Flashback to the 2019 NHL offseason: The New Jersey Devils were coming off of an unexpected playoff appearance, a Hart Trophy-winning winger had dominated the league, and the Devils faithful were riding high. Then, general manager Ray Shero drafted Jack Hughes, traded for Norris Trophy defenseman P.K. Subban, and added one of the Kontinental Hockey League’s (KHL) leading scorers in Nikita Gusev.
There were high hopes for the 2019-2020 season, which were quickly demolished. Whether it was blowing a 4-0 lead on opening night or trading the league MVP, Taylor Hall, to the Arizona Coyotes, the team’s impressive offseason landed the Devils in an unfortunate but familiar spot: The bottom of the league.
Fast-forward to the 2021 offseason. General manager Tom Fitzgerald has now drafted defenseman Luke Hughes, signed game-changing defenseman Dougie Hamilton, signed veteran winger Tomas Tatar, and added a much-needed goaltender in Jonathan Bernier to challenge Mackenzie Blackwood. Though the excitement about this offseason is comparable to that of the 2019 offseason, the results are unlikely to be the same. The Devils have their core in place and proved that their rookies are legit last season.
Here are some predictions for what the Devils could acheive in 2021-22.
Jack Hughes Will Explode Offensively
Hughes’ sophomore season showed improvement and highlighted his puck-handling skills. Though his numbers were not mind-blowing, both analytics and the eye test proved his growth. However, the Devils and Hughes knew that he was too easy to knock off of the puck, and he needed to get stronger. Come September, he went into training camp with an added 14 pounds of muscle. He could now hold on to the puck and fight off more players. Yet, he’s still 20 years old, and has not come close to raaching his ceiling in the NHL.
One of the weakest parts of the first-overall pick’s game is his shot. In 117 games, Hughes has potted 29 goals. Though his play-making abilities are impressive, he has trouble finishing his chances, and is often shooting into a goaltender’s chests. Furthermore, he has had little puck-luck, and was at the top of the list in “missed shots” according to Dobber’s Frozen Tools.
There is little reason to believe that he is unaware of this, and has proven he demands the most of himself. Therefore, Hughes will likely enter the upcoming season with a hunger for scoring and to improve every aspect of his game.
With added veteran presence of Hamilton and Tatar, Hughes will likely get a boost in offense. Tatar could fit in on Hughes’ wing and easily pot 25+ goals with the playmaking center. Hamilton is one of the league’s top offensive defensemen, and will likely add a team-changing presence on the blue line that will increase the team’s offensive production. Hughes has resources and the ability to explode offensively in the upcoming season, and every Devils fan is excited to see what he will bring in year three.
Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier Will Be a Top Goalie Tandem in the League
Blackwood has been New Jersey’s hopeful star goalie, and last season, he played his best since his 2018 debut. Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit the Devils and affected his game for the rest of the season. Mixed with a lackluster defense in front of him, Blackwood struggled for the better part of the year. He ended the 2020-2021 season with a 14-17-4 record, a 3.04 goals-against average (GAA), and a .902 save percentage (SV%).
After Corey Crawford‘s sudden retirement, Blackwood and the Devils were stuck with very little depth in net. Aaron Dell, Scott Wedgewood, and a one-game stint from Eric Comrie combined for 24 games, while Blackwood started the rest. The Devils then added Jonathan Bernier in free agency. Bernier spent the last two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and performed impressively behind a weak team. He is a veteran goalie with impressive numbers. According to Natural Stat Trick, Bernier has a 2.77 GAA and a .913 SV%. His analytical numbers show a true 1B goalie, and he will work well in pushing Blackwood to be better.
With an improved defense and a healthy Blackwood who is playing like himself, he and Bernier could become a top-10 tandem in the league. Furthermore, in the Metropolitan Division, the two Devils goalies could be a top-3 tandem. The improved defense will help tremendously. The challenge will be for both of them to stay healthy for a full season.
Andreas Johnsson Will Finally Be the Weapon the Devils Traded For
On Oct. 10, 2020, the Devils traded Mikey Anderson for forward Andreas Johnsson. At the time, the trade seemed exceptional, and Johnsson was expected to be a middle-six or even top-six forward for New Jersey. However, Johnsson had a difficult season. In 50 games, he scored three goals and five assists. He was hit bard by the COVID outbreak and mentioned he never felt fully recovered. In turn, the Devils were clearly unhappy with his performance, and he often logged minutes on the fourth line. He was later exposed in the Seattle expansion draft but not taken. Johnsson will now get another chance in New Jersey.
Despite his poor offensive output, Johnsson has underlying analytics that indicates he is better than what he produced. The Devils traded for the winger to add scoring and be the go-to winger for Hughes or Nico Hischier. If Johnsson can be who management traded for, he will be poised to have a much better season. He also tested positive for COVID while having asthma and playing every other night. Though his first season in the red and black was disappointing, it is hard to write off the winger after the curveball 2020-2021 shortened season.
The Young Core Will Thrive With Added Veteran Presence
Despite another bottom-of-the-league finish, the Devils’ young core showed an impressive step forward. Along with Hughes, Hischier, Blackwood, and Jesper Bratt, New Jersey’s other prospects, including Ty Smith, Yegor Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen, Michael McLeod, and Pavel Zacha, showed their development. After the departures of lineup staples like Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri, the young players had to handle NHL games every other night playing against the league’s best. Throw in setbacks like COVID, rescheduled games, shifting lines, and American Hockey League (AHL) call-ups, and the up-and-coming players adapted well.
With an offseason of training, adding Hamilton, signing Bernier and Tatar to fill in the holes, and adding Ryan Graves in a trade, the young core could take a leap big enough to make the Devils a competitive team. Experience is one of the most important assets to have in the league, and the four additions to the team have a combined 1,775 games in the NHL. Not only will this improve the Devils’ play, but it will also help teach the young core how to win.
The Devils Have the Potential To Sneak Into a Playoff Spot
The Devils have had a great offseason on paper. The next challenge will be putting it on the ice and performing consistently. As the divisions return to normal, New Jersey will be battling for a playoff spot against the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Washington Capitals. However, to their advantage, the Devils’ opponents did not get much better during the offseason while they have made prominent moves that are bound to improve the team. With the impressive young core that outscored every other group of rookies in the NHL last season and adding proven NHL veterans, the Devils are set to compete.
To reach the playoffs, they will need solid goaltending, a stronger defense, an improved offense, and, most importantly, consistency. The added experience should help with that. Devils fans should be looking forward to the season and a chance to see their young stars continue their development. Sneaking into the playoffs would not be shocking, considering their successful offseason.
Erica Rosenbaum is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers. She is currently attending Rutgers University and pursuing a Sports Management degree. She has run a Devils Instagram page since 2016 and previously wrote for AllNySports.