After strong free-agent moves, do Devils look like a playoff team?

After strong free-agent moves, do Devils look like a playoff team?
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Are the New Jersey Devils the biggest winners of 2021 NHL Free Agency?

If you demand sheer volume, the answer is no. Simply put, the Devils haven’t made a lot of moves. That said, few teams could compete with the quality they added. The Devils identified weaknesses, then addressed them with bold, seemingly savvy free-agent signings.

By adding Dougie Hamilton, Jonathan Bernier, and now Tomas Tatar, the Devils look like they’ll be a bigger threat in 2021-22. That said, we have recent examples of the Devils going from offseason studs to duds once they get on the ice.

Could this time be different? Might the 2021-22 version of the Devils make the playoffs? Let’s ponder why these Devils could be different, but also why they may remain a work in progress.

Devils mix free-agent risk-reward of Hamilton with savvy pickups

Simply put, genuine No. 1 defensemen like Dougie Hamilton don’t hit the free-agent market very often.

Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that Hamilton will be a seamless addition. You might say that there’s an ominous warning in Hamilton and P.K. Subban sharing the same $9M cap hit.

The situation is pretty different, though. When the Devils acquired Subban, they crossed their fingers for a rebound that ultimately didn’t happen. With Hamilton, they’re merely hoping he can remain himself. Year after year, Hamilton’s shed most of the criticisms around his game, and nearly ended up a Norris Trophy finalist last season.

Signing a defenseman of Hamilton’s stature is a risk. It’s a relatively smart risk, yet ponder some of the NHL’s worst contracts, and expensive, long-term defensemen clog up those lists.

[2021 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

Luckily, the Devils otherwise kept their free-agent risks to reasonable gambles, and their few long-term bets are on younger players. There’s a strong chance that both Jonathan Bernier and especially Tomas Tatar will help the Devils. If not, though, they’re only on two-year contracts.

Ideally, Tatar becomes the next Tyler Toffoli: someone who shined in “fancy stats,” then became undeniable after signing a budget deal.

If the truth is somewhere between “analytics gem” and “player coaches strangely sour on?” That’s a pretty good find for $4.5M per year.

When you consider the Ryan Graves trade, the Devils added something for everyone during this offseason.

Is Ruff a rough fit? Examining why previous offseasons didn’t pan out

Understandably, some will react with “We’ve seen this movie before.”

Granted, you can chalk up some Devils disappointments to bad luck. Yes, there were some health concerns with Corey Crawford, but his retirement was surprising after a sneaky-brilliant final season in Chicago.

Over the years, seemingly smart signings and trades have sputtered, though.

Both Marcus Johansson and Andreas Johnsson seemed like examples of “weaponizing cap space.” Both disappointed.

Even with lowered expectations, P.K. Subban’s been an absolute bummer with the Devils.

Many of these problems extend far beyond Lindy Ruff’s (surprising) stay as Devils head coach. Management should keep an eye on the situation, nonetheless. Ruff as a transitional, experienced coach for a rebuilder? Not perfect, yet understandable. Ruff as someone getting the most out of a haul that included a $63 million defenseman? That’s a debatable fit.

Interesting potential for internal improvements

Consider one factor that might sneak under the radar. At 22, it feels extremely safe to expect Nico Hischier to rebound in a big way.

Frankly, just about everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, in 2020-21. As long as seemingly freak accidents don’t linger, the Devils could have one of the NHL’s most promising center duos in Hischier and Jack Hughes.

Throw out 2020-21, and Hischier looks like a difference maker. Consider this player card from Evolving Hockey, which runs from 2017-18 through 2019-20:

After strong free-agent moves, do Devils look like a playoff team? Hischier player card
via Evolving Hockey

Not every hypothetical scenario will necessarily work out for New Jersey. It’s reasonable to expect a few improvements from within, and from free-agent additions, however.

  • Honestly, the Devils might want to extend Jack Hughes before he takes another leap. If not, a talented player with improved teammates could translate to a true breakthrough.
  • Maybe Andreas Johnsson can improve? If nothing else, his puck luck wasn’t great during his Devils debut (7.7 shooting percentage, far below his 12-percent career average).
  • Tomas Tatar could help certain pieces fall into more comfortable places, whether he lines up with Hughes, Hischier, or as a bottom-six luxury.
  • Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves could make life easier for other Devils defensemen. Sliding Subban and/or Damon Severson out of the 22-minute range could be quite a boon for New Jersey.
  • Yes, goalies are tough to predict. Yet, while Jonathan Bernier lacks the theoretical ceiling of Corey Crawford, he’s healthier, and younger at 32. He also toughed things out on a terrible Red Wings team. You never really know, but Bernier carries promising odds of forming a solid-to-great duo with Mackenzie Blackwood.

A near-certain power-play boost

One likely area of improvement warrants its own section: the power play.

In 2020-21, the Devils converted on just 14.2-percent of their power-play opportunities, fourth-worst in the NHL. They’ve been a bottom-10 unit for the past four seasons. Dougie Hamilton alone figures to give them a sorely-needed weapon.

Last season, Hamilton tied for sixth-place among defensemen with 18 power-play points. His shot is an undeniable weapon. Even as teams sometimes hesitated to fully unleash Hamilton, he’s scored at least 10 goals in seven straight seasons. Hamilton’s tied with Roman Josi for the third-most goals (94) among defensemen since 2014-15.

Hamilton notched those goal numbers despite getting reluctant deployment compared to peers. In the likely event that the Devils give him more opportunities, Hamilton might establish himself even more with mainstream, goals-and-points oriented Norris voters.

Caveat: as a best practice, it’s better to lean toward high-danger chances from forwards on the power play. That can be easier said than done, though, and the Devils leaned hard on the diminishing danger of Subban’s shots. With Hamilton, they at least enjoy a deadlier threat. From there, maybe they can take even bigger steps?

Reviewing Metropolitan Division shifts, and where Devils may rank

With all of that in mind, how do the Devils’ playoff chances look? No doubt, the larger outlook of the Metropolitan Division is important to conisder.

  • Losing Dougie Hamilton is just part of an offseason of significant changes for the Hurricanes. Could there be some slippage?
  • Speaking of slippage, the Penguins and Capitals aren’t getting younger. They keep finding ways to win, though — at least in the regular season. (Penguins: one series win since their last Stanley Cup win; Capitals: none.) Sometimes teams age gracefully; in other cases, they plummet like the Kings, Sharks, and Ducks. It’s possible one of the Penguins and Capitals hit a wall as early as next season.
  • The Islanders feel like the opposite of the Devils. While the Devils are “believe it when you see it,” the Islanders have defied projections often enough that they deserve benefit of the doubt.
  • Sure, the Rangers and the Flyers have been bold, but they haven’t always seemed shrewd. They’re both unpredictable for a host of reasons.
  • At least on paper, the Blue Jackets are rebuilding.

Hmm, there are paths where the Devils could conceivably finish in the Metro’s top three, but a wild-card berth seems more realistic. Of course, even rising to the playoff bubble would require improvements we haven’t seen from the Devils yet.

Do you think the Devils can ride this strong offseason to the playoffs, or are they not quite ready?

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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