Some had the New Jersey Devils getting back into contention last season after they added the likes of P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev and No.1 overall pick Jack Hughes to a roster that already included 2018 Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall and another former No.1 pick Nico Hischier.
I was not one of them.
The Devils scuffled throughout the 2019-20 season, at both ends of the ice, and the result was a last-place finish in the Metropolitan Division while only the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings finished with a lower winning percentage than New Jersey’s .493 mark among Eastern Conference clubs.
Is help on the way? It doesn’t appear imminent. The Devils added a goal-scoring prospect in Alexander Holtz at No.7 in the 2020 draft, however Holtz is almost certainly a year or two away from contributing at the NHL level.
There were some on-ice personnel changes made, however, the biggest changes came in the front office and behind the bench as the team retained interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald on a full-time basis after he took over for the fired Ray Shero mid-season while the team named veteran bench boss Lindy Ruff as the team’s new head coach, taking over for interim head coach Alain Nasreddine who was thrust into the job after the mid-season firing of John Hynes. Nasreddine remains on the bench as an assistant to Ruff.
The front office and coaching gears were certainly spinning this offseason in Jersey, and while Ruff is a proven, winning head coach in the league, he’ll have to invent a structure this team can play to with the talent they have on board at the moment.
All that said, let’s dive into the 2020-21 New Jersey Devils, their team breakdown and odds before taking a look at some predictions on how this season should end up this time around.
2020-21 New Jersey Devils Season Preview & Odds
- Last Season: 28-29-12 (8th in Metropolitan Division)
- Key Additions: LW/RW Andreas Johnsson, D Ryan Murray, G Corey Crawford, D Dmitry Kulikov
- Projected Salary Cap Space: $17,195,001
- 2021 Stanley Cup Odds: +4700
- 2021 Eastern Conference Odds: +2200
The Devils lacked offensive fire power behind their top line a season ago, and the trade of Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes certainly didn’t help the cause. That said, it was obviously the right move given Hall’s pending UFA status and New Jersey’s clear path towards an early offseason as well.
It wasn’t the worst offense in the league, however their 2.68 goals per game weren’t anything to write home about as it tied the Senators for 24th in the league. The power play was a little better, clicking at a 21st-ranked 17.9% clip, however the even-strength offense was clearly lacking, as was the depth up and down the lineup.
The depth gets a little bit of a boost heading into the season. Fitzgerald was able to swing a deal with the cash-strapped Toronto Maple Leafs that landed them Andreas Johnsson and costing them prospect Joey Anderson. Johnsson, 25, is a career 0.54 points-per-game player in parts of three seasons with the Maple Leafs, tallying a career-high 20 goals and 43 points in the 2018-19 season. He’s a former AHL Playoff MVP and comes at an affordable $3.4M for each of the next three seasons.
The deal was more of a salary-related deal on the Maple Leafs’ part, and they are betting on Anderson, 22, to develop into a gritty winger that can score and help in other areas. He’s fared well at the AHL level, notching 15 goals and 34 points in 44 games last season, but has just eight goals and 13 points in 52 NHL contests so far. For now, it appears the Devils were able to use their significant cap space to acquire a better player thanks to taking on the entirety of his contract.
Unfortunately, that’s about as bold as the Devils were in adding to their forward group this season, at least so far. Winger such as Mike Hoffman and Mikael Granlund remain on the open market and both would bolster an anemic offense in need of significant offensive improvement.
For now, the heavy lifting will be done by Kyle Palmieri, Hischier and Hughes, but the latter struggled in his rookie campaign is no lock to break out next season. Don’t be surprised to see the Devils trade pending UFA Palmieri mid-season as his goal-scoring ability would certainly be welcomed on a contender while the rebuilding Devils could certainly use an injection of future assets to add to a solid crop of picks and prospects.
— Hockey Daily 365 (@HockeyDaily365) November 27, 2019
The back end saw more of a makeover than the forward corps this offseason, but again, nothing that should turn this team’s defensive play on a dime.
Despite a penalty kill that ranked in the league’s top 10 at seventh with an 82.4% clip, the Devils tied the Florida Panthers for 28th while allowing 3.25 goals per game. Clearly, their 5v5 defense was lacking and when you add a weak offensive group to the mix there is little chance for success.
While the Devils ranked 30th in scoring chances for last season, they also ranked 27th in terms of scoring chances against. Add it up and they lost the scoring chance battle consistently, ranking dead-least with a 44.65% Scoring Chances For% at 5v5 action.
Things improve some from there as they also finished 25th in terms of high-danger chances for, but also finished 12th in high-danger chances against. Nonetheless, they still lost the high-danger chances battle more often than not, ranking 24th with a 48.26% High-Danger Chances For% a season ago.
For good measure, they ranked 26th with 32.7 shots against per game on the season, clearly not making things easy on their goaltending in the process.
The newcomers fill out the depth nicely, but they aren’t exactly difference-makers. Rather, file them in the NHL-caliber defenseman class.
Ryan Murray comes over from a largely disappointing stint with the Columbus Blue Jackets who drafted him with the No.2 pick in the 2012 draft. Murray cracked the 20-point plateau in just three times in seven NHL seasons, struggling to stay healthy in the process. He skated in more than 66 games in just one of his seven NHL campaigns so far and after he posted just nine points in another injury-riddled 2019-20 campaign, the Jackets cut ties and shipped him to Jersey where he will look to make good on his prospect hype at the age of 27.
Veteran blueliner Dmitry Kulikov signed a one-year deal with the Devils after spending the last three seasons with the Winnipeg Jets. The 30-year-old showed some offensive promise dating back to his days with the Florida Panthers, however has notched just 27 points over his last three seasons spanning 170 games. At this point in his career, Kulikov fills a need on a bottom-pair of a Devils team looking to stabilize their back end with capable bodies.
Clearly, the picture doesn’t look much better than it did last season. Subban could bounce back from a down first season with the Devils in which he tallied just 18 points in 68 games while Will Butcher continues to play protected, offensive minutes with the team after coming out of college as a highly-sought-after prospect. At just 25 still, Butcher certainly has room to grow his overall game.
Keep in mind this is a Devils team that traded Sami Vatanen to the Carolina Hurricanes at the trade deadline a season ago, losing a quality veteran defender in the process. Again, the move is understandable given Vatanen’s pending UFA status where he continues to sit on the open market at the time of this writing.
All told, it’s difficult to see this defensive group showing much, if any, improvement heading towards the 2020-21 campaign.
Here’s where the brightest spot on the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils came from, and the situation has actually improved this offseason.
Twenty-three-year-old netminder Mackenzie Blackwood was easily the shining star on a dismal season in New Jersey, posting a 2.77 GAA and .915 Sv% to go along with a solid 22-14-8 record with three shutouts to boot. Those numbers aren’t going to win you the Vezina Trophy, however when we consider the fact the Devils were consistently out-shot and out-chanced and with a weak group of defenders in front of him, Blackwood’s work was nothing short of outstanding. At just 23 years of age, he looks like a future superstar in this league.
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 20, 2019
The problem is goal arrived whenever Blackwood wasn’t in the crease. Corey Schneider and Louis Domingue combined for 25 starts last season, and both posting a save percentage of .887 or worse with a goals-against average of 3.53 or worse.
So, it’s pretty easy to arrive at the conclusion that the .901 save percentage the Devils received from their goaltending last season – tied for 19th in the league – has little to do with Blackwood and far more to do with the cast of backups the team used last season as Gilles Senn even appeared in a pair of games for the 2019-20 Devils.
With the Devils buying out the remainder of Schneider’s contract, the team added another veteran backup in Corey Crawford, only Crawford is coming off a productive season with the Blackhawks after battling a head injury for some time.
Last season, while playing behind another weak defensive team in Chicago, Crawford managed to post a healthy 2.77 GAA and .917 Sv%, but of course went just 16-20-3 in the process. His game briefly slipped in the 2018-19 season when he posted a 2.93 GAA and .908 Sv% while dealing with that head ailment, but he returned to near peak form a season ago and will serve as an excellent mentor/1B to Blackwood next season. Of course, he’ll still get his fair share of action in what is likely to be a condensed, shortened 2020-21 campaign.
The Devils have worries up front and on the back end, but they should feel very good about their goaltending situation heading into the season.
2020-21 New Jersey Devils Predictions
The goaltending the Devils received from Blackwood kept them in plenty of games last season as the Devils lost 12 of their 69 games – or 17.4% – in overtime or shootout. They were well out of the postseason picture regardless of their results in those games, but it speaks to the work Blackwood put in on a Devils team that rarely provided adequate offensive support.
Hall is gone of course, however there is at least some reason to believe the Devils’ offense has some upside to improve next season. Johnsson is a fine add and I’d be shocked if Hughes produced at the same level that saw him tally just seven goals and 21 points in 64 games. Playing center in the NHL at 18 is a daunting task to put it lightly, so the year of experience should serve him far better moving on to 2020-21.
Add in a potential bounce back from Subban on the back end and the work of Butcher alongside the likes of Palmieri and Hischier on the team’s palatable power play and the Devils could potentially move into the league’s top 20 on offense, or approach the top half, in the most optimistic of scenarios.
The back end remains a big question mark. The additions aren’t going to turn any tides and who knows how many games Murray can stay healthy for in a condensed schedule while Kulikov’s offense presence has largely evaporated from his game.
If the Devils can somehow find a way to earn more of their keep in the transition and scoring chance battle, they’ll see the results. They should get the goaltending they need given the makeup of the remainder of the roster, but I see scoring goals as an issue and their defensive corps leaves plenty to be desired.
Also not working in their favor is the loaded Metropolitan Division where the Devils reside as the lone non-contender in the group. All of the Capitals, Flyers, Penguins, Islanders, Hurricanes, Blue Jackets and Rangers boast serious postseason aspirations. The rival Rangers’ rapid ascent into a contender is not helping New Jersey’s cause to be sure.
Add it up and I’d be shocked to see the Devils climb out of the basement in the Metropolitan while a lottery draft picks is a very realistic scenario again in 2021.