New Jersey Devils 2020-21 Season Preview

 

       If you can remember what training was like before the 2019-20 season, you would know that the Devils might have been the most hyped up team entering the season. They had just selected Jack Hughes first overall, traded for PK Subban and Nikita Gusev, and signed Wayne Simmonds. Plus, Taylor Hall was healthy again and MacKenzie Blackwood and Nico Hischier were primed for breakout seasons. Well, none of that hype really went anywhere, as the Devils finished eighth in the Metropolitan Division, and it wasn\’t particularly close. This year, the Devils don\’t look great, with Hall gone, Subban coming off of a bad season, and Hughes disappointing everyone.

Additions: F Andreas Johnsson, D Ryan Murray, G Corey Crawford, D Dmitry Kulikov.

Subtractions: G Cory Schneider, F Kevin Rooney, D Mirco Mueller, F Joey Anderson, F John Hayden.

Best Move: Trading a 5th round pick for Ryan Murray.

Worst Move: Not selling high on Kyle Palmieri.

One Move I\’d Make: Sign Michael Grabner to a PTO.

Best Contract: MacKenzie Blackwood, three years remaining with a $2.8 million cap hit.

Worst Contract: PK Subban, two years remaining with a $9 million cap hit. 

New Division Rivals: Boston, Buffalo, Islanders, Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington. 

Pending UFAs: Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac, Ryan Murray, Nikita Gusev, Connor Carrick, Dmitry Kulikov.

Pending RFAs: Michael McLeod, Nick Merkley, Janne Kuokkanen.

Current RFAs: Jesper Bratt.

Forwards

The Devils solidified their first line center of the future when they signed Nico Hischier to a seven year deal. Of his three NHL seasons, 2019-20 was Hischier\’s worst, as he scored 14 goals with 36 points in 58 games. Despite the low goal total, Hischier\’s goals per game in his three seasons are .24, .25 and .24, so it\’s not like there was a fall-off there. Kyle Palmieri led the team with 25 goals and 45 points, and his lowest goal total over the past five seasons is 24. It might have been smart to trade Palmieri in the offseason, as he is entering a contract year. Like many Devils from last year, Palmieri could be dealt midseason. The main goal for the Devils right now as training camp starts is for them to sign RFA Jesper Bratt. Bratt scored a career high 16 goals last year, although his 16 assists were a career low. He\’s only 22, and isn\’t known by enough hockey fans. In his first NHL season, Nikita Gusev led the team with 31 assists. Yes, he was 27, but it takes some guys a long time to transition from Russia. Like Palmieri, he is a pending UFA. The Devils took advantage of the Maple Leafs\’ salary cap issues, and brought in Andreas Johnsson. Johnsson scored 20 goals in 2018-19, but injuries limited him to 43 games in 2019-20, where he scored eight goals with 13 assists for 21 points. Jack Hughes had one of the most disappointing rookie seasons by a first overall pick in recent memory. In 61 games, Hughes scored seven goals with 21 points. He only won 36.1 percent of face-offs, which is a problem for a center. While he may be entering his 15th and final season as a Devil, Travis Zajac could be named captain soon, as the team does not have one after Andy Greene was dealt to the Islanders last year. Zajac scored nine goals with 25 assists last year, which are numbers he has never had lower than in a full season. He spent two minutes and 51 seconds a game on the penalty kill, the most by returning Devils, including defensemen. Jesper Boqvist played in 35 games last year, and had four points, with them all oddly being goals. In 19 AHL games, Boqvist had 11 points, with eight of them being goals. While playing in this season in Sweden, Boqvist had 10 points in 13 games. 2016 1st round pick Michael McLeod has five assists in 33 career NHL games, with 60 hits. He had 23 points in 47 AHL games. Acquired in the Taylor Hall trade, 2015 first rounder Nick Merkley had a goal and an assist in four games. In the AHL, he had 35 points in 54 games. Merkley also had 13 points in 19 games in Finland in their 2020-21 season. While he\’ll never live up to being the sixth overall pick in a stacked 2015 draft, Pavel Zacha had a career season last year, with a career high 32 points in 65 games. Zacha spent time on both the power play and the penalty kill. Physical forward Miles Wood scored 11 goals, hitting the double digit mark for the third consecutive time. He also had a career high 102 hits. Janne Kuokkanen, who the club acquired at the trade deadline for Sami Vatanen, is an option to play. He made his NHL debut last year, and had 48 points in 56 AHL games. Brett Seney had 13 points in 51 games in 2018-19, but only played in two NHL games last year. In the AHL, Seney scored 19 goals in 61 games. 

Defensemen

The Devils made an aggressive move to acquire PK Subban last year, but it didn\’t work in year one, as Subban had the worst year of his career. He had 18 points in 68 games, with a career low -10.1 GAR. The Devils have a veteran blue line with the youngest of the locks being Will Butcher, who turns 26 in a few days. The former Hobey Baker award winner had 21 points in 56 games, and received a Lady Byng vote. A Butcher – Subban pairing would have nice offensive potential. Damon Severson returns for his seventh season in New Jersey. Severson had 31 points in 69 games, blocked 97 shots and led the team in average ice time with 22 minutes and 58 seconds on average a night. The Devils took advantage of their salary cap situation and got Ryan Murray from Columbus for only a fifth round pick. Murray is good in his own end, but the problem is that he is always injured. He\’s averaged 47 games a season over the last four years, although that is brought down by his 27 game 2019-20. 2018 first rounder Ty Smith will likely skip the AHL and start on the third pairing. Smith was a star on the WHL\’s Spokane Chiefs for four seasons. Last year, he scored 19 goals with 59 points in 46 games, and had a rating of +49. Even if you don\’t like +/-, you have to admit that is impressive. Smith\’s partner will be either Dmitry Kulikov or Connor Carrick, who could also be a pair of Smith starts in the AHL. Kulikov had 10 points in 51 games for the Jets last year, and averaged 20 minutes a night on their struggling blue line, with a 50.9 CF%, his highest since 2013-14. Carrick has struggled since joining New Jersey in 2018-19, with 13 points in 49 games, but a 42.4 CF%. 

Goalies

MacKenzie Blackwood finally took the reigns from Cory Schneider, and he finished sixth in Calder voting. Blackwood had a .915 SV% with a 7.29 GSAA in 47 games last year. To give Blackwood a mentor and solidify their goaltending in general, the Devils brought in Corey Crawford, who actually posted good numbers last year. Crawford had a .917 SV% with a 9.01 GSAA in 40 games. Crawford and Blackwood will split time, although it\’s probably in their best interest for Blackwood to be the 1A. 

Projected Lines

Jesper Bratt – Nico Hischier – Kyle Palmieri

Andreas Johnsson – Jack Hughes – Nikita Gusev

Jesper Boqvist – Travis Zajac – Nick Merkley

Miles Wood – Pavel Zacha – Michael McLeod

Extras: Janne Kuokkanen, Brett Seney

Ryan Murray – Damon Severson

Will Butcher – PK Subban

Ty Smith – Dmitry Kulikov

Extras: Connor Carrick

MacKenzie Blackwood

Corey Crawford

Projection

The Devils have some promising players on their roster. Ty Smith looks good, and Jack Hughes is still only 19 years old. But, when you trickle down to their bottom six, their depth weakens out. The team doesn\’t have an absolute superstar like the other teams in the East Division, and without a superstar or depth, it is hard to be a playoff team, especially with this tough of a division. Maybe in the West or North Division they could make it, but not in the East. 

Published by carterhud

Carterhud.com. SI Kids Kid Reporter, Prime Time Sports Talk writer

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