Devils celebrate goal versus the Sabres on Oct. 23 at home. Photo by: Andrew Mordzynski

Four Thoughts Through Four Devils Games

Four games, three wins–once in regulation, two in OT and a not-so-good 60-minute effort against the class of their division, and the Devils, three weeks into the season, remain a rather undefined hockey club. For starters, they’ve played just four games three weeks into the season. They’ve also yet to play at full-strength with key pieces on the blueline, their projected starting goaltender out and more recently, the absence of Jack Hughes to a dislocated shoulder–he remains week-to-week.

As patience is already thinning in the likes of Chicago, Montreal and Toronto, much of the fanbase in New Jersey has remained cautiously optimistic on the team’s start. But, the 2021-22 season also represents the 10-year anniversary of the memorable 2011-12 season, which saw the Devils follow up a miserable campaign one season prior into a run to the Cup Final. In the 9 seasons that have followed, the Devils have played in just one playoff round, just five postseason contests. Suffice to say, optimism tha t exists in its present form three weeks into the season, doesn’t figure to hang around at the first sign of trouble.

Four games and 12-plus periods is an irrational sample size to conjure any true observations and/or forecast some sort of season outlook, but here’s to taking a stab at trying to define this hockey club in 4 thoughts.

1. Andreas Johnsson

Andreas Johnsson’s first season in New Jersey was tough to comprehend. His underlying numbers suggested a useful forward at limited TOI. His +75 shot attempt differential was the best on the team among sub-14:00 5v5 skaters and was nearly among the top-10 in the same categories among his 5v5 TOI class, which included Patrice Bergeron, Brandon Saad and Sam Bennett. And yet, Johnsson struggled mightily to produce, scoring five goals and 11 points in 50 games–a lower output than his 21 points in 43 games in the COVID-shortened 19-20 campaign, his final season in Toronto before becoming another Leafs’ cap casualty.

In four games this season, he’s posted a +8 shot attempt differential, tied for third among Devils forwards, and has already added a pair of points (1G-1A). But the efficiency meeting results hasn’t been lost on the eye test, either. In the aftermath of their 4-3 OT-win over Chicago on opening night, Lindy Ruff called it Johnsson’s “best game as a Devil.”

“Even going back to last year. That line was in on a lot of good stuff and he was the lead for getting the opportunities.”

It’s more of the same from Johnsson, who tallied on opening night on a rebound from rookie, Dawson Mercer, but even as the statistics expect to be lifted, there’s something to be said of the engaged play and how impactful he can be to making that third line a formidable one. Playing with Mercer and free agent signee, Tomas Tatar, the one-time seventh rounder has done his part in driving that line at times–he doesn’t have some of the same outright skill as they do, but should be able to keep pace if he can create opportunities.

2. Special Teams (but, mostly the PK)

The Devils are 2-for-9 on the power play; 11-for-15 on the penalty kill. With the changes on defensive personnel, there remains a wait-and-see, and given Damon Severson and Ty Smith, a pair of point-shot defensemen, were among the Devils to have missed time. The kill, which has surrendered a goal in three of four games is mildly concerning and has nearly proven costly.

Like the pair of goals on opening night versus the Blackhawks, who tallied twice on the advantage including once in the final 3:53 of regulation before the Hawks rallied to tie with 26 seconds to go before the Hughes helped the Devils survive the scare in overtime. The same happened on Oct. 19 against Seattle, holding a 3-1 lead with 6:30 in the third–a Severson trip turned into a Jared McCann goal before an empty-net tally sealed the game.

The kill managed to go 3-for-3 against the Capitals, who still got passed 4-1 on Oct. 21, but yielded one to Buffalo on Saturday. The Devils have drawn 3.93 in regulation and have taken 4.92. Unsurprisingly, Nico Hischier (2:34) leads the team in shorthanded TOI; Michael McLeod (2:09), Yegor Sharangovich (2:06), Jimmy Vesey (1:50) and Frederik Gauthier (1:40) have all taken some of the load on the kill up-front. While Hischier’s taken the role Travis Zajac had last season, Both McLeod and Sharangovich have seen their usage, steady a season ago, increase marginally. This could be the way Vesey and Gauthier find a way to stick. Perhaps the same could be said for Marian Studenic though?

It’s concerning to see the struggles right now, but between lineup regulars and players looking for defined roles, they’re not without options on the kill.

3. Mackenzie Blackwood

At the start of the 2020-21 season, Corey Crawford, who signed a two-year contract in free agency, decided to step away from the team for personal reasons before ultimately retiring. It vaulted Mackenzie Blackwood from a committee approach to the undisputed No. 1 in net. As COVID wreaked havoc on the League and the Devils for a good stretch of time in January, a collection of Scott Wedgewood and waiver claims, Aaron Dell and Eric Comrie, entered the pipes to carry the load in Blackwood’s absence. Lingering issues related to COVID-19 would also force Wedgewood into spot starts.

Blackwood is again sidelined, this time due to lingering issues associated with offseason heel surgery. Jonathan Bernier picked up the start for the first two games of the season, but a lower-body injury to him has already forced the team into their No. 3 and No. 4 goaltenders on the depth chart in Wedgewood and rookie, Nico Daws–who looked strong in a 2-1 OT victory over the Sabres on Saturday.

Blackwood, who skated on Tuesday, is reportedly undergoing the process to be vaccinated. This would bring the Devils to 100% vaccination status as an organization and ideally, prevent lengthy absences or suspension of play due to outbreaks. Once the recovery and vaccination are behind him, there’s no telling where a healthy Blackwood can go and how much that can do to help turn the tide in New Jersey. The defense added Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves, who can eat minutes and drastically impact special teams, but getting stops with a tandem of Blackwood-Bernier can also go a long way if they figure to be a surprise team in a tough Metropolitan division. As such, his return is much anticipated.

4. Response to Hughes

As mentioned, Hughes remains week-to-week with what is being described as a dislocation in his left shoulder. The injury does not require surgery at this time, but will force the center to injure reserve for an undetermined period of time. The injury occurred in the first period of the Devils’ second game of the season versus Seattle. In what was their most physical game of the four, the Devils battled through any adversity to win a 4-2 decision.

The response in that game was encouraging, but he’s likely to miss 10+ games, so we may need to check back in games 6-8 to see how well they are handling the adversity. McLeod will try and skate in the top-six and Hischier will have some added responsibilities to be a go-to offensive source. But if they can survive this wave of adversity and come out mostly healthy, it could be rather telling to the mentality of this team and its maturing process. More so, it should put them in a preferable spot as the season ramps up post-U.S. Thanksgiving.

Hughes, who plays the game with speed and a high-tempo offensive instincts, was starting to certify that his flashes from a season ago were no fluke and could be the blueprint in how the team would try and be an attacking club. With him gone, it’s also on the team to try and show their ability to play that style.

All could go along way in figuring out what this team is and can be.