The 2018-19 season has been a massive disappointment for the New Jersey Devils. This follows the 2017-18 season, which was one of the most exciting times in recent memory for any Devils fan. The only direction for the team to go was up, coming off a 2016-17 season in which they won 28 games. To start the 2017-18 season, the Devils came out of the gate hot at the beginning of the season, starting things off with a 9-2-0 record and a spot atop the Metro Division.
From that point, the Devils played about .500 hockey, but won games at the right time of the season, including four of their final five games of the season to secure the second wild card spot. The magical run back to the playoffs was the first for the Devils since 2011-12 when they made a run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, eventually losing to the Los Angeles Kings in six games.
Things looked bright in the Meadowlands, Taylor Hall had an MVP-worthy season, Keith Kinkaid emerged as an apparent star goalie, and the prospect pipeline looked plentiful with the likes of Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt. Ultimately, the Devils were bounced in the first round by a talented Tampa Bay Lightning squad. However, the prospect of future success for this Devils team looked promising.
Devils’ Struggles Begin
The first couple weeks of the 2018-19 season looked like it would be a continuation of chasing the bright light at the end of the tunnel for the Devils. They started October with a 4-2-1 record before being thrashed by the Lightning 8-3 to finish the first month of the season. Kyle Palmieri scored seven goals in the Devils’ first four games. In addition to Palmieri’s hot start, Hall had nine points in the first seven games, and Kinkaid was back to the same form that pushed the Devils into the playoffs.
All things were pointing to another solid season in New Jersey, and a continuation of an expedited rebuild. Sometimes, however, things aren’t always what they appear. From that point onward, the wheels started to fall off for the Devils, winning only four of the next 13 games and starting to watch their season hopes fade early.
They hobbled through the winter months of December, January and February with a record of 17-19-4, accumulating a win percentage of 0.451 (those are numbers that get you eliminated from playoff contention before the final month of the season). The two major contributing factors to the decline of the Devils’ success were a lack of consistent goaltending, and the biggest blow of the season, Hall’s injury in late December.
Taylor Hall Goes Down
It certainly wasn’t a New Year’s Day that anyone invested in the Devils wanted. They announced on Jan. 1, 2019 that Hall, the Devils’ leading scorer and current holder of the Hart Memorial trophy, was going to be out long-term with a lower-body injury, retroactive to Dec. 23. Hall had shown no signs of slowing down from the prior season, making the loss even more significant.
He had a career season in 2017-18, finishing sixth in league scoring with 93 points, 41 more points than Hischier, New Jersey’s second-leading scorer. Hall had already fired home 11 goals and tallied 26 assists, good enough for 37 points in 33 games in the 2018-19 season.
He looked primed for another great season, and hopefully could continue to steady the ship for the Devils. However, the injury sustained to his left knee has knocked him out of the lineup since Dec. 23, and it does not look likely that he will return this season.
Kinkaid Struggles, Blackwood Emerges
The Devils hoped that their goaltending would take a leap forward this season after the strong closing to the 2017-18 season from Kinkaid and a strong couple of playoff games from Cory Schneider. It did not. Like in many facets of the Devils’ game, goaltending took strong steps backwards for much of the season.
Kinkaid was announced as the starting goalie to begin the campaign, but quickly showed that he could not handle a starter’s workload in the dog days of the winter. After starting the season with back-to-back months of a .910 save percentage (SV%) in October and November and a record of 9-7-4, he struggled through much of December and January, posting a save percentage below .880 and a record of 5-9-2.
With Kinkaid struggling between the pipes and Schneider back on the shelf with an injury in December, the Devils’ crease was up for grabs, yet again. This time it was rookie MacKenzie Blackwood who was given the nod and got his first real taste of the NHL. He made 36 saves on 38 shots in his debut versus the Columbus Blue Jackets, then followed that up with a 40-save win against the Boston Bruins.
Since then, he has handled the pressure of being a “starter” in the NHL quite well for a rookie, posting an 8-10 record, with a 2.62 goals-against average and a .916 SV%. Schneider, who was on again, off again with injuries, finally returned to the win column in a relief appearance on Feb. 15 after entering the game when the Devils trailed the Minnesota Wild 4-1. Schneider stopped all 15 shots he faced as the Devils went on to win 5-4 in overtime, giving Schneider his first win in 414 days.
Schneider looked to be regaining some of his former self as two days later he posted his second win in as many games, making 34 saves in a 4-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres. With Blackwood and Schneider now starting to show some positivity between the pipes for the Devils, general manager Ray Shero made the move to ship Kinkaid to the Blue Jackets for a 2022 fifth-round pick. Since then, Blackwood and Schneider have been splitting time in the net, not picking up many wins in the process, but both holding steady in their goals-against average and save percentage.
Hopefully the return of Hall to the lineup and positive progression from Blackwood, coupled with a renewed faith in Schneider, will provide the goaltending rebound the Devils will need in 2019-20 to be competitive again.