Tonight, the Devils will open their season at home against the mighty Boston Bruins. It will be a test for New Jersey, who did not come close to making the playoffs last season, but who made several significant changes since the end of the 2019-20 season. The most significant change is behind the bench, where new Head Coach Lindy Ruff has instituted a new system. A more offensively minded Devils will take the ice tonight–a team which will be relying on speed and sending four players up the ice.
The team has had some unpleasant surprises over the last few weeks but is bouncing back strongly.
The sudden retirement of newly signed veteran netminder, Corey Crawford, was a shock. It was only three months ago that Crawford signed a 2-year deal with New Jersey and solidified the team’s twosome between the pipes. Crawford and Mackenzie Blackwood were to be 1a and 1b for this season. But, it was not meant to be. It is truly unfortunate, as Crawford was supposed to give Blackwood the benefit of his many years of experience. As important as a goalie coach can be (and I am not underestimating this), there is nothing like a young goalie sharing the net with an experienced Stanley Cup winner who is eager to teach. Scott Wedgewood will be Blackwood’s backup for the season, instead. And while Wedgewood is a solid netminder, he is no Corey Crawford. But hope is far from lost, as the 24-year-old Blackwood (a Devils 2015 second round pick) had an excellent season last year (he posted a 2.77 GAA and 91.5 save percentage in 47 games). And, if training camp is any indication, he is expected to pick up right where he left off.
Starting the Season a Bit Short Up Front
The Devils’ forward lines will look different tonight. First-line center Nico Hischier is out due to an injury to his foot. Although Hischier is close to returning (currently, day-to-day), his loss will be felt in this newly minted offense first team. Added on the wing is Andreas Johnsson, who is kind of a jack-of-all-trades. He can play in all situations, which will be even more important than usual over the next few games until Hischier can come back and take some of the load of Johnsson. Also added on the wing is 22-year-old rookie Yegor Sharagovich, who gets a chance to skate on the left side of Jack Hughes and Kyle Palmieri. With Hischier out, Michael McLeod will get a chance to be the fourth-line center.
Winger Jesper Bratt will not be on the ice tonight, as he was just resigned to a two-year contract earlier this week. He will also have to quarantine upon arrival. Also required to quarantine will be right handed defenseman Sami Vatanen, who signed a one -year contract on January 7th. As Devils fans remember, Vatanen was sent to Carolina last February (essentially for their playoff run), in exchange for Janne Kuokkanen (who will be on the wing tonight for New Jersey) and Fredrik Claesson.
Devils’ Much Improved D
If the Devils are a little short upfront of what the team will be in a few weeks, the defensive corps has been strengthened since last season. Ryan Murray will be on the left side of PK Subban tonight as part of the first pairing. Murray came to the team from Columbus for a fifth round pick in October of last year, and he is now healthy and looks to really contribute. He is considered a two-way left shot blueliner, who will fit in well with the new system. The other new D-man who should fit in very well is Dmitry Kulikov. Although Kulikov has played a more stay-at-home role during his professional career, he seems anxious to get back to the more two-way role he played in junior hockey.
And then there is Ty Smith, who will be making his NHL debut this evening. A Devils’ 2018 first-round entry draft selection, Smith, an elite skater, is starting on the third pairing.
The Devils are definitely on the right track with their new system. They should be exciting and fun, with lots of ups and downs as this shortened season moves along. New Jersey is essentially a team on the rise, but not quite there yet. The team is focusing on changing their style of play and quite a few of the pieces that this will take are now in the organization (either on the NHL team or below). But there are still some missing parts. So, the high hopes are really for some big steps by the younger players and some rebound for the veterans. Even if that happens, the playoffs are a longshot, but, in a couple of years–watch out for this team.