Heading into the 2020-21 NHL season (which may just get referred to as the 2021 NHL season when it starts), the New Jersey Devils are looking at a pretty young roster. Oh sure, there’s still a few guys on the over side of 30, namely Travis Zajac, P.K. Subban, and the newly signed duo of Corey Crawford and Dmitry Kulikov, but in general, the Devils are getting to the point where they will be relying on their younger guys to be doing the heavy lifting. With that being the case, there’s going to be some growing pains this season for a team in transition, even at positions where they do have experienced players. Let’s look at what could happen, and what could grow from these pains today.
New Coaches and System
What Could Go Wrong: The Devils overhauled their coaching staff during this extended past offseason, bringing in Lindy Ruff to be the new man in charge, Ruff has a reputation from his previous head coaching of stints of being a great coach for teams to show off their offensive skills at the expense of their defense at times. Now on the one hand, the Devils certainly have some players (read: Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes, Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev) who should thrive in this situation, and start putting up larger point totals than they have in past seasons. On the other, the defense was already an issue in a system that didn’t sacrifice its play for offense, but we’ll talk more about that later.
Right now, if the NHL is looking to use 2020-21 to start getting back to a “regular” NHL schedule, they’re going to need to either shorten the season, or compress it to where we see fewer days off between games. If that winds up being the case, then player fatigue is going to play a role, and the expected scoring gains will be offset by players either needing to be rested, playing fatigued against a fresher lineup, or being injured and unavailable. If the Devils lose too many key players to injuries, they do not have the depth to stay afloat; it will result in guys playing above where they should in the lineup, and more than likely limited scoring total growth.
But What if Everything Goes Right?: As stated above, the team has a number of young players poised to become bigger contributors. While Palmieri will turn 30 early in the season, he hasn’t shown signs of slowing down as a scorer just yet. The five aforementioned players should all find themselves in the Devils’ Top 6 this season; if everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) goes right, they should all see growth in their point totals (by varying amounts) as well as finding another winger who can put up a good number playing with either Hischier or Hughes.
The Hope for Growth: The potential exists here for the Devils to continue developing their top young players into legitimate top and second line NHL scorers. Even if not everything goes right, the hope this season is to see point total increases for at least Bratt, Hischier and Hughes.
What Could Go Wrong: With only four returning defenders from last season (including Connor Carrick, who is more of a role player than a regular), the team’s defense finds itself in transition. Only Damon Severson and Will Butcher remain as player who could be long-term pieces on the back end, and both have their warts as fans are aware of. The Kulikov signing will be useful, but like Carrick, he’s more of a depth piece, rather than an impact player. Ryan Murray was a bit stronger of an acquisition, but his injury history is worrisome; while he’s a legitimate top four player when healthy, it’s the “when healthy” part where things get iffy. If the shortened or compressed season comes to pass, an injury to Murray could leave the Devils without his services for a good chunk of time. Additionally, Ruff’s system could leave an already somewhat average group to be even more exposed and flounder.
But What if Everything Goes Right?: Let’s say Murray finds a way to stay healthy; let’s say P.K. Subban returns to being P.K. Subban; let’s say Ty Smith and possibly even another youngster like Kevin Bahl make an impact. If everything goes well, the hope would be for the defense to keep the team competitive (even if they’re not world beaters) while watching Smith and/or Bahl blossom into legit NHL defenders as a young age. Additionally, if Murray plays well, the Devils could look into re-signing him to strengthen what is currently their weaker side of defense. The big hope here should be competitiveness, as the defense for the past few seasons at least has been a complete letdown.
The Hope for Growth: Developing at least one of the young players; they don’t have to be an all-star caliber player after one season, but at least showing they belong as an NHL regular would be helpful. One of Subban or Murray also needs to remain a strong contributor, preferably Murray as he is closer to the age of the team’s core. A strong season from Severson and Butcher to show they belong here long-term would also be beneficial.
A Full Season of Big Mac
What Could Go Wrong: MacKenzie Blackwood put together a legitimately good 2019-20 campaign, but he only appeared in 47 contests with 43 starts. While the Crawford signing will help a bit, I believe the team’s expectation will be to give Blackwood a bigger workload. If he can’t handle it, Crawford may not be able to keep the team from sinking.
But What if Everything Goes Right?: Blackwood could be prepared to have a breakout season, and Crawford could be a more reliable backup than the team has had for a few seasons now. The team could see a boost in the standings and their play just from stronger outings in net, which this tandem could provide.
The Hope for Growth: Blackwood plays 75% or more of the team’s games and establishes himself as a true, consistent NHL starter. Crawford plays well in his appearances, and both goalies stay healthy.
Do you have any growing pains that you foresee the Devils experiencing this upcoming season? What issues come to the forefront of your mind when looking at the current group of players on paper? What positives do you believe or hope will come from the 2020-21 season? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!