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The New Jersey Devils Are Still a Work in Progress

With some key names in the lineup, more was expected from the New Jersey Devils. This won't be their year, and next year could be tough, too. There's light at the end of the tunnel, but there's work to be done.

It’s difficult to believe now, but prior to this NHL regular season, the New Jersey Devils had what they believed to be legitimate Stanley Cup playoff aspirations. Nobody said it would be easy for them to earn a playoff spot in the highly competitive Metropolitan Division, but with elite young forwards Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, and the off-season signing of unrestricted free agent star defenseman Dougie Hamilton, the Devils had a sizeable part of a foundation on which to build their Cup dreams.

Since then, though, the cold, backhanded slap of reality has made it clear that was very wishful thinking from Devils’ advocates. Currently in second-to-last-place in the Metro, and third-to-last-place in the Eastern Conference, the Devils have cratered for most of this season, and it’s hard to see them elevating their game to that of a true playoff menace next year.

As of Jan. 6, New Jersey was a relatively-decent 14-16-5. That pace still wouldn’t be good enough to make them a playoff team, but they weren’t seen as one of the league’s worst teams. However, after that, they’ve gone  13-26-2 and now are 27-42-7. They’re going to be a 50-loss team, and that’s just embarrassing.

Now, much, if not most of the reason for that has been their abysmal goaltending. The Devils have used seven goalies this season. Seven. No, I haven’t been drinking. Seven. You may be directly related to one. And only one of those seven – veteran Jonathan Bernier – had a save percentage at or above .900. Even then, Bernier (before he had season-ending hip surgery in early January) had an SP of only .902. New Jersey has been a black hole of goaltending this year, and everybody knows that if you don’t have decent netminding, you won’t have much of anything.

And yes, the injury bug has chomped down hard on the Devils’ roster this season. Only six players have played more than 70 games this season, And only eight more players have played more than 60 games. Hughes has missed 10 games, while Hamilton himself has played in just 56 games. Sometimes, you do have to account for bad luck health-wise to explain why a team’s season can go off the rails. If the talent isn’t there, you’re not winning.

But of late, there’s been a malaise in New Jersey that’s led to a slew of ugly losses. In the past month, the Devils have gone 5-10-2, and they’ve had 70 goals scored on them. In five of those games, they’ve surrendered six goals or more. In two games at the end of March and beginning of April, they gave up 15 goals. When the lack of defense is that pervasive, it’s not all about goaltending, It’s about effort and teamwork. And it hasn't been there nearly consistently enough to have made the playoffs a realistic target this season.

So, once this miserable season for them is over, how realistic are the playoffs for the Devils next year? The New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes are pretty much locks for two playoff berths. After that, the New York Islanders, Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins will be fighting for the other two post-season spots, and even if you think the Devils might grab a wild card slot, you then have to figure you’ll be up against up-and-coming teams in Ottawa and Buffalo for one of those slots. And don’t forget about Philadelphia, where the Flyers will be aiming for bigger things than they produced this year.

How many of those teams do you think New Jersey will be better than? Not many, by this writer’s count. Even with the evolution of Hughes, the impact of a full season of Hamilton, and a new goaltender from the trade or free agency market who can give them an SP of .910 or so, the Devils can’t compare to a Rangers or Hurricanes team, and their lack of depth means the injury bug can strike again and waylay their season in a manner in which they can’t control or prepare for.

I think my suspicion that New Jersey head coach Lindy Ruff won’t return next season is going to be accurate. But anybody that’s behind the Devils’ bench in 2022-23 is going to be coaching a team that is challenged on a number of fronts. According to CapFriendly.com, New Jersey GM Tom Fitzgerald will have more than $23.6 million in salary-cap space next season, but he also has five restricted free agents – including forwards Jesper Bratt and Jesper Boqvist – to take care of. Fitzgerald will still have the ability to make a splash either via free agency or trades, but he’ll need improvement from within as well. And even if veterans Bernier and Mackenzie Blackwood are healthy this summer, it’s tough to envision Fitzgerald wanting to bring back the same pairing. One of Bernier or Blackwood should be moved, to leave a fresh start there for a new pairing.

Regardless, it’s going to be tough sledding for New Jersey next year. Long-suffering Devils fans may have to suffer through another playoff-free season before Fitzgerald adds enough above-average depth at all positions. Good drafting is one of the only things that can break the chain of losing once teams plummet to the bottom of the standings. The Devils have some draft-acquired difference-makers, but not nearly enough of them.

Is that bleak? Sure. Is it possible they can be a playoff team? Stranger things have happened. But if we’ve learned anything, it’s not to expect huge things from them. There’s not enough “there” there right now.

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