For most of their existence, the New Jersey Devils have not been the sexiest of NHL teams. In their initial glory era that came under the guidance of GM/President Lou Lamoriello, the Devils ground down opponents with stifling defense and timely, if not regular scoring.
But once their Stanley Cup-winning generation of players retired and moved along, the Devils struggled to find anywhere close to the same degree of consistent success.
And now, after 39 years of competition, the Devils are at an intriguing place in their history. They’ve missed the playoffs in eight of their past nine seasons, and haven’t won a post-season series since their improbable run to the Cup Final in 2011-12, but New Jersey has arrived at a spot in which they just might be the darkest of the dark horse contenders for a playoff berth.
It won’t be easy, especially in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division, but the Devils have a mixture of experienced players and young dynamos that can push them to grab the fourth and last post-season slot and confirm their status as a team worth getting behind.
Much of their chances at a playoff spot resides on the back of starting goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood, who still hasn’t received immunization from the COVID-19 virus. Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald went out this past summer and signed veteran netminder Jonathan Bernier to shore up New Jersey’s goaltending picture, but the 24-year-old Blackwood was projected to be the Devils’ starter prior to the COVID pandemic. The sooner he gets his vaccination shots, the better it will be for New Jersey’s playoff chances.
But those chances definitely improved in the off-season, particularly thanks to the signing of elite defenseman Dougie Hamilton to a seven-year, $63 million deal. Hamilton is in his prime at age 28, and has the ability to contribute offense while he eats up an average of more than 22 minutes per game: last season, with the Carolina Hurricanes, Hamilton generated 32 assists and 42 points in 56 games – just eight points fewer than his career best of 50 points in 81 games.
He will almost assuredly give the Devils a boost on their offensive end, which was the NHL’s fifth-worst in the 2021 campaign, at an average of 2.59 goals-for per game. So will the signing of unrestricted free agent winger Tomas Tatar, who agreed to a two-year, $9 million deal with New Jersey; the 30-year-old Tatar scored 10 goals and 30 points in 50 games with Montreal last season, and he gives the Devils more depth on the wings.
Otherwise, the Devils’ fortunes will ride on the improvement of their youngsters, most notably, captain Nico Hischier, winger Pavel Zacha, center Jack Hughes and wingers Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen. All four of those players – each of who is 24 years old or younger – will start the season on New Jersey’s with a shot at sticking as one of their top six forwards, and all four of them have much room to grow their game and make themselves truly elite NHL competitors.
Certainly, the Devils will need solid seasons from veteran wingers Andreas Johnsson and Jesper Bratt, as well as defenseman P.K. Subban and former Avalanche blueliner Ryan Graves. There isn’t a ton of experience on New Jersey’s fourth line, or on their final three D-man slots, so staying healthy will be a huge part of whether they can contend for the playoffs.
But they have a knowledgeable head coach in Lindy Ruff, and Fitzgerald has more than $9 million in cap space to bolster the lineup with during the regular season. That’s more than enough to add a veteran with the proven ability to put pucks in nets, but Fitzgerald may need to be patient and target the NHL’s trade deadline as the place to make roster changes.
A lot of thing have to go right for the Devils to beat out playoff regulars in Pittsburgh and Washington, as well as playoff contenders in New York City and Philadelphia. However, in saying that, there’s been many times in NHL history where everything did go right for an upstart franchise on their way to delivering a surprisingly robust regular season. The only thing standing in the way of the Devils may be themselves – and that’s a very good starting spot for them as the season begins.
You probably do not want to put money on New Jersey as a Cup frontrunner this season, but if they do qualify for the playoffs and make a little noise once there, you can see how subsequent seasons will be much brighter than more recent ones. The Devils are going to start asserting themselves as an organization to reckon with, and everyone else is now on notice.