Devils have another rough season under Lindy Ruff

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — All the talk about the New Jersey Devils being young, talented and on the verge of restoring the organization to its past glory is starting to get old.

While there were glimpses of potential this season, the Devils did not play with the consistency needed to be an NHL playoff team.

New Jersey posted a 27-46-9 record and missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year and ninth time in the last 10. A major part of the problem was playing the majority of the season without its top two goaltenders, Mackenzie Blackwood (heel) and Jonathan Bernier (hip).

While disappointed after missing the playoffs for the second straight year since taking over as coach, Lindy Ruff said it’s hard to evaluate the season bacause of the goaltending as well as injuries that limited center Jack Hughes to 49 games and kept key players Nico Hischier, Dougie Hamilton and Miles Wood off the ice for extended periods.

“I think we’re close, but it is so hard to evaluate where you’re at and, at the same time, you don’t want to blame everything on we’re missing our two goalies,” Ruff said. “You have to be real about where you want to be and what you want to say; what’s the biggest thing missing and why we didn’t get there.”

Ruff said his position as coach is being evaluated by general manager Tom Fitzgerald when asked if he would be back for a third season. Fitzgerald is scheduled to have a news conference later this week.

The Devils beat the likes of Colorado, Carolina and Las Vegas when they were competing for a playoff spot. They also imploded at times, blowing a four-goal, third-period lead in an overtime loss to Florida and a two-goal lead against the Hurricanes with less than five minutes to play in another OT loss.

Good teams don’t do that. The Devils’ 63 points were 28th in the 32-team league.

“It’s defintely frustrating, you know, and it’s not even like we’re close, you know, we’re far away from the playoffs, but, you know, that’s sports man,” said Hughes who had a breakout season with 26 goals and 30 assists. He missed the final month with a knee injury.

“Teams go in and out of the playoffs, good teams turn into bad teams and bad teams turn into good teams,” the soon-to-be 21-year-old said of his third season. “It’s just one big cycle so I think the fans should be really positive with what we have here.”

Forward Jesper Bratt, who set personal bests with 26 goals, 47 assists and 73 points, said all the players need to take a step forward in the offseason and make the Devils a playoff team.

“I’ve been a part for five years now of a team not really succeeding and organization that has not been succeeding,” Bratt said. “I want to become a part that changes that. I want to be a part of the team which brought this team back to be a championship team.”

MUSICAL GOALTENDERS

The Devils used seven goalies because of the injuries to Blackwood and Bernier. Blackwood was limited to 25 games by a heel injury and Bernier played in 10 before hip surgery. Scott Wedgewood, Akira Schmid, Nico Daws, Jon Gillies and Andrew Hammond also played.

It’s the second year in a row of multiple goalies. Last year, veteran Corey Crawford retired before the start of the season and Blackwood had more injuries.

FORMER NO. 1s

Hughes and Hischier both took huge steps, particularly Hughes, who at times dominated the ice with his puck handling. Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in 2017 — two years before Hughes was the No. 1 — finished with 21 goals and 39 assists for 60 points, all career bests.

SURPRISES

Besides Bratt, there were a couple of surprises. Yegor Sharangovich avoided the second-year blues and finished with 24 goals, 22 assists and 46 points. Dawson Mercer was an even bigger surprise, making the jump from junior hockey. He was the only player on the team to skate in all 82 games and he finished with 17 goals and 25 assists.

DEFENSE

Signing Hamilton to a monster contract gave New Jersey a solid No. 1 defenseman. He started the season well but missed 17 games with a broken jaw. He also played with a broken toe before that.

Damon Severson had a career year with 11 goals and 35 assists and Jonas Siegenthaler emerged as a solid defensive defenseman in his second season with the club.

NEEDED CHANGES

The Devils need to hold serve more at home (16-20-5) and definitely improve away from the Prudential Center (11-26-4). The road record was the second worst in the league. The home mark was 26th.

FREE AGENCY

Defenseman P.K. Subban and forward Jimmy Vesey are the only unrestricted free agents. Don’t be surprised if the Devils go after a top goaltender.

How far are Devils from a future playoff run after painful 2021-22 season?

PHT’s “What Went Wrong?” series asks that question about teams who’ve been eliminated from the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Why did this team fall short, and how far are they from getting things right?. Following news of Jack Hughes’ season-ending injury, PHT breaks down why 2021-22 the New Jersey Devils missed the playoffs.

Bad injury news seemed to spike the “one good thing” about the 2021-22 Devils. The ray of hope that is Jack Hughes‘ ascent to stardom (if not superstardom) went dim until next season.

Overall, that’s not totally fair. When you dig a little, you can talk yourself into the 2021-22 Devils building something that could translate to progress next season, and further down the line.

Yet, that more flippant viewpoint isn’t totally unearned, either.

On April 1, the Devils were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. This marks the fourth consecutive season they’ve missed the postseason, and marks a stretch where they missed in nine of 10 seasons. Taylor Hall essentially willed them to a playoff berth in 2017-18, where they won a single playoff game.

In that time, the Devils frequently looked like offseason winners. They’ve added big defensive names like P.K. Subban and Dougie Hamilton. They memorably won that Taylor Hall – Adam Larsson trade. Despite those victories of perception, the 2021-22 Devils look a lot like other Devils teams from the past decade.

Dire. Dim. Without an overwhelming argument for things getting much better anytime soon.

2021-22 Devils: a mediocre team made awful by goaltending and special teams

Peek at certain metrics, such as Hockey Viz’s team charts, and you may be surprised by the Devils’ relative competence. Evolving Hockey’s team RAPM charts capture a team with solid (though by no means spectacular) offense, a solid penalty kill, and ultimately a team undone by a putrid power play and miserable goaltending.

Going back to Hockey Viz, their metrics indicate that the Devils’ goalies allowed about 50 more goals than expected.

Based on Hockey Viz’s metrics, the Devils should’ve ended up with about a +5 goal differential, while Natural Stat Trick estimates around a +10 expected goal differential at 5-on-5.

Those “expected” numbers sure beat the actual reality. Even ignoring that the Devils can’t just assume they’ll get league-average-or-better goaltending next season, it’s also worth noting that a modest positive goals differential likely wouldn’t have driven the 2021-22 Devils to the postseason.

In an Eastern Conference with a strong top eight, the Capitals boast the lowest goal differential at +24.

So, the 2021-22 Devils were unlucky, but better luck alone won’t guarantee better times next season. That said, there are a few other things to note.

Injuries were an issue for the 2021-22 Devils

Before you totally belittle Dougie Hamilton, and the Devils’ decision to sign him, note that things could look different if his season was healthier. So far this season, Hamilton’s appeared in a mere 50 games, dealing with ailments such as a broken jaw.

Even before this latest season-ending injury, Jack Hughes has been hampered by injuries, too. He’ll end the season with just 49 games played.

As disastrous as this season has been for Mackenzie Blackwood, some of the Devils’ goaltending issues are rooted in bad luck. Seven different goalies played at least one game for the Devils, and Blackwood’s 23 games played leads the group. Not exactly a recipe for success.

Considering all of the headaches on and off the ice, it’s reasonable to wonder about Blackwood’s future with the Devils. (If nothing else, the Devils’ most-used goalies are young; Blackwood is 25, and Nico Daws is 21.)

Can things go right next season?

When you think of formulas for a potential contender, the Devils check a few of those boxes.

  • Jack Hughes looks like the sort of star center a team needs to compete.
  • Quietly, Nico Hischier keeps establishing himself as a useful second-line center.
  • There’s still a chance that a healthy Dougie Hamilton can be the elite defenseman who makes a difference. He’s not perfect (defensive issues that might be overstated, are still there, and he tends to take too many penalties), but it’s not outrageous to hope for more.
  • Most quietly, Jesper Bratt‘s enjoyed a breakthrough to elite underlying numbers. Maybe he’s not truly someone who can rank among the league’s upper-crust year after year, but he sure seems like a gem on the wing:
Good luck getting away with Bratt-wurst puns this season. (via Evolving Hockey)

All of that is comforting. Again, it’s important to note how often the Devils lure you into picturing best-case scenarios lately. Ultimately, they need to surround Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and other core members with more help. Finding a fix in net might not be so easy. They also may need to ask some tough questions about Lindy Ruff’s chances of squeezing more out of this team.

In February, The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler ranked the Devils’ farm system fourth overall (sub required). Eventually, more help may come in the form of Alexander Holtz, and eventually, sibling symmetry with Luke Hughes. With some draft lottery luck, maybe the Devils could add one more blue chip piece:

Either way, the Devils need to seek out answers beyond hoping Jack Hughes and others keep getting better (even if Hughes’ ascent is the biggest thing for Devils fans to be excited about).

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.