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Hockey Is Back: What That Means for the New Jersey Devils

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After months of uncertainty, the NHL finally looks like it’s moving toward a specific start date.

NHL: FEB 16 Blue Jackets at Devils
56 game season. Can the Devils begin to prove themselves this year?
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NHL looked like it was ready to cause a financial dispute with the Players Association just months after signing an agreement over escrow and deferred salaries, extending the current Collective Bargaining Agreement by four years. However, that ship seems to have sailed since the players asked for concessions in return. Darren Dreger reported:

From today, there’s only a little over a month left until the season starts, as the NHL is aiming for a start date of January 13 for a 56 game season. With such short notice, the league is discussing expanded rosters for the NHL. I imagine this would serve to make injury fill-ins easier due to travel restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic. Frank Seravalli reported about these concerns:

This opens up a few interesting questions for the Devils. For months, we have discussed who might fill those empty spots on the roster - especially at forward. The Devils will soon have to call Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen from their loans to the KHL and Liiga, respectively, and I imagine both of them (along with Jesper Boqvist and Nick Merkley) will be key parts of the Devils’ early season regardless of their competition for roster spots. The possible expanded roster is also good for Ty Smith, who should pretty much be a lock for the Devils’ roster given the uncertainty with the AHL.

With a February start date for the AHL, I have serious doubts about whether they will even get underway. They have already pushed back their planned start date by three months from the beginning of December to the beginning of February. They will likely need financial assistance from the NHL to play, and the NHL was already causing enough problems trying to renegotiate its own CBA extension from five months ago.

More concerning for the Devils, it now appears highly unlikely that they (or any of the 2020 non-playoff teams) get the extra week of training camp time that was promised to them in exchange for not being in the play-in round. This is why having their players back from loan and suited up for the Devils is essential. Players like Sharangovich, Merkley, Kuokkanen, and Boqvist will be more ready for NHL play given they’ve each played a solid number of games overseas - especially with Sharangovich having played over half of the NHL’s planned number of games already.

There’s some reason to be excited now, though:

For the Devils’ young players like Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Jack Hughes, it would have been incredibly disappointing for them to lose a whole season where they can prove their growth as players. This is a particularly important season for Jack Hughes - and now his decision not to go to World Juniors (which is suffering some problems with the coronavirus) is looking better by the day.

The Devils have some lingering business to take care of immediately, though.

MacKenzie Blackwood and Jesper Bratt

The Devils still have two players who they have not re-signed to contracts - their starting goaltender MacKenzie Blackwood and one of their best forwards in Jesper Bratt. Their contracts have to be top priority before the teams have to start COVID testing immediately after Christmas.

Whether Jesper Bratt signs for a short or long term contract remains to be seen. Personally, I am partial to a long-term contract, because I do not think Bratt is far from having at least a 50 or 60 point season (or in a 56 game year - 34 to 41 points). If Bratt actually got the minutes he needed to be a top scorer, he would be. There should be no excuse for him to be getting third line minutes this season - he should be on the top two lines, getting a proper bulk of five-on-five time. And if he gets the minutes he deserves and delivers, the Devils will have to pay him more than he’s going to earn off of a long-term contract now.

As for MacKenzie Blackwood, there is no way the Devils can even function without him. In a 56-game schedule that sounds like it will be designed to account for how quickly the games must be played in order to not delay the following season, every team will need two goaltenders ready to play about half of the games or else risk losing one to injury or coronavirus. In that sense, the Devils have an advantage over almost every team in the league with two starting-caliber goaltenders.

Since goalies are voodoo, I wouldn’t go too crazy with Blackwood’s contract. He was a little rocky to start last season and in recent times there haven’t been a whole lot of lengthy contracts for young goalies. CJ did an article on this back in July. If the Devils decide to go with the bridge deal option, I would prefer to see a two year, rather than a three year deal before the Devils hand him a long-term extension. Today would be fantastic day to sign him to an extension, anyway, since it is his 24th birthday.

Given that, Blackwood would be about 25, nearing 26 years old when the 2021-2022 season ends. An eight year contract would take him to 34 years old. This is why it would be awkward to sign Blackwood to a three year deal at this point - we don’t want to see a contract take him too far into his 30s. We have seen how quickly a goalie can fall off once he reaches that point of his career. While nobody can expect Blackwood to be effective for as long as someone like Martin Brodeur, hopefully he remains healthy enough to play at an above average to elite level longer than Cory Schneider did. But to make sure his long-term deal does not take him too far into his 30s, the Devils should make any bridge deal shorter than three seasons.

No Exhibitions to Determine Roster Spots

Moving on to a more troubling discussion, the Devils are unlikely to play in any exhibition games before the season begins. As seen with the NFL, this can have some disastrous effects with injuries in the early season. Hopefully the NHL does not experience that, but I’m prepared for the worst. The Devils will not only have to be careful with injuries with the lack of exhibitions, but they will also need to be very decisive with their lineups in the early season. If someone is lagging behind, there is no room for error if Lindy Ruff plans on making the playoffs (which I expect he does).

The expanded roster size, if agreed upon, would be helpful to this issue. But I would just hope that Ruff does not suffer from the same sort of tunnel vision that made John Hynes give John Hayden regular lineup appearances. What we see on opening night, for most of the team except the names I gave earlier in the article, will be their first game-speed hockey since March. An even distribution of those who have already been playing throughout the four lines might help the team stay on top of things to start the season.

The Captain

I think that Nico Hischier is the best choice for New Jersey Devils Captain - and if they want a Captain, they need to decide soon. Hischier is now the team’s best player, and the team is being built around him. His seven-year extension kicks in this year, and given how long he’s going to be around for the Devils should give their fans someone to be proud of. Making Hischier the Captain would set him on the path to possibly be the longest-tenured Captain in team history - he would just need to contend with Scott Stevens’ mark of 12 seasons. If you ask a Devils fan if they hope Hischier is here in 12 years, I would hope the answer is a resounding yes.

And speaking of Captains, our most recent one is still unsigned. It was expected that he re-sign with the New York Islanders, but Andy Greene is still a free agent. Given the potential for expanded roster size, I think the Devils should go for the dual-victory in signing a veteran leader and well-liked guy in Andy Greene, which would also harm the Islanders’ defensive depth. With how many games are likely to be played in a short time this year, the Devils will also need a respectable injury/rest fill-in. Let Greene be that guy. Unless players like Kevin Bahl are ready for the NHL, I am uncomfortable with the idea of Connor Carrick being the only proven commodity backing up our apparent defensive lineup. I am similarly uncomfortable with the team being one injury away from having Dmitry Kulikov on the top line (and frankly I hope they just defer to Smith-Severson if Ryan Murray does get hurt).

Your Thoughts

What do you think about the upcoming season for the Devils? How do you feel about the league’s quick turnaround on their proposed CBA changes? Do you think they’re afraid of the ramifications of another lockout? Who do you think will make the quickest impact on the ice for the Devils this season? Who do you think will turn heads? How do you feel about the short camp and lack of exhibition? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.