The Devils are just about halfway through the season now with the team all but done in the standings. At 14-18-5, the Devils would have to play at a 113-point pace the rest of the way just to get to a 95-point threshold that likely still isn’t good enough to make the playoffs in the East. Since they had a long Christmas break, extended by the league’s COVID outbreak, the team has looked much better than they did in the games before. They have been in every single game and arguably even dropped a couple games they certainly played well enough to win. They have won four and lost three while looking generally dynamic and competitive.
And yet, after dropping their last two games, the team has sagged back down to four games below NHL .500 (and nine games below real .500). The modest progress they made toward climbing out of their deficit in the East has quickly slid away. That’s the problem with digging the kind of hole that the Devils did between mid-November and Christmas, though. Unless you plan on putting together a run of sustained dominance (and a heaping side of luck), there is almost no way to make up the ground lost over the almost quarter-season stretch of futility. Barring an extreme longshot run of uninterrupted winning for this Devils squad, the meaningful-in-the-standings portion of the season has likely concluded.
So, given that fact, what exactly are we hoping to get out of the rest of this NHL season from the New Jersey Devils? Obviously, the hope is that the team will play a brand of hockey that is not as generally embarrassing it was for a hefty chunk of the opening half of the season. What else are we hoping to see from this Devils team, though? Ultimately, strong individual performances and an air of competence is the best we can really hope for heading into the offseason.
So, one of the big hopes for the Devils is that they can have some of their young stars and up-and-comers finish out a strong campaign. The future is now to an extent for the Devils, but since the 2021-22 season has already been blown straight to hell, a goal should be to go into next season confident that the core they have built is still headed in the right direction. Let’s run down the main list some crucial names and set some targets to hope they achieve.
- Jack Hughes - Hughes has obviously been great for much of the time he’s been healthy this season aside from the couple weeks he was still getting his legs back under him in the aftermath of his shoulder injury. Hughes is likely to be the straw the stirs the drink for the Devils offense if they plan to have any sustained success this decade, so him continuing to score and generate chances at the rates he has been so far will be the hope. If he can finish the season on a 70+ point pace (per 82) and continue to lead the team in chances generated, that would fit soundly in the success column for this team.
- Nico Hischier - Hischier has been really solid and has picked up his scoring to go along with his all-around play-driving ability of late. If Hischier can show he is a 60+ point center who can push play consistently forward for the Devils and act as a foil for other teams’ top competition (all while towing around Pavel Zacha and assorted former waiver fodder), that will be a great sign that he can lead this team to success going forward.
- Dawson Mercer - The Devils’ rookie center was a revelation at the start of this season but has certainly cooled as the campaign has worn on. This is perhaps to be expected for any rookie and Mercer is still displaying a lot of the same skill that allowed him to force his way on the team, but if he can regroup and pick his scoring rates back up and get back on the right side of the expected goals battle the rest of the way, he could still secure himself some Calder buzz.
- MacKenzie Blackwood - Goaltending has once again been a thorn in the side of the Devils this season. Much of that has been related to injury issues, but even when healthy and on the ice, Blackwood has not been playing at the level required of an NHL starter. The Devils have said as much but this will be a big stretch run for him, as he needs to show the team that he is worth putting faith in moving forward. The goal should be for him to reverse his ugly trend of allowing a lot more goals than expected and find his way back to somewhere near average for the season. That would mean performing well above average the rest of the way. Given the current injury situation, he’ll have plenty of opportunity.
- Ty Smith - Among the larger disappointments this year has been Smith, who has looked very lost for wide swaths of this season. His play has generally improved to some extent of late but he’s still leaky on defense and makes some truly baffling decisions. The hope was that Ty would develop into a part of the core on defense, but he will have to show a lot more the rest of the way to put much confidence behind that plan.
- Jesper Bratt - Just keep doing what you’re doing, fella.
- Yegor Sharangovich - Yegor has found his scoring touch of late and he will have to show that he can sustain it for the Devils to make him a significant portion of the plan going forward. His quiet start to the season certainly did not help matters early on and he will have to show that the top-six scoring winger potential he displayed as a rookie was more than a flash in the pan. I would like to see him at least crack the 20-goal mark with 25 goals being even more ideal to show that he is trending in the right direction as a scorer.
- Tom Fitzgerald - Not a young Devils player but still a guy that needs a big first half of 2022 to restore some confidence in his whole situation. Just like the Summer of Shero, the Summer of Fitz has yielded similarly crushing disappointment for everyone. Fitzgerald needs to figure out how to get a lot more out of this team in 2022-23, and he should also be leveraging assets at this season’s deadlines to try and position this team to improve by the start of next season. He should also be willing to recognize when a new voice is probably a good idea behind the bench. So far so bad on that front, but hopefully wherever the Devils finish this season, barring a miracle run to the playoffs, he is thinking long and hard about whether he wants to tether his fate as a GM to Lindy Ruff and his staff.
It’s obviously highly disappointing to again be in a position that we need to be searching for silver linings amidst the wreckage of another lost campaign, but here we are. If the Devils can at least see some of their big names have strong second halves, see the team looking like a group that could conceivably be ready to compete soon, and have their GM take the opportunity to make a few moves to further bolster the future, perhaps this season can still be a stepping-stone to better things.