It’s no secret the Devils are in a rebuild. After a disappointing 2019-20 season in which New Jersey finished in the basement of the Metropolitan Division with an abhorrent minus-41 goal differential, the franchise replaced general manager Ray Shero and bumped interim head coach Alain Nasreddine back to an assistant. So now it’s Tom Fitzgerald, promoted from assistant GM, and former Rangers assistant coach Lindy Ruff who are tasked with taking a team that is projected to be the third-youngest in the league and get it back on an upward trajectory after two straight losing seasons.
The Devils were one of seven teams that didn’t qualify for the NHL’s expanded 24-team playoff tournament last season. Fitzgerald has made it clear that the organization will be “all-in” when its past two first-overall picks (Nico Hischier in 2017, Jack Hughes in 2019) are ready. Although both have shown signs of development, it doesn’t appear this season is the Devils’ time to strike.
The Devils were the sixth-lowest scoring club in the NHL last year after dealing Taylor Hall to the Coyotes midseason. Kyle Palmieri led the team with 25 goals, while the next highest goal scorer was Blake Coleman, who was flipped to the Lightning for two first-rounders at the deadline. Fitzgerald showed how much he values Palmieri, an impending unrestricted free agent, when he held onto the Long Island native last February during a slew of roster moves.
Fitzgerald has a decision to make on Nikita Gusev, who has been skating on the left wing of second-year center Jack Hughes and Palmieri to make up the first line in training camp. Nico Hischier could miss the start of the season as he deals with a leg injury, but the team doesn’t believe he’ll be out for an extended period. Jesper Bratt, who also missed the bulk of camp while his new contract was negotiated, returns fresh off a 30-point season. Pavel Zacha will look to build on a career year and Travis Zajac is still chugging along with his contract set to expire at the end of this season.
While former captain Andy Greene was shipped to the Islanders in exchange for 22-year-old defenseman David Quenneville and a 2021 second-round pick last season, the Devils acquired Ryan Murray from the Blue Jackets. Murray has been partnered with P.K Subban to form what could be the team’s top defensive pairing.
The Devils brought back Sami Vatanen less than a year after trading him to the Hurricanes and signed Dmitry Kulikov for depth. Kulikov has skated with Will Butcher and Matt Tennyson, who was called up from Binghamton when Greene was put on IR in October 2019. Ty Smith, the team’s 17th-overall pick in 2018, has made a case for a roster spot while skating alongside Damon Severson.
The excitement of signing two-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender Corey Crawford disappeared as quickly as it came when he announced his retirement from the NHL near the end of training camp. And although they locked up Mackenzie Blackwood on a three-year deal last month, after buying out Cory Schneider, the Devils’ goaltending situation is likely not where the organization thought it would be after this offseason.
The Devils brought back Scott Wedgewood on a one-year, two-way deal after he served as the Lightning’s third-string goalie during their Stanley Cup run last season. Gilles Senn, the team’s fifth-round pick in 2017, appeared in two games for the Devils last season, while Evan Cormier doesn’t have any NHL experience.
Lindy Ruff is trying to instill hope in a team that has missed the postseason the past two seasons and seven of the past eight. And to make matters even more difficult, he is trying to do that amid a season when he’s forced to play in a division where six of the eight teams made the expanded playoffs last season. The team has seemingly responded well to his up-tempo coaching style and new defensive system.
Most important offensive player
Kyle Palmieri. As the team’s top producer since Taylor Hall left, Palmieri is crucial to keeping the Devils competitive in the loaded East that has plenty of offensive weapons scattered throughout. He is also an impending unrestricted free agent and will be playing for his next contract.
Most important defensive player
P.K. Subban. In his second season with the club, Subban is set to make at least $8 million. While he’s been on the decline as he steadily creeps further into his 30s, Subban is still the most established defender the Devils have.
Ty Smith. While it’s totally possible he starts the season in the AHL, Smith came into training camp and made a solid case for a spot on varsity. The 20-year-old defenseman needs to continue to make strides in his game to round out the Devils’ defensive core.
Key Coaching Decision
Ruff is going to have to decide what he wants the barometer for this team to be. Is the goal to make the playoffs? Or will Ruff simply be happy to work out the growing pains this squad is certainly going to have and begin working toward becoming a more cohesive unit?
Given the competition in the East, the Devils will finish last in the division and without a playoff berth for the third straight season.