Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, where Last Word on Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 New Jersey Devils.
2020-21 New Jersey Devils
It was a disappointing season for the New Jersey Devils in 2019-20. However, entering last season expectations were higher than they should have been. The Devils had the number-one pick in the 2019 NHL Draft after winning the draft lottery. With that selection, the Devils selected Jack Hughes. However, then general manager Ray Shero was not done during the draft acquiring P.K. Subban from the Nashville Predators. Later on, Shero traded for Nikita Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights and signed Wayne Simmonds.
However, Shero made three glaring mistakes, not addressing the Devils backup goalie position, the defence, and signing Taylor Hall to a long-term extension. However, for Hall, he wanted to be on a winning team and was critical of management for not making moves the prior season to upgrade the team. He felt the Devils could not get the job done and was going to test the open market.
While the team improved, it did not improve enough to where they were legitimate contenders for a playoff start. Things got off to a rocky start for the Devils. Questions were being asked of then-head coach John Hynes. Why are players like Hughes and Gusev being played on the third line, when they are top-six players? Hall was ultimately traded to Arizona. Hynes was fired as the Devils head coach in December of 2019, but it was too little too late. Alain Nasreddine took over as head coach. Things got better, and the team was in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.
Prior to a game in January of 2020, the Devils fired Shero as general manager. Management was not happy with the way Shero was running the team and appointed Tom Fitzgerald as interim general manager. There were a lot of internal struggles between ownership and Shero. Ultimately, the team was moving in a different direction.
Fitzgerald was entering at a strange time. It was right before the NHL Trade Deadline. He knew this team was not going to compete for a playoff spot. So, he decided to trade his most valuable assets and get prospects and picks in return. Nobody thought he was going to get much in return. However, he turned Blake Coleman, Andy Greene, and Sami Vatanen into Nolan Foote, a first-round pick in 2020, prospect, Janne Kuokkanen and defenceman Fredrik Claesson, and a second-round pick in 2020. That was a good haul for three players. Not to mention he did not trade Kyle Palmieri knowing players like that don’t grow on trees. Fitzgerald had set himself nicely for the upcoming draft and the following seasons. And put himself in line for the full-time general manager’s job.
The Devils’ 2020 off-season came early as the team’s season ended in March because of COVID-19. The Devils missed out on the NHL’s Return to Play in August. So, there was a lot of time to get prepared for the upcoming NHL Draft and free-agency frenzy. In July of 2020, the Devils announced Lindy Ruff was going to be the new head coach. Tom Fitzgerald got the interim tag removed and Alain Nasreddine was still with the team as an assistant coach. The Devils also retooled their coaching adding the likes of Mark Recchi to help with the offence and power-play.
Entering the draft in October the 2020-21 New Jersey Devils had three-first round picks. Not to mention loads of second and third rounds picks as well. New Jersey selected Alexander Holtz, Dawson Mercer, and Shakir Mukhamadullin. They also selected Nico Daws in the third round of the draft. The Devils prospect pool had been replenished and Fitzgerald had done his job.
During free agency, the 2020-21 New Jersey Devils not only made several good signings but added some much-needed scoring and defence via trade. First, the Devils upgraded their backup goalie position with the signing of Corey Crawford. In addition, the Devils signed Dmitry Kulikov to help on defence. Fitzgerald was not done, as he traded for Andreas Johnsson from the Toronto Maple Leafs to upgrade his top-six. As well as trading for Ryan Murray from the Columbus Blue Jackets to upgrade the defence. It was another busy off-season for the Devils.
Jesper Bratt –Nico Hischier – Nikita Gusev
Andreas Johnsson – Jack Hughes – Kyle Palmieri
Yegor Sharangovich – Travis Zajac – Jesper Boqvist
Miles Wood – Pavel Zacha – Nathan Bastian
Projected lineup when healthy and all accounted for
The top-six is pretty much set when it comes to the Devils. Hischier and Hughes are the top two centres on the team. However, with Hischier to miss the start of training camp and maybe the beginning of the season, it throws a monkey wrench into this lineup. Does Hughes become the number one centre? Yes, he put on size and everyone expects a breakout year, but will Lindy Ruff want him going up against other team’s top lines. And who will he play with is another question? He had the most success with Palmieri on his right side. Newly acquired winger Andreas Johnsson could flank him on the left side.
Another element in this whole thing is Jesper Bratt. Bratt currently does not have a new contract and will not be a training camp to start. It is important for Bratt to be in training camp. After his breakout rookie season, he has not produced the same numbers and has been very inconsistent. Bratt earned a spot on the roster the year he made the team. Not being at training camp may allow someone else to steal his spot. Could it be a guy like Jesper Boqvist? What about a player like Nolan Foote? It might be a season too early for him. And if Hischier is out, does Pavel Zacha get a chance to prove he can play centre with the Devils. So many questions.
Then we come to the bottom-six, outside of Travis Zajac centring the third line and maybe the second line. After that things are all over the place. Put players into a blender and figure it out. If Boqvist is not playing on the first line, then he is a good candidate for the third line alongside Zajac. On the left side who knows? Could it be Yegor Sharangovich? He left the KHL after scoring 17 goals in 34 games. The Devils brought him over for a reason.
Does Miles Wood get a shot on the third line and prove he can be something more than a fourth-line winger. Then you Mikhail Maltsev. He has really improved down in the AHL and has that shootout touch teams are looking for. What about Janne Kuokkanen? He could find himself fighting for a spot in the bottom-six.
There are so many options especially since there will be a taxi squad. Coach Lindy Ruff says the Devils have about five to six open spots on the forward group so, training camp will be interesting. Even a guy like Nicholas Merkley has a shot to make the team. Then there is Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian. Bastian has shown he can play in the league, while McLeod has regressed. There is not a lot of room for all these guys.
Ty Smith – Dmitry Kulikov
Much like the offence, you can throw the defence into a blender and see what you get. While Damon Severson was highly criticized last season, he was the Devils’ best defenceman. He was also put in a position not to succeed. At times he was paired with P.K. Subban. That isn’t going to work. Players are too similar. With the addition of Ryan Murray, the Devils could pair Severson and Murray together. Especially if Murray shows he can stay healthy, this is a massive upgrade to the defence. They are gonna need it too. Severson says he is ready to take on a bigger role. Let’s see when the puck drops.
With Subban’s game declining, he is just not a top pair defenceman anymore. However, used on the power play and on the second pairing he still has something left to give. The issue is for the Devils since acquiring him, who would play with him? He has always had a steady defenceman on the left side so he could do his thing. Is Will Butcher the guy, the Devils are hoping so. Butcher finished on the sidelines with an injury to his hand. The Devils are looking for him to bounce back. He signed with the Devils for a reason. If Butcher can be rock solid on the left side that opens Subban’s game.
Things get a little more complicated here. As previously mentioned the Devils signed Dmitry Kulikov in the off-season. He can play the left or right side. But the Devils are hoping Ty Smith is going to take the next step this season. He is the highest-rated defenceman in their system. He makes the left side so much stronger.
And having a guy like Kulikov paired with Smith, will help the youngster adjust to the flow and pace of the NHL. Which puts a guy like Connor Carrick on the outside looking in. With each team carrying a taxi squad, look for the Devils to keep some extra defencemen on that squad. Like always there are surprises in training camp.
What is given is the duo of Mackenzie Blackwood and Corey Crawford. Blackwood carried the load for the Devils last season. But the Devils knew they couldn’t rely on Blackwood alone. They needed a backup goalie so Blackwood could get a night off. Plus this was an area that was not addressed over the past couple of seasons. Crawford is a guy who has won Stanley Cups and in a short season with a lot of back-to-backs, having a guy like Crawford around will not only give Blackwood the proper time off, but show him what it will take to win in this league. This duo will keep the Devils in almost every game.
Players to Watch
One player to watch heading into this season is Nikita Gusev. Gusev is heading into a contract year and poised to break out as written earlier this off-season. It was a tough first 20 games for the Russian, but once he adjusted to the North American game, he showed why he was an elite passer in the KHL. Gusev is the best passer the Devils have seen since Scott Gomez and Patrik Elias. That is high praise. Having a year under his belt will open up his game even more. They will need Gusev to drive the offence.
Another player you will want to watch is Jack Hughes. Hughes had a tough first season. Expectations were high for him coming into the league. However, after putting on 14 pounds of muscle over the past 10 months, the Devils are hoping Hughes has grown into his man weight and will dominate as he did during his draft year. It was a tough adjustment for him never playing a full season against men or having a place to develop. But with the time off, the Devils and their fans are hoping he will make an impact right away.
Andreas Johnsson was one of the forgotten players in Toronto. With the Devils, he will be asked to contribute a lot more offensively than he did with the Maple Leafs. He has the ability to be a consistent 20-25 goal scorer in the league. Maybe even more. And playing in the top-six instead of the third line will give him more opportunities to show off his skills. Johnsson will have something to prove this season. If he does not over complicate things, he will be a very effective player for the Devils this season.
Prediction for the 2020-21 New Jersey Devils
This is a weird year as the divisions are realigned because of COVID-19. The 2020-21 New Jersey Devils will be in the East Division with their rivals from the Metropolitan Division as well as the Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins. All these teams are going through changes. And with only four teams from each division making the playoffs getting off to a hot start really matters. While nothing is given, the Devils will be on the outside looking in.
This team is a year or two away from really contending. Expectations really should be set low. However, that does not mean the Devils can’t play spoiler and be a hard out. But realistically, the 2020-21 New Jersey Devils will miss the playoff once again.
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