New Jersey Devils 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the New Jersey Devils.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 19-30-7 (45 points) seventh place in Eastern Division
• Postseason: Did not qualify for playoffs; Drafted Luke Hughes with the No. 4 overall pick
• Offensive leader: Pavel Zacha (50 games, 17 goals, 18 assists, 35 total points)

• Free Agent Additions: Dougie Hamilton, Tomas Tatar, Ryan Graves (trade with Colorado), Jonathan Bernier
• Free Agent Subtractions: Nick Merkley, Will Butcher

Biggest question facing the New Jersey Devils?

• Are the offseason additions enough to put them into playoff contention?

Since reaching the 2011-12 Stanley Cup Final the New Jersey Devils have been taken up residence near the bottom of the NHL standings. They have qualified for the playoffs just one time in the past nine years, and have finished in last place in their division four different times. A couple of years ago they had a big offseason that was highlighted by the addition of a big-name defenseman (P.K. Subban) and a couple of other additions that would hopefully get them back closer to the playoffs.

It did not work out at all. They tried it again this offseason.

The Devils made one of the biggest free agent signings of the summer when they signed Dougie Hamilton to a seven-year, $63 million contract.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

They also attempted to bolster their defense with a trade for Colorado’s Ryan Graves, while also signing Jonathan Bernier to split goaltending duties with Mackenzie Blackwood.

At forward, Tomas Tatar joins what is one of the youngest forward groups in the league to hopefully give some offensive support to franchise players Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier.

Individually, all of those moves are solid and should make the Devils a better team. Especially the additions of Hamilton, Graves, and Bernier when it comes to goal prevention.

What’s the salary cap situation?

The Devils enter the season with more than $12 million in salary cap space and only two long-term commitments on their books: Hischier, who is signed for six more years at $7.25 million per season, and Hamilton who is starting his seven-year, $63 million contract.

Other than that? No other player on the roster is signed more than two years down the road, while P.K. Subban ($9 million) is the only other player on the roster with a salary cap hit more than $5 million. His contract expires after this season.

So for now they have a lot of room and even more money coming off the books (Subban) this offseason.

They do, however, have a significant number of restricted free agents that are going to require raises very soon, including Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, and the most significant of them all, Jack Hughes.

As of now they are projected to have roughly $35 million in salary cap space to work with next offseason, so they should have enough room to get all of those contracts taken care of and still make more additions to the roster. So the cap situation is very good.

Breakout Candidate

• Jack Hughes

It has to be Hughes. He took a major step forward in year two, but it was not quite a breakout season. That is still ahead for him, and it could happen this season. And by breakout we do not just mean showing more improvement from year two to year three, we mean legitimate breakout to superstardom. He nearly doubled his offensive output (on a per game basis) from year one to year two, and perhaps most importantly took a major step forward in terms of controlling the game. During his rookie season the Devils attempted just 45 percent of the total shot attempts when Hughes was on the ice during 5-on-5 play. In year two, that number skyrocketed to 55 percent, on a team that did not typically control possession. All of the ingredients are there for a true breakout season for Hughes.

Best-Case Scenario

If the Devils are going to make the playoffs a few things have to go right. For starters, Hughes has to have that breakout year. They need a full, healthy season from Nico Hischier. They also need a couple more young players to step forward (Yegor Sherangovich, Zacha, Bratt, Michael McLeod). With improved defensive play due to the additions of Hamilton, Graves, and a full season of Jonas Siegenthaler, as well as the goaltending performing to expectations, there could be a path for this Devils team to compete for a wild card spot. On paper they are not quite at that playoff level just yet, but they should be getting closer.

Worst-Case Scenario

Honestly, it would probably just be more of the same where they struggle to make progress and finish another year at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division. That happens if nobody other than Hughes makes a big jump forward and the goaltending does not shine. The disappointing thing for Devils fans is a finish near the bottom of the division and outside of the playoffs is probably the most likely outcome, even if the team does improve. It is simply a matter of them being in a tough division full of contenders. The Devils are young, they have talent, they improved the roster. But are they better than Carolina? Washington? The Islanders? A healthy Penguins team? The Flyers? Even the Rangers? Tough division to be in.

PointsbetNew Jersey Devils Stanley Cup odds

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NHL Injury Roundup: Evgeni Malkin to miss two months; Backstrom sidelined

NHL training camps opened on Thursday and we are starting to get some early injury information on who will be ready for the start of the season, and who might not be ready.

The big news on Thursday was probably the expected update on the Jack Eichel situation in Buffalo where he failed his physical, there remains a difference of opinion on surgery options, and the team stripped him of his captaincy. Bad situation all around. But that is not the only significant news of the day.

Here are a few other significant updates.

Evgeni Malkin to miss at least two months

The Pittsburgh Penguins are going to open the 2021-22 season without their two-headed monster of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at center.

Crosby is going to miss a few weeks as he recovers from a recent wrist procedure, while Malkin will remain sidelined as he continues to make his way back from offseason surgery. Malkin’s absence has been expected, we just did not have any idea on the timeline for a potential return. General manager Ron Hextall confirmed on Thursday morning that it will be at least two months.

With Crosby and Malkin sidelined at the start that will means Jeff Carter will open the season as the team’s No. 1 center with Teddy Blueger likely sliding into the second line role until Crosby is able to return.

Not an ideal situation by any means, and certainly makes the offseason trade of Jared McCann (something that was almost certainly forced by the expansion draft) seem even more significant.

The Penguins have found some success in the past with Crosby and Malkin sidelined, but it is still going to be a significant challenge to open the year.

Nicklas Backstrom dealing with hip issue

Crosby and Malkin are not the only centers dealing with some injury issues at the start of the season. The Washington Capitals announced on Thursday morning that top center Nicklas Backstrom willl miss the start of training camp and is currently listed as “week-to-week” as he continues to rehab a hip issue that has bothered him since this past season.

Backstrom has had hip issues in the past, so it is a bit of a concern that he is currently sidelined to start the season.

If it turns out to be something that lingers into the season the team does still have Evgeny Kuznetsov on the roster to take over that top spot. Kuznetsov was the subject of trade rumors and speculation all offseason but said on Thursday he is not surprised to still be in Washington and is motivated to have a big season.

Whether Backstrom is healthy or not, the Capitals need Kuznetsov to return to the form he showed two years ago.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

Mike Hoffman doubtful for start of season

The Montreal Canadiens underwent a lot of change this offseason and Mike Hoffman was one of the more significant additions. But coach Dominique Ducharme announced on Thursday that Hoffman sustained a lower-body injury before arriving in Montreal and is doubtful to start the regular season on time.

He scored 17 goals and 19 assists in 52 games for the St. Louis Blues a year ago.

In other Canadiens news, starting goalie Carey Price failed his physical at the start of camp. The Canadiens are hopeful he can appear in at least one preseason game and be ready for the start of the regular season, but that is not yet a guarantee.

Ben Bishop not yet cleared for game action

After missing the entire 2020-21 season Dallas Stars goalie Ben Bishop is able to participate in training camp, but he is not yet cleared for game action according to general manager Jim Nill.

He missed last season after undergoing surgery for a torn meniscus.

The Stars are still pretty set in goal with Anton Khudobin and Jake Oettinger returning, while also having signed veteran Braden Holtby to a one-year contract in free agency.

The Stars also anticipate forward Roope Hintz to be ready for the start of the regular season as he continues to work his way back from offseason surgery.

Devon Toews expected to miss some games

Some significant news for the Colorado Avalanche as they will be without one of their top defenseman, Devon Toews, for the start of the season as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.

The Avalanche acquired Toews before the start of the 2020-21 season for two draft picks and he immediately became one of their top defenders. He scored nine goals with 22 assists in 53 games, while also posting tremendous possession numbers. He has been a steal for general manager Joe Sakic and the Avalanche.

The Avalanche also lost Ryan Graves this offseason, trading him to the New Jersey Devils.

They still have Cale Makar and Sam Girard to lead the defense, while top prospect Bowen Byram (the No. 4 overall pick in the 2019 NHL draft) is knocking on the door. So it should still be an elite defense.

Colorado Avalanche: 2021-22 NHL season preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Colorado Avalanche.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 39-13-4 (82 points); first place in West Division, Presidents’ Trophy
• Postseason: Lost to Golden Knights in six games during Second Round
• Offensive leader: Mikko Rantanen (52 games, 30 goals, 36 assists).

• Free Agent Additions: Darcy Kuemper (trade from Coyotes), Ryan Murray, Darren Helm, Kurtis MacDermid, Jack Johnson (PTO), Artem Anisimov (PTO).
• Free Agent Subtractions: Philipp Grubauer (Kraken), Brandon Saad (Blues), Joonas Donskoi (Kraken expansion draft), Ryan Graves (trade to Devils), Conor Timmins (trade to Coyotes), Patrik Nemeth (Rangers), Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (Lightning).

Biggest Question Facing the Avs

• Will the goaltending hold up?

A less calm-and-collected team might have given Philipp Grubauer the sort of contract that could’ve haunted the Avs down the line. Instead, the Avalanche made the painful decision to allow Grubauer to walk in a free-agent surprise to the Kraken.

Then, instead of making their own free-agent plunge for a goalie, they paid a pretty penny to trade for Darcy Kuemper. Making that swap may or may not have helped the Avalanche justify keeping Gabriel Landeskog around, which was by no means a sure thing.

In the grand scheme of things … not too bad by the Avalanche. Not when you consider the iffy contracts handed out to questionable free-agent goalie options.

Instead, the Kuemper – Pavel Francouz duo boasts potential to deliver great goaltending for the Avalanche in 2021-22. That said, they’re also far from a sure thing. Considering all of the firepower the Avs piled up, it would be gutting if goaltending caused everything to fall apart, much like what happened in an injury-ravaged 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

(About that: is Francouz really an option, platoon or otherwise, for the Avalanche in 2021-22 after missing all of last season? Pretty important question, there.)

Even a powerhouse like the Avalanche will need goaltending to come through from time to time. Can the Avs count on that to happen?

What’s the salary cap situation?

During the offseason, the Avalanche answered some of their most important salary cap questions.

Crucially, they locked down superstar defenseman Cale Makar to a six-year contract that carries a $9 million cap hit. Even with RFA leverage in mind, that was a steal out of context. But in the context of an offseason where other teams paid that much, or more, for players both older and far less promising than Makar? That’s an enormous win.

Will they feel as strongly about bringing back Gabriel Landeskog for eight years at a $7 million cap hit? No doubt, the 2021-22 Avalanche would have been worse off without their rugged, talented captain. Landeskog plays a gritty style that doesn’t always age well, though, and he turns 29 on Nov. 23. That could be a contract that eventually haunts Colorado.

(That said, it’s also easy to imagine Landeskog landing more than $7 million on the free-agent market. So maybe the contending Avalanche just hope that the contract doesn’t haunt them too soon?)

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

The Avalanche have key pieces of their core (and maybe a player or two outside that core) locked up for some time.

  • Again, Makar (22) and Landeskog (28) are now locked up for considerable term.
  • Mikko Rantanen, 24, is easily worth his $9.25 million cap hit, which expires after 2024-25.
  • Like Makar, Samuel Girard is in his prime, and signed through 2026-27. The 23-year-old carries a mere $5 million cap hit.
  • Even on the obvious upswing, the Avalanche took advantage of the Islanders’ salary cap plight last offseason. Devon Toews was clearly worth more than the two second-rounders he cost the Avs, and his $4.1M cap hit is a mega-steal. The only bummer is that the 27-year-old’s deal expires after 2023-24. (Colorado piles up enough bargains to get you greedy.)

Impressive stuff, right?

Still, a huge hurdle looms.

With Nathan MacKinnon‘s borderline-insulting $6.3 million cap hit, the Avalanche have enjoyed one of the league’s biggest bargains since the contract kicked in during the 2016-17 season. The 26-year-old superstar will need a new contract after the 2022-23 season, however.

[Back in late 2019, MacKinnon discussed possibly leaving money on table with next contract]

While MacKinnon indicated he might take less money to stay in Colorado, the Avs should still expect a big raise. Frankly, he deserves it.

Beyond MacKinnon, the Avalanche will need to figure out if Kuemper and/or Francouz will be part of the goaltending duo beyond 2021-22. Both 31-year-old goalies enter contract years.

Cap Friendly estimates the Avalanche to have about $2.3 million to work with for 2021-22. That said, one or both of Anisimov and Johnson could eat into that if they make the team on PTOs. This is, essentially, a cap ceiling team. That said, there might be a tiny bit of extra room to work with, and maybe that could make a difference during the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline?

Breakout Candidate

Bowen Byram

The Avalanche already roll out Makar, Toews, and Girard. Shouldn’t it be, like, illegal to also boast a prospect as promising as Bowen Byram?

That glut of high-end, high-skilled defensemen could make it tougher for Byram to truly breakout for the Avalanche in 2021-22. To an extent, Alex Newhook might be the safer pick.

Still, there’s absolutely room for Byram to flourish. The Avalanche lost some pieces on defense, including Ryan Graves. That could leave the door open just enough for Byram to bloom at just 20 years old. It’s also worth noting that the Avs seem like a team that’s less likely to overthink things with a young player. Where stodgier franchises will talk themselves out of trusting young talents, the Avalanche mostly set them loose.

Don’t be surprised if Byram has a huge season. It really might just be a matter of “when,” not “if.”

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Avalanche

Close your eyes and picture the most dominant team next season. All due respect to the repeat champion Lightning … but for 2021-22, it’s got to be the Avalanche, right? In a salary cap age, it’s unusual to see a team with so many strengths. Just about every important Avalanche player sits in the meat of their most fruitful prime years. Would it be that outrageous if Kuemper — a goalie who thrived even when things were, at times, pretty dire in Arizona — ends up being a big upgrade? If everything comes together, the 2021-22 Avalanche could be a juggernaut. Honestly, they could be dominant even with some bad luck.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Avalanche

Yes, there’s the more out-there worst-case scenario of missing the playoffs entirely. Let’s be more realistic about the 2021-22 Avalanche, though. It would be very bad if the 2021-22 Avalanche really end up the same as recent editions. Following another good-to-great regular season with a failed playoff push would be crushing. People have been reasonably patient with the Avalanche so far, but if they don’t sniff a conference final showing (or better), the “choker” label might start popping up. That’s often unfair, but it’s also the nature of the beast. A great collection of talent can inspire great expectations. If they fall short, people might start to get jumpy — and maybe make some foolish mistakes.

Please, don’t kill this beautiful thing in Colorado.

PointsbetColorado Avalanche Stanley Cup odds

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.