Well the moment is finally upon us, and I don’t mean the merciful end of 2020 in a few hours, but rather the moment hockey has finally come back for the Devils and six other teams whose last time on the ice as a team was in March – before the COVID pandemic changed the world as we know it. Hopefully most of those changes won’t be permanent. This is the first year in a long time I’m not at a friend’s house for New Year’s and I’ll quite possibly go from this March to next October in between physically attending a game at Prudential Center, since it’s not likely we’ll have fans in the arena till late in the condensed season, if at all.
Sure these are relatively insignificant problems compared to the physical, mental and economic problems many have been suffering from in the year of COVID. Still, we could all use more of a return to normal when and where we can get it, whether it’s in sports or otherwise. Of course a lot about what will be the 2021 NHL regular season is going to be necessarily abnormal. It’s still our team coming back and hockey at the highest level though. And in the Devils’ case, it’s also the beginning of a new regime in charge after a tumultuous 2019-20 season that saw the Devils fire their GM Ray Shero and coach John Hynes, and part ways with the one-time franchise face in Taylor Hall as well as their long-time stalwart and captain Andy Greene.
Of course there are plenty of holdovers as well, looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2019-20 season which began with high hopes, but those crashed to earth in a matter of weeks. And camp hasn’t been completely free of angst either, with Nico Hischier nursing an undisclosed leg injury suffered in training which was called ‘week-to-week’, not exactly ideal considering the season is less than two weeks from officially beginning. Also, winger Jesper Bratt is still missing from camp being an unsigned RFA and having to go through quarantine once he does sign and come back. So there’s a decent chance two top six forwards can be on the shelf for our first game in ten months.
Having a two-week (or less) camp is problematic for everyone around the league but honestly I think it’s more problematic for a team like the Devils, and not just because we’re one of the unlucky seven that haven’t played since March but also because there are a lot of younger players who could use the normal routine of camp to win jobs and open eyes. Perhaps with the injury to Nico and delay in Bratt’s return a couple of those guys will get chances anyway. It would be nice to be able to treat the first 5-10 games of the regular season as an extended preseason, the way it would be in a normal year but with only 2/3 of a season and division play only it’s pretty much imperative to come out of the gates as ready as possible.
Not as if I expect the team to make the playoffs anyway or anything like that, but you at least want to see this team be more competitive than they’ve been the last two years. Of course in that vein, I’ve heard and read more than once in the last twenty four hours on the interwebs that ‘I don’t care what this team’s record is, as long as I see development from the kids’…that’s one of my biggest pet peeve fallacies. If your team is terrible it’s more than likely a reason why is you’re not getting enough development from key pieces – especially when said key pieces include two #1 overall franchise centers, a first-round defenseman finally looking to stick with the big club this year, and a 24-year old goalie. You need to be more competitive than doormat territory precisely because it’ll show improvement from guys you want to be a part of the long-term solution.
I kept putting off a further preview of this team in 2021 because I still expect more moves and PTO signings, especially with the forwards. I doubt much will materially change at this point though, particularly in the back where they have six vets under contract, and 2018 1st rounder Ty Smith came off a season where he was named the WHL’s top defenseman, so there are hopes he’ll stick with the big club this time after coming up short of making the team in his first two camps. Not that having vets mean things are entirely settled on the blueline.
Coming off a career-worst season, one-time Norris winner PK Subban needs to bounce back this year, particularly given his status as the most experienced defenseman we have. A Subban bounceback plus trade acquisition Ryan Murray staying healthy would go a long way toward improving the blue line from the wild inconsistencies of the last few seasons. Of course Subban is only signed for two more years and Murray through this season so improvement from the younger defensemen is also paramount going forward. Damon Severson flourished after the coaching change last year, but there is a bit of a sense of when a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s around to hear it, did it really fall? Meaning it’ll be nice to see him produce when we’re not just playing out the string in front of relatively nobody (as opposed to the literal nobody that’ll be in the stands this year). Will Butcher’s taken a step back the last two seasons from a solid rookie campaign, while Connor Carrick and Dmitry Kulikov are decent back six options.
Goaltending should be the most improved area on the team with another year of experience for Mackenzie Blackwood, as well as the signing of vet Corey Crawford – although the health of the latter (who just turned 36 today and hasn’t played more than forty games in the last three years) is by no means certain. Still, Crawford gives us a far better ‘on paper’ option than all of our non-Blackwood goaltenders gave us on the ice last year.
Up front, the most succinct way to describe it as question mark upon question mark, with the two most important question marks being our aforementioned #1 overall picks. Will Nico make the jump from good to great in his age 22 season? Can Hughes make the jump from not ready for the NHL to becoming at least a solid NHL player in his second season? At least Hughes is off to a good start off the ice, putting on some needed bulk.
Of course with Nico the long-term question is shelved for the moment given the short-term concern over his injury. Another important question mark is offseason trade acquisition Andreas Johnsson. Can he be a Blake Coleman replacement, perhaps? After a solid 20-goal season as a rookie he took a step back, slowed by injury last year. Will in-season trade acquisitions Janne Kuokkanen, Nick Merkley and Nolan Foote be able to win spots on the roster this year? Foote has the highest celing of the three but is likely a year or so away of contending for a full-time role while the other two are closer to earning bottom six forward minutes.
With almost everyone else that’s assured of a roster spot you pretty much know what you’re going to get. Kyle Palmieri will put up his 25 goals and 55 points, or whatever the 56-game version of those numbers are, while Nikita Gusev came on strong toward the end of his first NHL season…with both those players the questions are more off ice since neither is signed beyond this season. Travis Zajac is a pro’s pro, but he’s 35 this year and also a free agent at the end of the season, perhaps this will be the end of the road for #19 in the red and white? I’ve pretty much given up on perennial teases Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood being any more than they are – which is limited bottom six forwards, but there is still time for both to prove me wrong.
Other than goaltending perhaps, coaching is the key area where the team should be improved over recent seasons. Not that Lindy Ruff was everyone’s first choice this offseason (hand raised) but perhaps he’ll prove to be the right choice for us, given his work with younger teams in Buffalo and Dallas and a long track record of regular season success. Not to mention in a season that’ll be filled with more volatility and unpredictability, having a steady hand behind the bench can only help matters.
No season preview would be complete without an overview of the division at large. For all intents and purposes we only have to worry about seven teams this season, the other teams in the temporarily conceived East division. If you’re a NHL historian think of it as the old six-team Patrick Division, plus Boston and Buffalo. Of the other seven teams, I think for the moment you have to consider the Flyers and Capitals as playoff definites (although in such a stacked division there might be no such thing as a definite) with an aging Boston, the Islanders after their stellar bubble run, and Pittsburgh in the second tier as teams that can make it but can also fall back.
Then you have the Rangers who can easily muscle into that second group, but they’re also reliant on young goaltending and forwards (including #1 OA pick Alexis Lafreniere) plus Artemi Panarin keeping up the Hart-like pace he had in his first season with the Rangers. Bringing up the rear are the other locals, Buffalo who can never seem to get out of its own way – and it’s almost fitting Taylor Hall wound up there – then us. While we’re almost certainly the seventh or eighth best team in the division on paper, anything can happen in a short season.
Shoot, the 2015-16 Devils – who had no business being in a playoff run during Shero and Hynes’ initial season here – would have been right in the mix for a spot after 55-60 games with contributions from the likes of Wild Thing Bobby Farnham and journeyman Lee Stempniak, among others. Of course the division-only schedule itself is the bigger cause for concern given who the other division teams are. If you want an inspirational address for a team accused of being misfit toys, Lou Brown from the movie Major League can probably do better than I can:
I guess that was my microwave version of a preview, fitting for a microwave version of a season and camp.