Andreas Johnsson #11 and Ty Smith #24 of the New Jersey Devils celebrate their victory over the Philadelphia Flyers

Devils Appear On-Track Ahead of Season Finale

One more. One more sleep, one more decision, a formality at that. Most of all, once more the 2020-21 Devils will play.

The 2000-01 team, which won 48 games, had 12 ties and three overtime defeats, remains atop as the only 110+ point team in the franchise’s history. Still branded as the defensive juggernaut, trap-oriented, bore-you-to-tears Devils, they scored 295 goals–14 goals more than the Pittsburgh, who finished second in league scoring in a season that featured 52-goal, Jaromir Jagr, 44-goal Alexei Kovalev and 68-assister, Martin Straka–Mario added 35 for good measure. The Devils answered Czech stars, Patrik Elias (40 goals) and Petr Sykora (35). Alex Mogilny scored a team-leading 43 and Jason Arnott had 21 in a 54-game shortened season–the last full season for the A-Line member.

That team outlasted the Penguins in a five-game Eastern Conference Final after finishing Carolina (in six) and Toronto (in seven). They’d eventually fall to Ray Bourque and Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk and Patrick Roy’s Colorado Avalanche in the a seven-game Stanley Cup Final. If that game had gone different, Colorado not opening nearly the first half of regulation with a 3-0 lead before Sykora tallied once and Roy made 25 saves, many might regard New Jersey, who would have went back-to-back and added another in 2003, as a dynasty of its era–a team that twice won the Cup in the first three years of the 30-team NHL.

But, that wasn’t the script to be written and while one in the opening three of the again-expanded league is nothing to sneeze at, it’s a separation from dynasty. And, as the 32-team NHL is upon us, the Devils are in a startling different position 20 years later. Though unlike in ’16-’17, or ’18-’19 and ’19-’20, the angst doesn’t appear nearly as potent. Which could, in many ways, be linked to some justified apathy that comes with one playoff appearance in the last nine seasons. But might also find its comfort in fruits of building labor, beginning to uncover.

There was Jack Hughes and Ty Smith. There was Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha, finally and thankfully. There was Janne Kuokkanen and there was Nate Bastian and Mike McLeod. Jesper Bratt, as good as remembered. Nico Hischier, enormously frustrating on a personal level for the captain, who only seemed to lack full health. There was the surprise in Yegor Sharangovich. And there was the other surprise, Lindy Ruff.

It was Ruff, 61, that gave rope to the youngest club after the trade deadline, that saw among others, Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, dealt to New York’s pursuit to return the Cup to Nassau before bidding adieu. It was Ruff, that oversaw a better Zacha, a better Wood and a bounce-back P.K. Subban. And, it just might be Ruff that helps define the young career of Hughes, Smith and the long list of sub-24 year-old talent that fills the roster. Even with the vast options available in coaching free agency, most recently with the additions of John Tortorella and Rick Tocchet, Ruff has earned another season.

He’s also earned the opportunity to mold his staff, perhaps hiring one to two assistants this offseason. Maybe that’s WHL head coach, James Patrick, who was a mainstay on his staff during some of his days in Buffalo and Dallas. Others might emerge as the coaching carousel rounds itself, among many things, in the wake of expansion.

Taylor Hall (NJ – 9) shows frustration after receiving a penalty for holding.

This doesn’t quite feel like the aftermath of 2016-17, where Taylor Hall, yet to be visited by future Taylor Hall to tell him he was on the cusp of something special, was playing disinterested and frustrated with no longer being an Oiler; Cory Schneider was beginning to show his career decline; and Mike Cammalleri and Beau Bennett, had run out their time as players to take a chance on in the Devils’ top-six.

It’s not feeling much like ’18-19, either. Where all the talk over Hall’s looming free agent status, Hynes’ clock starting to tick, and what exactly the Devils were, detracted from any good will and optimism the team earned from a 2018 playoff, albeit short, appearance.

And, it feels miles different from the end of ’19-20, where the abrupt end to the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, eventually keeping them from the 24-team return-to-play, seemed justified on a year in which Hall was dealt, Hynes was fired and Ray Shero, the successor to 27 years of Lou Lamoriello, was let go, too.

Incoming: Alexander Holtz and I’d be surprised if Dawson Mercer isn’t at least giving the organization a Devil of a tough decision to make. Sharangovich and Smith have done enough to justify automatic placement to the 21-22 opening night squad. Jesper Boqvist is looking more and more like he’s around next October. But, Nolan Foote and Kevin Bahl, two in particular that have come on late with strong looks, offer the sort of thirst and competition Devils camp hasn’t had with its youth in some time.

There will presumably be a 2021 first round pick at next fall’s training camp. Unless that pick ends up being Luke Hughes, the youngest brother of the Hughes’ trio, who is committed to the University of Michigan next season, but that probably will suit the Garden State faithful just fine. There’s also the question of what else may come from a team that boasts an excess of picks and cap space, particularly with the uncertainty of expansion and raises in the salary cap, potentially allowing GM, Tom Fitzgerald to expose his peers. Fitz, by the way, appears to be on track for an extension in that capacity.

But, with the season just a night in Philadelphia away from closing. There’s considerably less angst than season’s past. Maybe it’s a relief–it’s over. It could be the evolution of the Devils, who are: organizationally better than ’16-17; better-aligned with the process than ’18-19; and closer to where they want to be than ’19-20. Which is, to replicate the kinds of feats from ’00-01.