After returning to the playoffs in 2017-18, the New Jersey Devils plummeted in 2018-19, finishing with 72 points. A regression in production from several players coupled with a rash of injuries dropped New Jersey to the NHL’s third-worst record, but a busy off-season has the Devils primed for a climb back to relevancy.
Drafting Jack Hughes No. 1 overall at the draft gives the Devils an instant infusion of talent, and acquiring P.K. Subban from Nashville provides a much-needed No. 1 defenseman. Signing UFA winger Wayne Simmonds also adds another key piece to the top six.
Taylor Hall’s future is the biggest question mark, as he enters the final season of his contract with a Hart Trophy under his belt and a massive raise on the way.
Returning to the playoffs is the goal for this group, which now features an upgraded core of Hall, Subban, Hughes and Nico Hischier.
Hall is still the centerpiece of the offense. He posted 37 points in 33 games last season, and if he’s healthy, there’s plenty of reason to project another season of 80-plus points. Hall, Hischier and Kyle Palmieri drove the bus in 2018-19, but even when all three were healthy, the Devils struggled to get consistent secondary scoring behind them. With the arrival of Hughes and Simmonds, the Devils have more pieces capable of composing a strong second line, along with Jesper Bratt.
Outside the top-six, the Devils have several players capable of producing. Travis Zajac is coming off a 46-point season, and Blake Coleman broke out for 22 goals in 2018-19. Miles Wood, Pavel Zacha and rookie Jesper Boqvist could add some pop down the lineup.
Without a clear No. 1 defenseman, the Devils’ blueline struggled with consistency last season. Adding Subban bolsters the group, even if he’s not the same elite player he was a few years ago. Getting a healthy Sami Vatanen back in the mix to join Subban and Damon Severson will give the Devils three dependable options in the top-four. Andy Greene could see a lighter even-strength workload while leading the penalty kill, which is his biggest strength.
Power-play specialist Will Butcher is back for his third season and should see an uptick in 5-on-5 responsibilities. Ty Smith, a 2018 first-round pick, could emerge as an option. Connor Carrick and Mirco Mueller give the Devils some blueline depth.
Netminding was arguably the team’s downfall in 2018-19, but Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood ended the season looking like the answers in net. Schneider broke out of his year-plus winless drought, and Blackwood emerged as a strong rookie option, posting a .918 save percentage in 23 games. The Devils enter camp without a clear No. 1, and it’s possible Schneider and Blackwood split the crease duties all year.
Hall’s absence from the power play for the majority of last season led to the Devils dropping from ninth to 21st. With him back, along with Palmieri and the additions of Hughes, Subban and Simmonds, the Devils have better options. The penalty kill was a bright spot last season, ranking as the fourth-best in the NHL, and most of the key contributors are back. Greene led the league in PK ice time, while Zajac, Coleman and Zacha are superior penalty-killers.
Since coach John Hynes took over in 2015-16, the Devils have emphasized playing with speed. They have the pieces to do that, but sometimes they haven’t been tough enough to play against. Simmonds brings offensive ability coupled with grit. Subban can do the same on the back end. Despite their struggles last year, the Devils liked their team chemistry. They hope to build off that.
Hughes is the obvious one to watch, since he’ll likely jump into the top six. But Smith would add another strong puck-moving option on the blueline, and Boqvist, a 2017 second-rounder, has the offensive skill to make an immediate impact.
The Devils need Schneider and Blackwood to provide steady goaltending all season long. If one or both falter, it won’t matter what’s happening in front of them. They kept the Devils in a lot of games down the stretch in 2018-19. Now they must replicate those performances with a lineup of skaters who are more talented.
Hynes and GM Ray Shero enter their fifth season in New Jersey, with the coach starting a multi-year contract extension. Shero had a busy off-season with his additions, and he doesn’t hesitate to shuffle his roster in-season, so he could still be busy before the season opens.
– Chris Ryan
Stanley Cup Odds: 60/1
Prediction: 7th in Metro
Drafting has been a volume game in New Jersey lately, with the Devils making 37 selections in the past four drafts – nine more than the average team. Mackenzie Blackwood has already paid off in net, but many of the skaters have taken a slower route. That will change with 2019 first-overall pick Jack Hughes. He is a fast, dynamic center who can do damage in today’s NHL. With tons of athletic pedigree and a cool demeanor, this kid has the chance to soar in Newark.
1. Jack Hughes, C
Age 18 Team U.S. NTDP (USHL)
Elite in almost every facet of the game. He’ll step right in to a top-six job and show he belongs.
Acquired 1st overall, 2019 NHL ’19-20
2. Ty Smith, D
Age 19 Team Spokane (WHL)
A high-end offensive producer who can lead a breakout. Has the IQ to be solid in his own end.
Acquired 17th overall, 2018 NHL ’20-21
3. Jesper Boqvist, LW
Age 20 Team Brynas (Swe.)
Has the speed, skill, and smarts to produce in Sweden’s top league. Needs to get stronger.
Acquired 36th overall, 2017 NHL ’21-22
4. Mackenzie Blackwood, G
Age 22 Team Binghamton (AHL)
Got a good taste of the NHL and performed admirably. Good size and athletic ability.
Acquired 42nd overall, 2015 NHL ’19-20
5. Michael McLeod, C
Age 21 Team Binghamton (AHL)
Blazing speed with puck skills to match. His production hasn’t translated from junior yet.
Acquired 12th overall, 2016 NHL ’20-21
6. Nikita Okhotyuk, D
Age 18 Team Ottawa (OHL)
Defensively strong and a good skater. Has a nasty side to his game and is tough to play against.
Acquired 61st overall, 2019 NHL ’23-24
7. Reilly Walsh, D
Age 20 Team Harvard (ECAC)
A good puck-mover who excelled on power play as a sophomore. Defense is a work in progress.
Acquired 81st overall, 2017 NHL ’22-23
8. Graeme Clarke, RW
Age 18 Team Ottawa (OHL)
Has natural scoring instincts and good production, but his work ethic has been questioned.
Acquired 80th overall, 2019 NHL ’23-24
9. Michael Vukojevic, D
Age 18 Team Kitchener (OHL)
Physical throwback defender who takes care of his own end first. Not a big threat on offense.
Acquired 82nd overall, 2019 NHL ’23-24
10. Nathan Bastian, RW
Age 21 Team Binghamton (AHL)
Has the size and physicality, but his skating is dragging behind. Solid on special teams.
Acquired 41st overall, 2016 NHL ’21-22