The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the New Jersey Devils.
2020-21 Season Review
• Record: 19-30-7 (45 points) seventh place in Eastern Division
• Postseason: Did not qualify for playoffs; Drafted Luke Hughes with the No. 4 overall pick
• Offensive leader: Pavel Zacha (50 games, 17 goals, 18 assists, 35 total points)
Biggest question facing the New Jersey Devils?
• Are the offseason additions enough to put them into playoff contention?
Since reaching the 2011-12 Stanley Cup Final the New Jersey Devils have been taken up residence near the bottom of the NHL standings. They have qualified for the playoffs just one time in the past nine years, and have finished in last place in their division four different times. A couple of years ago they had a big offseason that was highlighted by the addition of a big-name defenseman (P.K. Subban) and a couple of other additions that would hopefully get them back closer to the playoffs.
It did not work out at all. They tried it again this offseason.
The Devils made one of the biggest free agent signings of the summer when they signed Dougie Hamilton to a seven-year, $63 million contract.
[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]
They also attempted to bolster their defense with a trade for Colorado’s Ryan Graves, while also signing Jonathan Bernier to split goaltending duties with Mackenzie Blackwood.
Individually, all of those moves are solid and should make the Devils a better team. Especially the additions of Hamilton, Graves, and Bernier when it comes to goal prevention.
What’s the salary cap situation?
The Devils enter the season with more than $12 million in salary cap space and only two long-term commitments on their books: Hischier, who is signed for six more years at $7.25 million per season, and Hamilton who is starting his seven-year, $63 million contract.
Other than that? No other player on the roster is signed more than two years down the road, while P.K. Subban ($9 million) is the only other player on the roster with a salary cap hit more than $5 million. His contract expires after this season.
So for now they have a lot of room and even more money coming off the books (Subban) this offseason.
They do, however, have a significant number of restricted free agents that are going to require raises very soon, including Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, and the most significant of them all, Jack Hughes.
As of now they are projected to have roughly $35 million in salary cap space to work with next offseason, so they should have enough room to get all of those contracts taken care of and still make more additions to the roster. So the cap situation is very good.
• Jack Hughes
It has to be Hughes. He took a major step forward in year two, but it was not quite a breakout season. That is still ahead for him, and it could happen this season. And by breakout we do not just mean showing more improvement from year two to year three, we mean legitimate breakout to superstardom. He nearly doubled his offensive output (on a per game basis) from year one to year two, and perhaps most importantly took a major step forward in terms of controlling the game. During his rookie season the Devils attempted just 45 percent of the total shot attempts when Hughes was on the ice during 5-on-5 play. In year two, that number skyrocketed to 55 percent, on a team that did not typically control possession. All of the ingredients are there for a true breakout season for Hughes.
If the Devils are going to make the playoffs a few things have to go right. For starters, Hughes has to have that breakout year. They need a full, healthy season from Nico Hischier. They also need a couple more young players to step forward (Yegor Sherangovich, Zacha, Bratt, Michael McLeod). With improved defensive play due to the additions of Hamilton, Graves, and a full season of Jonas Siegenthaler, as well as the goaltending performing to expectations, there could be a path for this Devils team to compete for a wild card spot. On paper they are not quite at that playoff level just yet, but they should be getting closer.
Honestly, it would probably just be more of the same where they struggle to make progress and finish another year at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division. That happens if nobody other than Hughes makes a big jump forward and the goaltending does not shine. The disappointing thing for Devils fans is a finish near the bottom of the division and outside of the playoffs is probably the most likely outcome, even if the team does improve. It is simply a matter of them being in a tough division full of contenders. The Devils are young, they have talent, they improved the roster. But are they better than Carolina? Washington? The Islanders? A healthy Penguins team? The Flyers? Even the Rangers? Tough division to be in.
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