The 2021-22 NHL regular season begins for the New Jersey Devils tomorrow. After months of waiting, speculation, offseason activities, transactions, training camp, a little controversy, and a whole lot of discussion among the People Who Matter, it is finally here. The 2021-22 New Jersey Devils season will begin. The Rock will host Chicago. It will be the first of 82 games with the hopes of something better than what the team has shown in the last two seasons.
I imagine you are prepared for the season. You remembered where MSG and MSG+ is on your television provider. You looked into and perhaps even signed up for ESPN+, which you can do so here through this sponsored link if you have not. You figured out your pre-game routine and contingency plans for those games you cannot make. You have read through our multi-part Season Preview of the 2021-22 New Jersey Devils season. All that there is left for us to do is to give you our predictions for the season. Please check them all out and feel free to add your own in the comments. Thank you for reading and I hope you continue to do so throughout this coming season.
Season Thoughts: The preseason has been exciting so far but let’s set the expectations reasonably. The Devils would have to have a huge point swing between seasons to comfortably earn a playoff spot so they will likely be competitive and close to the playoff bubble by virtue of playing in what is probably the hardest division in hockey. This, the uncertainty surrounding Blackwood, the integration of new places and the results of the last few seasons after big offseasons have my enthusiasm sufficiently curbed. However, it is impossible to deny that this preseason has been exciting and dynamic in terms of seeing everything you’d want to see. This team can be special if it all comes together but I believe that will happen to a greater extent next season. I expect a team that will live on the bubble and win some impressive games but is privy to a losing streak everyone once in a while. After several seasons in the basement, the bubble feels nice to re-enter.
A Bold Prediction: Dawson Mercer makes the team and finishes within the top 5 of Calder trophy voting. He has been everything that anyone could have asked for and more so far and there’s no reason to believe that this is going to be limited to just the exhibition games.
X-Factor: Special Teams. They will decide everything. If they look anything like last year’s, this team will have issues making up for the goals allowed and will not sufficiently take advantage of what should be ample opportunities drawn by the likes of Hischier, Hughes and Sharangovich among others. If the Hamilton addition is what it is supposed to be, they’ll be scoring at a high clip and preventing doorstep chances in front of Blackwood and Bernier. Their ceiling and floor is decided by this crucial and momentum-building aspect of the game, which is doubly as important for a team as young as they are.
The 2021-22 Season Prediction: Devils will finish 5th in the division and will not make the playoffs.
Season Thoughts: I expect to see progress. I expect to see the days of the Devils making high lottery picks to come to an end. I expect Jonathan Bernier, along with Mackenzie Blackwood, to solidify our goaltending and for us to have confidence night in and night out that our goaltending is going to give us a chance to win. I expect Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves to make a noticeable difference on our blueline to the point where that is no longer a weakness. I expect Jack Hughes to make the leap. I expect Nico Hischier to put it all together. I expect the potential of our young players to be fulfilled, whether its an incoming rookie such as Alex Holtz or Dawson Mercer or a player with a few years of experience like Jesper Bratt. I expect Pavel Zacha to actually turn the corner. I expect the Devils to be in the mix around the trade deadline and be buyers for the first time in 4 years. And I expect the Devils to be playing in regular season games that matter through the end of the regular season.
A Bold Prediction: Dawson Mercer is a Calder Trophy finalist and takes the league by storm. The voters love counting stats and I believe Mercer puts up plenty of them in a highly successful rookie season. 23 goals, 38 assists in 80 games. The only question will be if another rookie outshines him, and we likely won’t get any rookies out of the 2021 draft class who play enough to qualify since most of the top rookies in that class are college-bound. Cole Caufield has a chance, and I’m a big fan of Trevor Zegras and Marco Rossi as well. But if this is about making bold predictions and calling your shot, I’ll call my shot with Mercer finishing in the Top 3 in Calder voting.
X-Factor: I believe that my colleagues will throw out the big names like Jack Hughes or Dougie Hamilton or even Yegor Sharangovich, and they’re not wrong in doing so. However, those are easy, fun, sexy picks, and nothing about me is sexy. To me, the biggest factor is the least sexy thing in hockey: the penalty kill. My pick for the biggest X-factor is Alain Nasreddine, the man who oversees said unit.
For the Devils to get to where they want to go as a hockey team, they absolutely cannot under any circumstances have a penalty kill that flirts with the worst in league history again. The penalty kill flat out gave them no chance in numerous games last season at the rate they were allowing goals. Having a bad power play, like the Devils did last season, is bad, but you can survive a bad power play. You can’t survive if you’re allowing multiple goals a game short-handed over any extended period.
I’m not even asking for the penalty kill to be good. I’ve lowered the bar that much for you, Alain, so even you can clear it. Just be average. I don’t need a Maserati. Just be a dependable Hyundai Elantra that can get me from Point A to Point B. I don’t need Del Frisco’s when the Bloomin’ Onion and Ribeye from Outback will suffice. It’s like what the incredibly average 90’s band Gin Blossoms once said in their so-so hit song “Hey Jealousy:” “If you don’t expect too much from me, you might not be let down.” Just give me mediocrity, Alain. I know you have it in you.
The 2021-22 Season Prediction: The Devils finish 4th in the Metropolitan Division and make the playoffs with 99 points.
Season Thoughts: I am excited about this upcoming season. Given how the team has been over the last decade, I should be smarter, but I guess that’s the thing about being a fan. Although, I should clarify: I am not excited because I think this team can truly compete for a Stanley Cup, at least not this year. However, given what I have seen from roster development and player development, I legitimately see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I can see this organization once again becoming a perennial playoff contender as soon as next season. For that to happen, however, we need to see the progress beginning now, this year, and that is what I am excited to hopefully see.
A Bold Prediction: The Devils will finish in the top half of the league in PP%. The Devils have been a poor power play team in the last several years, ranking 22nd in the league overall in PP% from 2017-2021. Last season, they ranked 28th. However, they have a real chance to be much improved this season, thanks to the additions of Dougie Hamilton and Tomar Tatar, a fully healthy Nico Hischier, and improvement from young kids like Jack Hughes, Ty Smith, and others. Last season, they would’ve needed over 20% PP% to be in the top half of the league, but ended the year at 14.2%. I think this year they will reach the 20% threshold.
X-Factor: Mackenzie Blackwood’s special teams play. Last season, Blackwood was, frankly, atrocious on special teams. He had a 0.897 save percentage on the power play, with a -0.82 GSAA, and that led to too many shorthanded goals against New Jersey, completely turning the tide of some games. Even worse, he had a 0.825 save percentage on the penalty kill, ranking him 39th among 42 goaltenders with at least 100 PK minutes, and his GSAA on the PK was -5.44. If the Devils want to drastically improve their point percentage this year and try to break 90, he will need to be way better on special teams; otherwise, too many games will simply be unwinnable.
The 2021-22 Season Prediction: The Devils will finish 6th in the Metro and will miss the playoffs.
Season Thoughts: I’m cautiously optimistic about the Devils this year. Though I’m having a hard time with the cautious part. The Devils strong offseason should mean a much-improved team compared to last season. We all remember how things turned out last time we said that. But, despite being permanently scarred by the 2019-20 season, I do think things will work out differently this time. Mainly because there’s more certainty and a lot less projection and hoping for rebound years around this off-season’s new additions than there was in 2019 (Hamilton, Graves, Tatar, Bernier > rookie Hughes, Subban, Gusev, Simmonds). The craziness of the Metro adds a ton of uncertainty to the picture this season, but the fact that there are a lot of mediocre to good teams and no one really dominant squad could work in the Devils favor. If nothing else it will make things very interesting. Much of my excitement comes not from the new additions (which I am very excited about), but from the potential growth of the youth on this roster. Not all of them will take a big step forward, but if the Devils get big years from a few of them and one or two rookies provides even average value for their spot in the lineup, that should be enough to make a major difference. I expect the Devils to at least be in the mix for a wildcard spot into late March. They’ll fight tooth and nail for every point and will go through a lot of ups and downs. Regardless of the final result, I think we’ll look at this season as the turning point of the rebuild.
A Bold Prediction: Andreas Johnsson finishes the season with more goals than Tomas Tatar (17 vs 15). I’m making this prediction mostly because Johnsson seems to be everyone’s favorite whipping boy and I don’t think he’s nearly as bad as his current reputation. I’ll clarify that in this scenario Tatar plays well but produces closer to a 45-50 point-pace than the 55-60 point-pace he scored at in his first couple seasons in Montreal.
X-Factor: The easy answer here is goaltending but I’ll go in a slightly different direction. Can the Devils not be a complete train-wreck on special teams this season? I have hope for the power play with the addition of Hamilton, but the penalty kill is still of some concern in my opinion. If the Devils want to compete for a playoff spot, they need to be a lot better in this facet of the game. Getting to league average would be a huge improvement.
The 2021-22 Season Prediction: The Devils will finish 3rd in the division and make the playoffs.
Season Thoughts: I expect this team to take a step forward and remain in the playoff race until late in the regular season. I think Jack Hughes is going to break out into a star. I think Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt will continue to raise their play to the next level. I’m looking forward to seeing prospects such as Dawson Mercer and Alexander Holtz make an impact in New Jersey this season. The addition of Tomas Tatar should help up front but I still want to see more from Andreas Johnsson.
In terms of the defense, I think the Devils finally have a first pair in Ryan Graves and Dougie Hamilton. That should take some pressure off of Ty Smith and Damon Severson. I also expect Jonas Siegenthaler to be a steady presence on the 3rd pair for the Devils which will help PK Subban. I’m cautiously optimistic about the goaltending. Mackenzie Blackwood has shown the ability to be a #1 but will need to be more consistent. The addition of Jonathan Bernier should help provide solid cover as another NHL quality option when the need arises. Though I expect this team to move forward, I still think they’ll end up just outside of the playoffs. Regardless, it should be a fun team to follow this season with all of the young players ready to take the next step.
A Bold Prediction: Jesper Bratt puts up at least 20 goals and 30 assists as he plays a full season for the Devils.
X-Factor: Dawson Mercer - You never quite know what to expect from a rookie, especially one entering his age 20 season, but it would be absolutely huge for the Devils if Mercer can hold down the 3rd line center spot. It would allow Zacha to shift to the wing full time and keep McLeod in a 4th line center role where he could be more effective. Plus, Mercer brings a lot to the table with his play away from the puck and work ethic.
The 2021-22 Season Prediction: Devils will finish 6th in the division and not make the playoffs.
Season Thoughts: God help me, I really do think this is the year the Devils emerge from their perpetual doldrums. I don’t think they will be a powerhouse, but this should be a freewheeling, fun team with a lot of exciting young players all over the roster. Even beyond Jack Hughes, there are a lot of players poised to have breakout seasons and with the help that arrived this summer, especially a bona fide elite defenseman in Hamilton, they will be better positioned to do so.
That’s not to say I don’t think this team will be frustrating at times. With so many relatively inexperienced players likely to be thrust into major roles there are bound to be some rough nights and perhaps even weeks for this group. There is a lot of talent here, though, with both playmakers and scorers up front and even a half-decent defensive group as long as it stays healthy. I don’t think this is the fool’s gold 2019-20. the base is more stable this time and the big acquisitions have much less uncertainty attached. I think this is going to be an interesting team to watch at the very least.
A Bold Prediction: Dougie Hamilton will become the first Devils defenseman since Brian Rafalski in 2006-07 to put up 50+ points.
X-Factor: Yegor Sharangovich. I think he’s poised for a big season, he looks super confident and that shot is deadly. Next to Hughes for a full season, if that’s where he ends up, he could put up more goals than any non-Hall Devil from the past decade.
The 2021-22 Season Prediction: The Devils will finish 4th in the Metropolitan and eke into the playoffs as WC2 before exiting in a mildly entertaining 6-game series against the top seed.
Season Thoughts: I want this team to be better than they have been. Many of the seasons since 2012 have been tough to watch. The last two ended up being chores to follow as the team was essentially done by the halfway mark of their respective seasons. Yes, it is exciting to draft high. Yes, I know the 2021 Top 25 Under 25 list is a lot better than the 2012 Top 25 Under 25 list. Yes, I understand the team needed re-building and now this one. But I am starting to wonder whether the question “Are you excited for this coming season?” is coming from a little girl in a blue dress holding a football for some bald-headed kid named Charlie Brown. At some point, the re-building, the development, the changes, and so forth have to yield results. A repeat of last season wherein the Devils avoided last in their division due to a almost-unbelievably bad Buffalo team is not acceptable. Finishing seventh by a large margin would not be acceptable either. There needs to be actual improvements on the ice now that Nico Hischier is in his prime years, Jack Hughes is coming off his ELC, and several other young players are in a similar situation time-wise. The core is here. The core has excellent talent. It is time to make it work now or get some coaches and management that can make it work very quickly. I am not saying playoffs or blow it up, but I am saying there needs to be a team who actually may play some meaningful games beyond the NHL Trade Deadline. A team that is worth watching beyond hope for a better tomorrow. Improvement is the goal for 2021-22. And that is how I will be judging it.
A Bold Prediction: On multiple episodes of Garden State of Hockey, I have suggested that pending UFA defenseman P.K. Subban will not last this whole season as a Devil. Not only will he be dealt, so will Miles Wood.
X-Factor: Mackenzie Blackwood. Who else can it be? Off the ice, there is the whole COVID-19 vaccine refusal. He says he does not want to be distraction or hurt the team. Yet, that is exactly what he has been. He was supposed to play in the final preseason game but was a late scratch prior to the game’s cancellation due to a partial power outage. Why? An inconclusive COVID-19 test. Yes, he could have still tested positive if he had the vaccine; but the odds of that would have been lower, he would have been tested less often, and, most importantly, if he did get it he could go on IR and get paid like any other injured player instead of being suspended without pay. As time goes on and the games in Canada get closer, this issue will only stand out more for its ridiculousness. Such as a headline on the Devils website saying he’s “leaning towards vaccination.” Just get it and be done with it already. On the ice, Blackwood is a goaltender and how he performs - when he can play - is critical to the team’s fortunes. He has the talent to be quite good. But the position is filled with enough variation to invite doubt for almost any goaltender, and his good times have been marred by bad teams in past season. How Blackwood does will help determine if the Devils are on a playoff bubble or behind it. And if his refusal to get a shot is a factor, then management needs to make a decision about Blackwood’s future with that in mind.
The 2021-22 Season Prediction: The Devils will finish 6th in the Metropolitan and not make the playoffs. Prove me wrong, Devils. In the right way, not the wrong way.
Season Thoughts: If all goes well, I’m anticipating a great season. We’ve got tons of young talent, even more than we did last year, a really solid defensive core that’s miles above what we had last year, and a pretty much ideal goalie tandem that runs even down to Scott Wedgewood in the minors. Sure, having so much young talent will lead to mistakes and games getting out of hand as the younger guys get flustered, that’s bound to happen, but I don’t think it will be as bad or as frequent as that has been happening the last two seasons.
That being said, we are at the mercy of a couple of situations. Can we get a healthy Hischier for at least most of the season? When will Ty Smith return from his injury, and how long will it take him to get into playing form? Most importantly, where will this latest drama with Mackenzie Blackwood lead? Will he even play this season? Maybe it’s the last three years talking, but I’m in a ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst’ mood about this situation at this point.
A Bold Prediction: Jesper Bratt breaks 20 goals, maybe even 30. It’s his turn to get filthy and I believe he has it in him.
X-Factor: The power play. The movement I’ve already seen from this team on the man advantage, and that’s only from half squad preseason games, has been astounding. The puck is cycling, players are moving, I love the way its looking. We have the talent both offensive and defensive to run two lethal power play units this year.
The 2021-22 Season Prediction: The Devils will finish 3rd in the division and we will make the playoffs! Let’s go Devils!
Season Thoughts: Is this finally the season that a very young New Jersey Devils team starts to put it all together in hopes of becoming a consistent contender? I certainly hope so, but more importantly, they might finally have filled in a few of the gaps needed to do so. Veteran additions of Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Graves, and Tomas Tatar should help to alleviate some weight from other contributors while Dawson Mercer and Alex Holtz both has strong enough training camps that we could see a wave of even younger players start to make an impact. Coaching and special teams will play a big role in where the Devils finish, but I’m putting my money on a postseason return.
A Bold Prediction: Dawson Mercer and Alexander Holtz each find themselves playing important roles and notch 40+ points each by season’s end.
X-Factor: Special Teams. If they’re good, I think the team’s record will be too. If they’re bad again, then the Devils could be looking at another high draft selection.
The 2021-22 Season Prediction: The Devils will finish 4th in the division and just barely make the playoffs.
Season Thoughts: Probably like many, I expect a jump forward this season. It’s hard not to be excited about what one Douglas Jonathan Hamilton might do for the power play, what a leveled up version of Jack Hughes might show us offensively, how young guys like Dawson Mercer and Alexander Holtz might contribute, how a respectable-looking goaltending tandem in Jonathan Bernier and Mackenzie Blackwood might give this team a boost. The sum total of all the new additions gives me hope. It sure looks like the Devils have a team that is poised to be dangerous down the stretch and challenging for a playoff berth.
A Bold Prediction: Dawson Mercer kicks down the door to his NHL career with an impressive rookie campaign and finishes as a finalist for the Calder Trophy.
X-Factor: Goaltending. Jonathan Bernier, to this point in the preseason, has not retired, so we’re off to a good start in this area. Between Jonathan Bernier and Mackenzie Blackwood, the Devils once again have a respectable-looking goaltending tandem that should buoy the team to a few more wins.
The 2021-22 Season Prediction: The Devils will finish fourth in the Metro and claim a wild card spot.
Season Thoughts: I expect that the Devils are going to be a vastly improved team in all three aspects of play. With a reliable, healthy, non-distracting goaltending option in Jonathan Bernier, the team is mostly set in goal for the time being. Hamilton, Graves, and Siegenthaler should help the defense make strides as a cohesive unit, rather than one that relies on hail mary pickups like Kulikov (who, to his credit, turned out to be very good in NJ) and Vatanen (who was not good in his second stint) like last season. And the forwards group? Tatar is probably an improvement from Palmieri, and I think the rookies are ready to provide the team with great secondary offensive options beyond the top six.
My biggest worry is how ready the coaching staff is to compete. I have little faith in Alain Nasreddine’s PK or Mark Recchi’s power play. Lindy Ruff has been mostly sensible, but I worry about what his lines might look like if Tom Fitzgerald keeps feeding him waiver pickups like Mason Geertsen. The Devils are skilled enough to roll three very good lines and a decent enough fourth - messing with that would be a mistake. I expect at least bubble contention this season.
A Bold Prediction: Yegor Sharangovich is scoring 40 or more goals on Jack Hughes’ wing this season. He’s going to show that it was a mistake not to lock him up for as long as Tom Fitzgerald could during the offseason. Because he will command much more money in his final RFA year.
X Factor: Nico Hischier is the X-factor to this season’s success. With his injuries last season, the team relied on Jack Hughes a lot and did not have a wealth of center options after that. If Nico Hischier stays healthy and plays most of the games, that means he can take on physically tougher top lines instead of Jack Hughes while Dawson Mercer can feast on bottom-six competition. Plus, with a rising Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt on his wings, I think he breaks 60 points if he plays 82 games this year.
The 2021-22 Season Prediction: The Devils will finish 4th in the Metropolitan Division with 99 points, below the Caps, Islanders, and Penguins. I think they will make the playoffs.
Again, thank you for reading this last part of our multi-part season preview of the 2021-22 Devils season. In case you missed the other parts, here are links to each one. Please leave your predictions in the comments. Thank you again for reading.