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NHL Off-Season Outlook: New Jersey Devils

The New Jersey Devils have a slew of new names baked into the roster, but they're far from done this summer as they look to force themselves back into playoff contention.
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This is the newest file in THN.com’s ongoing breakdowns of each of the NHL”s 32 teams. In this file, we're examining the state of the New Jersey Devils..

2021-22 Record: 27-46-9
Finish In The Metropolitan Division: 7th
Salary Cap Space Available (As Per CapFriendly.com): $9.5 million
Restricted Free Agents: Jesper Boqvist, F; Jesper Bratt, F; Miles Wood, F
Unrestricted Free Agents: P.K. Subban, D

What New Jersey Has: A slew of new additions, including veteran forwards Ondrej Palat and Erik Haula, defensemen John Marino and Brendan Smith, and goalie Vitek Vanicek; a core of skilled young forwards in Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes, Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Boqvist and Dawson Mercer; and a first-rate blueliner in Dougie Hamilton.

What New Jersey Needs: Depth on defense, and on the bottom line of forwards; more offense in general; very probably, a new voice behind the bench to replace current head coach Lindy Ruff; an overall improvement in their goaltending tandem; an about-face in their abysmal road record (11-26-4).

What’s Realistic For New Jersey Next Season: There were big expectations for the Devils heading into the 2021-22 season, but they underwhelmed and under-performed in virtually every category, and finished the year just two standings points ahead of Philadelphia for the last spot in the Metro Division. For some reason, that didn’t cost bench boss Lindy Ruff his job, but Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald made a wide array of changes to the team’s lineup, including adding former Tampa Bay Lightning sniper Ondrej Palat, well-traveled winger Erik Haula, D-men John Marino and Brendan Smith, and ex-Captials netminder Vitek Vanicek. They would’ve loved to have capped off the changes by signing star winger Johnny Gaudreau, but the former Calgary Flame chose to sign with Columbus instead – not necessarily a negative comment on the state of the Devils, but a letdown nonetheless.

The roster changes now put pressure squarely on Ruff to produce wins and produce them right away. Should they continue to struggle, Fitzgerald almost certainly will dismiss Ruff and send a message to the dressing room that the franchise's direction is now in the players’ hands. But it won’t be easy, as all of the Metro’s teams have their sights set on a playoff berth in 2022-23. Somebody is going to be disappointed once again, and while there’s no assurance New Jersey has what it takes to get back into the post-season, they have enough young talent to at least challenge for a playoff berth

That said, the Devils will need better goaltending out of their new tandem of Vitek Vanicek and returning No. 2 Mackenzie Blackwood. Vanicek has had a pedestrian 2.68 goals-against average in his previous two seasons as a member of the Washington Capitals, and his limited playoff numbers have been dreadful. Blackwood, meanwhile, had a sub-.900 save percentage and 3.39 G.A.A. last season, and while that cannot be attributed solely to him as an individual, he needs to be better this coming year if New Jersey is to improve as an overall unit.

Fitzgerald does have nearly $10 million in salary cap space to make changes in-season, but the Devils aren’t going to be a destination point for teams seeking to unload bad contracts. They need to show competitive growth and instill some fear in their opponents, and the only way they’re going to do that is to be led by their blossoming, young forwards and key veterans including Palat and D-man Dougie Hamilton.

New Jersey almost certainly won’t be as terrible as last season, but the fact they finished 37 points out of the final playoff spot in the Metro should make clear how far they still have to go before getting back to the post-season, let alone becoming a Cup frontrunner.

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