2020 was a disappointing year for the New Jersey Devils. After trading their best player in December 2019, they were unable to even make it into an expanded playoffs. The Devils were just a few points away from being in the play-in round, but the team’s ineptitude and the slowness Ray Shero took in firing John Hynes doomed them from the year 2019. Without any Devils games to watch following the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, we have resorted to a few things over the past months - including the 2020 Draft, the performances of prospects overseas, and now the World Juniors Championship. This could only tide us over for so long though, and now we have more to look forward to in 2021.
Some might have complained about the new division alignment over the past couple weeks, saying the Devils will probably be the worst team in the division and it will be another year for the tank. I do not think the Devils are necessarily so doomed as some might say. The team might have to go up against the likes of the Capitals, Bruins, and Penguins in addition to their rivals, but I would rather see these division games than nothing. With how difficult (impossible) travel to and from Canada would be, this is the way it needed to be so there could be a 2021 season. And it’s already happening:
The first @NJDevils training camp under the direction of head coach Lindy Ruff is underway this morning.— Steve Cangialosi (@CangyManMSG) December 31, 2020
Besides, it is not like there’s no way the Devils can put together a competitive season. With two competent goaltenders, Fitzgerald has already solved the biggest problem of the previous year or two. Playing eight games against each of their division opponents also means the Devils might be able to take advantage of a good run against another team. Against teams like the Islanders, Sabres, Rangers, and to a lesser possibility the Flyers and Penguins - the Devils might be able to rack up the wins against a couple of those teams. It’s more playing the Capitals and Bruins a combined 16 games that has me worried about the Devils’ ability to compete.
Seeing Which Prospects Are a Part of the Future
If you have read anything about the Devils in the last couple of months, you have probably seen a lot of roster speculation and observations of the players who had been in Europe prior to being recalled from their loans by the New Jersey Devils. With how many open roster spots there are - especially on offense, fans will have no shortage of opportunities to see the likes of Nick Merkley, Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Boqvist, Janne Kuokkanen, and others such as Nathan Bastian and Michael McLeod. This season might be the first step toward a full NHL career for some, and last chances with the Devils for others.
With the way this roster is currently set up, I would not be surprised if at least one of them ended up in the top two lines. The Devils currently do not have a ton of wingers - only Palmieri, Bratt, Johnsson, Gusev, and Wood hold spots. With the inevitability of injury, the prospects of this team are at least going to have to be ready to fill-in at points throughout the season. While it may seem unlikely to some, we could end up seeing someone turn heads with their play in the NHL - especially if they get a lot of minutes.
Of course, we also have Ty Smith coming up for the defense. Smith is probably the most anticipated prospect ready to play for the Devils this season - and he might not be the only one that does. There is still an outside chance that Kevin Bahl plays for the team. Even if he doesn’t, having a season to judge Ty Smith on should give the Devils and fans an idea of what the defense might look like a couple years from now. The question of whether Smith is capable of being one of the top guys on a defense in the NHL will begin to be answered.
The Future of Veterans
Travis Zajac is in the final year of his contract. Whether he gets a chance to retire as a Devil or gets pushed into free agency to sign with another team probably depends on how well he holds up this season. If Zajac performs better offensively than he did last season, then I can see the Devils giving him one-year contracts to play the bottom six until he is incapable of playing. But things do not always work out like that, and it is also very possible that this is the last time we will see Travis Zajac wear black and red. Regardless of what the future holds, we will be seeing his 1000th game as a Devil in 2021. It is unfortunate that this will be without fans (I myself am not keen on a premature attempt to have fans at games anyway), but seeing Zajac play again will be one of my highlights of the 2021 season.
There is also plenty of speculation on the futures of Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev. With the debate of who should stay and who should be traded, it might seem inevitable to some that the Devils will be trading one of them this season. Well, I have argued previously, and I will continue to argue that the Devils do not need to trade either of them. Both players are young enough that their next contract is unlikely to be their last - and as long as the Devils don’t do anything like sign both of them to six or seven year contracts, I doubt re-signing both of them would end up being a bad decision. Palmieri will turn 30 in February 2021, and Gusev will turn 29 in July. Given that, I would be happy with contracts up to five years for Palmieri and up to six years for Gusev. Both of them bring something to the team that the other cannot easily replace, and until some more of the Devils prospects start coming into the league, I do not think it’s time to think about moving on from the veterans. The Devils already have very few veterans on the roster - they should keep their best.
Of course, we have the development of the core players to look forward to. Nico Hischier is currently missing on-ice camp due to a leg injury from earlier in the month, but I would hope that he is on the ice before the end of camp and the start of the season. If he is, I want Lindy Ruff to learn to use him like a true top center. Nico Hischier should break the 20-minute per game mark this season, and he should be the team’s go-to in any situation. Whether he is with Jesper Bratt or Kyle Palmieri, Hischier is capable of running a very effective first line. There is also a chance that Hischier gets promoted to Captain in 2021.
Jack Hughes should be looking to have a huge improvement in his second season. The elongated offseason might have some positive effects for Hughes, as he’s had a long time to bulk up for the NHL. Had the league been playing on the normal schedule, he would not have been able to go into a regimen so focused on getting bigger and stronger (to some extent).
Here's a preview of something that's probably going to get mentioned a lot tomorrow in various #NJDevils virtual media sessions:— Corey Masisak (@cmasisak22) December 30, 2020
"He looks bigger already. I said, 'Looks like you've put on some weight.' ... That was the first thing I noticed." - Another NHL player on Jack Hughes
Of course, I’m not expecting Jack Hughes to be suddenly Hulked-out on the ice, but improvement is improvement. He has the skill and speed to be effective already, and I am excited to see how he performs with a year under his belt.
MacKenzie Blackwood might still have some people to convince, too. Two seasons of solid play is not enough for everyone, since goalies are “voodoo”, as they say. But now with a three year contract, Blackwood is tied to this team and is in a great position to show off his abilities moving forward. No longer will the team have to ride him in order to see any good goaltending - but he will be in a workable platoon. Corey Crawford will be there to keep him healthy, rested, and to bail him out when he has a bad game. There’s not much to dislike about the Devils’ current goaltending situation.
Lastly, Jesper Bratt is still unsigned, to my irritation. But hey - players like Mat Barzal and Pieere Luc-Dubois are also still unsigned, so this isn’t a Devils-exclusive situation at least. Regardless, Bratt needs to be ready for the upcoming season. If Ruff (smartly) puts Bratt with Nico Hischier, I expect to see a good output for that line. And even if he isn’t always mentioned with Hischier, Hughes, and Blackwood; Bratt has had great even strength production over the past two years. The biggest issue for Bratt in his career has been underuse under John Hynes. If he played 18+ minutes a game instead of 14 minutes, Bratt can continue to build on his scoring. If he finally becomes a 60-70 point-pace player (40+ points in the shortened season) - which he came very close to being in his second season with the Devils (33 points in 51 games: pace for 53 points per 82 games), then the Devils can solidify the future of their top six with him in it. But this can only happen if they re-sign him as soon as possible and give him enough minutes to truly showcase his scoring abilities.
What do you think about the upcoming year? Are you excited to see the Devils come back to play? Do you think Hischier and Bratt will be back by camp? Do you think Gusev and Palmieri will finish the year with the team? Do you think this is Travis Zajac’s final year with the Devils? How do you feel about the prospects situation? How have you been feeling about the more recent draft picks playing at World Juniors? How many games do you plan on watching in 2021? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and have a safe New Year.