Season In Review: The New Jersey Devils: Sisyphus
In Greek Mythology Sisyphus, the King of Ephyra, was punished for cheating death twice by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down once he nears the top, repeating this action for all of eternity. It’s the 2010 offseason, and the New Jersey Devils just offered Ilya Kovalchuk a 17-year long contract extension. That is more than double what you can do in the NHL today. The NHL ended up rejecting this contract, so how did New Jersey cheat death here? They somehow managed to still sign Kovalchuk to a 15-year contract. That’s death number one. In 2012, the New Jersey Devils made it back to the Stanley Cup Finals 9 years after the last time they won the Stanley Cup. That’s death number two. Instead of rolling a boulder up a hill for all of eternity, they were forced to be bad for at least the next 9 years. They have one playoff win in the past 9 seasons, and I don’t see them getting another one anytime soon.
After the draft lottery, the New Jersey Devils have the 4th overall pick for the 2021 draft. That could be anything, a forward, a defenceman, even a goalie in Jesper Wallstedt. But I think, and hope, that the Devils go for a defenceman here. They do already have Ty Smith, who I’ll get into in a minute, but another young defenceman who fits their timeline is exactly what they need. Despite the draft being a point of excitement for the Devils and their fans, let’s talk about what was a very disappointing season. I don’t think that they finish as low as 29th in the NHL if it wasn’t for them being in the top-heavy Massmutual East Division. So, let’s get into some of the individuals on this roster.
Jack Hughes has to be apologized to by everyone who called him a bust after his first season. No one should be called a bust that early in their career, and Hughes proved why this season. After getting 21 points in 61 games in his rookie season, Jack Hughes did not look like the star that everybody thought he was before he was selected first overall by the Devils. He played worse than his disappointing scoresheet numbers even say. Hughes picked it up this season on a worse Devils team, putting up 31 points in 56 games. This wasn’t the full story, however. Hughes didn’t have the best linemates this season, so imagine if the Devils get a younger winger in free agency to pair up with Hughes. He looked like the real deal this past year, and I can’t wait to see how his development goes into the future.
Hughes wasn’t the only promising young player coming out of New Jersey this season, however. Ty Smith also looked very good to me in his rookie season. Smith was a solid prospect heading into this season, but I didn’t expect him to play for the Devils. He did, and he proved himself to already be a top 4 offensive defenceman. He did look shaky in his own end, but that’s expected from a 20–21-year-old defenceman who’s in his rookie season. I expect him to be very good in the near future, and if the Devils can get him a partner who is a shutdown defenceman I think that Smith can break out into a star very soon.
I did not expect this from Pavel Zacha. After being drafted 6th overall in 2015, Pavel Zacha has had a disappointing NHL career up to this point. In the 4 seasons before this one, Zacha had a PPG of 0.34, 0.36, 0.41, and 0.49. At the age of 23, you would expect those numbers to take a jump before now. His PPG jumped up to 0.70, and he looked like a very efficient goal scorer. If you’re a Devils you hope that he can keep this up. He has 1 year left on a very cheap deal, and if I was New Jersey I would try to sign him to a cheap contract extension before it’s too late.
Yegor Sharangovich looked like the 2nd best forward on New Jersey this season when I watched him. Sharangovich came out of nowhere, as he was a 5th round pick in 2018. I honestly rarely heard of him before this season, and I don’t know if many other people had. He showed up in a big way this year. He had 30 points and 16 goals in 54 games. This was in his rookie season and I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes a big jump next year. He could also go into a sophomore slump, but I see Sharangovich as being one of the wingers next to Jack Hughes for the foreseeable future.
The Devils are in a very good position when it comes to their cap space this offseason. They have $37.6 million in cap space today, and with only one UFA that they may consider resigning, they have a very good opportunity ahead of them this offseason. If the Devils can sign one defenceman and one forward to help support the younger players, I think that they may able to compete a bit better next season in the normal Metropolitan Division.
Despite New Jersey having a lot of great young talent this season, it was a disappointing year for many players on their roster. Andreas Johnsson was one of them. After being acquired from Toronto, Johnsson had high hopes going into his first season as a Devil. This was a player who had scored 20 goals and 43 points in 73 games in his rookie season, and after a rough sophomore year, he would get a fresh start in New Jersey. So far in 50 games as a Devil, Johnsson has 5 goals and 11 points. That’s just not good enough. He found himself on the 4th line multiple times this season, and he didn’t look very good.
Will Butcher man, what happened? 3 years ago he was so good. He looked like a future top defenceman in the NHL, and the former Hobey Baker Award winner looked like he was en route to reach the potential that people thought that he could reach. Well, 2 years ago he fell off. He still put up 21 points in 56 games, but he didn’t look nearly as good as he had the year prior. But, after a long break due to COVID-19, people expected Butcher to come back as good as ever this past season. He somehow played even worse. Both his offensive and defensive game just disappeared. He still had 11 points in 23 games, but unlike prior seasons those points didn’t necessarily come from what he was able to create offensively. He found himself to be a healthy scratch at many different points this season, and I just wonder what could have been if Butcher turned out as expected. I still hold hope for Butcher, as I was a huge fan of his game, but things aren’t looking too great for him right now.
I am a big fan of PK Subban. Let me get that out of the way. But, I don't like how he played at points this season. I think he was better than he was in his first season in New Jersey last year. I think he has refound his offensive game, although he’s still not nearly as good as he used to be. My problem with his game is his play in the defensive end. Now, Subban has never been known for his defensive play but now that his offence isn’t as good as it once was it’s getting harder and harder to overlook. You could say that this is partially because of how bad the Devils were as a team, but this has been a recurring thing in Subbans career since he has been in Montreal. I really hope Subban has a good season next year, whether that's in a Devils or Kraken jersey.
The Devils are in a spot similar to many around the league, but that boulder just isn’t moving very far up the hill. When they made the playoffs and Taylor Hall won the Hart Trophy, they had just made it to the top. Just for the boulder to roll all the way back down, just for them to start the push again now. Once again I think that adding one younger player to your forward core as well as your blue line is the smart thing for New Jersey to do, but adding another netminder to play behind Blackwood would help as well. They have a lot of flexibility, and I’m intrigued to see what GM Tom Fitzgerald ends up doing this offseason.