Outside of a playoff appearance in the 2017-18 season, the New Jersey Devils have been rebuilding for what has felt like an eternity, gathering six lottery picks and two first-overall selections in the last seven seasons. However, after a strong free agency class and a young core consisting of Nico Hischier, Jack and Luke, the brothers Hughes, and Ty Smith, the Devils may be poised to finally break out this season.
Where they left off
The 2021 season marked the beginning of a new era for the Devils, when interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald was given the full-time job and New York Rangers assistant coach Lindy Ruff was named head coach. However, the first full season under the Fitzgerald regime did not go as planned and the Devils finished in seventh place in the one-season-only East Division.
At the trade deadline, the team bid farewell to long-time Devil Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri in the same trade, sending both to the New York Islanders in exchange for A.J. Greer, Mason Jobst, the Islanders’ 2021 first-round pick, and a conditional 2022 fourth-round pick.
2021 Entry Draft
The Devils ended up with the fourth-overall pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, where they selected Jack Hughes’ brother, defenseman Luke Hughes from the United States National Team Development Program. This made Jack very, very happy.
That was not the Devils’ only first-round selection, however, using the Islanders’ 29th overall pick they received in the Zajac/Palmieri trade to select another brother of an NHL player. In this instance, it was Chase Stillman, the brother of Riley Stillman and the son of Cory Stillman. Stillman is a player described by Last Word On Sports as a power forward who “loves to drive (to) the net, both with and without the puck.”
Day 2 of the draft saw the Devils pick Finnish center Samu Salminen with the 68th overall selection, described by The Cannon as a pure scorer and a “cerebral” player with high intelligence with and without the puck. They also selected goaltender Jakub Malek in the fourth round with the 100th overall pick, defensemen Topias Vilen and Viktor Hurtig in the fifth and sixth rounds respectively, and rounded out their draft class by selecting Russian forward Zhakar Bardakov in the seventh round with the 203rd overall pick.
General manager Tom Fitzgerald decided that this off-season was the time to surround the Devils’ young core with proven NHL talent. Approaching the NHL transaction freeze before the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, the Devils acquired defender Ryan Graves from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for the Islanders’ 2021 second-round pick and forward Mikhail Maltsev.
The Devils continued to load up on talent when free agency began, signing goaltender Jonathan Bernier from the Detroit Red Wings on a two-year contract to back up Mackenzie Blackwood, which came at the tune of $8.25 million with an average annual value (AAV) of $4.25 million. They then landed the best defenseman on the market, Dougie Hamilton, who signed a seven-year, $63 million contract with a $9 million AAV. New Jersey also signed forward Tomas Tatar to a two-year, $9 million deal with a $4.5 million AAV.
Notable Devils losses in the off-season were defensemen Ryan Murray and Will Butcher, the former signing with the Colorado Avalanche to a one-year, $2 million deal and the latter being traded to the Buffalo Sabres along with a 2022 fourth-round pick for future considerations.
2020 first-round pick Alexander Holtz signed his entry-level contract in April, but whether he can crack the Devils’ opening night roster is currently unknown. Here’s what Daily Faceoff thinks the Devils’ lines for opening night might look like:
Janne Kuokkanen — Jack Hughes — Yegor Sharangovich
Tomas Tatar — Nico Hischier — Jesper Bratt
Miles Wood — Pavel Zacha — Michael McLeod
Nolan Foote — Jesper Boqvist — Andreas Johnsson
Ryan Graves — Dougie Hamilton
Ty Smith — Damon Severson
Jonas Siegenthaler — P.K. Subban
What can we expect in 2021-22?
Now that the NHL has reverted back to the standard divisions, the Devils will be looking to make their mark in a tough Metropolitan Division. The Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders are projected to stand in their way, and though this Devils squad is still young, their off-season acquisitions may be enough to put them in the fight for a Wild Card spot.
After a lackluster rookie season in 2019-20, Jack Hughes seems to be putting the pieces together, and Ty Smith will look to build on his impressive rookie season, during which he scored 23 points in 48 games. Yegor Sharangovich was a big surprise for the Devils last season, posting 30 points in 54 games, and will most likely be partnered with Hughes on the first line to kick off the 2021-22 season.
The Devils will first face off against the San Jose Sharks at the SAP Center on November 6, 2021.