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What Do The New Jersey Devils Need to do to be More Competitive in 2020-21?

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After a glimmer of hope via the 2018 playoffs, followed by two seasons of setbacks, we look today at what the New Jersey Devils need to do to consistently be more successful.

St. Louis Blues v New Jersey Devils
More of this, less retreating to the locker room please.
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils have struggled to find success ever since the magical run to the Stanley Cup way back in 2012 now. Losing players for various reasons and trying to replace them with washed up players or young guys that didn’t pan out has led to almost a decade of inconsistency from a franchise that was a powerhouse in the 90s and early 2000s. Even an attempt at a rebuild by (now former) General Manager Ray Shero failed, leading to his eventual dismissal this past season.

The Devils are now at another crossroads. Yes they have a nice potential 1-2 punch down the middle in Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier; they also have some other talent surrounding them that I will get to a bit later. They unfortunately had to lose Taylor Hall due to his contract situation, and that’s one less star to work with. But are players the only thing we should be concerned about in making this team more successful when the new season starts? Absolutely not, and that is how we will start our dive today in things the team needs to do to fix their fortunes.

1.) Hire a Proven Coach

Ever since the departure of Jacques Lemaire, you could argue the Devils have had a relatively inexperienced and/or unproven NHL level coach at their helm. While Peter DeBoer did have some NHL time, it was only three seasons with the Florida Panthers, and he saw his success slip every season with them. He started out hot with the Devils as well, but then continued to see results slip (arguably through no fault of his own; he had some bad teams toward the end) until he was dismissed the day after Christmas in 2014.

John Hynes and Alain Nasreddine both had zero NHL coaching experience before coming to Jersey; while again you could make an argument about personnel, Hynes made some absolutely baffling lineup decisions as well, and one could counter-argue he just couldn’t maximize the talent that he has. When he was let go this past season, Nasreddine took over to middling results prior to the season being paused.

If the Devils want to find success, they need someone such as Gerard Gallant; he’s spent a good chunk of time as an NHL head coach (roughly 5 seasons) but more importantly, he’s found success in that period of time. You might be thinking, “Well he doesn’t have THAT much more experience than DeBoer did.” and you’re correct in that. However, Gallant has been a Jack Adams finalist as well as having a Stanley Cup Finals appearance with a team that few, if any predicted would make it that far. Bruce Boudreau is another name out there that I feel could be a good fit as well (former Jack Adams winner), though some may be wary for his lack of playoff success.

I’m not going to go into further detail, as Mike will be discussing the coaching vacancy in further depth tomorrow. I’m also not going to address the GM spot in this article, as I think Tom Fitzgerald has done an adequate (if not better than that) job. I do think whoever he hires as coach, if he’s given the GM spot, will be a reflection of his job.

2.) Defenders that Can Defend

I was watching some highlight clips from this season just yesterday, and man did that refresher bring back some bad memories; I’m sure MacKenzie Blackwood still has nightmares how many times he got left high and dry. The Devils need to fix their defending; even guys that were being given “easier” minutes would get pinned back for extended periods of time, allowing the opposition to control the game.

Ty Smith should be graduating to the NHL level this season and what’s alarming is that he could theoretically be the best lefty on Jersey’s Team. While he played the right side in juniors, I think the Devils will put him on the left just due to the fact that the only other regular left-handed defensemen left are Will Butcher and Mirco Mueller. Butcher has seemingly regressed every year since his first and Mueller hasn’t played well enough to justify playing every night, let alone in a Top 4 role.

Damon Severson is fine for what he brings; P.K. Subban wasn’t terrible last season, but some will argue due to his lack of points and his occasional gaffes. I will say it’s hard to contribute points when half the team was allergic to scoring last season. Connor Carrick is still contracted as well, and while I’d like to see him upgraded upon, if the team needs to allocate spending/effort elsewhere, so be it.

One in house option I would like to see brought back is Dakota Mermis; he played well during his stint at the end of the season, and at the very least, was an upgrade over Mueller. If he regresses, just send him down again to bolster Binghamton. Mermis is only 26, so it’s not going to hurt to keep him around, especially as I believe he could be an effective player in a middle or bottom pair role.

In a best case world, the Devils sign someone to play left side along with Butcher and Mermis, Smith would be eased in on the bottom pairing on his usual right side, and the Devils would figure out how to move the puck out of their own end.

Or it could be the coaching of the defense; it will be very interesting to see how the team plays with someone else’s system in place. Yet another reason Nasreddine can’t be brought back.

3.) Find Combinations that Work

The Devils have struggled to find players who play well with each other over the last few seasons. Sure, every so often they would find a combination that worked, such as Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier, or Jesper Bratt and Nikita Gusev, but they struggled to do this consistently. Additionally, as I alluded to above, some players (Jack Hughes) got saddled with anchors (Wayne Simmonds) that tanked any hope of them being productive. I understood why it was done (protect the rookie) but unfortunately, Simmonds’ years of physical play caught up with him, and as a result it hurt any chance of Hughes putting up strong offensive numbers.

The Devils need to not only find combinations that work, but trim the fat as well. If you have guys with a even a modicum of talent that also aren’t afraid to get physical, such as Miles Wood, then what’s the point of having someone like John Hayden (who is only there to protect players) in the lineup? Diversify the lineup with as much talent as possible, give each line (and player) a clearly defined role, and use those players in that way. Just as an example: Hischier’s line primary scoring, Hughes’ line secondary scoring, Zajac’s line shutdown, and fourth line energy/physicality. Not saying those will be final, but just a rough idea of what it could look like.

4.) Maximize What You Have

The Devils have some good pieces on the team; Hughes and Hischier have already been mentioned, but Nikita Gusev and Jesper Bratt have firmly established themselves as Top 6 wings during their time with the Devils. Kyle Palmieri continues to pump out goals, and while Travis Zajac is no longer a big point producer, he still provides elite defense. MacKenzie Blackwood had an excellent season, and with a stronger team around him, could help lead the Devils to bigger and better things. Damon Severson despite some shortcomings continues to be a big piece of the defense, while P.K Subban can still bring some value on the back end as well. Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood are nice complementary pieces to the overall equation.

These are the pieces that the Devils need to get all that they can out of; Nico and Jack each need to take a step (if not a leap) forward under a new coach. Palmieri, Gusev and Bratt need to put points on the board, while Zacha, Zajac and even Wood need to find ways to swing play back in the Devils’ favor. Severson and Subban need to elevate their defending: better positioning, better stick work, and be sure to get the puck out of the zone. Blackwood only need prove that this season wasn’t a fluke, and if the defense in front of him improves (and stops screening him) I think he’ll put up even stronger numbers in 2020-21.

Unfortunately, I only listed 11 players and you need 20 on a nightly basis. While Smith could fill one of those other 9 spots, the Devils need to bring in more talent. Perhaps training camp shows newly acquired Nolan Foote to be ready for some NHL time; or maybe Nick Merkely, Jesper Boqvist, and/or Janne Kuokkanen prove they belong with the big club. Perhaps even Kevin Bahl or Nikita Okhotyuk prove themselves enough to make the opening night roster.

No matter who it is, be it the youngsters above, or free agent signings to fill the other spots, the Devils need to start getting the most out of the players that are on the ice every night. For the Devils to truly find success, the inconsistency of previous regimes needs to end. The Devils need to find combinations that work, get the most out of each player, and put out a consistent, well-coached product.

Your Take

What thoughts do you have on what the Devils should do to be more successful this upcoming season? Is it any/all of the four categories above? Do you think it has more to do with something I didn’t discuss, such as the GM? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!