All Of A Sudden, The Devils Seem Cool As Hell
2:17 PM EDT on August 9, 2021
If you've completely ignored the New Jersey Devils since the last lockout, you made a pretty smart choice. Outside of a surprise MVP campaign from Taylor Hall that helped them win exactly one playoff game, the Devils have been complete non-factors in the league for nine years now, starting after their complete outlier of a Stanley Cup Final run in 2012 and the end of three-time champion Marty Brodeur as their number-one goalie.
Last season for the Devils was more of the same—a mere 45 points in a division where the worst playoff team tallied 71, and a points percentage that actually dropped significantly from their still-weak 28-29-12 record in 2019–20. They were 26th in the league in goals scored, and 28th in goals against. Their most productive forward, Pavel Zacha, barely cracked the top 100 of the NHL's points leaderboard. All of it was bad and forgettable.
Nevertheless, there were a couple of reasons for optimism. No. 1: The 2021 Devils had an average age of under 26 in a league where the typical player was over 28. No. 2: The 2021 Devils spent less on salary than any other team in the NHL. So not only did their current players have a high ceiling for improvement, but New Jersey's front office had the space to add more talent to the roster. They haven't disappointed, putting together perhaps the best summer of anyone and setting themselves up, not for a Cup run just yet, but at the very least to challenge for a playoff spot and be a lot more fun to watch while doing it.
There are two distinct areas where the Devils have clearly gotten better since the last time they took the ice: talent and vibes. We'll start with talent. Pretty much anyone who meant anything to New Jersey last season was just a small little child, meaning we should expect more from them as they finish out puberty. The aforementioned Zacha, drafted sixth overall in 2015, just put up career highs across the board in his age-23 season. Yegor Sharangovich, a fifth-round find in 2018 who seems like a real sweetheart, broke out as a rookie with 16 goals at age 22. Nico Hischier is an interesting case, too, as he topped 50 points at just 19 as a rookie in 2017–18 but has since been stifled by injury and a decline in the quality of his linemates. It's not hard to imagine a more mature and healthy version of the 2017 top draft pick returning to his old form. And obviously, this is the team that drafted Jack Hughes first overall in 2019, and while his counting stats don't blow you away just yet, he's been able to dominate possession when he's on the ice, at just 20 years old.
So the Devils, regardless of what they did this offseason, were always going to be a team to keep your eye on here and there heading into next year. Even if they didn't have all or even many of the pieces that a good hockey team needs, the kids at the top of the lines were already likely candidates to develop into full-on stars in the future. But in addition their young core, the Devils have made a bunch of moves to quickly improve their position in the present, as they've upgraded at goalie, pounced on an elite defenseman, added a low-risk/high-reward winger, and made what is in context the most exciting draft pick of July.
The most straightforward improvement that the Devils have made is in net, where Corey Crawford's surprise retirement left them in the lurch for 2021. The 24-year-old Mackenzie Blackwood handled the lion's share of the starts for the second straight year, but this time out saw a sharp decline in his ability to stop pucks, as his GAA rose over three and his save percentage plummeted from .915 to .902. Blackwood still undoubtedly has the ability to grow into a first-class NHL shot-stopper, but this offseason, the Devils wisely picked up some insurance in Jonathan Bernier. The former Detroit Red Wing is the veteran presence that Blackwood was lacking, and while he's no threat to the youngster's long-term position, the knack Bernier showed for stealing wins on a terrible team last year should come in handy if he can bring that magic over to New Jersey.
But Bernier isn't the headliner—that honor goes to Dougie Hamilton. Hamilton was really the holy grail of this free-agent market: an offensive defenseman who played a gigantic part in turning around the Hurricanes and is still only 28. He signed for seven years and $63 million, and on the blue line he more than makes up for the Devils' misstep of trading for a declining P.K. Subban in 2019. (Subban will be a UFA after this season.) With 42 points and some really exciting possession metrics, Hamilton is coming off his best-ever finish in the Norris voting (fourth), and he really is the kind of instantly team-changing dude that low-prestige bad franchises can usually only dream of getting. You couldn't ask for a more perfect use of all that cap space.
The other guy I'm psyched about is the one who just escaped Montreal: Tomas Tatar, who mysteriously disappeared from the Canadiens' playoff lineups as he slumped at the exact wrong time. The Devils signed him for two years and $9 million, which is a fine deal for a winger who topped 20 goals in six straight seasons before a disappointing 2021. If you take the long view of Tatar, it doesn't feel like a stretch at all for the Devils to snag someone who could very well lead the team in goals next year. Also, you can have fun saying his name like this guy:
That's as good a segue as any into the other improvement category I mentioned: the vibes. The final medium-to-high impact Devils pickup I haven't yet mentioned is Ryan Graves, who I am extremely biased towards and who I bring up in blogs every opportunity I get. The Devils took advantage of the threat of the expansion draft to take Graves from the Colorado Avalanche in a trade for a second-rounder and a kid who hasn't done much of anything in Mikhail Maltsev. Graves is cool. He's just a big long-haired tank in his mid-20s who ate up a bunch of minutes on the blue line for one of the best teams in hockey. And though he's overshadowed by Hamilton, especially on offense, Graves combines steady play, enticing potential, and some gothic sex appeal all into one easy-to-root-for 6-foot-5 package. Any team would be lucky to have him.
Also new to the party: Luke Hughes! Though he is by no means slotted to be an immediate contributor, the youngest of the Hughes brothers got drafted by the Devils fourth overall just a few weeks ago, likely at least in part due to the urging of the middle child, Jack. Look at how frickin' excited Jack is to hear that he'll be on the same franchise as his brother! Even if Luke takes a few years to suit up for the Devils, simply the idea of the two Hughes boys passing the puck to each other in the NHL makes it easier to be excited for and invested in the Devils right now. (Sorry, Quinn.)
All of this is to say, you should hop on the bandwagon right now before it really gets rolling. The Devils are still a long way away from being a team that can make a deep run in the playoffs, but especially now that they're in a division where more teams are on the downswing than the upswing, they've really done the best they could to put themselves on the right trajectory. It won't be hard to pick a favorite player out of all the options on New Jersey, and you can comfortably invest in them with the knowledge that things can't really get any worse, so if you're in the market for a new second-favorite team, this has to be one of the better places to start.