What Went Wrong: New Jersey Devils

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Welcome to What Went Wrong where we’ll look at each team that failed to make the playoffs. We’ll also end each article by highlighting some players of particular interest on the squad. Those are players who either left something to be desired during the 2021-22 campaign, have significant untapped upside, or have some big underlining questions surrounding them going into the offseason.

We’ve already covered the Montreal Canadiens, Arizona Coyotes, and Seattle Kraken, and Philadelphia Flyers. Today we examine the New Jersey Devils.

Some teams go into the season expecting to miss the playoffs. They try their best obviously and at the player level they’re still committed to winning, but within the front office they’re aware that they’re a rebuilding team and know the chances of making the postseason are slim. The Devils weren’t supposed to fall into that camp. They were supposed to be done with their rebuild.

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After posting a 19-30-7 record in 2020-21 to miss the playoffs for a third straight season, the Devils were looking to take a big step forward in 2021-22. They made a huge splash on the UFA market by signing Dougie Hamilton to a seven-year, $63 million contract. New Jersey also aimed to bolstered their top-six forward group when they inked Tomas Tatar to a two-year, $9 million deal, and believed they solidified their goaltending situation by signing Jonathan Bernier to a two-year, $8.25 million contract. Those were statement signings, signally that the Devils believed that their young core of forwards Pavel Zacha, Yegor Sharangovich, Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt, and of course Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier were ready, and it was time to assemble key veterans to compliment them for a playoff run. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

A huge part of the problem ended up being their goaltending. The Devils entered the season betting on the idea that Mackenzie Blackwood could bounce back after a rough 2020-21 campaign. If he couldn’t though, they now had a veteran alternative in Bernier. That was the thought at least. Bernier ended up only playing in 10 games and none past Dec. 3 due to a hip injury that eventually resulted in season-ending surgery. Meanwhile, Blackwood spent time on the sidelines too and even when he was healthy, he struggled with a 9-10-4 record, 3.39 GAA, and .892 save percentage in 25 games. With both of their planned goaltenders dealing with issues, the Devils struggled all season to find a solution between the pipes. They ended up starting seven different goaltenders and none of them performed particularly well. The result was that the Devils allowed 3.68 goals per game, which placed them all the way down at 29th in the league. Obviously, it’s very hard to make the playoffs when you’re that easy to score on.

The Devils offense was better, but it wasn’t without its own shortcomings. Let’s start with the positives. Bratt played the best season of his career to date, scoring 26 goals and 73 points in 76 contests. Originally taken in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, he’s proven to be a steal and while he is a RFA heading into this summer, he has the potential to be one of the cornerstones of the franchise. He wasn’t the only forward to set career-highs either. After being limited to 21 games in 2020-21, Nico Hischier was relatively healthy in 2021-22 and contributed 21 goals and 60 points in 70 contests. Plus while Jack Hughes only played 49 games in 2021-22, at least he was superb when he did play, providing 26 goals and 56 points.

New Jersey saw another forward crave out a place among the Devils’ promising core of young forwards. Dawson Mercer scored 17 goals and 42 points in 82 games as a rookie. Originally taken with the 18th overall pick in 2020, he’s looking like another example of the Devils’ drafting well.

Even with all that though, New Jersey was a bit below the average offensively in 2021-22 with an average of 2.99 goals per game. Part of the problem was depth. Six players with New Jersey finished with at least 40 points. Contrast that with Florida, which had 10 or St. Louis, which had 11. It didn’t help that Tatar’s first season with the Devils was fairly mediocre. He had 15 goals and 30 points in 76 games, which made it his worst season since 2012-13 from a points-per-game perspective. Hamilton’s first season also left something to be desired. He’s known as a high-end offensive defenseman, but he ended up with a somewhat disappointing nine goals and 30 points in 62 games. That’s tied for his lowest points-per-game pace over his last eight seasons.

It’s also worth noting that while Bratt, Hischier, and Hughes made strides this season, none of them drove the offense like the forwards of high-end teams. Bratt’s 73 points was only good for 47th place on the NHL scoring race, well below the likes of Connor McDavid, Johnny Gaudreau, Jonathan Huberdeau, Kirill Kaprizov, Auston Matthews, and Steven Stamkos who each led their respective teams with over 30 goals and 105 points. Speaking of, in a season where Calgary had three 40-goal scorers, and 17 different players reached the 40-goal milestone, New Jersey didn’t even have a player score 30 goals.

So in other words, while their forward core has promise and while some members of that group have become serious offensive threats, their stars are still behind the curve of what you’d see among the elite teams and their scoring depth is similarly lacking.

Between their goaltending disaster and the gap that still remains offensively, it’s not surprising that this ended up being another lackluster season for New Jersey. The Devils did get off to a 7-3-2 start, but ultimately finished with a 27-46-9 record. Rather than take a step forward in 2021-22, the season that just ended represented a further drop for the Devils in terms of points percentage.

All hope isn’t lost though. The core is still developing and the Devils got lucky with the draft lottery to secure the second overall pick.

Players to Watch:

Dougie Hamilton – The Devils made a big splash when they acquired PK Subban from the Nashville Predators back in the summer of 2019. Although Subban wasn’t coming off his best season, he was a former Norris Trophy winner who was well established as a great offensive defenseman. That trade didn’t work out for the Devils and while New Jersey is now free of his $9 million cap hit. They might have traded one disappointing blueliner for another. Hamilton’s first season with the Devils wasn’t a disaster, but with his own $9 million cap hit, New Jersey is naturally hoping for more out of him. That said, part of Hamilton’s struggles in 2021-22 were due to injuries. He suffered a broken toe and then broken jaw in back-to-back games, and he was never able to hit his stride after returning. Now he has the summer to reset and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him bounce back in 2022-23.

Mackenzie Blackwood – The Devils obviously had bad luck when it came to the health of their goaltenders last season, but concerns about Blackwood go beyond that. He had a 3.04 GAA and .902 save percentage in 35 starts in 2020-21 and followed it up with a 3.39 GAA and .892 save percentage in 25 games in 2021-22. After those two rough campaigns, the 2022-23 season will be critical for him. He can become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2023 and the Devils might simply move on from him if he doesn’t bounce back.

Tomas Tatar – As mentioned above, Tatar had a disappointing campaign, scoring 15 goals and 30 points in 76 contests. At least he was able to end things on a better note. After the season, he joined Slovakia for the World Championships where he served as the team captain. He has three goals and six points in seven contests in the tournament. Maybe he can bounce back in the 2022-23 campaign too. He might have a bit of extra motivation given that it will be the final season of his contract.

Jack Hughes – Hughes’ early seasons haven’t quite measured up to what we’d expect from a first overall pick. He had seven goals and 21 points in 61 contests as a rookie. In 2020-21, he did better, scoring 11 goals and 31 points in 56 games, but that was still far from his potential. He broke out in 2021-22 though, scoring 26 goals and 56 points in 49 contests. Unfortunately, he was plagued by injuries during the season and was dealing with a knee problem at the end of the campaign. Hopefully he can stay healthy next season. It’s worth noting that it will be the first campaign of his eight-year, $64 million contract. He’s absolutely capable of living up to that $8 million cap hit.