The Devils’ playoff chances for the 2021 season aren’t promising, but they do have much to accomplish.
2021 is finally here and after a strange (and forgettable) 2020, everyone is ready to turn the page. The New Jersey Devils are no different.
After landing the number one pick in the 2019 draft, with which they took Jack Hughes the Devils, as well as their fanbase, were looking forward to the 2020 season.
The Devils were perceived to be a young team with a bright future. However, 2020 didn’t end up going too well for them.
The Devils finished the shortened regular season dead last in the Metropolitan Division with just 68 points in 69 games, and were one of four teams in the Eastern Conference to not receive an invitation to play in the bubble.
The newly acquired P.K. Subban, who had been one of the best defensemen in hockey on multiple occasions, had the worst season of his career.
Hughes had a rookie season to forget, recording just 21 points in 61 games.
Nico Hischier has been one of the team’s best players but has yet to take the next step and produce like a first overall pick should.
These reasons, coupled with the fact that the Devils have been placed in the most difficult division after the realignment, indicate that they will almost certainly miss the playoffs for the third straight year.
However, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have much to work and improve on in the new year.
1. New Year, new front office and coach establish identity
To begin with, the Devils have made several executive decisions, so it’ll be interesting to see how differently business is conducted this year.
Tom Fitzgerald, who was formerly New Jersey’s assistant general manager, was named Executive Vice President/General Manager.
Fitzgerald made some solid picks in the draft, but none will be joining the team this year, so we should expect to see a roster practically identical to that of 2019-20.
2. Youth movement turns the corner
The Devils have some youngsters who should comprise the core of the future. Ruff has a reputation for developing young players, and that’s what New Jersey’s front office is going to be expecting him to do.
Ruff will look to help Hischier elevate his game, but Hischier must also stay healthy after having injury issues the past two seasons.
Hughes is going to be the biggest question mark of next season and all eyes will be on Ruff to continue working on his development.
Not only must he become more productive offensively, but he must work on the defensive side of his game, as his defense proved to be a liability during his rookie season.
Ruff will prove to be important even to the development of guys like Janne Kuokkanen and even prospect Yegor Sharangovich if he does end up being summoned from the KHL.
Jesper Bratt, who is 22 years old and a former sixth round pick, turned heads last season after posting 32 points in 60 games.
He and centerman Pavel Zacha, who is also 22 years old, were second on the team in points, and it’ll be important to monitor both of these forwards in order to determine if their solid play last year really is sustainable.
Andreas Johnsson was a solid pickup for the Devils, and having him potentially play alongside Hughes might end up being great for Hughes’ progression.
3. Get better on the blue line
The Devils’ defense is going to look quite different next year, and ensuring their blue liners click is another important task to accomplish.
It looks like former first round pick Ty Smith will make his NHL debut with the Devils this season. His development will certainly be at the top of the organization’s list of priorities.
The Devils also have some new faces in Dmitry Kulikov and Ryan Murray, two veteran left-handed defensemen.
They’ll play an important role in the team’s defense, especially Kulikov as a shot-blocker, and they’ll likely serve as mentors to the kids, so it’ll be interesting to see how they fit in.
Murray is quite injury prone and will need to remain healthy in order to have as significant an impact as he can on the team, especially since he’s expected to be featured on the team’s top defensive pairing.
4. Net improvement
Another one of the bigger names to watch for the Devils next year is young goaltender MacKenzie Blackwood. Blackwood, who is 24 years old, has been excellent to start off his career and looks like he’s going to be the Devils’ goalie of the future.
The Devils can now have confidence in a two-headed monster in net. The addition of free agent Corey Crawford, who won two championships with the Chicago Blackhawks, provides Ruff with a strong tandem to work with in a regular season that will see more back-to-backs and games on consecutive nights.
He’s undoubtedly one of the pieces the Devils are going to want to keep building around, and making sure he doesn’t regress is yet another New Year’s resolution for the organization.
Making or hoping to make the playoffs is a New Year’s resolution for most teams in the league. Believing that the Devils are likely to make the playoffs in 2021 is probably a mistake, but that doesn’t mean their resolutions aren’t as important.
The Devils are building correctly and their number one New Year’s resolution is this: to continue to develop their young players.
This season will be a success if, by the end of it: Hischier stays healthy and takes the next step; Hughes shows a grand improvement on both ends of the ice; Bratt and Zacha pick up where they left off; Smith has a solid rookie season; and Blackwood continues to shine in net.
If these things happen, then the playoffs will follow suit. For this Devils team, patience is key.