Devils 2021 season recap and look ahead : The Young Guns take over

Much like everything else in this last year plus, the 2021 Devils season had wildly emotional ups and downs, with lots of unexpected obstacles to overcome. I’m going to make a comparison to where we are as a country on the COVID response – we’re not exactly where we want to be yet but you can see some signs of progress at least. That’s also an accurate cliff notes summary on the Devils right now. If you want to look at the glass as half-empty, we’re not going to be in the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons, and in a brutal division there’s no sign that drought will end next season either – though at least we won’t be playing only division teams. With two meaningless games left in our 56-game marathon sprint of a season, the Devils currently have 45 points in 54 games, which is basically a 70-point pace over an 82-game season. That’s clearly nowhere near good enough to be a playoff contender, which would be the first step back toward relevance for this franchise.

If you want to look at the glass as half-full, you could say our 6-3-2 start before COVID derailed us and jammed up our schedule and our 5-1 surge in the last week plus portend better things ahead, while our disastrous middle part of the season was all due to the schedule/COVID/key injuries like captain Nico Hischier missing much of the year. Not to mention this season’s division-only schedule isn’t an entirely accurate barometer for where we are among all thirty-one teams in the NHL – soon to be 32. Plus you have to give our kiddie corps the nod for how they’ve responded to what could have been a back-breaking ten-game losing streak, albeit one where it was mostly two teams (the Rangers and Penguins) kicking our faces in the dirt.

Once we managed to end the losing streak and beat the Flyers a couple of times, I could see this type of a finish coming with who was left on our schedule – another couple of games with a walking dead Philly, as well as four straight games with Boston and the Isles, who were all but in the playoffs already. Still, beating any team in the NHL – even ones with questionable motivation – is a bit of a step up from where we were during an 8-24-5 stretch that culminated with the aforementioned ten-game drought. From that standpoint, I couldn’t have asked for more from the team in the last six games. You can only beat who’s in front of you when you play them, and given that our roster is basically chock filled with kids you hope are part of the solution going forward, meaningless results can have meaning.

So what camp am I currently in you ask? Judging by my posts for most of this year you could fairly assume I’m in the glass half-empty camp. More accurately, I’m probably somewhere in between at the moment. I want to believe, I really do – and I acknowledge there are reasons to believe. But I’ve also been hit over the head with other meaningless junktime surges from my sports teams meaning nothing when the next season came about. Last season’s Devil surge under interim coach Alain Nasreddine didn’t exactly translate over to this season. The Mets surging down the stretch to get 86 wins two years ago had no impact after they never even got close to a playoff berth in 2020, when more than half the league made it. Even more dubiously, my football Jets’ 6-2 half in 2019 was rendered a total mirage in the wreckage of an 0-13 start in 2020. So yeah, as promising as this late season surge looks I’m not gonna fully buy in until it carries over till next year.

Still, there are things about this stretch and this team that can’t help but make you smile. And there are obvious areas that GM Tom Fitzgerald (assuming he’s still the man after this year) clearly needs to target. I’ll look at both throughout my overview:

Goalies – In many ways, Mackenzie Blackwood is a prism for the team at large. Looked dominant and ready to take the next step early before the pause (he was the first COVID victim on the team to boot, at least in-season), and the team’s late surge has gotten his GAA back below 3 and his save percentage back above .900, but in between he was very spotty. How much of it do we attribute to him having to recover from COVID while still playing a full schedule, and a compressed full schedule at that? I’d love to say all of it, but for the fact Blackwood hasn’t exactly been consistent for a full NHL season yet before 2020 either. Nor has he actually played a full NHL season yet, considering he’s only topped out at 43, 47 and 36 – assuming he plays the final two games of this season – games in his three pro seasons. And his 43 the first season includes 20 AHL games and 23 NHL games. Hopefully next year we’ll see more consistency, and more games from our undisputed #1.

One thing that isn’t debatable is that Corey Crawford’s unexpected retirement in camp damaged the team even more than could have been expected, given Blackwood’s COVID diagnosis early on and the team’s entire schedule being more compressed. Although Scott Wedgewood had a couple of nice moments, once again backup goalie proved to be an issue for the Devils. Wedge and fellow goalie Aaron Dell just were not good enough on the whole (combined 4-12-3 record in 19 starts), with even more unsightly splits. I won’t waste much analysis on them, except clearly neither one should be the #2 goalie next year. Without any solutions on hand, it’ll clearly have to be a vet signing from the outside, and one who won’t retire before the season.

Defense – This is still the area where the most questions remain on the Devils, even with a promising rookie season from Ty Smith (23 points in 48 games, ATOI 20:07) providing some hope. Surprisingly most of this late-season surge has happened without Smith, or PK Subban in the lineup with the former’s season being cut short by injury, the latter by COVID. Even an improved version of Subban from last year’s ghost wasn’t exactly good enough to justify his icetime or contract (19 points and a -16 in 44 games, ATOI 22:22). Not that they really have anyone else to play the minutes Subban and Smith do, aside from Damon Severson who’s prone to fits of inconsistency on both ends of the ice himself, but he’s managed to play every game this season and lead the team in icetime (ATOI: 22:26).

Assuming those three are still on the team next year (Subban is an UFA after next season, Severson after 2022-23), who fills the other three spots? Has Will Butcher done enough to earn back a lineup spot after beginning the season in the doghouse? He does have 10 points in 21 games and is averaging nearly 19 minutes a night, playing almost every night post-deadline but with just one year left on his contract and a still-tenuous standing on the team with a limited skillset, it’s not likely he’s a long-term solution. It’s quite possible he becomes expansion draft bait for the new Seattle Kraken. Unfortunately, deadline acquisition Jonas Siegenthaler’s post-deadline audition got cut short by COVID, though he is returning to the lineup for the final pair of games at least. He didn’t seem too impressive when he played, though he hadn’t really played much all season before arriving so it was always going to be tough for him.

Maybe Kevin Bahl’s surprisingly good five-game audition is enough to put him in the running for a lineup spot next season. He’d certainly add a necessary bit of size to our smallish lineup, and as a LD his development is doubly paramount. With or without Bahl, it’s still likely the team will need at least one or two veteran adds, particularly if Ryan Murray (fourteen points with an ATOI of 18:31 in 46 games, and a team-leading +5) leaves as a FA. It doesn’t seem like we have any other kids close to ready to step in, and obviously guys like Connor Carrick and Matt Tennyson are just placeholders.

Centers – Clearly our big two are set for the next several years down the middle, with Jack Hughes showing tangible and intangible improvement at both ends of the ice in his second NHL season. Maybe 11 goals and 31 points in 54 games still isn’t what you want on the whole from a #1OA, but he does have 15 of those points in the last 19 games. After a long dry spell in the middle of the season (funny how this seems to be a theme), he’s really picked up his play down the stretch being one of the leaders of the kiddie corps. After a season to forget laid up by a broken leg, COVID and a major facial injury off a deflected shot, finally captain Nico is able to get in a string of games down the stretch. Too bad 20-21 games this year and whatever he winds up playing in the World Championships will be all he gets to stay in game shape before going back to an 82-game schedule next season. You know he’ll be in the top six again next year, but hopefully better health will equal more production in his fifth NHL season.

With Nico and Hughes as a given, and Mike McLeod showing some surprising oomph as a fourth-liner this year (nine goals and 14 points in 50 games), the Devils could still use a third-liner in between them. It doesn’t seem like Jesper Boqvist is the answer there although it’s early in his wing-center shift. I don’t think a reunion with Travis Zajac is in the cards but it wouldn’t be the most outlandish thing in the world either, especially since things haven’t gone great for him on the Island so far after he got on a scoring roll pre-deadline in Newark. It’s more likely they’ll bring in someone younger though.

Wingers – Our wing has gone from a question mark to a bright spot pretty quickly down the stretch for a variety of reasons. For starters, finally with the return of Nico the Devils have been able to put Pavel Zacha where he’s shown he belongs this season – as a winger. You could have gotten a lot of money betting on Zacha as the leading point-getter before the season since it’s been one of the most unpredictable things in an unpredictable season. In particular down the stretch, Zacha’s picked it up with 9 goals and 6 assists in his last 14 games, many of them since the return of Nico finally pushed Zacha back outside where he’s clearly thrived more this year. It’s obviously too soon to be fully in the believer camp for the mercurial Czech but I’d like to see if a full season breakout can happen on the wing. After a slow post-holdout start to the season, Jesper Bratt has also picked it up down the stretch with 29 points in 44 games and has at least cemented a spot in the middle six next year. You could say the same for Miles Wood, who has 17 goals in 53 games, albeit most of his production has come on the so-called ‘fourth line’ with McLeod and fellow banger Nathan Bastian. Someone like Janne Kuokkanen (seven goals, seventeen assists in 48 games) I’d consider a complementary player more than a core piece but you could do worse than having him in your top nine.

If we’ve had one guy currently on the roster prove he’s worthy of riding shotgun alongside Hughes and potentially develop into a top-line winger, it’d be breakout performer Yegor Sharangovich. Until the scoring binges by Zacha and Sharangovich over the last month, the Devils still looked like they had too many playmakers and not enough scorers. Perhaps Sharangovich (along with current prospects Nolan Foote and Alexander Holtz, both one-time first-rounders) can fix that over the next couple years. Unlike Foote and Holtz, Sharangovich didn’t have that sort of pedigree being a 5th round selection just two years ago. He surprisingly made the team with a big camp, and proved his increased KHL scoring was no fluke with an early surge including a memorable game-winning OT goal against the Bruins. Like most of the team, Sharangovich’s production sagged in the middle of the season but the staff stuck with him and he responded with a breakout stretch run – nine goals and eight assists in his last nineteen games. He still has a shot at leading the team in goalscoring though he’s currently one behind Wood and tied with Zacha. Heady stuff for a 22-year old who’s been playing in all situations this year.

Even with more answers on the wing than it appeared a month ago, the Devils still could use depth and a little more scoring punch there next year as well. Especially with offseason acquisition Andreas Johnsson busting (ten points in 48 games and not much of an all-around game), and longtime stalwart Kyle Palmieri sent packing at the trade deadline in the midst of an off year. Not to mention Foote and Holtz seem to be more potential 2022-23 solutions than 2021-22 at the moment, and they’re going to have to make long-term contract decisions on guys like Zacha and Wood by then anyway.

Coaching – First let’s start with the bad…Nasreddine and fellow assistant Mark Recchi did not have effective special teams at all this year. Our PK seems like it’ll remain dead last though it at least creeped above 70% (whoopee), and our PP hasn’t been much better clocking in at 28th out of 31 teams with a week to go in the season. Perhaps the nature of this schedule and season didn’t engender an ability to coach much, but I wouldn’t complain if one or both staff members changed either.

As far as Lindy Ruff, this was only the third losing season in his two-decade career, though it wasn’t exactly unexpected given the team’s inexperience and the division’s toughness. To me, the head coach had three goals this season – develop the younger players, get max effort out of the team, and improve this team defensively 5-on-5. I’d say he scored on at least two out of three with an incomplete on the latter. It’s true our shots per game decreased marginally from last season but our goals allowed didn’t, in part due to the horrid special teams. I don’t have the numbers to prove it but it felt like the defense was at least a little better this year until the post-deadline trades of Dmitry Kulikov and Sami Vatanen as well as the late-season absences of Subban and Smith.

Still it did feel like the younger players progressed this year, even guys like Zacha who’d stagnated under the previous staff, and they handled Smith well in his rookie season – giving him the icetime he deserved but not too much to overwhelm him. Guys like Hughes, Sharangovich, Zacha and Bratt were able to learn and rebound from long dry spells. Although it seemed for a time the effort was lacking during the ten-game losing streak (in part discouraged by the goaltending around it), the team never completely went in the tank and was able to turn the season around down the stretch, injecting some much-needed fun into the latter part of this season for everyone – fans and players alike.

Intangibles – One of the most important things out of this season is that Fitz and Lindy clearly put their stock in the young guns and quickly oversaw the leadership transformation from the Palm-Zajac group to the Nico-Hughes wave of the future. There were few vets aside from Subban to help while the team was going through it’s ten game death spiral, but the kids showed maturity getting out of it in time to make something of these last few weeks in the season. I realize game #53 of #54 is on as I’m finishing this blog, but I doubt anything materially happens in the last two games to affect anything going forward aside from our lotto position, which I couldn’t give a rat’s you-know-what about.

While I did touch on the pre and post-COVID records of this season, I didn’t yet go into the whole division-only part of this season’s schedule, which further complicates what to make of this team going forward. Before our win over the Isles Thursday, our season had basically been predictable against almost every team – which quite frankly made it more unwatchable. Wiped out against the Rangers, Islanders, Caps and Penguins, struggled against the lousy Sabres and wiped out the Bruins(!) and Flyers, though most of the Flyer games came late after they had one foot out the door themselves. To wit here are our season records against those groups:

Bruins and Flyers: 9-3-3

Sabres: 4-3-1

Islanders, Rangers, Capitals and Penguins: 6-22-3

So basically we were noncompetitive against three of the four playoff teams along with our biggest rival, and struggled against the one team we were clearly better than while having good matchups against the other two division teams. Most people would assume our division’s one of the tougher ones overall given these teams’ recent track records, but you can’t really assume anything when you’re only playing in pods. If you’re an NCAA basketball fan, you know how the Big Ten got praised all season for its competitiveness and called one of the best leagues in recent history, only to see almost all of those teams eat it when they finally started playing outside teams in the NCAA tournament.

Will we be better next season just by virtue of playing more teams and having a presumably less compact schedule? It’s not as if adding Carolina and Columbus while subtracting Boston and Buffalo will really be a net positive in the toughness of the division games themselves, assuming the divisions do revert back to pre-pandemic groupings next year apart from adding Seattle out West. You do have to figure yes, we should be better just based off the more varied and spaced out schedule. I’m not sure how much the lack of fans in the building this season affected things overall, whatever we lost at home not having fans we seemed to gain on the road with a better than expected road record.

I’m just going to assume for the moment that our current management team shouldn’t be in any danger, although with Fitz’s rumored one-year term as GM and ownership’s wandering eye toward the suspended ex-Yotes GM John Chayka last offseason you can’t really rule anything out. I’m also assuming that Fitz isn’t looking for a new coach even though it wasn’t entirely his choice to hire Ruff, given they were hired concurrently. Honestly it’d probably be a mistake to look for a replacement for either at this point, Fitz deserves the opportunity to complete his rebuild and Ruff did the most he could under a less than ideal situation.

Although I’ve checked out of this season emotionally for a while it’ll still be a bit of a shock when the season comes to an end for real on Monday, and our next big dates will be in July with the draft lottery and expansion draft. I’m not expecting lightning to strike a third time in five years with the former, and the latter isn’t really even worth analyzing barring some big moves, or a surprising choice for exposure. At the moment it looks like guys such as Butcher or bangers Bastian and McLeod will be Seattle’s best choices from our unprotected list, not a big deal either way.

In the meantime, best of luck and health to all the playoff teams even if the current format makes the first couple of rounds difficult to watch since I don’t really care for any of the division teams that are in it. Even Washington I’m not too keen on rooting for at the moment after the latest hideous Tom Wilson incident and the fallout from it, granted there’s nobody in the East I’m intensely rooting against either without the Rangers or Flyers involved in the tournament.

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