The Devils entered another long layoff this week on the heels of another embarrassing loss, this time to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who tagged them with five unanswered goals to turn a game the Devils seemed to be controlling into a laugher in the other direction. It was the latest in a veritable cornucopia of humiliating defeats the team has suffered this season. The question facing all Devils fans at this point is this: how can we realistically expect the team to not be this way going forward? At some point, you are a slightly-less dysfunctional Buffalo Sabres and the default expectation until proven otherwise is that you will stink out loud.
That is, of course an emotional evaluation of the situation, though. When you root for a team only to watch them fail, frequently and often spectacularly, it is hard to provide a sober analysis of a situation. Judgements within a fanbase are clouded by the dejection created by constant losing or, conversely, the hope that change is around the corner. To wit, many of the staff this year were ready to get hurt again — as evidenced by the predictions made in the season preview — and get hurt again we all did. Even the writers who did not commit to the idea that the Devils could make the playoffs were expecting a squad that was at least vaguely entertaining. None of the predictions were along the lines of “The Devils will be an unmitigated disaster that makes me want to weep and die,” which means we were all off the mark.
So, heading into next season, every Devils fan (and writer) will again have to arrive at a conclusion for what they are expecting this team to do ahead of the hockey games being played. Is there reason to believe the pieces they have in place can generate a team that can actually compete in the East? Where are the holes and can they be filled? Obviously, the summer will dictate a lot of the expectations, but how good/active of an offseason the Devils have seems completely untethered from the results, which are essentially almost uniformly bad over the last 9 years. At this point, it seems like the adds to the roster will be peripheral in nature unless it is in goal, so the core that has been assembled will largely dictate the success of the team going forward.
It’s not like the Devils don’t have talent. It’s tough to argue that Jack Hughes is not on his way to being a star at this point. Jesper Bratt has turned into an elite winger as he reaches his prime. Nico Hischier is a play driver who can score, a largely ideal top-six center when paired with Jack Hughes as a one-two punch. Dawson Mercer appears on his way to being versatile impact forward who can be plugged in at center or wing depending on the team’s needs. After those four, though, the question marks start to emerge.
Yegor Sharangovich seems like a cromulent addition to a top-six but he hasn’t made waves as a sniper that I think people were hoping for from him. The group of Tomas Tatar, Andreas Johnsson, and Pavel Zacha are occasional contributors but are tough rely on for much more than a smattering of points sprinkled around a hot streak or two per season. The Devils then have a handful of bottom-six players who look decent at times as well. Miles Wood will theoretically exist again in 2022-23, so you could add him in as another decent but inconsistent role-player.
If you squint, it seems to be a forward group that could generate strong results, but the Devils are 18th in goal-scoring leaguewide. There’s been a lot of ink spilled on how much the goaltending (and, depending on who you ask, defense) has been holding this team back, but the offense, while better, is generating goals at a rate that is just average or slightly below. Can the Devils expect the kind of improvement from their players at this point to bridge between where they are and being among the better offensive teams in the league? Barring some significant moves to add to what they have, I’m not so sure. Alexander Holtz joining the fray whenever he’s NHL-ready could help, but that is a wait-and-see situation.
Back on the blueline, the question marks are also present. The Devils have been without their top defenseman Dougie Hamilton for close to a month and a half since his jaw was broken by a puck to the face. Once he’s back, he figures to be an impact player again, if mainly in terms of driving play forward rather than making this a shutdown defensive unit. Jonas Siegenthaler has emerged as a very good defensive defenseman and Damon Severson is having a generally strong season, occasional maddeningly braindead moments aside. Ryan Graves has been fine, but perhaps not a major difference-maker. The regression of Ty Smith in particular, though, has made this unit feel awfully thin at times. Can the Devils really rely on Luke Hughes, Reilly Walsh, and/or Shakir Mukhamadullin to show up by next season and make an impact? Without breakout rookie seasons from multiple players, it’s hard to imagine the defense being much more than “adequate” either.
Lastly, we have the goaltending. As it stands, it’s hard to argue the Devils have what they need on this front because of how utterly disastrous this season has been in net. Unless the Devils are planning on giving up on Mackenzie Blackwood, though, I think there is a real possibility the starting tandem remains unchanged going into 2022-23. Now, you can argue that if Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier are both fully healthy, that is a situation that can work. I don’t know that I am prepared to make such an argument, though. Goalies are voodoo, of course, so any goaltender could become truly horrible or absolutely spectacular at any moment without warning, but it’s tough to accept the probability that this team will probably be running this situation back and hoping it works.
Putting it all together, I find myself excited for a handful of players in black and red, but as a group, it’s tough to be too confident that a suddenly playoff-bound team is about to emerge. If I had to bet on the results going forward based on who is in the Devils organization, I’d put my dollars on below-average to middling going forward, absent a major change in personnel (and perhaps a major upgrade in coaching), and that’s assuming a rebound to at least serviceable goaltending. I don’t think there is much chance this roster is equipped to outrun some of the worst goaltending in the league if they get a repeat performance in net. So, do the Devils have enough here to put together a true competitor for the East in the near future? I think it’s tough to argue they do at the moment.