The 2020-21 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to preview all 31 teams. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at how the offseason affected each team, the most interesting people in the organization, and the best- and worst-case scenarios. Today, we look at the New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils 2019-20 Rewind
Record: 28-29-12 (68 points in 69 games played); eighth in Metropolitan Division; 14th in the Eastern Conference.
Leading scorer: Kyle Palmieri (25 goals, 45 points)
Heading into 2019-20, the Devils carried great expectations. They just drafted Jack Hughes first overall, and traded for P.K. Subban. At that time, Taylor Hall‘s Devils future was unclear, Ray Shero seemed like a GM on a mission, and John Hynes was still head coach.
No, you’re not alone in feeling like that happened about a lifetime ago.
By just about any standard, the Devils’ 2019-20 season was a disaster. To put things mildly, expectations are far more muted this time around. We’re just starting to see what Tom Fitzgerald has in store as the Devils’ new GM, and it will probably take some repetitions before people remember that Lindy Ruff is (somehow?) their head coach.
Chances are, the Devils’ 2020-21 will present some changes, and some twists and turns. It will be tough to top the twists of last season, although COVID-19 might throw in a curve or two.
3 Most Interesting New Jersey Devils
• Jack Hughes
When it comes to disappointing Devils, Hughes is either at the top of the list, or close to that first spot.
Now, it’s one thing not to be a smash-hit rookie after being drafted first overall. We’ve seen even top prospects stumble before they can truly sprint. But you can keep lowering the standards, and Hughes’ 2019-20 season continues to look disappointing.
But, yes, he’s still only 19. And … hey, his brother Quinn Hughes enjoyed the kind of success the rest of the Hughes clan hopes to attain.
Like his brother, Jack Hughes can already skate at a high level, so in a visceral sense, he should be fun to watch in 2020-21 even if he doesn’t improve as much as the Devils would like. It’s easy to picture Hughes putting this tough rookie campaign behind him. Consider, for instance, that Joe Thornton struggled during his “Big Bird” phase. While they’re very different skaters and body types, both are cerebral playmakers. That part of the game can improve with reps in the NHL, so the Devils hope Hughes breaks through — preferably soon.
• P.K. Subban
In an NHL full of players who are far too vanilla, P.K. Subban brings welcome personality to the league. During a normal campaign, Subban would already have a case for being one of the three most interesting people for his franchise of the moment.
But the 2020-21 NHL season isn’t a normal one for P.K. Subban, even beyond the notion that this season won’t be normal for anyone.
After some strong work with the Predators, Subban’s game absolutely collapsed last season. Based on Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement metrics, Subban ranked as the 20th-worst skater in 2019-20. When you’re carrying a $9 million cap hit, you don’t want to be a stone’s throw from Jack Johnson:
Beyond being a gregarious presence, a keyed-in Subban can be an absolute blast to watch.
Maybe Subban was beat up last season, and will enjoy a bit of a renaissance? (If so, expect to see the hashtag “Subban-issance.” Or something like that.)
Unfortunately, if 2019-20 Subban is a sign of things to come, he’ll instead not exactly be a blast to watch.
• Tom Fitzgerald
Ultimately, it’s too early to know if Fitzgerald can steer the Devils back on course.
So far, there’ve been some shrewd moves; Crawford, Johnsson, and Murray are all low-risk moves that can bring rewards. Even head-scratchers like hiring Lindy Ruff might make sense if the Devils figure they’ll need to take their lumps before getting better.
But getting better boils down down to Fitzgerald making the right moves. Will the Devils flip pending UFA Palmieri at the deadline, let him walk after 2020-21, or sign him to an extension? Can they weaponize more than $14M in cap space? Will young players prosper under Ruff, or will their development suffer?
There’s a lot to do, and it’s up to Fitzgerald to optimize the prime years of Hughes, Nico Hischier, and others.
Look, no one enjoys slogging through a bad season. Every failed year chips away at confidence in your front office, and patience from fans. Still, the Devils probably need another blue chipper or two, so the ideal scenario involves short-term pains for long-term gains. (That said, the Devils would love to see Jack Hughes look like a no-brainer top pick starting in 2020-21.)
There’s some danger that the Devils could get stuck in the middle. In particular, a goalie tandem of Mackenzie Blackwood and Corey Crawford might steal some games. Improvement from key players could boost the Devils some more. Playing well has its benefits, but if the Devils miss the playoffs while hurting their lottery odds, that could be the worst of both worlds.
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