The Devils have had a bit of a rocky start to the 2021-22 season as they approach the ten-game mark. The record (4-3-1 as of today) is perfectly fine and perhaps even in line with expectations, but there have been some concerning performances and uneven play that have led to some consternation among the fanbase. The problems of faltering special teams in both man-down and man-advantage situations continue to undercut mostly solid even-strength play, but this is a team that is playing decent enough hockey in a season with consensus expectations having them somewhere outside the playoff bubble. There is a sense of unease in New Jersey, though, and a lot of it has to do with the rash of injuries that have struck early in the season.
That concern went from a major issue to a potentially catastrophic one as Dougie Hamilton has now landed in the dreaded “day-to-day” category with a mysterious lower body injury that seemed to materialize in the first intermission of Tuesday’s game in Anaheim. The Devils have already been dealing with a laundry list of significant injuries early in the season, including both ends of their starting goaltending tandem, their likely best forward and most dynamic playmaker in Jack Hughes, and their co-leader in 2020-21 goal-scoring and chief agent of chaos in Miles Wood. On top of that, both halves of their second-pairing missed games early on.
To this point, as evidenced by their record, the Devils have mostly been able to withstand the early wave of injuries, but the longer they go on without critical pieces, the more difficult it will be to stay afloat in an extraordinarily competitive Metropolitan Division. With the specter of a lingering Dougie Hamilton injury present, the outlook in the month of November, where the schedule gets more difficult, is a bit worrisome. We have seen plenty of day-to-day injury designations linger into weeks and months in the past few years in New Jersey, including just recently with Miles Wood when he went from “maybe skating in a few days” to “we have no idea when he’s coming back” in a two week stretch without stepping on the ice. Hopefully that’s not the case with Hamilton but given that the injury seemed unrelated to any contact and the Devils have not been forthcoming with many details, the possibility of an extended absence looms (he was at least skating today, but he was already ruled out for tonight by Ruff a couple days ago).
The Devils are clearly missing a game-breaking element without Hughes in the lineup, and his absence is forcing players either out of their optimal positions or into lineup spots that are over their head. If Hamilton misses any amount of time over a game or two, the burden is going to be very difficult for the rest of the roster to handle. That would put likely the best forward and certainly the best defenseman both on the shelf, with the second-order effects pushing almost everyone into a position where they are being relied on to exceed expectations. That’s before even getting into the fact that an already not particularly good power play is likely to further languish without two of its primary puck managers.
So how do the Devils fight their way through this situation? They need multiple people to step up, including their remaining group of top-six forwards. Hischier has been driving play, but needs to break through in terms of production. Same largely goes for Jesper Bratt, though he has found another gear the past few games. Tomas Tatar needs to provide more and while seemingly snakebit at times, really needs to find the back of the net soon. Yegor Sharangovich has to locate his confidence and Janne Kuokkanen has faded from recognition as well. Dawson Mercer has been a revelation so far, but he can only be expected to do so much as a rookie. When you need everyone to step up simultaneously to carry the load, it’s easy to see how things can go astray in a hurry.
On defense, the bulk of the load of any Hamilton absence is likely to fall on the shoulders of Damon Severson and (hopefully to a lesser extent) PK Subban. Severson is capable of playing at a high level but has always had the type of consistency issues that you don’t want from a guy carrying a top-pair workload. Subban is a shell of what he once was and is a far-from-ideal candidate for top minutes. Elsewhere, Ty Smith has seemingly been fighting it since he returned from injury and is going to have to find his form as well. Ryan Graves has been very good at times but also hasn’t done much away from Hamilton and has had some rough games himself so far. Jonas Siegenthaler has been solid but is likely best-suited for third-pairing work but will also likely be asked to carry top-four loads at times. I guess the point I am making that I have major concerns about the Devils being able to stay afloat when everyone seemingly has to step up a rung on the roster.
The big saving grace for the Devils right now might come down to the situation in net, where they finally have a healthy tandem just in time for this potentially difficult stretch. It’s probably not a total coincidence that the Devils happen to be 3-1-0 behind Jonathan Bernier and 1-2-1 behind Scott Wedgewood and Nico Daws (though Daws did play admirably in that one win). That has really been a big storyline for two seasons running in New Jersey. Behind NHL-quality goaltending (mainly Blackwood the past two seasons), the Devils have performed pretty solidly at times. At the very least, the team has held up considerably better behind Blackwood (and in this small sample so far, Bernier) than the revolving door of inexperienced callups, waiver fodder, and late-career Cory Schneider that has otherwise been between the pipes.
If the Devils can have Bernier and Blackwood keep them in games, I think they have enough firepower to piece together enough wins to stay in contention while they wait for top players to get healthy. To help on that end, the Devils have also dipped into the well and called up their young sniper Alexander Holtz to try and provide a scoring spark for a team that has put up some duds on offense the past couple weeks. Hopefully the new blood not only provides a bit of scoring punch, but serves as a spark to snap many of the other forwards out of their scoring slumps. The best case is that Hamilton is back for tomorrow’s game in San Jose or perhaps next Tuesday when the red-hot Panthers come into town, but even if he does return, the Devils are still dealing with the hole left by Hughes. With a healthy and hopefully in-form goaltending tandem for the first time in years, I believe the Devils can bridge the gap, but they are going to need a bit more out of the other key parts of this roster to go along with solid performances in net.