Watching the New Jersey Devils this season at some points could be described as a chore at best. After a decent start full of promise (even with Jack Hughes going down to injury in the second game), the team had an awful December that tanked any hope of even sniffing the postseason. Add the injuries that mounted, players running ice cold, goaltending woes of all sorts, and the result was the Devils
Meanwhile, the team’s AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets, was doing the exact opposite. They began the season going 13-0-0-0 and set a new AHL record in the process. While the team cooled off a bit after that start (to the point of not even owning the best record in the league anymore), Utica still has managed a highly successful campaign, with the team clinching the first division title for an affiliate since the 1990s. With a record as of this writing of 41-19-8-1, with 91 points and a .659 win percentage, calling Utica’s season a success (especially when compared to New Jersey) might be a bit of an understatement.
The good news here is that the success happening in the AHL could translate to the NHL in the near future. While Nico Daws had a rather unsuccessful tenure in the NHL this season, both he and Akira Schmid have looked marvelous in Utica. Daws (and Schmid) might not have been NHL ready this season, but let’s not forget that this is the first season for both in the AHL, and together in Utica they’ve looked very, very promising. We could see one or both enter the battle for regular NHL time in the near future, but even if it isn’t next season, good things could be coming in the crease soon.
Speaking of good things coming to New Jersey soon, how about Alexander Holtz? While he had an NHL cup of coffee earlier in this season, the Devils decided Utica was the best path for his development. And how about the between the legs goal?
#NJDevils prospect Alexander Holtz just went in between the legs in close to give the Utica Comets (AHL) a 4-2 lead in a game they can clinch the division with a win.— Devils Army Blog (@DevilsArmyBlog) April 21, 2022
It’s his 25th goal of the season. Good for top-20 in the AHL.
(Video from AHL TV) pic.twitter.com/8L6geeoTiw
Yeah, safe to say I’m excited (as others are and you should be too) to see what he can do when the next training camp rolls around.
The defense may not be making headlines the way that a player like Holtz is, but defense winds games and championships. Kevin Bahl has had another recent look in New Jersey and again, he’s not making headlines, but he has looked solid. Nikita Okhotiuk has also been recalled, and will probably get at least a couple of games in prior to the end of the season in New Jersey. Both players could find themselves battling for a roster spot as soon as next season, so early positive returns could bode well for them.
Now the title of this article does say that Utica could “one way or another” provide a jump start for New Jersey. The easiest and best way for this to happen would be the one we have discussed so far, which is personnel developing in the minor leagues before making the jump to the NHL. However, if the Devils’ brass isn’t satisfied with how this season went, they could take a different offseason path: firing the NHL coaches and promoting Utica’s staff.
While the players in Utica deserve a lot of the praise for the result of the on-ice product, Utica GM Dan MacKinnon, Head Coach Kevin Dineen, and the entire staff should be commended and recognized for their contributions. While coaching alone cannot make or break a team, it can impact the successfulness of individuals and the group as a cohesive unit. Setting a league record and also capturing the first division title in over 20 years (with hopefully more good things coming in the playoffs) requires effort and buy in from everyone; Dineen has gotten players and staff alike on the same page.
Devils management could look at Head Coach Lindy Ruff and his assistants and decide this summer that they are not the right people for the results the organization wants. If that were the case, I don’t think they would have to go outside of the organization to find their new coaching staff. The success that Dineen is having coupled with the tenure of an assistant (and former Devil himself) in Sergei Brylin could be the combination shot in the arm the Devils need. While again I’m more of an advocate of bringing up some of the youth first (and maybe cutting an assistant or two on Ruff’s staff that are underperforming), I’m not the team’s management/owners. If they feel the whole staff needs to go for their lack of results, in that case I say bring on the Dineen Era.
Whether the team brings up more youth, or decides to change coaching staff, I think the talent that is in Utica could be key to helping turn the Devils’ fortunes around. There’s certainly other variables that need to be looked at (read: goaltending), but with a minor league affiliate on the rise, it shouldn’t be long until the New Jersey Devils start reaping some of these rewards.
What are your thoughts on Utica’s success this season; do you think having some of the prospects join the team next season will help to alleviate the team’s woes? Do you think the coaching change is more of a necessity? Are you somewhere in between? Do you want to see another AHL season first before making a decision? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!