Unfortunately, the New Jersey Devils promising start to the season was halted due to a COVID-19 outbreak. The Devils began their season on January 14th at Prudential center versus the Boston Bruins. Since that 3-2 shootout loss, the Devils have claimed two goaltenders off of waivers, placed a total of 20 players on the COVID protocol list, and have postponed seven games. The Devils have yet to have their entire roster together because of the delays with Sami Vatanen and Jesper Bratt‘s contracts and Nico Hischier recovering from a leg injury. Despite the outrageous amount of bumps that the Devils have dealt with, their first 9 games showed tremendous amounts of promise and skill. So, let’s take a further dive into Lindy Ruff‘s young Devils team a month into their bizarre season…
After letting go of John Hynes and hiring Lindy Ruff, the Devils had to adapt to a new style of play. The system involves the defenseman jumping in on the play and contributing to the offense while another player covers the assignment. Lindy Ruff’s coaching displays a talented, fast, and skillful team that has fought back after deficits and played competitively in all 9 games so far. This is a drastic change from former years of play and makes for an exciting hockey game and immense growth that suggests that Devils are able to compete with the top teams in the league.
In 9 games, the Devils have scored 23 times. They have been scored on 24 times and sport a 2.56 Goals For/Game. Ten out of twenty Devils have scored a goal and eighteen players have registered at least one point. The offensive lines were shuffled quite a bit before Ruff found a dominant line in Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes, and Andreas Johnsson. The line is extremely fast-paced and create tremendous offensive opportunities. A promising statistic is that the Devils have yet to be shut out this season.
The defense has been a common struggle for the Devils in recent years. Like many young teams, their defense has shown improvement as more games are played. Ruff’s system has allowed for a defenseman to be more involved in the play. This style suits Damon Severson and Ty Smith very well and will also compliment Sami Vatanen‘s game. While the Devils offensive production has been great, the defensive side is still lacking. A noticeable improvement from previous years in the urgency to clear pucks after rebounds. There has also been more of a hustle to get pucks out of the zone quickly. Despite these improvements, the young defense still has areas that need to be improved.
The team has only allowed 24 goals in 9 games, but there have been countless times when a Devils goaltender has made up for a defensive miscue. P.K. Subban has shown slight improvements from his abysmal previous season but continues to make costly mistakes. Matt Tennyson has been a staple in the lineup over Will Butcher or Connor Carrick, who has yet to make an appearance in the season. The defense is not complete but should continue to improve throughout the season.
Goaltending woes for the Devils started six days before their first game when Corey Crawford announced his retirement. Mackenzie Blackwood, Scott Wedgewood, and Eric Comrie, who was claimed off of waivers on January 13th, started the season as the Devils goaltending trio. Blackwood started the first three games and played outstanding. He was quickly placed on the COVID protocol list and has not played since January 19th.
Blackwood started the season with a 2-0-1 record, 1.90 GAA, and .948 SV%. Wedgewood took over the net in Blackwood’s absence and earned a 2-3-1 record. Wedgewood posted a 2.80 GAA and .901 SV% in 5 games played. He played well and kept the Devils in games and also earned the Devils first shutout of the season. Eric Comrie was able to play one game and earn the win before the Devils season was paused. Comrie earned a 3.00 GAA and .909 SV% in his win over Buffalo. Aaron Dell was claimed off of waivers by the Devils on January 19th and is an impressive backup goaltender. Dell has registered 48 wins, 2.76 GAA, and .908 SV% in 107 career games with the San Jose Sharks.
When all goaltenders are healthy, Comrie will most likely be sent to Binghamton. Goaltending has been strong to start the Devils season and the team will be able to carry three solid goaltenders in Blackwood, Dell, and Wedgewood.
Unfortunately, the Devils powerplay is not working well for the group. The team is currently ranked 27th in terms of powerplay percentage. The Devils percentage on the powerplay is 11.5%. Jack Hughes, Ty Smith, and Kyle Palmieri led the team with 2 points on the powerplay. Out of 26 attempts, the Devils scored 3 times. Along with minimal scoring, shots on goal during powerplays are very low. As the season goes on, there is hope that the powerplay will improve with more practice. So far, it is not helping the Devils win games.
The struggle continues with the Devils penalty kill. The special teams unit is currently ranked dead last in the league. The Devils used their penalty kill 34 times in 9 games and have allowed 11 powerplay goals. Along with taking an absurd amount of penalties, the penalty kill is having a very hard time killing off the penalties. Also, the Devils are one of thirteen teams who have yet to score a shorthanded goal. Nevertheless, the special teams need loads of work and that is not surprising for such a young team.
Most Promising Players
The best players for the Devils to start the season have been the young guns. Jack Hughes, Ty Smith, and Miles Wood are tied for eight points to lead the team. Hughes has been dominant in his play and looks like a different player from last season. His puck handling, skating, speed, and strength on the puck has tremendously improved. He has been a factor in every game and his presence is always noticed. Smith and Hughes have been a dominant duo and are lighting up the score sheet. He could definitely improve his defensive game, but eight points in nine games for a rookie defenseman is impressive. Also, Smith has been an early favorite for the Calder trophy.
Miles Wood has also scored eight points in 9 games and has taken fewer penalties after his first few games. After finding a prominent role on the fourth line with Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian, Wood is starting to settle into a good bottom-six forward. Jesper Bratt has also been noticeable in the three games that he was available for. His skating, stick handling, and skill is one of the best on the teams and his play has appeared to have only improved. Under Ruff, Bratt has logged an average of 19:38 of ice time and has recorded one assist.
Mackenzie Blackwood has looked incredible in the three games that he has played. The 24- year old goaltender has certified his position as the top goalie for the Devils and is a major key to the team.
Most Disappointing Players
Unfortunately, players who have not been great at the beginning of the season are important parts of the team. Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev have been extremely disappointing in the games that they have played. Palmieri has not only been low on scoring, but his play has also looked extremely poor. There have been numerous instances where his costly mistakes have turned into goals for the opposing team. Also, he has been unable to score a goal in 8 games which is the worst start to his Devils career in terms of goal-scoring. Palmieri will have to turn his game around and hopefully earn an extension with the Devils.
Gusev’s slow start is similar to the beginning of his NHL career in the 2019-2020 season. He has been a liability and made costly mistakes on the ice. He has also not been able to score a goal and has registered a measly one assist in 9 games. Gusev was able to turn his poor play around and register points at an impressive pace. Hopefully, Gusev will be able to turn his game around as soon as possible and contribute to the Devils offense.
P.K. Subban has also not been able to produce a consistently good play like he was able to a few seasons ago. For a $9 million player, Subban has been the ultimate disappointment for the Devils since he joined the team. As some fans hold on to a small amount of hope that he can be productive with the Devils, the reality is that Subban has turned into a bigger liability than star defenseman.
Outlook On The Rest Of The Season
For the young team that the Devils are, the first month of their season has been a success. In the challenging East division, the team has been competitive every game and has overcome setbacks. Though the playoffs could still be a long shot, the Devils have the ability to finish above the largely projected last place slot. The obvious improvement from Jack Hughes is a great sign for the Devils. Ty Smith having an impressive start is also a promising sign for the young team. Adding Nico Hischier and Sami Vatanen into the lineup will only improve the Devils play as a team. If veteran Kyle Palmieri can play his usual game, scoring will be an often thing for the Devils. Even if the Devils do not make the playoffs in this bizarre season, the season has a major chance of being extremely successful with developing skill, chemistry, and experience!