Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 New Jersey Devils.
2021-22 New Jersey Devils
It was another disappointing season for the Devils as they missed the playoffs yet again. The Devils were a surprise team to start off the 2020-21 season before COVID-19 hit the team hard. And the Devils were not the only team hit hard by COVID-19 last season. But with the schedule having to be reworked, the Devils had to play an even more condensed schedule to fit in 56 games. On top of that, the Devils were off close to 10 months because the league stopped due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Compile that with the fact, their backup goalie Corey Crawford decided to retire before the season started. So the Devils were behind the eight ball in a position that needed to be addressed. Do not forget the fact that newly named captain Nico Hischier missed most of the season because of an injury and the Devils strong start was a miracle, to say the least.
In a tough East Division, the Devils were already dealt a bad hand. And their defensive issues were not addressed at all. And the goaltending was just not there. Mackenzie Blackwood can only do so much. The backup goalie situation was a disaster. Scott Wedgewood, Aaron Dell, and Eric Comrie could not get the job done. Offensively the team struggled as well. They just could not find a way to score goals. And it showed. The team also moved on from Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri, and Nikita Gusev.
Just imagine the team on paper after those transactions. Nothing went right for the Devils last season outside of standouts Ty Smith, Jack Hughes, Yegor Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen and a few others. Hence why general manager Tom Fitzgerald was fired up at the end of the year when he made it clear he wants the Devils to start playing meaningful games come next season.
The 2021-22 New Jersey Devils had another busy off-season as Tom Fitzgerald wanted to fulfill his promise of playing meaningful games. Fitzgerald went to work re-signing players like Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian, who were essential pieces to the Devils’ fourth line. However, Bastian was picked up by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft. In addition to those restricted free agents, the Devils also re-signed Sharangovich and Kuokkanen to two-year deals. The Devils expect big things from those players this year. Not to mention the Devils re-signed Jonas Siegenthaler. Recall the Devils traded for Siegenthaler at the trade deadline.
After taking some internal housekeeping the Devils went to work addressing the three areas of need: goaltending, defence, and offence. The Devils landed on the first day of free-agency Jonathan Bernier to back up Blackwood. Then the Devils landed the top defenceman on the board in Dougie Hamilton. Hamilton immediately makes the Devils defence better and slots players in the proper positions. The Devils found their number one defenceman. Finally, the Devils signed Tomas Tatar to help with scoring. Heading into the season the 2021-22 New Jersey Devils are vastly improved. In addition, the Devils drafted Luke Hughes 4th overall. So he is the defenceman of the future once he is ready.
The top six for the Devils is pretty much set. Hughes and Hischier will be the top two centres. Hughes will play alongside Kuokkanen and Sarangovich. While Hischier will have Bratt and newly acquired winger Tomas Tatar on the other side. This is a solid top six as the Devils needed to address scoring. They did with Tatar. The line of Hughes-Kuokkanen-Sarangovich played well of the Devils last season, especially down the stretch. They were very productive. Head coach Lindy Ruff will have to keep these three together to begin the season. A big issue with the Devils offensively is changing lines constantly, unless they really struggle they need to keep line combos together so the players can get a feel for each other.
The Devils will have a healthy Nico Hischier to begin the 2021-22 campaign. This is a big year for not only him but for Jesper Bratt. Bratt needs to show he can be a consistent force in this offence. Having someone who can finish like Tatar on the line will help this duo. Both Hischier and Bratt had outstanding rookie campaigns. It was also the last time the Devils made the playoffs. Hopefully having a proven scorer on the line will help both these players.
The bottom six is a lot tougher than the top six for sure. Since the Devils were not able to keep their fourth line together, New Jersey will have to build a new one. And that one could be a patchwork of individuals. One thing is for sure, Miles Wood and Michael McLeod work well together on a line. So those two will definitely be together. While Pavel Zacha is playing better, the Devils may have to find out finally if he can be the centre to replace Travis Zajac. Zacha had the best season of his career playing on the wing instead of centre but the Devils do not really have depth down the middle. So putting him with Wood and McLeod will definitely help. Both McLeod and Zacha can play centre.
The fourth line will be interesting. The Devils right now have Jesper Boqvist and Andreas Johnsson. And Johnsson never expected to be in that position. But with the addition of Tatar and the emergence of some younger talent, Johnsson could be the odd man this year. Who knows, maybe a player like Mark Jankowski or Jimmy Vesey will emerge as both are on PTOs with the Devils.
Top Four/Bottom Pair
The 2021-22 New Jersey Devils finally have a number one defenceman in Dougie Hamilton. New Jersey has a stable force to man their number one pairing. It has been a while since the Devils had someone to be a number one defenceman. The defence was an issue for the Devils over the past couple of seasons. Having someone like Ty Smith alongside Hamilton gives the Devils a top pairing to go up against other team’s top lines. Ryan Graves may slot in there eventually, but Smith has proven he can handle the pressure of playing on the top unit.
The second pair is where you will find Graves. Ideally, he will be paired with Damon Severson. And while some Devils fans believe Severson should be traded, he has been one of the team’s better defensemen. Having him paired with a guy like Graves will help his game and it makes sense for him to be in this position too. If the Devils put him on the third pair, Severson is being underutilized, but he really isn’t a top pairing guy either. Plus Severson can still play special teams as well. But this is a solid second pairing.
The bottom pair may have a little controversy, however, this is where you will find P.K. Subban and Jonas Siegenthaler. With Hamilton in New Jersey, the defensive pairs are balanced. Subban still has the ability to play higher up in the lineup, but his game is not trending in that direction. The Devils will no doubt use Subban on the power play because of his shot, but he needs to be in a limited role because he is not the defenceman he used to be. Nobody should have expected that when he came to New Jersey. There is a good chance by season’s end Subban may not be with the team. And the third pair could look a lot different.
The Devils addressed a major need this offseason in the backup goalie position. We all know Mackenzie Blackwood is the starting goalie, but the team needed someone to take the load off of him. Insert Jonathan Bernier, who the Devils signed in free agency. Bernier put up solid numbers with a bad Detroit Red Wings team. Having Bernier on the team will allow the Devils to split the games evenly especially with the schedule returning to an 82-game format. Blackwood is still young and having the ability to play to the best of his abilities is something the Devils need. Bernier is not someone who will take the starting job from him, but if Blackwood needs a night off or is hurt for a period of time, the Devils have a reliable goalie there just in case.
Players to Watch
A player to keep an eye on in his third season with the Devils is Jack Hughes. Hughes took a massive stride last season with New Jersey. He looked more physical and he was the Jack Hughes everyone thought he was going to be during his rookie campaign. They are hoping another offseason of him training will allow him to transition to the NHL even better. Remember it took Nico Hischier three years to find his stride in the NHL. Same with Hughes. Look for him to have the best season of his young career.
Pavel Zacha as mentioned earlier took strides last season. He set career highs in goals, assists, and points as he was a consistent force in the Devils offence. Let’s see if he can translate that into another year under Lindy Ruff. Like Hughes, Zacha was very comfortable with the puck this past season and showed his ability to play on the wing instead of at centre. It will be interesting to see if Zacha can continue this trajectory of development.
A player heading into his second full season the Devils is Ty Smith. Last season Smith was a rookie and showed why the Devils picked him where they did. His poise with the puck and calmness in his own zone was a big reason why he succeeded so well his first year in the league. Not to mention the developmental path he took. You always have to look for a sophomore slump, but the Devils are looking for Smith to do more this season. With more responsibilities comes a chance to prove himself even more. And with the way the league is trending, Smith could find himself in the Norris conversation sooner rather than later.
Prediction For 2021-22 New Jersey Devils
The 2021-22 New Jersey Devils are an interesting team. With the divisions going back to normal, the Devils will be a pesky team for sure. They are much improved especially in the areas that Tom Fitzgerald needed to address. The question will be it be enough for them to start playing meaningful games come the end of the season. The Metro Division is pretty wide open with so many teams improving including the Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, and New York Rangers. Not to mention the mainstays in the division including the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders, and Washington Capitals. Though the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins are the same teams they were, if the Devils want to compete in this division they need to beat those teams.
It will be tough to make the playoffs, but this is the year for them to take the step in the right direction. It is great to win games late in a year, but it has to start carrying into the start of the next season. The Devils will definitely be playing meaningful games come season’s end, but it will not be enough to make the playoffs as they fall short once again.
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