I have to admit to still feeling mixed emotions over the recent news that the 2021 NHL season will finally begin in about three weeks. Oh it’ll be nice to see the Devils back on the ice finally, since it’s been about eight months between watching games. Even if like most teams, we won’t be having fans in our arena for the immediate future. Without fans, the Devils announced that all season ticket costs will be rolled over to 2021-22 with further ticket payments frozen till then – and they threw in a $150 food and beverage credit for that season which is nice. I hated they got rid of the f/b credit for season ticket holders in the first place.
I’m sure some fans would rather have a refund but that wasn’t realistic. Besides, I look at it this way – at least I don’t have to pay for a season that’s likely going to be another one in the wilderness, especially playing fifty-six games in a brutal division. Whereas next year we’ll hopefully be back to a normal-ish schedule, and the younger guys will have another development year under their belts. Hopefully, we’ll be that much closer to getting out of the wilderness by then. For now, we’re the bettor’s choice for eighth in an eight-team division, even behind Buffalo (who along with Boston, has temporarily taken the place of Carolina and Columbus in what was formerly known as the Metro).
Of course I’ll be tuned in to our season opener(s) against the Bruins on January 14 and 16 – both at an empty Rock, assuming those games happen which is the real cause of my mixed feelings. By all acclimations the NHL and NBA did a wonderful job with their playoff bubbles in the summer, and in each case getting a deserved champion out of the interrupted 2019-20 season. And yes, we’re getting closer to a publicly available vaccine – but it’s not quite here yet. Both the NHL and the NBA are playing outside of a bubble in 2021. While it’s been messy with postponements and moved games up the wazoo, MLB and the NFL have both powered through to this point with no evidence of in-game transmission, but neither is an indoor sport the way the NHL and NBA are. With the NBA starting earlier than the NHL we got another reminder of just how perilous things still are when it only took till the second night of the NBA season for a game to get postponed.
I suppose it’s our turn to ride the uncertainty merry-go-round every other major sport is dealing with. At least the NHL smartly reduced travel and kept flexibility by following the MLB template of keeping the schedule as geography-based as possible, with everyone playing only six or seven other teams throughout the season and the first two rounds of the playoffs as well. None of those cross-over series this year, each division will send one team to the final four, and none of the last four teams will have played each other previously. If you’ve ever wondered what the Original Six NHL was like, we’ll all get to find out this year when we only play seven division teams eight different times – including one four-game ‘series’ with the Rangers in April – then the first two rounds of the playoffs will stay in-division on top of it.
Ironically without having to worry about paying for or spending time going to games, and with the long delay between even seeing the Devils I probably won’t be sweating results as much this year, although it’ll be nice to start winning sometime soon. Maybe when it gets closer to the season I’ll give more of a preview. There won’t be any real ‘preseason’ to evaluate younger players, which sucks even worse for a team like us that has a lot of guys that need experience. Not to mention a new coaching staff, although at least with a vet like Lindy Ruff he won’t need much time to get things implemented. I’m sure there’ll also be a flurry of moves around the league now that teams know there will be a season and what the parameters will be. I’m not sure how many of those moves we’ll be making, though we do have enough cap space to take on another contract or two if the opportunity comes up.
At least the team did make some news today, re-signing RFA Mackenzie Blackwood to a three-year deal.
It’s been a meteoric rise for the former second-round pick who got off to a slow start in the AHL and was demoted to the ECHL less than three years ago, before breaking out in 2018-19. Blackwood got the callup early that season, got off to a strong start and never looked back. Of course like most of the team he got off to a slow start last year, but picked it up and at least for the first time in the last few years the Devils have no questions about their goaltending with Blackwood and UFA signing Corey Crawford giving the team a potent tandem on paper.
Even without much of a camp to work with, questions still need to be answered in the three weeks before the season. What young players will be able to show enough in the mini-training camp to earn spots on the roster? Blackwood may have been signed but fellow RFA Jesper Bratt is still pending, and GM Tom Fitzgerald admitted it was unlikely (given current protocols) and the pending nature of his deal that Bratt will be able to attend much of preseason camp. Not ideal with a thin team if you’re possibly missing a middle six forward at the beginning of the season. There’s also the question of contracts for pending UFA’s Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev. Finally, there’s the matter of what the team decides with the captaincy with Andy Greene having been traded last spring, and still an unsigned FA now.
Hopefully we’ll have a bit clearer picture of what 2021 will look like for the Devils on the ice by the time they’re ready to begin again on January 14.