Folks, today I am going to attempt positivity. Given the circumstances currently surrounding the Devils – mainly that they are a dead team walking in the standings less than halfway through the season and they just lost 4-1 at home to an absolutely woeful Coyotes team – that is no easy feat. It’s hard to spin the absolute turd of a season we are in the midst of (on top of its many similar predecessor seasons) but I’m going to work on extracting a few things that have gone *right* for the Devils this season. In the aggregate, things are grim, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still things to be pleased with.
So, what has gone right for the Devils this season? Mostly, I think there are some individual performances that the team can hang their hat on as being the foundation of an exciting future. Whether that exciting future ever arrives is another question, but clearly there are players who are thriving and are on track to be very good or even elite NHL players sitting on this roster right now. So without further ado, let’s get into the good so far this Devils season.
Let’s start with the obvious one. Jack Hughes was flagged as a potential breakout candidate by a wide range of people heading into this season. That was derailed – after a very promising opening four periods – by a dislocated shoulder in the second game of the season. When Hughes returned, he was a bit sluggish compared to his usual dynamic self, but after some additional time off and (likely) an actual full recovery from his injury, he has been a revelation. All of those breakout predictions are coming to fruition. He is dominating play for the Devils and he can create havoc for opponents every time he touches the puck. Through 21 games, he has 21 points and has been driving play in a way you would hope for from a top center. At just 20 years old, he looks like the real thing and the 8-year contract the Devils signed him to is looking like a wise investment.
Jesper Bratt has long been under the radar as an impact player, but he’s arguably been a very good or even great player by a number of metrics for multiple seasons now. He’s taken it up another level in 2021-22, though, and has gone from a player many probably considered a “nice to have” on the wing to maybe even the best forward this team has, period. Bratt is a sneaky great player when it comes to defensive impact and with him looking stronger on the puck than ever and as elusive as ever, he is a player who moves the needle like few others. With his scoring on pace to shatter his previous high (35 points, which he is only two points away from) perception is catching up with what the numbers have been arguing for a few years now.
Among all the changes the Devils underwent heading into this season, Jonas Siegenthaler registered very much as an afterthought. He was not particularly memorable late in 2020-21 after coming over from Washington in a trade for a third-round pick, but he has turned a lot of heads this season on defense this season. Overall, I would say I’m pretty comfortable designating him the best defensive player the team has on the blueline. Granted, this is not a blue line known for its defensive prowess, but Seigenthaler has been legitimately great as a defensive player and is extraordinarily surehanded playing in his own end. On offense, he is a non-factor (to put it pretty gently) but that’s not what the Devils need from him when they have puck-moving guys like Dougie Hamilton and Damon Severson, and players like Luke Hughes and perhaps Shakir Mukhamadullin on the way in the semi-near future. Siegenthaler has been a great shutdown player and the Devils got him for a song last season.
The scoring numbers are still not gaudy, and that will always rub some people the wrong way considering where he was drafted, but Nico Hischier has solidified his profile as an excellent player and a top line talent and it’s difficult to deny that fact. Hischier is on pace for a career-best points output but, perhaps more importantly, he is taking on opponents’ best players and coming out ahead, even when his linemates are less than ideal for that assignment. His GAR and xGAR (via Evolving-Hockey) are currently both second on the team, just behind the previously mentioned Jesper Bratt in both cases. Hischier and Hughes play the game different ways, but they are both on track to be the one-two punch this team has been hoping for moving forward.
He has cooled considerably since his great start, but in his rookie season, Dawson Mercer has shown the skill and potential to be a crucial part of this team’s plan down the middle going forward. He sees the game at a high level and has the physical tools to put that vision to work. He seems to be running up against a rookie wall (and a “not playing with Jesper Bratt” wall) to some extent, but there has been plenty to like about what Mercer has brought to the table this season and he seems like he will develop into a very good NHLer and a great third option down the middle for the Devils.
The Utica Comets
As bad as the NHL Devils have been, their AHL counterparts in Utica have been just the opposite, dominating much of the first half of the season in the AHL and currently sitting second in the league in points percentage. The team has been buoyed by lots of strong performances up and down the roster, with notable contributions from a number of their prospects the organization hopes will be part of the NHL solution in the coming years. Alexander Holtz has performed well in the AHL portion of his initial full season in North America, putting up 16 points in his 15 games. Reilly Walsh has made the most of his sophomore season in the pros as well, being a major asset on the blue line for the Comets. Players like Fabian Zetterlund and Nate Schnarr are also enjoying breakout AHL campaigns in their age 22 seasons, giving some hope that they can still contribute to an NHL roster in the future. In goal, both Akira Schmid and Nico Daws (particularly Schmid) have been excellent for the Comets, though injuries and roster shuffling have slowed some momentum both had built earlier. Generally, it’s just good to see somebody in this organization winning hockey games. Shame it’s the AHL squad instead of the NHL one, but it’s better than both teams being cellar-dwellers.
So, it’s not all bad for the Devils right now, even if it does feel that way as the losses continue to pile up. Whether these dispersed bits of individual good news ever translate to any of us enjoying a season of Devils hockey again, we shall see, but it’s clear that even in the midst of maddening results, there are things to be pleased with on the player development side. If this team can ever put together a reasonably functional power play, a coherent defensive philosophy, and an actually decent goaltending tandem, well, we could be on our way to achieving the impossible dream of again being one of the 50% of the teams in the league that actually get to participate in the playoffs.