After nearly ten months without Devils hockey, the team has finally taken the ice together again for the first day of training camp before this condensed 2021 season. A lot has changed since the last time this team skated together. I read a dozen articles and watched a couple hours worth of interviews from yesterday’s camp (including so, so many questions about golf) so you don’t have to. Here’s what you need to know:
Part One: Who’s New and Who’s Who
Beginning at the top, the Devils have some new faces behind the bench. The new head coach is Lindy Ruff, a Jack Adams winner and current titleholder for most wins with a single team with over 500 wins with the Buffalo Sabres. He comes to the Devils with nearly 700 games as an NHL player and just under 1,500 games as a Head Coach and a total of 736 wins, not including the past two seasons he spent with the Rangers as an assistant coach. Ruff says his plan is to build a team that is more aggressive in the defensive zone and can play with increased pace. He wants defenders that are more assertive to finish plays in our zone and then to actively join the rush and be move involved in creating and maintaining offense. He likes to have a theme for training— the motto for this camp, settled on with the players, is “eNJoy the ride” — meaning this will be a fast-paced, strange season in which the best they can do is always stay focused on what’s going to happen next and be ready for the next thing rather than dwell on mistakes or bad games.
Serving as his assistant coach this season will be Mark Recci, a 22 year NHL veteran and Hall of Famer. He spent the past 6 years working with the Pittsburgh Penguins in player development and then as an assistant coach before joining the Devils as assistant coach this past September. Also joining the bench will be Chris Taylor and Dave Rogalski.
Moving on to the players, there are a few notable additions and also a couple subtractions. Gone is Mirco Müller, who at this moment has not yet signed with any team. Also gone is Cory Schneider, who will be looking to get his career back on track with a change of scenery for the New York Islanders.
Joining the team to replace the obligatory “goaltender named Cor(e)y” position, we have the legendary two time Stanley Cup winner with 488 games played for the Chicago Blackhawks: Corey Crawford. The Crow was replaced by younger options on a Chicago team that’s hastily trying to manage a rebuild they should have started 5 years ago, so he’ll likely be looking to prove there’s still gas in the tank of this veteran goaltender.
On the blueline in front of Crawford we have added 27 year old Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Ryan Murray. The 2012 2nd overall pick is considered a top-four defenseman with a talent for the PK, though his career in Columbus was stunted by some relentlessly bad injury luck. Hopefully with an extremely extended offseason every bump and bruise will be healed up and it won’t continue to be an issue down the road. Murray has a lot of time to make up for and some things to prove of his own so it should be exciting to see what he can do for us. Also worth noting is that his excitement to come to New Jersey may have partly been due to an apparently close friendship with another blueliner also from western Canada: Damon Severson. I’m personally interested to see if there will be any chemistry there if the two are able to become a pairing.
Also joining the Devils blueline this season is Dmitri Kulikov, a veteran defenseman with tons of experience. He’s known as more of a stay at home defenseman, which will be interesting to see how it fits with Lindy Ruff’s plan to have the defense involved in a fast-paced, offensive game. Damon Severson, who he was paired with for this first day of practice, feels it will be an ideal matchup if they continue to play together, where he can jump up and be involved in the offensive play and be comfortable knowing Kulikov will be minding the blue line. He is not incapable of providing an offensive jolt now and then however—if you haven’t blocked out the first couple games of the last season from your mind, you may recall it was Kulikov who scored the Jets first goal just seconds before the end of the 2nd period, sparking their comeback from down 4-0 to beat the Devils 5-4.
Up on offense the Devils have added Toronto Maple Leafs LW Andreas Johnsson. Known as “Mango” by the majority of the hockey community, Johnsson often served as a strong crutch to lean on when top players like William Nylander were injured, but their star-studded roster left players like Johnsson scrounging for spare minutes of ice time. He’s looking forward to the opportunity to earn some more playing time among the relatively young offensive roster here,
Looking to make some room for themselves on that young offensive lineup are the rookies at camp this season. The taxi squad option this season gives the Devils more room to keep some more rookies around than they would have in a normal year. Nick Merkley joined the Devils for a few games at the end of last season after coming over in the Taylor Hall trade. He will be looking to follow up on the strong first impression he made in those games. Mikhail Maltsev participated in preseason games with the Devils last season, in one of which he scored this stunning goal against the New York Rangers:
A good showing like that in camp and he might just find himself a seat at the table this season. Other forwards looking to find themself a seat include Nolan Foote, a sniper with a cannon who was part of the Coleman trade, as well as Yegor Sharangovitch, Janne Kuokkanen, Nathan Bastian, Brett Seney, Mikey McLeod, Ben Street, and Nate Schnarr.
—Edit: removed Blake Speers from this list as he is not actually one of our prospects anymore
Looking to round out the defensive options are Josh Jacobs, Colton White, and Matt Tennyson. In addition we have the other member of the Taylor Hall trade, the 6’7” Kevin Bahl, 2019 draft pick and Niklas Kronwall fan Nikita Okhotyuk, Harvard defenseman Reilly Walsh, and of course everyone’s favorite WHL offensive-defenseman Ty Smith. Smith spent the offseason working on his physique and put on an additional 5lbs of muscle, which should give him an extra boost coming into camp.
Joining Crawford and Blackwood in net we have Scott Wedgewood, Evan Cormier, and Gilles Senn.
Part Two: Updates on the Not-New
Returning to the ice with a big and shiny new contract is Mackenzie Blackwood, who signed a 3 year, $8.4 million contract in late December. Unfortunately on day one he apparently ‘tweaked something’ and left camp early and was held out by trainers, though the team says it’s nothing serious.
NOT currently returning to the ice with the Devils is Restricted Free Agent Jesper Bratt. The Devils have not yet re-signed him to a new contract and there hasn’t been much by way of an official update on his situation, although comments from an interview with Ruff suggest everyone involved is confident he will be signed and return to play— we just don’t have a timeline as to when.
Also not on the ice to start camp is #1 center Nico Hischier, who suffered an injury training in Switzerland in early December when someone fell and landed on his foot while skating. Fortunately it does not seem to be a major injury and he has stated he is working with the training staff to hopefully be able to join the team by the start of the season.
Part Three: New Season, New Looks
Jack Hughes “made eating his job” during quarantine (me too Jack, me too) and is returning to the Devils with an extra 15lbs of muscle. Battles and physical puck protection were a notable issue for him last season, and teammates have said the difference is already clear. He’s more confident going into corners and looks “physically and mentally ready to go” according to his current linemate Kyle Palmieri. Hughes says he is looking at this as his breakout year.
PK Subban did not have the year anyone wanted him to have last season. He says he has discussed changes to his conditioning routine with coach Ruff to hopefully bring him back to his elite defender potential, something I’m sure we’ll all be more than happy to see.
Miles Wood feels he has more responsibility to be a veteran leader to all the new kids on an extremely young team and to make a bigger impact, which in his words means “grow up and not be the young kid in the room”. He also feels the up-tempo style Ruff is looking to create will suit his skillset, which I definitely agree with. I think his maturity and development this season under a new coach and system will be something to watch that will also hint towards his value for the future.
Nikita Gusev, whose wife just had a baby boy and he is very excited about that, told reporters he felt he didn’t play great the first ~20 days of last season, but he’s figured the game out since then and felt a lot better by the end. He is ready and excited to build on that this season.
Will Butcher is fully recovered from his thumb injury at the end of last season and says he ‘feels 110%, best he’s felt in his career’. His goal for the season is to be an impactful player and participate in a full two-way game. Oh and not get injured again.
Kyle Palmieri took the opportunity this offseason to complete his transition to full-blown pirate. I will be referring to him as Alternate/Captain Blackbeard this season. Please plan accordingly.
What are you hoping to come out of these first few days of camp? Any line combos you want to see them try, or a new role for a certain player? Are we all just excited to be able to talk about Devils hockey in the present tense again? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading!