What Went Wrong: New Jersey, Columbus

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Welcome to What Went Wrong, which is a series where we take a look at each team that failed to make the playoffs with an emphasis on why they fell short. We’ll also end each team’s outlook by highlighting some players in the organization to watch going forward, either because the team is looking for them to be key members in the future or because they have something to prove after a less than ideal year.

This week will feature the New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets after the Buffalo Sabres and Anaheim Ducks were covered previously.

Don’t forget, for everything NHL, check out NBC Sports EDGE's Player News, and follow @NBCSEdgeHK and @CoreAbbott on Twitter.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

The New Jersey Devils missed the playoffs for the eighth time in the past nine seasons, including the last three years. They finished second-last in the East Division with a record of 19-30-7. There was some belief that the team could take some steps forward and surprise some people, but even if that happened it was going to be a difficult task to push for a postseason placement in a deep division.

Before the puck had even been dropped, the Devils were playing without Nico Hischier because of a leg injury and the team’s goaltending plans were forced to change quickly after Corey Crawford made a surprising retirement announcement. New Jersey still managed to post a 4-3-2 record to start the year, but another stumbling block was around the corner for the team in the form of a COVID-19 shutdown. The Devils went 15 days between games and went 3-5-0 when they returned to action in mid-February. New Jersey had a long list of players unavailable to play due to COVID protocol.

The Devils struggled down the stretch, while picking up just six wins in their final 22 outings. Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac were traded to the New York Islanders on April 7 in the midst of what was the team’s toughest stretch of the year. New Jersey went 3-11-2 in April, while playing a packed schedule because of the team’s COVID protocol pause. New Jersey finished the year with a mark of 7-18-3 on home ice, which was second-worst in the league.

New Jersey concluded the year 26th overall in goals scored (145), while allowing the fourth-most goals against (189). The Devils didn’t produce any 20-goal scorers, but Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood came close with 17 markers apiece. Zacha also led the team with 35 points in 50 appearances. Jack Hughes made some positive strides in his sophomore season, but he still has plenty of room for improvement after recording 11 goals and 31 points in 56 contests. Yegor Sharangovich and Jesper Bratt produced 30 points each, while Sharangovich had 16 goals and Bratt ranked second on the team with 0.65 points per game.

The Devils were burned repeatedly by opposition power plays in 2020-21. They allowed 43 power-play goals against, which was the second most in the league. New Jersey finished with the worst penalty kill percentage (71.0%). It ranks among the worst in NHL history, with only five teams doing poorer. Mackenzie Blackwood surrendered 24 power-play goals against, which was the fifth-highest total in the league.

New Jersey took a step back during a tumultuous season. The team has some bright spots going into next year. Zacha showed that he is capable of stepping up and Bratt is on the cusp of breaking out as well. Hughes, Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen and Ty Smith were encouraging in flashes and continued growth will be expected from them in 2021-22. Alexander Holtz, Nolan Foote, Graeme Clarke and Dawson Mercer are some other top prospects who could be ready to see NHL action in 2021-22. Blackwood has upside too despite some struggles following his return from COVID-19. The Devils will be able to add another high-profile prospect at the 2021 NHL Draft with the No. 4 pick. New Jersey has another first-round selection, which was acquired from the Islanders in the Palmieri/Zajac trade. Coach Lindy Ruff lamented the lack of practice time after the season was over, which he feels would have been beneficial, especially for the team’s younger players. There are plenty of kinks to work out but the pieces are there for progress to be made.

Mackenzie Blackwood - Blackwood turned some heads with a record of 4-0-1 to start the year. He stopped 171 of 181 shots during that span for a .945 save percentage. Two of those victories came after he came off the COVID protocol list, but then he struggled afterward while picking up one win and a save percentage of .866 in nine outings. Blackwood had another winless skid that stretched for 10 appearances (0-7-3) from Mar. 30-Apr. 25 prior to winning five straight starts. He looked much more comfortable in 2019-20 and performed well in spurts this past campaign, so he could turn things around. Blackwood will probably be leaned upon heavily again next year.

Nico Hischier - It was a nightmare season for Hischier, who was limited to 21 appearances because of injuries. He didn’t make his season debut until Feb. 20 because of a leg injury he sustained during off-season training and when he was recovered from that he was on the sidelines with a bout of COVID-19. Hischier played in just five contests before he was back on the sidelines again due to a sinus fracture and a head injury after he was hit by the puck. He posted four goals and four assists in 16 matches once he returned to the lineup. Hischier concluded the campaign with six goals, 11 points, 44 shots and 20 blocks. He picked up 52 points in his rookie season in 2017-18 and he operated at that pace in his next two years despite being limited by injuries. Hischier was a bit behind that in 2020-21, but trying to develop a rhythm was difficult. If he’s healthy then the 22-year-old forward should provide the Devils with a big boost offensively.

Jack Hughes - Hughes bulked up going into his sophomore season after he supplied just seven goals and 21 points in 61 matches during his first year in the NHL. He made progress in 2020-21 with 11 markers and 31 points across 56 contests. Hughes got off to a hot start with 11 points in 13 outings, but that quickly dropped to five points over a 22-game stretch from Feb. 23-Apr. 2. He came back from a bout with COVID-19 shortly before that span. Hughes was more productive to finish the year, but he scored just four times on 61 shots over his final 21 appearances. The 20-year-old forward has plenty of potential, but more progress and consistency will be expected from him next season.

Ty Smith - Smith was impressive in his rookie season with the Devils. He burst onto the scene with eight points, including six assists, in his first nine NHL outings. That included a five-game point streak to start the season. The 21-year-old defender registered 23 points, 69 shots, 35 blocks and 32 hits, while averaging 20:07 per contest. Smith only chipped in four helpers in his final 15 appearances, but he displayed plenty of upside. He racked up points from the back end in junior hockey with Spokane of the WHL and showed he is capable of contributing at the NHL level.

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COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

The Columbus Blue Jackets exceeded expectations in 2019-20 thanks in large part to a stingy defense and strong goaltending, but those became areas of concern this past season along with an inability to score goals. Columbus finished with the worst record in the Central Division with a mark of 18-26-12.

Columbus surrendered 3.29 goals against per game played in 2020-21, which was the seventh-highest total in the league. The team also surrendered the four-most shots against per game played (32.4). Additionally, they permitted the fourth-most high danger scoring chances against and the sixth-most scoring chances against in 5-on-5 situations. Joonas Korpisalo struggled between the pipes with a 3.30 goals-against average and .894 save percentage, while Elvis Merzlikins had more success with a 2.77 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. They both missed time due to injury and neither one them reached double digits in wins.

The Columbus goaltenders certainly didn’t get much help from the players in front of them. Aside from hemorrhaging scoring chances, the skaters on the Blue Jackets didn’t provide much support offensively. The Blue Jackets posted 2.39 goals for per game played, which was better than only two other teams and tied them with Buffalo. They also didn’t manufacture many opportunities, while ranking dead last in the NHL in scoring chances for and 30th in high danger scoring chances for during 5-on-5 situations.

Unsurprisingly, Columbus didn’t produce a 20-goal scorer, but Oliver Bjorkstrand came close with 18. He also had a team-leading 44 points in 56 games. Cam Atkinson was the next-best offensive player with 15 markers and 34 points. Newcomer Jack Roslovic, who was acquired with Patrik Laine in the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade, had 34 points as well. Laine and Max Domi were brought in to try to help the team offensively, but neither player made much of an impact.

It was a tough year for Columbus and the team may take another hit in the off-season. Several high-profile players on the Blue Jackets have moved on to other teams in recent years and Seth Jones could be the latest one. Jones has reportedly expressed an interest to test free agency and not re-sign with the team. That could prompt a trade this summer. Coach John Tortorella and the organization decided to part ways following the expiration of his contract, so the team will be in the market for a new bench boss. However, the 2021 NHL Draft could offer some encouragement. The Blue Jackets have three first-round picks, including the No. 5 selection. Additionally, top prospect Yegor Chinakov is poised to bring his talents to the NHL next season and Liam Foudy’s role with the team could grow.

Patrik Laine - Laine had six goals and 10 points in his first 10 appearances with Columbus after he was obtained from Winnipeg. However, he went on extended stretches without finding the scoresheet afterward, while generating four goals and seven assists in 35 matches to finish the year. There was some friction between Laine and Tortorella, which resulted in some extended time on the bench. It will be interesting to see how the team’s new head coach handles Laine, as the team will need much more from him in 2021-22.

Elvis Merzlikins - Merzlikins and Korpisalo can become unrestricted free agents after the 2021-22 campaign. Merzlikins proved to be the better option of the two this past season, which could earn him a heavier workload next season. Whoever occupies the crease for the Blue Jackets will have to be much better, especially if the team continues to give up a bevy of scoring chances against.

Zach Werenski - Werenski compiled 20 goals and 41 points in 63 matches in 2019-20. He was limited to 35 appearances last campaign, while accounting for seven markers and 20 points. If Jones is dealt away by Columbus then Werenski will be relied upon heavily. He logged a personal best 24:22 of ice time per match in 2020-21. He was hampered by injuries and missed the final 14 games of the year after he had surgery to repair an inguinal/sports hernia. Werenski is expected to be fully recovered for training camp.

Max Domi - Domi had the worst season of his career during his first campaign with the Blue Jackets. He only chipped in nine goals and 24 points in 54 games. The good news is that he recorded 10 points, including four goals, in his final 14 outings. Domi racked up 28 goals and 72 points in 82 matches in 2018-19. A bounce-back year to that degree may not be in the cards for the 26-year-old forward, but there is plenty of room for improvement next season.