How far are Devils from a future playoff run after painful 2021-22 season?

How far are Devils from a future playoff run after painful 2021-22 season?
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PHT’s “What Went Wrong?” series asks that question about teams who’ve been eliminated from the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Why did this team fall short, and how far are they from getting things right?. Following news of Jack Hughes’ season-ending injury, PHT breaks down why 2021-22 the New Jersey Devils missed the playoffs.

Bad injury news seemed to spike the “one good thing” about the 2021-22 Devils. The ray of hope that is Jack Hughes‘ ascent to stardom (if not superstardom) went dim until next season.

Overall, that’s not totally fair. When you dig a little, you can talk yourself into the 2021-22 Devils building something that could translate to progress next season, and further down the line.

Yet, that more flippant viewpoint isn’t totally unearned, either.

On April 1, the Devils were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. This marks the fourth consecutive season they’ve missed the postseason, and marks a stretch where they missed in nine of 10 seasons. Taylor Hall essentially willed them to a playoff berth in 2017-18, where they won a single playoff game.

In that time, the Devils frequently looked like offseason winners. They’ve added big defensive names like P.K. Subban and Dougie Hamilton. They memorably won that Taylor Hall – Adam Larsson trade. Despite those victories of perception, the 2021-22 Devils look a lot like other Devils teams from the past decade.

Dire. Dim. Without an overwhelming argument for things getting much better anytime soon.

2021-22 Devils: a mediocre team made awful by goaltending and special teams

Peek at certain metrics, such as Hockey Viz’s team charts, and you may be surprised by the Devils’ relative competence. Evolving Hockey’s team RAPM charts capture a team with solid (though by no means spectacular) offense, a solid penalty kill, and ultimately a team undone by a putrid power play and miserable goaltending.

Going back to Hockey Viz, their metrics indicate that the Devils’ goalies allowed about 50 more goals than expected.

Based on Hockey Viz’s metrics, the Devils should’ve ended up with about a +5 goal differential, while Natural Stat Trick estimates around a +10 expected goal differential at 5-on-5.

Those “expected” numbers sure beat the actual reality. Even ignoring that the Devils can’t just assume they’ll get league-average-or-better goaltending next season, it’s also worth noting that a modest positive goals differential likely wouldn’t have driven the 2021-22 Devils to the postseason.

In an Eastern Conference with a strong top eight, the Capitals boast the lowest goal differential at +24.

So, the 2021-22 Devils were unlucky, but better luck alone won’t guarantee better times next season. That said, there are a few other things to note.

Injuries were an issue for the 2021-22 Devils

Before you totally belittle Dougie Hamilton, and the Devils’ decision to sign him, note that things could look different if his season was healthier. So far this season, Hamilton’s appeared in a mere 50 games, dealing with ailments such as a broken jaw.

Even before this latest season-ending injury, Jack Hughes has been hampered by injuries, too. He’ll end the season with just 49 games played.

As disastrous as this season has been for Mackenzie Blackwood, some of the Devils’ goaltending issues are rooted in bad luck. Seven different goalies played at least one game for the Devils, and Blackwood’s 23 games played leads the group. Not exactly a recipe for success.

Considering all of the headaches on and off the ice, it’s reasonable to wonder about Blackwood’s future with the Devils. (If nothing else, the Devils’ most-used goalies are young; Blackwood is 25, and Nico Daws is 21.)

Can things go right next season?

When you think of formulas for a potential contender, the Devils check a few of those boxes.

  • Jack Hughes looks like the sort of star center a team needs to compete.
  • Quietly, Nico Hischier keeps establishing himself as a useful second-line center.
  • There’s still a chance that a healthy Dougie Hamilton can be the elite defenseman who makes a difference. He’s not perfect (defensive issues that might be overstated, are still there, and he tends to take too many penalties), but it’s not outrageous to hope for more.
  • Most quietly, Jesper Bratt‘s enjoyed a breakthrough to elite underlying numbers. Maybe he’s not truly someone who can rank among the league’s upper-crust year after year, but he sure seems like a gem on the wing:
Good luck getting away with Bratt-wurst puns this season. (via Evolving Hockey)

All of that is comforting. Again, it’s important to note how often the Devils lure you into picturing best-case scenarios lately. Ultimately, they need to surround Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and other core members with more help. Finding a fix in net might not be so easy. They also may need to ask some tough questions about Lindy Ruff’s chances of squeezing more out of this team.

In February, The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler ranked the Devils’ farm system fourth overall (sub required). Eventually, more help may come in the form of Alexander Holtz, and eventually, sibling symmetry with Luke Hughes. With some draft lottery luck, maybe the Devils could add one more blue chip piece:

Either way, the Devils need to seek out answers beyond hoping Jack Hughes and others keep getting better (even if Hughes’ ascent is the biggest thing for Devils fans to be excited about).

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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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.