The 2021 New Jersey Devils were a Bad Team. They have finished in a worse position this season (29th) than they did last season (26th). They ran through a compressed regular season schedule in an incredibly tough division, suffered a Coronavirus outbreak that surely impacted player performance and compressed the schedule further, performed terribly on special teams, dropped all shootouts, turned the Rock into Fort Rarelywin, hung their goaltenders out to dry more often than not, and were effectively out of the playoff race in the third month of the season. Achieving mediocrity would have required a massive upgrades in most aspects in the game.
Yet, I think it can get better in 2021-22. Seriously. For a couple of reasons.
The most obvious reason is the youth. The 2021 Devils were a very young team, particularly at forward where the team’s oldest forward became Andreas Johnsson after Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac were traded away. The Devils’ top six in the final few weeks of the season was Jack Hughes, Yegor Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen, Pavel Zacha, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt. Zacha was the “old man” of that six-pack at the ripe age of 24. What is more is that those six legitimately earned those spots. Hughes was much more of The Big Deal, driving a lot of play with and without Hischier in the lineup behind him - easily the team’s best 5-on-5 player last season. Hischier eventually returned to some kind of healthy form and demonstrated he can play well in all three zones. Zacha was hot on the scoresheet in February and returned to that hotness on Hischier’s wing in April. Bratt was great in the run of play and his swiftness fit in well for a system that thrives on it. Kuokkanen and Sharangovich were the real revelations as they cemented their careers in the NHL in this past season. Especially Sharangovich who scored 16 goals while seeing his responsibilities grow to include the penalty kill. Among this group, only Zacha shot at a notably (and possibly not-repeatable) high rate of 16.5%. While it is arguable that the Devils will need more production than what they provided, the Devils have six legit top-nine forwards here.
What’s more is that there is still room for growth for most of them. Hughes just turned 20. Development may not be linear but if his improvement from season one to season two is any sign, then season three could be astounding. Hischier and Bratt are closer to the end of their development cycles, but they have established they can do a lot of good things at this level and could thrive more in the near future. Especially for Hischier, who missed large parts of 2021 with injury. One of the many what-ifs for 2021 was how the Devils would do if Hischier was available for all 56 games. I would like to think it would have went a lot better than it did. The big wild cards are Kuokkanen and Sharangovich. While they are not particularly young at age 22, they are inexperienced at the NHL level. It is reasonable to think that they can grow further as players with more games. They showed that during the 2021 season as they went from players who made the team to nearly certain to play as Hughes’ wings night after night against tough competition. Further improvements from five out of the six are very much possible and their improvement will improve the Devils as a whole.
This is not limited to just these two lines. Michael McLeod went from unimpressive at the AHL level to showing he can be a fourth liner in the NHL and could possibly kill penalties. Nathan Bastian was able to play most of his season in the NHL and prove he really did belong with an arguably better season than McLeod. There are still bigger questions about the futures of others like Mikhail Maltsev, Jesper Boqvist, Tyce Thompson, Nolan Foote, Nick Merkley, and Marian Studenic. But they did not embarrass themselves at the NHL level. Should these players continue to work on their game (e.g. Foote needs to work on his skating, Maltsev needs to work on his shot, Boqvist needs to be less of a perimeter player, etc.), they could be fine NHL players even in a depth role. Their improvement means that the team will not need to go out and (over) pay for depth players in free agents, while also improving the team.
The defense, which does need plenty of attention from management and the coaches, also has a future. A good case can be made that Ty Smith was a better rookie and defenseman than it may seem. When he was on the ice this season in 5-on-5, the Devils owned the puck and were ultimately positive in expected goals. Smith did this with a variety of partners where the only really detrimental pairings were with Matt Tennyson and Connor Carrick. That bodes well for Smith’s future and, as with the top-six, there is still plenty of room for growth. As he gets more experience, expect Smith to take on more minutes and a bigger role; I am confident he will earn them. His improvement will improve the team. The team also got a bit younger on their blueline with acquiring Jonas Siegenthaler by the trade deadline and calling up Kevin Bahl. Siegenthaler is 23 and honestly needed a place to play after being caught among the shuffle in Washington. His 8 games with the Devils seemed to well in 5-on-5. He may not be much more than a third-pairing player but he could be an upgrade over bringing Tennyson or Carrick back. Bahl’s 5-on-5 numbers looked awful but I could see how he fits at this level. He did not embarrass himself despite what his on-ice CF% of barely 41%. He’s only 20 so it is reasonable to think he can be more effective with experience and especially if he gets a quicker first stride. It is not as clear-cut as it is with the forwards, but there is a burgeoning future on the blueline.
Then there’s the goaltending situation. Mackenzie Blackwood is 24 and he is the team’s best goaltender. As poor as his numbers looked at times, he did suffer from Coronavirus before the mass outbreak in late January and stated recently that he did not feel normal until well after he cleared. He was not given the help that he should have received on a lot of those goals against. I am not worried about Blackwood in net.
Blackwood completes the core that the team should be and currently is built around: Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, Smith, and Blackwood. That the Devils put those players in regular roles and let them thrive shows that they are the core. And that the Devils have unearthed some players to support them such as Sharangovich and Kuokkanen, it is reasonable to think the team’s future is brighter than what it was in the extended 2020 offseason. While it is not a guarantee that all young players will continue to improve with each season, I do not think all of these under-25 players will suddenly stall or take a step back in 2021-22. This is to say nothing of others who did not play for New Jersey this season but could challenge for a NHL spot at some point next season, such as Alexander Holtz, Graeme Clarke, Nikita Okhotiuk, and/or Reilly Walsh.
I know it seems like a cop out or a rationalization or an excuse, but the 2021-22 Devils really could be a better team just by having their young players throughout the lineup stay the course and improve.
The 5-on-5 Play
One of not-so-obvious reasons to think that the team will be better next season is their 5-on-5 play from this season. I do not need to belabor the point about how bad special teams were. However, I think you have to credit Lindy Ruff and his staff for having the team play much better in the most common situation in hockey. This was a weakness under John Hynes. As much as Ruff approach to 5-on-5 was risky at times, it turned out much better in 2021.
While the 2021 Devils were not at all a great team in 5-on-5 or even a good team, they were far and away better than most of the teams under John Hynes. While the 2017-18 Devils did the best among the expected goals model at Natural Stat Trick, the Hynes-coached Devils went back hard into the red in the following two seasons and the best xGF% team under Hynes still barely cleared the breakeven mark of 50%. Ruff’s one season under difficult circumstances had the Devils break 50% in CF% without adjustments, barely miss it with adjustments, and finished in the middle third of the NHL in expected goals percentage. All massive improvements over the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons.
This is very encouraging because this is the most common situation in hockey. If a team needs to be good or at least decent or at least not awful in one area, then it should be in 5-on-5. Should the young players improve and they get a full season of Hischier, then the Devils could be even better in 5-on-5. Such that any improvement to the power play or penalty kill - and the Devils need it in both - should lead to more points in the standings and a lot more respect from opponents. Provided that Ruff does not make wholesale changes to how the team performs in 5-on-5 and GM Tom Fitzgerald does not bring in players who just cannot fit in Ruff’s tactics, this is a reason to think the team will be better next season.
The Likely Return of a More Normal Season
All signs for the 2021-22 season point to the NHL wanting a full, 82-game regular season with a similar timeline of events that would match up with seasons past. This would mean teams would not be limited to playing within their division. This would mean teams would not have to play three or four games every week in a sixteen to eighteen week blitz to get a season completed. This alone would be a benefit for all of the teams, but especially New Jersey.
One of the talking points in many broadcasts that has been picked up by the fans has been the team not being able to practice being a problem. Particularly on special teams. I am not totally convinced that the issues with the power play and penalty kill could all be solved with some more practices. But I can agree that having time to work on tactics and having sessions can only help. Especially for a young team that got an eye-opening experience that the NHL is far more challenging than the AHL or their past teams. Even having time to just have video sessions to point out flaws - especially with weakside defending - can lead to better performances from the team.
I think the real benefit will be the ability to have days off. As unintuitive as it may seem, being able to have the players rest every so often can be even more helpful. Bodies need rest. Brains need rest. Even feelings need rest. Especially if the team is struggling. Sometimes the best thing to do when you are having issues is to take a step back. As much as fans do not like reading about how a player or a team has a day off after a loss and/or a poor performance, I think it is more helpful than potentially grinding frustrations even further. Or have players with minor or nagging injuries potentially damage them further. The ability to rest was not really a possibility with a 56-game season mostly filled with weeks of four games. This coming season should allow for this and I see it as a positive for all teams, including the Devils.
While it remains to be seen how the NHL will re-align the league with Seattle playing their first season, a more normal schedule should benefit the Devils. As much as I would like to think iron sharpens iron, not having to play a top team like Pittsburgh or Washington eight times in a season is a positive for New Jersey. Sure, the Devils may still struggle against top teams locally and elsewhere in the league like Carolina (will they return to the division?), Colorado, and Las Vegas. However, they would get chances to play teams more on their level and demonstrate that they are above them. If the 2021-22 Devils want to show they are on a path of improvement, then being able to play and hopefully beat Vancouver, Ottawa, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Chicago among others would be a great way to do so. Should all things go the right way with the league, that should be at least possible.
As much as I did not like reading that Ruff intends to bring back all of his assistant coaches, I can see how there is a silver lining. As much as I am disappointed with how 2021 went, I can see how the Devils are not reacting to the season by making a big change to management or personnel. Such changes could be justified. After all, the team finished in the bottom five of the league. It is not like the staff or players did particularly well.
However, would it really be better if the Devils announced changes to the coaches and/or management within the past two weeks? Would it really be better if Josh Harris and David Blitzer follow Jimmy Dolan’s lead to lead a total tear-down of the personnel in Manhattan? Would it really be better to do what Buffalo is doing and having a coaching search after the team started to rally a bit around Don Granato? Would it really be better to go down the path Arizona may be going? As much as I can say a change in staff is justifable, it does not necessarily make it a good idea.
If anything, one of the strengths of the team would be the familiarity of all involved. A significant part of the team that finished the 2021 season were together in Binghamton in past seasons. As an assistant GM under Ray Shero, Fitzgerald’s responsibilities included monitoring the AHL affiliate to see how players were developing. Fitzgerald knew most of this roster and what they were capable of even before this season began. By maintaining the coaching staff, preseason and training camp will be more about getting players prepared instead of figuring out a new system (although, they really should return to the wedge plus one for the penalty kill). With the majority of players, staff, and management returning for next season and presumably on the same page, there will be less uncertainty about what the expectations are for 2021-22 and that they are hopefully not unrealistic.
The latter point cannot be emphasized enough. Sometimes the worst thing to do a team is to demand a goal with the unsaid threat of changes coming if it is not met. This is an issue Our Hated Rivals are currently dealing with and I am sure some of those players are wondering what their futures will be. I do not think they will be better off for it. I certainly hope not as their failures could be the Devils’ gain.
The Cap Space
Of course, the cap space. The asset that some fans are tired of hearing about how it is an asset. I get it. The Devils had the lowest payroll in the NHL last season. They were one of the worst teams in the NHL last season. These points are not totally unconnected. When will the owners spend on this team? That is usually the complaint in a nutshell.
First, the owners have demonstrated that they are fine with spending big money on players in the apparently really long time ago in 2019. The Devils did bring in P.K. Subban and his humongous contract just as he was entering the final season of his eight-figure salary. They paid out draft picks to sign Nikita Gusev to a two-season, $9 million contract that was terminated back in April. They were fine with Shero handing Wayne Simmonds $5 million for one season. They extended Hischier for an eight season contract worth $50.75 million. Between that and their continued work behind the scenes - last season saw them create a goaltending development team and hired Esa Pirnes as an European developmental coach - ownership has shown the willingness to spend when it is called for by management.
Second, one of the worst things that a bad team can do is cap themselves out. Not having the flexibility to move heavy contracts or even call up young players to see what they can do is a massive challenge. It can help a bad team stay bad for longer than they could be if they had some breathing room under the salary cap ceiling. The Devils have had a lot of problems over the last decade. The cap has not been one of them for about a decade now. This is a good thing.
Third, unlike past seasons, this is an opportune time for Fitzgerald to use this cap space. While he was an assistant GM, the decisions ultimately were made by Shero. Now that he is in charge, Fitzgerald can use this offseason to really demonstrate how he wants to fill the roster. Look at the team’s cap right now. Only Hischier is signed beyond the next three seasons. Fitzgerald has a lot of room to work with in terms of how he wants to build off of this past season. The key is to make it make sense for the team’s core as they are young and relatively cheap right now. Only Hischier is making a significant sum of money out of Hischier, Hughes, Bratt, Smith, and Blackwood.
By no means will this be easy. Fitzgerald will have to manage re-signing players (e.g. Sharangovich) and getting free agents to support the core (e.g. a backup goaltender, better defensemen, maybe even a forward or two) while keeping 2022 in mind. Next season is the final season of Jack Hughes’ entry level contract; the final season of Bratt’s contract; and Smith will become eligible for an extension as 2022-23 approaches. Next summer can be and likely will be very expensive. To that end, it is a benefit that Fitzgerald has not overspent going into this season and has maintained flexibility with respect to the cap. Had Shero filled it up in a futile effort to save his job last season or Fitzgerald spent as much as he could for this season to prove that he can do what Shero could not do, it would be a big, shortsighted detriment instead.
I will agree that Fitzgerald would be wise to add some veteran help. There are holes in the lineup that will likely have to be filled by players outside of the organization. I understand the frustration over the team not spending as much as they could have over most of the past six seasons. But this has been an asset that may finally yield some gains given where the team is now and what lies ahead in the next year or two.
I will agree that it is odd to have a cheery outlook for a team that is likely to finish 29th, posted the league’s least successful penalty kill, one of the league’s least successful power plays, lost a lot at home, and a defensive effort that loves to watch puck carriers and not any of the other players without it. Not only because this an intentionally optimistic look ahead to the offseason. But there are legitimate points in favor of the Devils next season that were not the case ahead of the, say, 2016-17 season.
- The young players on the team, especially at forward, have commanded their roles and several of them are still young enough to develop and improve further as players. This includes the core the team is building around in Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Ty Smith, and Mackenzie Blackwood. This core did not exist five seasons ago.
- The Devils were arguably better team in the run of play in 5-on-5 than they were last season and about on par with the best season under Hynes. Should the Devils maintain this and improve their special teams, we could see a lot more wins.
- A more normal, 82-game schedule will allow for time to practice, time to rest, and fewer than eight games against some of the strongest teams in the NHL while having the ability to play more teams that have been on the Devils’ level as of late.
- With the coaching staff all possibly returning and Fitzgerald remaining in charge, 2021-22 will be more about improvement than learning new systems and tactics. Expectations will likely remain realistic from staff and management who the players know and vice versa.
- The team has a load of cap flexibility to afford to spend for this season while maintaining plenty of room for what may be an expensive 2021-22 season (extensions?) and 2022 offseason (new contracts).
As optimistic as this post is meant to be, this does not mean the Devils will definitely be a playoff team. But they should be a lot better than the 28th or 29th place team in the NHL. They should be able to win more than just a quarter of their home games. They should be able to focus on the areas that really hurt them last season. They should be able to much more competitive. It is not just hope or cope when some fans or pundits say that the Devils are on the right path given the above points. It is a path that can lead towards actual, sustainable glory. A time where the playoffs may become an expectation and not a goal. This past season was a low point. However, it is reasonable to believe that better times are ahead. Indeed, it can get better in 2021-22.