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Scouting a Divisional Opponent: New Jersey Devils

How close are the Devils to returning to the playoffs?

NHL: OCT 19 Kraken at Devils Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Sunday, the Columbus Blue Jackets will host another opponent from the Metropolitan Division, the New Jersey Devils. Let’s take a look at how they have changed since we last faced them in the 2019-20 season.

A long rebuild

While the Buffalo Sabres get a lot of attention for their long playoff drought, let’s not sleep on what the Devils have been through. After losing in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, the Devils have missed the playoffs in all but one of the last nine seasons. In six of the last seven seasons, they have finished in the bottom two of their division. The one exception was their wild card berth in 2017-18, led by an MVP season by Taylor Hall.

Trust the process

Unlike Buffalo, however, the Devils are finally reaping the rewards from years of high draft picks. Their leading scorer last season and so far this season is Pavel Zacha, the #6 pick in 2015. In second is rookie Dawson Mercer, the #18 pick in 2020. The second scorer last season was Jack Hughes, the top overall selection in 2019. 2017 #1 selection Nico Hischier became the team captain last season at just 22 years old. The future of the team is in the building. Now it’s just a matter of them developing to their full potential together.

They will have to do it without Hughes, however, as he is currently out with a dislocated shoulder.

Teach them how to Dougie

The Devils made an unlikely splash in free agency by signing the top available defenseman, Dougie Hamilton. The cost was steep ($9M AAV over seven years), but given the contracts handed out to other defensemen this year, it’s fair value for a player of his caliber. Even if the Devils aren’t a playoff team this year, the term of the contract ensures that Hamilton will be around when they do finally break through, and at age 28 he should still be playing at a high level for most of the contract length.

How good is Hamilton? He has scored 40 or more points in six of his first nine seasons, and that was accomplished in just 47 games in 2019-20 and 55 games last season. For the fancy stats crowd, he has a career 5v5 shot attempt share of 55.6% and unblocked shot attempt share of 55.2%.

Another low-key solid move to help the defense was acquiring Ryan Graves via trade from Colorado, as the Avs made a pre-expansion draft roster shuffle.

Blackwood takes the phrase “denies a shot” too literally

The biggest story of the preseason for New Jersey was the vaccination status of starting goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood. Due to league protocols as well as Canadian government policy, a refusal to receive the COVID vaccine would have prevented Blackwood from playing in any of the road games in Canada. It also would have jeopardized his chances of making the Canadian Olympic team.

Thankfully, last week he finally received his first dose. A good goalie can carry a team like this to a better-than-expected record, and behind this new-look defense he could eclipse the .916 save percentage and 2.72 GAA he had in his first two seasons. (Unfortunately for Blackwood and the Devils, he is currently on the IR with a heel injury)

Are the Devils ahead of the Blue Jackets?

Now it’s time to hear what you think about the New Jersey Devils. They finished three points behind the Blue Jackets last season. They added more talent than Columbus did. Is this enough for them to leapfrog us in the standings? If they miss the playoffs this year, can they make it next year, or are they farther away than that?

We often refer to the fact that sooner rather than later, both Pittsburgh and Washington will fall off as their great cores age out. At the same time, however, teams like the Rangers and Devils are poised to step into that void as their young prospects blossom. It’s up to this new Columbus reset to keep pace.