One of the best parts about SB Nation is that we have easy access to hockey fans from all other teams. Another one of the best parts is that none of us really take ourselves too seriously. This week we are taking a look at how the other members of the new MassMutual NHL East Division feel about the season and the specific situation on their team.
The New Jersey Devils with John Fischer from All About The Jersey
How strong do you think this year’s Devils team is?
I think the 2021 New Jersey Devils are not going to be all that strong compared with their peers in the East Division. The team face planted in 2019-20 after a great-on-paper offseason. With the assistant GM, Tom Fitzgerald, now the full-time GM; a new coaching staff led by Lindy Ruff; and a roster with plenty of developing players, it is very much another rebuilding year in New Jersey.
To me, the goal for 2021 is not the playoffs but to have a more competitive Devils team than they were last season. This has been solidified by recent events. The signing of Corey Crawford was a shrewd one and could help a lot in that cause as he was very good last season, creating a very good tandem with Mackenzie Blackwood. But he retired last Saturday, so that is not happening. On top of that, the Devils just re-signed their final RFA in Jesper Bratt on Sunday; it will take time for the top-six winger to get to New Jersey, never mind get into in-season shape. Defenseman Sami Vatanen will provide good depth both in 5-on-5 and on special teams, but he is also not here. And Nico Hischier, the team’s top center, did not participate in training camp due to a minor foot injury.
What this all means is that the Devils are going to start the season with a less than optimal roster. In a 56 game season, it does not take much to dig a deep hole for a team to fall into and so any long shot hopes of playoff contention are just that: hopes. Therefore, the goal is really just to improve on last season’s team and seek to take a step forward in 2021-22. I also think the Devils can do that.
How do you think the new division will shake out?
I think the East Division is going to be an incredibly competitive one. Knowing that everyone will play each other eight times on top of directly competing for four playoff spots will provide a lot of motivation and heated competitions. The East Division winner will likely have the worst record among the four division leaders because there are no real doormats among these eight teams.
New Jersey and Buffalo will likely take the seventh and eighth spots, respectively, but they are not going to be easy wins for anyone. The same can be said about the two New York City squads. The Rangers are a bit ahead of New Jersey in terms of rebuilding and, therefore, can probably take a few more wins than them (hopefully not against the Devils). The Islanders may not have the “magic” to be a playoff team, but they are a stout enough team to frustrate opponents. This means I think the playoff teams are going to be some combination of Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. And it really could be in any order.
If Boston was also 100% to start the season, I would figure they would be favorites. But I think it will be Washington’s division based on the current rosters. Philly and Pittsburgh will provide great challenges but as with lots of Pennsylvanian sports teams, they will fall a bit short when it matters.
Are we in for any surprises with the 2020-21 Devils? Any new names we should look out for?
The Devils have already had some surprises. Crawford retiring was a big surprise. Bratt and the Devils not agreeing to terms until January 10, meaning it will be a few weeks into the season before Bratt can even play, was a surprise. Hischier coming into camp with a foot injury was also a surprise. At this rate, maybe the Devils will shock everyone and win their first nine games on the back of Mackenzie Blackwood. I’ll take a more positive surprise for a change.
The Devils will have plenty of new faces. Andreas Johnsson, formerly of Toronto, will look to fit in somewhere in the Devils lineup and strengthen their left wing position. One of the most interesting new Devils is Yegor Sharangovich. The Belarusian overage draft pick from the 2018 Draft was a useful player in Binghamton last season. However, this year has definitely been his year. The Devils loaned him out to Dinamo Minsk of the KHL and Sharangovich performed like a stud. The 22-year old averaged over 19 minutes per game and got so hot at shooting the puck (~19 Sh%!!), he was among KHL leaders in goal scoring before he was recalled. In scrimmages, Sharangovich has consistently impressed and all signs point to him being in the starting lineup on Thursday. Joining him will be Janne Kuokkanen, whom Fitzgerald acquired for Vatanen at the trade deadline in February 2020. What made that deal work was that Kuokkanen was just behind too many forwards in Carolina, so the thinking was that he could get a chance in New Jersey. He sort of got one. He received a call up of one game with New Jersey before the Coronavirus Pandemic ended the season. All signs also point to him starting in New Jersey as well.
On defense, Ryan Murray (formerly of the IR and CBJ) and Dmitry Kulikov (formerly of FLA and WPG) will make their Devils debuts on Day One. They may be joined by the 20-year old Ty Smith. Smith had a bad camp in 2019 and so he was sent back to the WHL for another season. He dominated and finished as a finalist for the CHL Defenseman of the Year Award. Smith has been given time alongside NHL defensemen in camp, so we could see him start in New Jersey as opposed to joining the other young defensemen starting their pro careers in Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotiuk, and Reilly Walsh.
So, goaltending - what is happening there?
Based on who was not placed on waivers by New Jersey, the Devils are going with Mackenzie Blackwood and Scott Wedgewood as their main tandem, with Gilles Senn expected to join the taxi squad. This position went from a possible strength to a concerning one with Crawford’s retirement. It is what it is and we at All About the Jersey wish Crawford the best.
Still, the goaltending will live and die on how well Blackwood performs. Wedgewood was bad in the AHL last season and he has not seen a NHL game since 2018. With a 56-game schedule and New Jersey having fewer than ten back-to-back sets of games, Blackwood will likely play the majority of the games. Wedgewood will come in to spell him here and there and we will just have to hope for the best. This is all assuming the Devils are not claiming a goaltender, trading for one, or signing a free agent before Thursday.
How are Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes developing? What type of roles do you expect them to play this year?
Hischier has been developing well. He is a top center. He has been one since he joined the NHL in 2017-18 and he has continued to show that even without Hall and Palmieri over the last two seasons. His absence looms large. When he is 100% and able to play, I think we will continue to see him grow in both ends of the rink and take more responsibilities. I would like to see him get more of one on the PK in addition to his 5-on-5 and PP duties as I think he has the skillset for that; but that is up to the coaches. There’s a more-than-zero chance he gets a ‘C’ on his jersey in the future.
As for Hughes, last season was rough at times. He was able to do a lot of things that are hard to teach but struggle a bit at the ones you can. Such as strength, particularly on the puck. Hughes apparently gained 14 pounds of muscle and he has looked beefier on the ice. Between that and the experience of last season, I think he is primed to show off his wonderful edge work and offensive mind to greater production. Both Hughes and Hischier will be the top two centers on the team at even strength. Both will play a significant role on the power play, although I am not too sure where exactly that will be yet. We may see Hischier a little bit on the PK but not much more. We should see both in overtime situations as well as on the shootout — especially with Hughes. I am excited for this development to continue.
What cutesy name would you like us to refer to the Devils place at the bottom of the MassMutual NHL East Division?
I don’t do cutesy names. Sorry.