Tonight marks the beginning of another NHL season, sure doesn’t feel that way as a Devils fan though – given that we have to wait another three whole days for our opener. At least three days gives us a little more time for our walking wounded to heal. It’s telling the Devils had to put on their own roster sheet a notation of all the injured players eligible to be activated by Friday. So our ‘final’ 23-man roster is more like an initial 23-man roster with a few surprises that hopefully aren’t long for this world, if they are it means something’s terribly wrong or guys are hurt more seriously than the Devils will let on.
It doesn’t sound like Ty Smith will be ready for the opener Friday, which means one of Christian Jaros (who?), Colton White (meh) or Ranger castoff Mason Geertsen (yikes) could be our sixth D. Hopefully at least Damon Severson, who’s been in and out of camp due to injury will be ready to play, otherwise two of those guys will be in the lineup against the Blackhawks in three days. Having three goalies on the initial roster just serves to underscore the potential mess that Mackenzie Blackwood’s status may well cause down the road although our more immediate concern is Johnathan Bernier missing the last few days due to a lower body injury. Allegedly he’ll be back for the opener, not that he’s going to play that game unless something goes wrong with Blackwood in the interim though.
Goaltender – With that as a lead-in, might as well start with the goalies for this preview. I’ve said my piece on Blackwood and his vaccination status in a prior blog, thank goodness his test scare turned out to be just that and he ‘only’ missed a preseason game that didn’t get played anyway. Hopefully that provides an impetus to get this issue resolved sooner rather than later because there’s already inherent enough risk of him missing games as it is due to an infection, travel restrictions or another ‘inconclusive test’ a la last week. If healthy and available, Blackwood and Bernier should provide our best tandem since Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg in 2011-12. I would say Marty and Cory Schneider in 2014 but without picking at old scabs, that just didn’t work for anyone involved. Given Blackwood’s never started more than 43 games in a season, Bernier provides a complementary guy we haven’t had yet in Blackwood’s career. For all of the consistency issues with Blackwood – particularly last year – you could still see the difference between the Devils when Blackwood played and when other goalies played. On paper, this should finally be an 82-game strength but if Blackwood is unavailable for whatever reason then it becomes a giant question mark again.
Defensemen – A lot of the offseason buzz over the Devils improving their D with the signing of Dougie Hamilton and the trade for Ryan Graves has been tempered with the recent injury news around Smith and Severson. Still, when healthy this D should be much improved over every version the Devils have iced since (again) 2011-12, which not-so-coincidentally was also the Devils’ last extended playoff run. Hamilton gives the Devils a true #1 they haven’t really had at any point in the post-Lou Lamoriello era while Graves also adds skill and some size to a unit sorely lacking both. Smith had a fairly solid rookie campaign and when he returns, more will be expected of him in year number two while perhaps Severson’s consistency improves now that he will be more of a second-pairing D as opposed to the erstatz top-pairing D he’s been forced to be at different points the last few years. Wither PK Subban? Clearly we haven’t gotten the player we hoped we would be from Nashville two years ago as he hasn’t even approached his former Norris-winning form. In a contract year and on a lower pairing maybe, just maybe his production can spike some? 2021 deadline acquisition Jonas Siegenthaler should start with an everyday role in the top six and hopefully does enough to earn a permanent lineup spot.
Forwards – Nine of the thirteen initial roster forwards were expected to be there before camp, albeit with various question marks surrounding them. Can Nico Hischier stay healthy this time around and finally have a spike in his offensive production? Will Jack Hughes have a breakout year of his own offensively? Every other question among our forward lineup pales in comparison to those two – quite simply the Devils need their franchise centers to be impact players if they’re going to improve as a team and if as an offense they are going to make a jump out of the bottom third of the league to somewhere higher with a lot more goals to celebrate in-person this year. Really we have few sure things in our lineup though, which is somewhat to be expected with what’s going to be the youngest roster in the league on Opening Night. Nico and Jack having increased production would also help with some of our other question marks.
To wit: can Pavel Zacha thrive as a center or will the Devils finally be forced to admit he should be a wing? His production the last two years as a center and as a wing suggests that he should play wide but the Devils clearly want some size down the middle and are willing to try to pound a square peg into a round hole one more time. Maybe Zacha doesn’t even get as much of a shot at center as was rumored at the beginning of camp because of the emergence of teen sensation Dawson Mercer though.
If he’s here to stay that would be a big boost for a team needing a third center (especially if it keeps Zacha on the wing). It would also be a big boost if Yegor Sharangovich’s rookie breakthrough wasn’t a fluke and he can pump in another 25-30 goals this year, and if Jesper Bratt’s improved production last year (30 points in 46 games after a camp holdout) portended a full season where it all comes together for the former sixth-round pick. Janne Kuokkanen, like Sharangovich needs to avoid falling victim to the sophomore jinx while former first-round pick Mike McLeod seems to be settling into his fourth-line role quite nicely. Will Miles Wood get healthy soon, or are we going to have to give the likes of Marian Studenic and Freddy Gauthier some run early in the season?
It’s not just the kids that have question marks surrounding them though – can Tomas Tatar rebound from the embarrassment of being a healthy scratch in the playoffs for Montreal to add some scoring punch up front? Will Jimmy Vesey contribute anything after winning a spot on the roster off a camp PTO? Can Andreas Johnsson rebound from a disastrous first year in New Jersey to add something, anything to the lineup in year two? It’s already gotten old detailing all of the question marks but really that’s the story of the team right now. A lot of young players looking to improve and/or maintain consistency.
Management – Perhaps our one sure thing (so to speak) is going into a second season with Lindy Ruff as coach, but putting together most of his staff during a pandemic then getting next to zero practice time last year wasn’t exactly ideal going into a first season with a team. Combined with the Devils’ COVID breakout derailing a solid start and it was little wonder that Ruff suffered only the second sub-.500 season in a two-decade long NHL career. After having dreadful PP and PK production last year, the Devils retained their whole staff hoping personnel changes and more practice time would fix what ailed our special teams last year.
You wouldn’t think it sometimes but Tom Fitzgerald is just as inexperienced as most of his team is, going into just his second full season as GM of the Devils (almost all of it during an unprecedented pandemic). By all accounts he’s done a solid job both in terms of the rebuilding last year and re-augmenting this offseason after the additions of Hamilton, Graves, Bernier and Tatar. He pretty much checked off every item on the shopping list other than #3C, which may well be filled from within now. Does that mean the team will improve appreciably from the last few years? It better be improved now, but to what end depends on both our younger players and the competition from within a normally tough division. I could probably make an argument for the Devils finishing anywhere from 4th (almost a sure wild card) to last in their division, though anything below borderline playoff team would be another step back for an organization that’s been running in place the last few years.
Cautious optimism is probably what best describes my feeling at the moment. If the Devils are ever going to improve, you would think a fast start is required, given we have a lot of home games (and most of them eminently winnable) this month. Of course we’ve had high hopes and letdowns with this team in recent years too so even my so-called cautious optimism is tinged with a dose of worry. At least we’re almost three days away from finally starting to answer those questions.