Last year’s East Division consisted of eight teams, but really six teams trying to beat up on the Devils and Sabres the most. The return of the Metropolitan Division will have the Blue Jackets fill Buffalo’s role, but the Devils will try to become a seventh good team. They got aggressive in the offseason, signing the top free agent available and didn’t stop there. They may not be a powerhouse yet, but New Jersey is making the right strides.
Offseason additions: D Dougie Hamilton, F Tomas Tatar, G Jonathan Bernier, D Ryan Graves, Jimmy Vesey (PTO), Frederik Gauthier (PTO), D Christian Jaros, F Mark Jankowski (PTO).
Offseason subtractions: D Ryan Murray, F Nathan Bastian, D Will Butcher, G Aaron Dell, F Nick Merkley, F Mikhail Maltsev.
Will this be Jack Hughes’ big breakout season? The 2019 first overall pick showed his flashes of talent this season, although the overall production was not there. Hughes finished second on the team with 31 points, but he is capable of much more. His overall shooting percentage was low again, at 7.7% for 2020-21. Tomas Tatar was a great scorer in his first two seasons for the Canadiens, but he struggled last year. Still, his ten goals and 20 assists in 50 games rivaled Hughes’ final total. If he wants to stay at center, he has to win more than the 35.4% of draws that he did last year. Despite not really deserving it, Tatar was a healthy scratch throughout Montreal’s long playoff run. Yegor Sharangovich finished tenth in Calder voting in his debut year, as the Belarus native was an overachiever. He scored 16 goals with 14 assists, finished third on the team in the former. Nico Hischier’s first season as Devils captain was a rough one, as he was in-and-out of the lineup with multiple injuries. He played in only 21 games, scoring six goals with five assists. He wasn’t great in 2019-20, scoring 14 goals with 36 points. Playmaker Jesper Bratt played in his fourth NHL season last year, all of which have ended in 30-35 points. Last season was the 30, and 23 of them were assists. Bratt had the most power-play minutes on average among returning wings. After three years of playing a few games a season, Janne Kuokkanen played a full season, missing just six games. Kuokkanen averaged half-a-point per game, with 25, eight of which were goals. Despite being behind Hughes and Hischier on the depth chart, Pavel Zacha had a huge breakout season. His 17 goals were tied for the team lead, and his 35 points cleared Hughes by four. Zacha spent significant time on both special teams units, and won 51.5 percent of face-offs. Matching him in goals was the fast-and-physical Miles Wood. A major development for Wood was him cutting back on that physicality. He had 29 penalty minutes with 38 hits, which is a huge difference from his 57 and 102 the season before. Andreas Johnsson’s 20-goal 2018-19 season has held his value up, although 2020-21 was a rough year for him. He played in 50 games, scoring just five goals with six assists. He has offensive talent, but he has just 13 goals over his past 93 games. Michael McLeod took Wood’s spot as the grinder in stride. In his first full season, McLeod scored nine goals with 42 penalty minutes and 89 hits. He is mostly a center, but could move to the wing this year. A 2019 first-round pick, Nolan Foote made his NHL debut, scoring a goal in six games. 2020-21 was also his first AHL season, as Foote scored seven times with ten assists in 24 games. The product of the Blake Coleman trade is hard to miss, standing six-foot-three-inches tall. Jesper Boqvist is once again trying to play every night, after appearing in roughly half of the team’s games in each of the past two seasons. He scored four goals with three assists in 28 appearances last year, averaging just over 11 minutes a night. A fifth rounder in 2017, Marian Studenic broke into the NHL, scoring a goal with an assist in eight games. He is an option for a fourth-line role. Both Jimmy Vesey and Mark Jankowski were once highly touted, but are in camp on professional tryouts. Vesey had 10 points in 50 games for Vancouver and Toronto last year, while Jankowski had 11 in 45 for Pittsburgh.
It may not look pretty on their salary cap situation, but Dougie Hamilton is a New Jersey Devil. This is a massive boost for them, on both sides of the ice. In his final season with the Hurricanes, Hamilton scored 10 goals with 32 assists for 42 points. Only Zacha had more points than Hamilton had assists. He finished fourth in Norris voting, his highest placement yet. It also extended his streak to five consecutive seasons of receiving nominations for the prestigious award. As one of the Calder favorites entering the season, it was no surprise to see Ty Smith finish seventh for the award. The most shocking thing about that is that he wasn’t higher. Smith had a very nice first campaign, scoring 23 points in 48 games. If he plays with Hamilton, that will be a huge boost to the 21-year-old’s game. The presence of Hamilton also moves Damon Severson down to the second pairing, which is a much better spot for him. Severson is a solid two-way defender, and has averaged over 22 minutes on ice a night in each of the past three seasons. He blocked 50 shots with 21 points without missing a game in 2020-21. Like they did in 2017, the Devils took advantage of their salary cap space and the expansion draft to benefit their team. This time, it was Ryan Graves instead of Mirco Mueller joining town. Graves may struggle to start as he has to move from the stacked system in Colorado to the still re-building Devils. He was a decent bottom-four player for the Avalanche over the past two seasons. In 2020-21, Graves had 15 points with 91 blocks and 77 hits. He had 150 and 112, respectively, in the prior season. From an on-ice standpoint, the trade for PK Subban has not been too successful for New Jersey. His production has crashed over the past two seasons, down to 19 points in 44 games last year. He is also not the total physical menace that he was in Nashville and Montreal for a few seasons, although Subban did average nearly a hit per game last season. They would have to eat a ton of salary, but the Devils could move him at the deadline if they slip down the standings. New Jersey attempted to buy low on Jonas Siegenthaler at the trade deadline after he was pushed down Washington’s depth chart. After he was great defensively in 2019-20, there is hope for the 24-year-old. He got into eight games at the end of the year for the Devils. Six-foot-six Kevin Bahl made his NHL debut at the end of the season, playing in seven games, recording a pair of assists. He played in 27 AHL games prior to that, and was also on Team Canada for the World Juniors.
He has competition now, but Mackenzie Blackwood should still be the 1A for the Devils entering the season. He shined in 2019-20, but suffered some regression last season. Blackwood played in 35 games in 2020-21, posting a .902 save percentage with a .304 GAA. He had a negative GSAA for the first time in the NHL, at -6.4. Blackwood is actually getting paid less than Jonathan Bernier, who was brought in to be a backup who could easily take over the starting job. Playing with the Red Wings was not easy last year, but Bernier managed to put up a .914 save percentage. His 4.7 GSAA was his best since his 2013-14 season with Toronto. Scott Wedgewood returns as the third goalie, a demotion from last season. Wedgewood had a .900 SV% in 16 games.
Tomas Tatar – Jack Hughes – Yegor Sharangovich
Janne Kuokkanen – Nico Hischier – Jesper Bratt
Miles Wood – Pavel Zacha – Andreas Johansson
Nolan Foote – Michael McLeod – Jesper Boqvist
Extras: Marian Studenic, Jimmy Vesey, Mark Jankowski
Ty Smith – Dougie Hamilton
Ryan Graves – Damon Severson
Jonas Siegenthaler – PK Subban
Extras: Kevin Bahl
Extras: Scott Wedgewood
The Devils are looking a lot better than they have in years past. But they could easily suffer from the same syndrome that they did when Subban was acquired, when expectations were high but they still flopped. The main issue for them is going to be their defense. The Devils don’t have the scoring or the goaltending to make the playoffs. They probably still won’t have that scoring even if Hughes breaks out. A significant improvement for sure, but not enough.