I’m not gonna lie, my brain is still not on the NHL right now. How could it be, with football season underway and baseball heading towards a dramatic regular season crescendo even before the four rounds of the playoffs? That said, on what looks to be a rainy weekend now seems to be as good a time as any for a season preview slash camp outlook for the Devils.
Especially after I foolishly went to the preseason game last night. It was the only preseason game I kept my ticket for, not because it was Devils-Rangers but because it was on a Friday. I didn’t realize till maybe a couple days before the game that it conflicted with Game 1 of the Mets’ showdown series in Atlanta. Once I did, I was more or less too lazy to try to sell it, plus I usually do want to go to at least one preseason game a year. I did think while heading there that I would just watch the first period and park in front of a TV showing the game for the rest of the night. Figures that after a preseason where the Devils had won their first handful of games, last night’s first period would be the clunker for everyone not named Mackenzie Blackwood as we were outshot 17-3 or thereabouts – but shockingly gained the lead early in the second period on a Jack Hughes goal.
It was after that point that I just left, I figured I’d rather listen to the radio broadcast on the way home and then have the SNY crew on audio once I got home rather than just stay there and watch a screen standing up in the hallway for a couple hours with no sound. I picked up my season ticket holder shirt and there’ll be enough games that count to go to…presuming at least that we’re not out of the race by January yet again this year.
Usually this is the time of year where you still have optimism for anything and everything. And to be sure, there are things to be optomistic for…by all accounts recent first-rounder Alex Holtz has had a strong camp, even if he hasn’t scored in the preseason games yet at least he showed well in the prospects challenge and camp scrimmages before that, fwiw. Obviously Blackwood having a strong game bodes well in the immediate future though with him the question always will remain, how long will his good health (and consistent play) last? Clearly the overall talent level is improved with offseason additions such as Ondrej Palat, Erik Haula and John Marino. Even the staff you have to say is improved after an offseason overhaul, including bringing in reigning Jack Adams finalist Andrew Brunette as an associate coach. I’ll get into all that more in my position analysis though.
On a macro level though…I’ll believe it when I see it from this franchise. My days of just assuming things will get better by adding more young players or having another year come off the calendar for young players to ostensibly get better are over with. Even that didn’t seem to matter last year when we had the long-hoped for breakouts from Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier and the team was still thirty-seven points out of a playoff spot. Granted the East was very top-heavy last year but even in a normal season, 63 points would leave you around thirty or so off the bubble. Even with those three and our additions, too many questions remain – starting with the goaltending:
Goaltenders – For a franchise whose swift downfall last season was traced back to injury-plagued and inexperienced goalies, it isn’t exactly ideal to be spending over $12 million on the goaltending position (including the still-on-the books $2 million buyout of Cory Schneider), without having a single sure thing on the roster. Blackwood is clearly the most talented guy in the room, but he’s also obviously on notice after two poor and injury-plagued seasons with recent import Vitek Vanecek signing a three year, $3.4 million deal shortly after the Devils’ draft day trade with the Capitals to acquire Vanecek. Good health is key, fortunately an early-camp illness turned out to be no big deal and Blackwood played last night’s preseason tilt as scheduled.
While I assume Blackwood will get the first crack at the 1A part of the goalie tandem, it seems like anything goes at this point. Which may even include the surprising return of Jonathan Bernier to the ice during camp, after hip surgery last year. Given the Devils have two other goalies under contract it’ll be interesting to see how the Devils handle Bernier once he’s healthy enough to come off of IR, especially since the Devils are suddenly up against the cap and would be over it once Bernier comes off of IR – go figure, after years of being $20-30 million under.
Whoever is on the ice, the Devils need better production from the goaltending position and it starts with better health. Losing both Blackwood and Bernier early last season sent the Devils scrambling and other than raw Nico Daws for a short stretch, they could never find anyone to step in the net to give them any consistency, other than being consistently bad. Thankfully it seems like they’ll have enough depth to keep kids like Daws and Akira Schmid down in the AHL this year, where they belong. Getting even competent play from Blackwood and Vanecek would go a long way toward stabilizing the Devils and ensuring they’re more competitive this year
Defense – After years of searching for answers to the D, slowly GM Tom Fitzgerald is rounding it into a competent unit. Still not a patch of the franchise’s salad days in the late ’90’s and early ’00’s, but how realistic is it to have two first-ballot HOF’ers and at least one or two other defensemen who would be first-pairing on other teams? Ironically the questions around this unit mostly revolve around the two guys on expiring contracts – LD Ryan Graves and RD Damon Severson. After a strong start last year, Graves tapered off a bit while Severson has always been a bit mercurial but had his most consistent season last year (putting up 46 points in 80 games with ‘only’ a -14 on a poor team). Severson might actually be the less likely to re-up long-term though, partly because the Devils have two other RD – Marino and last offseason’s marquee FA signing Dougie Hamilton – signed long-term, along with one of their best prospects being a RD in #2 overall pick Simon Nemec. There doesn’t seem to be any room long-term for Severson with both a personnel logjam as well as an increasing cap crunch.
If Nemec isn’t our top prospect atm then Luke Hughes (#4 overall pick in 2021) probably is…Graves might be his placeholder until the younger brother of Jack is ready to make the leap to the NHL, likely next year. Our left side isn’t quite as stacked as our right side though, even with Jonas Siegenthaler signing long-term after his breakout season last year. Right now the left side of our D looks to be Siegs and Graves in the top four with veteran Brendan Smith competing with kids such as Kevin Bahl and Nikita Okhotiuk for the third-pairing LD spot, either of whom would up the physical quotient on a mostly finesse D. Hopefully one of those kids eventually proves worthy of a spot because as improved as the D is, you’d still like to see a little more size and snarl, especially when we’re still lacking it up front. Aside from that it’d also be nice to see a return to form from Hamilton, who started last year strong but multiple injuries compromised him in the second half of the season. A healthy Hamilton, Siegs, Severson and Graves is at least a decent top four on paper with Marino and Smith or one of the kids a potentially decent third pairing.
Forwards – On paper this should be the strength of the team, especially with a three-person core of two #1 overall picks and Bratt, who had a breakout season last year with 73 points in 76 games. Unfortunately after an offseason of seemingly non-existent negotiating Bratt only re-signed on a one-year deal with UFA potentially looming after next season. I’ve already gone over my thoughts of Bratt’s negotiations and future this offseason so I’ll stick to on-ice here, he was arguably the team’s MVP last year given the fact Jack Hughes missed 33 games. At least Jack produced when he was in the lineup though, with 26 goals and 30 points in the 49 games he did play – and given the fact he starts a max term extension this offseason at least the Devils don’t have to worry about where he’ll be playing in the near term.
You could say the same for captain Nico (who has five years left on his deal) although the concern for both Jack and Nico isn’t what uniform they’ll be in, but how often they’ll be wearing it.
After missing a good chunk of the shortened season with a variety of maladies, at least Nico played 70 games last year, which represented his highest total since he played all 82 as a rookie. Obviously a hamstring issue popping up in his first period of preseason this year doesn’t help. Hopefully he’ll be back for the start of regular season, but who knows after ‘cramps’ turned into a more serious injury overnight. Hughes did play every game two years ago, but last year missed over thirty games. If the Devils want to be competitive all three of these guys’ GP numbers need to start with no less than a 7, as in 70 or more. I’m not as worried about the production – particularly with Hughes – but last year was kind of a live puck year so who knows…will Nico be able to sustain a 60 point in 70 game pace again playing a complete all-around game? Hopefully, though neither he or Bratt had ever had anything close to the numbers they had last year before.
Aside from the big three there are some intriguing pieces…after a slow start Yegor Sharangovich proved his 2021 breakout was no fluke with twenty-four goals and 46 points in 76 games. Incidentally, he’s also due for a new contract this offseason so it’s another pivotal year for the young Belarussian. Another younger player looking to maintain and improve is Dawson Mercer, who may have to adjust to being a wing full-time this year after starting at center last year in his rookie season. I’m not a fan of the move myself given his production declined on the wing (though that could also be a matter of hitting the rookie wall) but with the two #1 overalls and vet acquisition Erik Haula as our top three centers, what choice is there really? After Haula played over twenty-five minutes in a preseason game, it’s obvious the staff and management plan on him being a key complementary piece this year.
Almost everyone else up front is either on borrowed time, fighting for a spot or (in the case of Miles Wood) has health questions. After missing nearly the entire season last year, Wood will hopefully be able to return to full-time duty with something close to the sparkplug score a goal, start a fight, play physical game he used to have. Kids looking to win – or maintain – a spot include the aforementioned Holtz, late-season standout Fabian Zetterlund and Jesper Boqvist who had his moments last year but might be nosed off of center and back to the wing. I’m not sure he has enough production or intangibles to play either consistently but he’ll likely get another shot to be in the top nine either way. In the category of borrowed time we have Tomas Tatar and Andreas Johnsson, both expensive vets on a one-year deal who could be moved to clear cap space or just passed by younger players on the roster. Among this group, Holtz is key as the team could use at least a fourth legitimate top six winger to go along with Bratt, Palat and Sharangovich. Perhaps Mercer will be another borderline top six or elite top nine guy, everyone else is likely either back-end filler or playing over their talent level. While we have some top-end pieces now, our depth needs to step up more this year.
Dearly (or not) departed – While this isn’t quite the same as an in memoriam, this is where we look back at the departures from the 2021-22 Devils…obviously the biggest name is PK Subban, who retired from the NHL this offseason after an accomplished career on the ice and a distinguished one off it. It’s too bad we never got anywhere close to early-career PK in his three seasons here but he’s always been one of the good guys in the sport in spite of some of the unfair criticism he gets at times, and I wish him well in his next endeavor, likely the media. Also not returning are two former high picks who showed flashes but didn’t really live up to expectations here in Pavel Zacha (traded for Haula) and Ty Smith (traded for Marino). Of the two I give Smith more of a chance at a successful second act, especially given his age…but his falloff last year was scary after a largely successful rookie season. Janne Kuokkanen was bought out this offseason and went overseas to continue his career, while Jimmy Vesey went back to the Rangers after one meh season here.
And finally, we have the coaching staff who were basically all purged after last season, with the ironic exception of the goalie coach…an interesting choice after arguably the worst goaltending we’ve seen around here since the early 1980’s. Clearly last season is being seen as a health/personnel issue in net though, especially since Blackwood and Bernier did both start out well when they were healthy for a hot minute in October last year.
Coaching – Speaking of coaching, besides the goalie coach the only other member of the staff who didn’t get purged is of course head coach Lindy Ruff – who was arguably put on notice with the addition of Brunette to the staff. On paper you would think at least the additions of Brunette and longtime fan favorite Sergei Brylin would improve the staff over Mark Recchi, whose power plays never seemed to work and Alain Nasreddine, who probably outlived his welcome as much as anything here being retained through an interim stint as the head coach and two years on a second staff. As someone who’s always liked and respected Lindy Ruff the person I still find it hard to criticize him, especially given all the organization’s other problems, but if the coach was named Joe Schmoe I’d probably be screaming and yelling why we haven’t replaced him yet after two of the worst seasons in franchise history with other big-name coaches being hired this offseason. No doubt I’ll be doing that with my football Jets soon enough lol. Hopefully for Lindy’s sake and all of ours, the team makes a long-anticipated jump this year and either saves his job, or at least allows him to retire from coaching on a quasi-high note.
Outlook – Ultimately the goal (at least from me) is the same as it was last year…show enough improvement to at least be playing meaningful hockey from March into early April. I’m not sure how optimistic I am that we’ll actually accomplish that however, after years of empty promises I’m in full show me mode when it comes to the Devils at this point. I would say a good start is key except that we’ve actually had good starts the first ten games in the last two seasons, before the bottom fell out. It would be nice to have our key players stay relatively healthy though, so once and for all we can ascertain what this organization is without any built-in excuses.