As the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs approach, NHL teams will start getting mathematically eliminated from contention. PHT’s “What Went Wrong” series aims to analyze why each team missed the playoffs. The “What Went Wrong” series continues with the 2020-21 New Jersey Devils.
In this “What Went Wrong?” series, hockey fans will encounter enough shattered dreams to summon Goldust. Teams with playoff expectations — sometimes dreams of deep runs — instead encountered nightmares during the 2020-21 seasons. Some of these posts could very well serve as preludes to coaches and other people getting fired.
And perhaps there might be some shuffling in the Devils’ front office after the team rarely gestured toward a run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But, aside from the most daring Devils dreamers, just about everyone expected a season like this. Sure, it would have been fun to sort of stumble into a playoff run, much like Taylor Hall helped them do when he won a Hart Trophy. In the grand scheme of things, the Devils likely viewed 2020-21 as a bridge to (hopefully) better future seasons. Getting a blue-chipper in the 2021 NHL Draft wouldn’t hurt that process, either.
(Note: full season Devils stats from before the action on Saturday, May 1.)
What went wrong before the 2020-21 season
Heading into the 2019-20 season, the Devils approached a fork in the road. (Perhaps it would be a pitchfork or trident, if we’re leaning into the Devils theming.)
Instead of taking the road to contending after splashy moves for the likes of P.K. Subban, the Devils only experienced pain. (Maybe change that fork in the road into Sideshow Bob constantly stepping on rakes.)
That disastrous season set expectations way lower during the 2020 offseason, and heading into the 2020-21 campaign. (Perhaps Jack Hughes dealing with first-year struggles kept expectations muted, too.)
People were fired, players like Taylor Hall were traded, and the 2020 offseason focused on modest moves. Granted, the one bolder push to compete (signing underrated, but not always healthy, goalie Corey Crawford) ended up never getting off the ground.
Of course, the Devils couldn’t control what Crawford was going through, but it made a mild offseason more modest.
What went wrong during the Devils’ 2020-21 season
And Lindy Ruff couldn’t fit pieces together to a successful enough degree for the results to be anything better than mediocre.
Truly, the biggest health-related bit of bad luck probably didn’t revolve around Crawford retiring. Instead, the Devils slogged through most of 2020-21 without new captain Nico Hischier. Between COVID and a smattering of injuries, Hischier entered the first weekend of May with just 15 games played. Even among those 15 games, most were too-little, too-late: he played just five games before April.
With a team as mediocre as the Devils, you can point to a lot of issues.
After signing Crawford, it seemed like the Devils might form a heck of a duo alongside Mackenzie Blackwood. Instead, the Devils struggled in that area, which Ruff couldn’t help but note.
#NJDevils Lindy Ruff : “We flat out need better goaltending.”
— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) April 21, 2021
It wasn’t all on the netminders, though. From expected goals to high-danger chances and simple scoring chances, the Devils were consistently on the wrong end — sometimes dramatically so.
If you want the most dramatic description of the Devils’ dubious offense, consult All About The Jersey. Mike Stromberg described New Jersey’s offense as “an unceasing vortex of offensive ineptitude.”
You can spread that ineptitude to special teams, for sure.
On the power play, the Devils converted on just 14.7-percent of their chances. They were lousy on the PK, too, killing penalties at a far-from-nice rate of 69.92-percent.
So, a lot went wrong for the Devils in 2020-21.
What went right
Maybe the most important thing is that, realistically speaking, this is going according to plan. The Devils were better off being really bad in 2020-21, in hopes of getting better later.
Considering the extremely promising growth of Jack Hughes, and some promising development from others — especially defenseman Ty Smith — maybe this rebuild can pick up some speed? Either way, after Hughes looked dicey by even generous measures in his rookie season, his sophomore work has been superb.
Jack Hughes looks like a useful all-around player by metrics such as Evolving Hockey’s RAPM, and not just for someone who’s 19.
Having the player you lucked-into No. 1 overall look like a No. 1 overall pick is a nice feeling. It doesn’t solve all of your problems, but it eliminates a sort of existential worry.
While plenty of the bottom-line type metrics frown upon the Devils, there’s some evidence of improvements. They’re at 51.4-percent at Corsi For this season, compared to a troubling 46.2-percent in 2019-20.
At even strength and on special teams, the Devils need work. OK, they kind of need work everywhere. But you can find some bright sides to look on.
(And, hey, after watching former Devil Taylor Hall traded for so little, the Devils did pretty well in landing a first-rounder for Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac.)
Stay tuned at PHT for more detailed looks at what’s next for the New Jersey Devils. In short: they need to find more talent to help Jack Hughes, and make the most of their 2021 first-rounders. Speaking of that, follow the Push for the Playoffs to keep track of the Devils’ 2021 NHL Draft Lottery odds.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.