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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Carolina Hurricanes: 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 Carolina Hurricanes.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 36-12-8 (80 points); first place in Central Division
• Postseason: Reached Second Round, lost in five games to Lightning
• Offensive leader: Sebastian Aho (56 games, 24 goals, 33 assists, 57 points)

• Free Agent Additions: Jesperi Kotkaniemi (successful offer sheet), Tony DeAngelo, Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta, Ethan Bear (trade from Oilers), Ian Cole, Derek Stepan, Josh Leivo, Stefan Noesen, Brendan Smith.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Dougie Hamilton (Devils), Alex Nedeljkovic (trade to Red Wings), Petr Mrazek (Maple Leafs), James Reimer (Sharks), Jake Bean (trade to Blue Jackets), Morgan Geekie (Kraken expansion draft), Warren Foegele (trade to Oilers).

Biggest Question Facing the Hurricanes

• Did the Hurricanes outsmart themselves?

Heading into the 2021-22 NHL season, the Hurricanes are betting big that they’re the smartest people in the room.

Was it truly bitter revenge? Maybe a savvy move with a splash of trolling? Either way, the Hurricanes weren’t being modest with the Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet.

Yes, there could be more than meets the eye if that Kotkaniemi offer sheet translates to an affordable contract down the line. But there’s the risk that the Hurricanes burned themselves with a “galaxy brain” move.

It’s easy to act like the Hurricanes can just wash their hands of Kotkaniemi if he’s a dud in 2021-22. They’d still need to accept that they paid him way more than expected, and also gave up picks in what’s expected to be a strong 2022 NHL Draft. If it works, they can point to their craniums. But, yeah, it’s possible that they trolled themselves, most of all.

It’s not the only area where people can wonder if the Hurricanes were overconfident heading into 2021-22.

Did they underestimate how important Dougie Hamilton is to their defense? Maybe they weren’t convinced that Alex Nedeljkovic was the real deal. If the younger, cheaper Nedeljkovic is better than Frederik Andersen, then that’s another strikeout in net. Andersen – Antti Raanta could be what the doctor ordered. It could also figure into a narrative of overthinking things.

What’s the salary cap situation?

During a polarizing offseason, just about anyone would agree that Andrei Svechnikov‘s new contract is a big win.

Between Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Teuvo Teravainen, Carolina enjoys a young, talented trio at about a $21.6M cap hit for multiple seasons. It gets even better when you consider bargain deals for Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce.

Also, the Hurricanes may have simply made a difficult-but-necessary decision with Dougie Hamilton. From Erik Karlsson to Drew Doughty, we’ve seen teams burned by paying big for elite, aging defensemen.

On the horizon, the Hurricanes might soon wave goodbye to Vincent Trocheck, Nino Niederreiter, and/or Jordan Staal. Unlike less proactive teams, Carolina may already have solutions lined up. Kotkaniemi, Martin Necas, Seth Jarvis, Ryan Suzuki, and others could make up the difference. They could also end up even better.

(Oh, and the team cleared up a more immediate concern. With Jake Gardiner headed to LTIR, Kotkaniemi’s offer sheet fits in to the cap puzzle.)

Breakout Candidate

• Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Martin Necas

Is it cheating to include Martin Necas as a breakout candidate? With 41 points in 53 games, he’s already a valuable Hurricanes forward. Still, this season could be the time where Necas gains more mainstream attention.

If Necas counts as a cheat, then Kotkaniemi seems like a worthy candidate. Certainly, the Hurricanes have plenty of incentive to help him succed. (If anything, there’s the potential for grumbling if they try to force it.)

Frighteningly for the competition, there are other candidates. It’s more likely that Hurricanes prospects Seth Jarvis and Ryan Suzuki will truly break out later than 2021-22. Don’t count them out from leaping sooner than expected, however.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Hurricanes

Look, the Hurricanes have been knocking on the door for a long time now. Carolina merely needs to look at the Capitals to recall that, sometimes, teams go deep later than expected. It wouldn’t be outrageous if the Hurricanes remain daunting defensively, even without Hamilton. In that event, they’re that much more likely to get the goaltending they’ve needed, while that offense looks potent. Few would be stunned if Carolina rises that one extra level.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Hurricanes

Then again, it’s easy to ignore that Dougie Hamilton’s put up elite results for years. Multiple NHL teams have allowed him to walk. What if the Hurricanes end up regretting that? Things could start to turn sour if they slip defensively, their goaltending bets backfire, and Tony DeAngelo does … well, Tony DeAngelo things. The worst-case scenario would be missing the playoffs outright, then falling into a crisis of confidence. Patience may really start to wear thin if they barely make a postseason run, as well. At some point, a promising future needs to translate into a fulfilling present.

PointsbetCarolina Hurricanes 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.

Can Hurricanes get more out of Kotkaniemi than Habs did?

Whether it’s true or not, Hurricanes GM Don Waddell denied that the (eventually successful) Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet was about getting revenge on the Canadiens. Waddell indicates that the trolling aspects of the fallout were about marketing, and letting the Hurricanes’ social media team have a little fun.

In the grand scheme of things, what happens on the ice matters the most.

So, about that. Can the Hurricanes get more out of Jesperi Kotkaniemi than the Canadiens did?

Contract/cap considerations

When you zoom in on the 2021-22 season alone, you don’t get the full picture of why the Hurricanes went after Kotkaniemi.

Things get more interesting if you take a wider view. Center Vincent Trocheck‘s $4.75M cap hit expires after 2021-22, and he enters this contract year at age 28. Jordan Staal, 32, will see his $6M AAV dissolve after two more seasons.

On one hand, Waddell claimed publicly that the Hurricanes only discussed Kotkaniemi’s one-year, $6.1M (plus trolling change) deal.

It’s possible that’s a matter of playing coy. Way back to when the offer sheet first surfaced, Elliotte Friedman indicated that the high one-year price might factor in a possible, cost-effective future contract for Kotkaniemi.

(Side note: Jake Gardiner is expected to go on LTIR, making room for this new contract.)

A younger (Kotkaniemi turned 21 on July 6), potentially cheaper player could be a nice replacement for Trocheck and/or Staal. With Martin Necas (22) also coming into his own and bouncing between the center and wing, you could picture something impressive forming for Carolina.

They have 24-year-old center Sebastian Aho locked up for three more years (about $8.5M) on that allegedly-not-revenge-inspiring deal. Also, Andrei Svechnikov, 21, just signed an eight-year contract that carries a $7.75M cap hit.

That’s potentially quite the young core, and there could be some good Finnish vibes, as Kotkaniemi joins Aho and 26-year-old Teuvo Teravainen (a $5.4M bargain for three more seasons).

Sounds great, especially after you sell it a bit, right? Well, the success or failure of the Hurricanes investing all of this in an offer sheet for Kotkaniemi ultimately boils down to …

Can the Hurricanes get the most out of Kotkaniemi after bumpy Habs development?

In giving up a first and a third-round pick in 2022, and paying Kotkaniemi far more than he was expected this season, the Hurricanes made a big upfront investment. Much like absorbing Patrick Marleau‘s contract for a first-rounder, the key for Carolina is if the bet will pay off down the line.

So, will it pay off? That’s where things get tricky, interesting, and maybe a bit granular.

On one hand, there was a jittery, staccato rhythm to Kotkaniemi’s development with the Canadiens. Injuries, the occasional AHL demotion, and even playoff healthy scratches didn’t help matters. As Andrew Berkshire discussed on The Hockey PDOcast, there also may have been an essential disagreement about how he should play. Berkshire noted that Kotkaniemi viewed himself as more of a playmaker, while Montreal seemingly wanted him to use his size to play a more straightforward style, focused on getting to tougher areas.

There was at least some sense that Kotkaniemi expects Carolina to be a better fit.

Talking to the press in his car, Waddell noted that Kotkaniemi’s likely to slot in at left wing. At least early on.

The Hurricanes’ early plan: start Kotkaniemi at LW

Playing on the wing, instead of center, might allow Kotkaniemi to assert himself on offense more often. Frankly, the most important difference might be linemates.

During his three seasons with the Canadiens, Kotkaniemi’s linemates were scattered. It’s telling that Joel Armia is the only forward he logged more five-on-five ice time with (757:40 minutes) than without (649:33). His most consistent linemates were Armia and Artturi Lehkonen (703:42 with; 1,186:30 without).

Armia and Lehkonen are both very nice supporting cast forwards. Still, neither are the types of players who will light up scoreboards.

It stands to reason that Kotkaniemi will receive more dangerous linemates with the Hurricanes. Carolina has some incentive, even, to prop him up, after making this big gambit.

(To be fair, it also seems like the Habs were gearing up to give him a bigger role. He was penciled in as a 2C, and likely would’ve played with more dynamic wingers, more often. Whether he was actually ready for them, or not.)

Making the puzzle pieces fit

But will Kotkaniemi’s skills match up with the Hurricanes on the ice to the same degree that he seems to fit in their minds? That’s more complicated, and might boil down to how much leash he receives.

Can Kotkaniemi acclimate to the Hurricanes’ system after struggling with the Canadiens? Will his skating still hold him back? Last season, he scored 20 points in 55 games. His ceiling is almost certainly higher than that, but by how much?

This was already a fascinating and polarizing offseason for the Hurricanes. They’ve made big changes in net. Carolina allowed Dougie Hamilton to walk in free agency, hoping that Tony DeAngelo can be a cheap offensive alternative (while not being too … actually offensive).

Beyond totally not getting revenge, the Kotkaniemi offer sheet is another big Hurricanes gamble. If things really go off the rails, they could’ve squandered key picks in what’s expected to be a strong 2022 NHL Draft. They have some power in making themselves look smart by getting the most out of Kotkaniemi. That said, there’s also balancing getting the most out of their roster, overall.

Will this look like a smart move, or a case of Canes galaxy brain? We’ll see soon enough.

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.

Metropolitan Division review: Capitals, Penguins try for another run; Teams on the rise

Throughout this week, PHT will review each of the NHL’s (restored) four divisions. Who’s the favorite, who’s rising, and who’s in decline? How did the offseason affect the outlook? Today, PHT reviews the Metropolitan Division.

Current Metropolitan Division Favorite: Hurricanes

The New York Islanders have been in the Conference Finals/Semifinals two years in a row, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals still have their cores, and the New York Rangers are a team on the rise. But it might be the Hurricanes’ time to take the torch as the top team in the division, even with the offseason departure of Dougie Hamilton and even with the question mark in goal. They had the best record of any team in the division a year ago, were two points off the Presidents’ Trophy pace, and are still bringing back an outstanding roster that is full of players just entering the prime of their careers.

Even without Hamilton this should still be an elite defense, while forwards like Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, Martin Necas, Vincent Trocheck, and Teuvo Teravainen form an exciting core. They have one of the best long-term outlooks in the NHL and the short-term outlook is pretty strong as well.

Biggest Offseason Move: Dougie Hamilton to the Devils

The New Jersey Devils entered the offseason with a great opportunity due to all of the salary cap space they had at their disposal. They put it to good use and were one of the busiest teams in the division, adding Ryan Graves, Jonathan Bernier, Tomas Tatar, and Dougie Hamilton. Hamilton is the big addition here and arguably one of the biggest moves of the offseason made by any NHL team. He is one of the top overall defensemen in the league. He drives possession at an elite level, produces offense at an elite level, and is a better, more impactful defender than he gets credit for being. Even though his contract is a significant investment in free agency, it is probably below market value given how the contracts signed by other defenders around the league this offseason.

Honorable mention for biggest offseason move: Ryan Ellis to the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers were clearly in the market for a top-pairing defender and got an outstanding player in Ellis in a three-team trade with the Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights. He is a significant upgrade to their roster.

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

Metropolitan Division team on the rise: Rangers

They better be a team on the rise, anyway. They have stockpiled young talent and have an outstanding core of Alexis Lafraniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, Igor Shesterkin, and the reigning Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox. Some of those players have shown more than others in the NHL, but the potential here is enormous. They also have a voice and leader with Gerard Gallant take over behind the bench. Expectations are clearly sky high right now given that ownership cleaned house over the past few months with a general manager change and coaching change. Progress has been slower than ownership has wanted it to be, but they are getting there.

Metropolitan Division team on the decline: Penguins, Capitals

The Penguins and Capitals have followed a nearly identical path for the past 30 years. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s they played each other in the playoffs every year. They rebuilt at the same time. They drafted franchise changing players at the same time. Then turned into consistent powers at the top of the NHL for the past 16 years at the same time. Now they are starting their next decline at the same time.

They should still be really good. They should still be playoff teams. But are they still Stanley Cup contenders? The Capitals are one of the oldest teams in the league and have lost a lot of speed in recent years, while the Penguins’ roster has taken a step back this offseason, they will not have Evgeni Malkin to start the season, and goaltending is a major concern and question mark.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Teams with the best five-year window]

Big questions remain for Flyers, Blue Jackets, Islanders

  • In terms of playoff success the Islanders have been the most successful team in the division the past three years, winning five total playoff rounds and reaching the Conference Finals/Semifinals two years in a row (each of the past two years).

Even with all of their postseason success there are still questions that follow them around because they never really have great regular season and do not have the type of roster that a usual Stanley Cup contender has. They are short on star power, do not have many game-changers after Mathew Barzal, and do not score a ton of goals.

They also do not have any weaknesses. The defense is as solid as it gets in the NHL, the goaltending is sensational, and they have the best coach in the league. But do they have enough to get by teams like Tampa Bay at the top of the league?

[Related: Central Division Review]

  • In Philadelphia the biggest question still revolves around starting goalie Carter Hart.

His 2020-21 season was a complete disaster on the ice and significantly held the Flyers back. If they want to have any chance of being competitive or contending for a playoff spot this season they are going to need him to be dramatically better this season. Adding players like Ryan Ellis and Cam Atkinson is fine, but if Hart does not return to the form he showed in his first two seasons in the league or reach his potential then none of it will matter.

  • The big question in Columbus is whether or not new head coach Brad Larsen can get Patrik Laine back on track, and what Laine’s future with the team is.

This clearly did not work as planned for Laine and the Blue Jackets after the trade from the Winnipeg Jets, and he is now entering the final year of his current contract and will be eligible for restricted free agency after this season.

The Blue Jackets desperately need him to become the impact goal scorer he was in Winnipeg and they have to see if there is a long-term future in Columbus. If he becomes that player again and Columbus can convince him to stay (something that has been a problem for the Blue Jackets in recent years) that is a potential game-changer for the Blue Jackets. They need a forward like him.