New Jersey Devils’ Keys to Success in 2021-22

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - OCTOBER 01: Dougie Hamilton #7 of the New Jersey Devils skates against the New York Rangers in a preseason game at the Prudential Center on October 01, 2021 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

As the New Jersey Devils’ season opens Friday against the Chicago Blackhawks, there is a certain amount of potential surrounding this young team. Between free-agent signings and players taking steps forward in development, this year’s team is expected to be far more competitive than last season.

While New Jersey could stand to improve in every aspect of the game, there are a few specific keys to this year being deemed a success.

Special Teams Improvement

The Devils were a disaster on the power play and penalty kill last season ranking towards the bottom of the league in both categories.

Last season, New Jersey was the fourth worst team in the NHL with the man advantage. Operating at 14.19 percent, the Devils power play unit often had trouble getting shots. This can be attributed to poor puck movement as well as sheer unwillingness to shoot when given the opportunity. Most of the time, the team seemed more interested in setting up the perfect play rather than getting to the dirty areas.

The Devils spent money in free agency and signed defensemen Dougie Hamilton. Hamilton is a known puck-moving defenseman with power play quarterbacking capabilities. The addition of Tomas Tatar and a fully healthy Nico Hischier will also add options to a struggling unit.

Things were not much better on the other side of special teams last year. At 70.95 percent, the Devils penalty kill was the worst in league last season and was sixth worst in NHL history.

Like on the power play, a healthy Hischier will, single-handedly, cause improvements on the penalty kill. The acquisition of Ryan Graves from the Colorado Avalanche will also help secure the backend when down a man. Graves is a stay-at-home defenseman who is sure of himself in his own zone.

Michael McLeod will also be an integral part of penalty kill moving forward. His face-off ability will help the team gain early possession and help the penalty kill moving forward. Defensively abled forwards like Pavel Zacha and Jimmy Vesey will also be seeing heavy penalty kill time.

Mackenzie Blackwood Takes Charge in Net

The time has come for Mackenzie Blackwood to solidify himself as the goaltender of the future. The 24-year-old netminder has seen varied success in his career. At points, Blackwood has looked like a brick wall in net who would only lose games due to lack of goal support.

At other times, Blackwood has looked unsure of his positioning and allowed bad goals. This was especially true last season when Blackwood returned after missing time because of Covid-19. Granted, New Jersey’s awful defense over the past couple of seasons has not helped him.

In the offseason, New Jersey went out and signed goaltender Jonathan Bernier in free agency to battle for the starting goalie position. Bernier has proven to be a more than capable starting goaltender that has just been caught on some bad teams throughout his career.

Blackwood has to take this signing as a challenge. He needs to see Bernier looking over his shoulder and take control of the crease. Blackwood is one of the bright young goalies in the game today. If he starts over 50 games this season, this will mean that Blackwood is back to form which is a recipe for success.

Jack Hughes Breaks Out

There were points last season where a Jack Hughes break out looked inevitable. Hughes had a high zone entry rate and was creating play with his high-quality skating and passing ability. Due to a bout with Covid-19 and an inconsistent playing schedule, Hughes could not reach his full potential last season as he was only able to rack up 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists) in 56 games.

For this year to be successful, Hughes needs to be New Jersey’s best offensive player on a nightly basis. He has the ability to drive play and open up ice for his teammates and the Devils will be successful if Hughes can do this consistently.

For the Devils to be contenders, Hughes needs to put up at least 60 points this season. With Hischier staying healthy and playing in more defensive situations, Hughes can save his energy for offensive opportunities. If Hughes can stay healthy, becoming a point-per-game player is not completely out of the realm of possibility.

Beating Worse Teams

Last season, New Jersey only won four out of eight games against a Buffalo Sabres. While this was the only team worse than the Devils last season, Buffalo was the worst team in the NHL and taking only half the games is inexcusable.

New Jersey gets a chance against every NHL team this season. This means they will be able to play the Arizona Coyotes, Anaheim Ducks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, and Buffalo Sabres a combined 17 times this season. These teams are consistently bottom dwellers, and the Devils need to beat them if they plan on being a successful team.

The Devils must take 14 of these 17 matchups if they want to take serious strides this season. No more playing down to their competition and showing they have taken a step forward as a franchise.

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