It’s clear that for the Devils to take the big step forward we all want them to, they will need to get better goaltending. But as much as I’m sure even average goaltending would lead to a major improvement in the standings, the Devils can certainly stand to improve in a number of other areas. For example, it never hurts to score a few more goals. The Devils finished 19th in the league in GF/GP last year at just a hair under 3 (2.99). This won’t come as a shocker to anyone who reads this site, but the giant anchor that was the Devils power play dragged their results down a good bit. When you look at the team’s 5 on 5 GF/60 they finished 12th in the league. Their xGF% last season also had them in 12th place, meaning they weren’t just riding a crazy team shooting percentage to get there. While the Devils were slightly above league average at full strength, they ended up in 26th place in power play GF/60. This is important because although I don’t think any mission accomplished banners are being hung for finishing slightly above average, the power play is the low hanging fruit. If incoming associate coach Andrew Burnette can address this deficiency, the Devils overall offense should improve. Maybe it too can reach the milestone of slightly above average.
Let’s dig a little deeper into this slightly above average Devils offense.
Last year the Devils finished with four 20 goal scorers. Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes shared the team lead at 26. Behind them were Yegor Sharangovich at 24 and Captain Nico Hischier with 21. Now, the pandemic and lockout shortened seasons give this somewhat of an asterisk, but last season was still the first time since the 2011-12 NHL season that the Devils achieved this feat. This is more of a representation of just how bad the team has been since then rather than some major accomplishment of last year’s team. To this point, let’s look at the reigning Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche as well as their predecessors, the Tampa Bay Lightning. As you can see from their hockey reference pages, the former ended the 21-22 regular season with 7 20 goal scorers, led by Mikko Rantanen’s 36 goal season, while the latter finished with 6 20 goal scorers, led by Steven Stamkos’s 42 goal season. While I don’t think there is anything sacred about hitting the 20 or even 30 goal mark, it means that great teams generally have a lot of players making a sizable contribution to the offense. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the last Devils team to win a playoff round had 5 players hit this milestone (including 3 players who hit the 30 goal mark).
So, what can the Devils expect from next year’s team? Will they add to their list of 20 goal scorers? Will anyone hit 30 goals?
I’m going to address the second question first. The main candidates to do this in my mind are the Devils top 3 scorers from last season: Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and Yegor Sharangovich. All 3 are in or soon entering (in Hughes’s case) their peak seasons production-wise. All players were in the mid-20’s in goalscoring last season so potting a few more goals is far from unreasonable. In addition, Jack Hughes missed 33 games last season, so if he stays healthy he should easily clear the 30-goal mark next season, even if his shooting percentage regresses to league-average from the 15.8% he finished at last season. This is especially true if he can up his production on the power-play. Nico Hischier is another player I could see cresting this plateau, but is a little less likely to do so in my opinion. While Bratt, Hughes, and Sharangovich all saw some varying degree of increase in their S/60 rates last year compared to the prior season (as per their respective hockey reference pages), Hischier’s shot rates were more stagnant despite him reaching a career high in goals. His shooting percentage of 13.7% is a little high, but not to the point where I’m expecting negative regression either. I think without a major “breakout” season (in quotations because Hischier is already a very good player) we can probably expect Hischier to continue to produce somewhat similarly to what he did this past season, with maybe a slight improvement off of last year if the power play improves. Finally, I’ll throw in a darkhorse candidate. It’s not unheard of for rookies to take the league by storm and produce at a high level from day one. Alex Holtz was drafted to be a goal scorer, and if the coaching staff does their job they’ll put him in a spot to succeed assuming he makes the roster. It would be a shocking development, no doubt, but if I were to bet money on someone coming out of nowhere for the Devils and having a 30+ goal season, it would be Alex Holtz. He has the skill and the shot to score at a high level, he just has to put everything else together to allow him to make the most of this talent.
Ultimately, I think the Devils do have at least one 30 goal scorer this year in Jack Hughes. I believe that at least one of either Bratt or Sharangovich will join him in reaching that milestone this season.
In terms of 20 goal scorers I think this is a harder one to answer. In addition to the 4 players (and Holtz) that I discussed above, there are a few players I could see reaching the 20 goal mark. Tomas Tatar has hit this mark 6 times in his career, and perhaps with a quicker start this year he could make it 7. At 31, it becomes a question whether last season was the start of age-related decline, bad luck, or just not being comfortable with a new system, team, and living situation. Erik Haula has scored 29 goals once, but it was back in 2017-18 with Vegas, and while he came close last year in Boston, his history suggests he’ll have to have a very strong season to hit 20 goals. New addition Andrej Palat also has a 20 goal season to his name, but this was back in his rookie year and he has hovered around the 15-18 goal mark pretty consistently since then. It’s possible he pots 20 goals, particularly if he sees a bump in his ice-time from the 16:30 he averaged last season, but I wouldn’t call it the most likely outcome. One player I am excited to see and think has a good shot to score 20 goals for the first time is Dawson Mercer. Mercer had an up-and-down rookie year, but is at the age where we should see some progression from last year. While player development is not always a smooth upward slope, I am expecting/hoping for big things from the soon to be 21 year-old this season.
The Devils are definitely not guaranteed to add anyone to their list of 20 goal scorers this year. That said, if I am making a prediction, I think Mercer gets there and I think Palat will reach this mark as well thanks to a boost in ice-time.
If my predictions all come true the Devils will have 2 30 goal scorers and an additional 4 20 goal scorers. This doesn’t automatically make them a playoff team, but it gives them a very good shot if the goaltending can be a bit better. That said, I recognize that my predictions carry a degree of bias and optimism to them. It requires a lot of players staying healthy and building on last year. But if there’s a time to be an unabashed optimist, it’s before the season starts. Otherwise, what’s the point.
Which players do you think reach the 20 goal threshold this season? Does anyone hit 30 goals? What about 40? Do you agree with my predictions or am I too optimistic? What are you expecting from Mercer and Holtz this season? What about newcomers Palat and Haula? Please leave your comments below and thank you for reading.