The Devils began and ended 2021 as one of the worst teams in the NHL.
Another flip of the calendar, another year of the New Jersey Devils underperforming.
The Devils were a bottom-five team in the NHL at the end of the 2021 season and are one of the worst teams in the league 30 games into the 2021-22 season.
This is a rebuilding team with a bright future, there’s no doubt about it, but the fact of the matter is that they’re in a worse position than they should be.
A team with such a core of impressive, promising youngsters and proven veterans shouldn’t be one of the worst in the game.
Even though it was mostly bad for the Devils this year, there were some things to smile about.
What went wrong for the Devils in 2021? And what few things went right for them?
2021 Best Moment: the offseason additions to the blueline
The entire 2021 offseason was great for the Devils, that’s what makes this horrid start to the season that much more disappointing.
The Devils had one of the best offseasons of any team in the league. They got a fantastic backup goaltender in Jonathan Bernier, added defensive depth in Christián Jaroš, and casually picked up the dangerous Tomáš Tatar.
The real trophies, though, were the defensive stars that they added to the blueline, Ryan Graves and Dougie Hamilton.
Hamilton was the best free agent in the 2021 class and is regarded as one of the best defensemen in the game, especially offensively.
The Devils were one of the worst defensive teams in the league last season and didn’t get much offensive production from their blueliners, so adding someone like Hamilton was a must.
Hamilton has had his issues in his inaugural season with the Devils. He’s been playing quite poorly during the team’s most recent slump and has struggled in his own zone throughout the season (but who hasn’t, especially lately?).
However, offensively, he’s been practically as advertised. He drives play well and puts up points. Even with his recent cold streaks, the 28-year-old RHD still has 17 points in 27 games this season.
It’s especially impressive given the fact that the team’s power play has been inexcusably atrocious.
Hamilton was definitely the Devils’ prized acquisition of the offseason, but Graves deserves just as much praise, if not more.
Graves was great with the Colorado Avalanche and has been just as good so far with the Devils, maybe even better.
Graves isn’t nearly as offensively impactful as Hamilton, but there’s no denying that he’s been New Jersey’s all-around best defenseman this season. The Devils won this trade, for sure, and Graves has quickly become one of the team’s most important players.
It’s incredible that he’s been playing as well as he has despite the team’s serious struggles, particularly defensively. The 26-year-old LHD is a special player and the Devils would somehow be in an even worse position without him.
2021 Worst Moment: the hiring and tenure of Lindy Ruff
This Devils team isn’t perfect, but the culprit of most of their issues is the coach. The Lindy Ruff hire was suspect from the get-go.
Ruff’s last head coaching job was with the Dallas Stars. He was there from 2013 until 2017 before joining the New York Rangers as an assistant coach. He then left New York to coach the Devils in July 2020.
Those who paid close attention to Ruff’s time with the Rangers aren’t surprised by what they’re seeing from him across the Hudson. Ruff, a defensive specialist, was considered to be the guy in charge of the Rangers’ defense.
The Rangers were rebuilding while he was with them, yes, but they shouldn’t have been as bad in their own zone as they were. They became one of the best defensive and penalty-killing teams in the league after Ruff’s departure!
Ruff has had success as a head coach in this league, but it’s difficult to look at his time with the Rangers and decide he’s the guy that should run the Devils’ rebuild.
It’s hard to entirely blame last season’s struggles on him, especially because the roster was bad, but he made his fair share of mistakes. This season, however, is a different story.
The Devils are in the hardest division in the league and are still rebuilding so making the playoffs would have been an unattainable dream, but they shouldn’t be nearly as bad as they are.
Many of their youngsters were great last season and should be building off of that this year and the team had a wonderful offseason.
Why is this a bottom-five power play in the league? Why is the offense not as good as it should be? The penalty kill has improved, but why is the defense back to struggling at even-strength?
It’s become clear that Ruff has lost the locker room and is in over his head. It’s a matter of time before he’s out the door. The Devils made a mistake hiring him in the first place and the fans will just hope that the next guy isn’t nearly as bad.
2021 MVP: C Jack Hughes
The Devils’ star boy is their MVP of the year. Hughes notoriously had a historically bad rookie season in 2020 and became somewhat of a question mark.
His subsequent turnaround, however, is still unbelievable.
Hughes was an absolute monster in his sophomore season. He was excellent in practically every situation. He improved dramatically offensively, scoring 11 goals and 31 points in 56 games, but the real story is his defense.
Hughes looked completely lost in his own zone during his rookie season. He focused on that part of his game during the offseason and got bigger, stronger, and faster, all of which was evident in his play.
He played phenomenal defense last season and all of the improvements in his game made him the team’s best all-around player as well as a guy who began to capture the attention of the league.
What the Devils saw from Hughes last season was enough to sign him to a huge contract extension: eight years, $64 million. This season, so far, isn’t really worth mentioning.
Hughes has missed the vast majority of it with injury and hasn’t looked great in the games he has played in, but that can be attributed to the team’s struggles.
Hughes might already be the face of the Devils and is a huge part of the core that the organization is building around. What a year this was for the 20-year-old.
2021 LVP: HC Lindy Ruff
There isn’t too much to say here since most of this piece has been about Ruff.It’s simple: the team isn’t perfect and the roster still must be improved, but the Devils are still one of the worst teams in the league because of Ruff.
He’s holding them back and no one in the organization deserves more criticism than he, other than maybe the guys who hired him.
Overall 2021 Grade: C-
The Devils began 2021 as one of the worst teams in the league and are ending it as one of the worst teams in the league.
There have been things to celebrate, sure.
The emergence of Hughes as an excellent player. The 2021 offseason. The young Dawson Mercer making the team and thriving. Andreas Johnsson finally coming to life. Jesper Bratt becoming the team’s best player this season.
But the fact of the matter is that this is still one of the worst teams in the league, thanks primarily to awful coaching.
The future is undoubtedly bright for the Devils, but they still have a long way to go. Devils fans will hope for a much, much better 2022 for their team.