There were seven teams that did not qualify for the NHL’s expanded 24-team playoff field this past season. Over the next few days we are going to take a look at each of them to examine whether or not they are capable of bouncing back this upcoming season. We continue today with the New Jersey Devils.
Last offseason the New Jersey Devils went all in on trying to be a playoff team.
They won the draft lottery and selected Jack Hughes No. 1 overall. They acquired P.K. Subban in a trade with Nashville, signed Wayne Simmonds, and made the bold move to trade for Nikita Gusev. On top of all of that they were also — hopefully — going to get a full season of a healthy Taylor Hall.
But thanks in part to a miserable start to the season, that featured several blown multi-goal leads and some sub-par goaltending, the Devils found themselves in a deep, deep hole in a wildly competitive Metropolitan Division and were never able to climb out of it.
They fired the coach (John Hynes) and general manager (Ray Shero), and began selling off assets before the trade deadline, trading Hall, Simmonds, Blake Coleman, Sami Vatanen, and Andy Greene.
The result was a second consecutive non-playoff season, and the eighth in the past 10 years.
How are the Devils looking now?
The biggest weakness becomes a potential strength
The biggest question mark for the Devils at the start of the 2019-20 season was definitely their goalie situation.
Mackenzie Blackwood had only played 20 NHL games and was completely unproven, while Cory Schneider had rapidly declined.
Blackwood ended up having a great second half finished with outstanding numbers, while the Devils were very competitive with him in net, finishing with a 22-14-8 record when he played. That record is a 96-point pace over 82 games.
In the games Blackwood did not play, the Devils went just 6-15-7 with Schneider, Louis Domingue, and Gilles Senn in net. That is a 55-point pace over 82 games.
Quite a difference.
Blackwood’s emergance is significant because it gives the Devils a young, quality NHL goalie (.916 save percentage in 70 career games) they can count on.
What makes it even more significant is they are now teaming him up with Corey Crawford after signing the veteran to a two-year deal.
While injuries have been an issue for Crawford in recent seasons, he is still an outstanding goalie when healthy. The combination of him and Blackwood should give the Devils an excellent duo in net and take what was their biggest question mark and turn it into what might be their greatest strength this coming season.
It remains to be seen whether or not that will be enough to get them back into the playoff hunt, but if you are going to be strong at one position, that is the one to be strong at.
Improvement needs to come from within
Losing Hall and Coleman from last year’s time puts a pretty significant dent in what was an already weak offensive team, and at the moment the only real outside additions have been the trades for Andreas Johnsson from Toronto and Ryan Murray from Columbus.
And while those were very strong trades, Johnsson is not going to be a franchise-changer and Murray is more of a defensive addition.
The players that could be franchise-changers are Hughes and Nico Hischier, the two recent No. 1 overall picks on the roster.
Hischier may not ever be a superstar, but he is already a very good player that can make an impact on both sides of the puck. He is also still at an age where he probably still has some untapped offensive potential.
Hughes is the player that has the potential to be the game-changer offensively. He had a lot of growing pains his rookie season, but that is to be expected from an 18-year-old. A breakout year from either player offensively (or both) would probably do more to improve the Devils’ offense than any outside addition they could reasonably acquire.
But it is not just the young players that need to improve.
Subban was the focal point of their offseason overhaul a year ago and he simply did not make the impact the Devils were expecting. He wasn’t necessarily bad, he just wasn’t the P.K. Subban we have grown accustomed to seeing in Montreal and Nashville. I don’t think he is done as a top player, but him bouncing back is a must for the Devils to improve.
The Blackwood and Crawford duo is going to give them a chance, but they are playing in a brutal division that had five of the top-11 teams in points percentage from this past season, as well as teams like Columbus and the New York Rangers that are going to be very competitive.
That is a lot standing in front of them.
To make a move this season the goalies have to be great, the two young stars need to take another step forward, and Subban needs to bounce back.
Long-term, the Devils have some major decisions to make and a lot of long-term holes to fill. They have almost no long-term commitments on the books outside of Hischier, while they have five pending unrestricted free agents after this season including two of their most productive forwards in Gusev and Kyle Palmieri.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.