitals. That will be a good test to see how this team responds after a sluggish start to the season.
We said it all season – this is a throwaway season. But we’ve been convinced after watching the first 29 games that this Devils team isn’t the worst in this division, something I said on a podcast appearance before the season started. I’m even going to go as far as to say they should likely finish in fifth or sixth place this season.
Is that great? No. Is that what should be strived for? No way.
There are some really nice pieces on this roster. Some players have really shown some potential, and others not so much. That’s how it goes sometimes. You evaluate what you have, assess the value, and move forward with that knowledge.
I get the frustration of Devils fans. I do. For a large portion of them, they don’t remember the Cup-winning teams. They’re tired of the rebuild, the reboot, the re-whatever-you-wanna-call-it. No one wants to hear that they’re ‘rounding the turn’ on the rebuild. Some look back to the 2013 season as the start of the rebuild. Unfortunately, when they won the NHL Lottery they didn’t get the generational players like McDavid or Crosby. That’s okay though. Hischier and Hughes will be great NHL players, but don’t expect them to be that; if they are – that’s great.
But, when the leadership changes, that’s when the rebuild starts anew. So by my count, the new rebuild started when Tom Fitzgerald was named GM as Ray Shero’s successor. And when Shero took over for Lou Lamoriello, that was the start of a rebuild. Lamoriello wasn’t much of a rebuilder towards the end of his tenure in New Jersey, he was rather trying to use Flex-Seal to plug the holes.
Every manager has their own vision, their own version of the way they think things should be done. Try to keep that in mind as you watch, and hopefully enjoy, the rest of the season.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.