After a very successful offseason, the New Jersey Devils regular season started off tumultuous. Before the season, starting goalie Mackenzie Blackwood was placed on injured reserve as he recovered from a heel injury. The Devils’ starting goalie ended up missing the first eight games of the season. In addition to Blackwood, forward Miles Wood ended up missing games with an unknown injury only to be placed on injured reserve only a few days ago. Nonetheless, the Devils ended up winning their first game in dramatic fashion thanks to a Jack Hughes overtime winner. But then, disaster struck.
In the first period of their 4-2 victory over the Seattle Kraken, Hughes took a nasty hit on the boards which caused a dislocated shoulder that has kept him out since. Hughes, arguably New Jersey’s best player, is not expected back in the lineup until early December at the earliest.
In addition to losing Hughes this game, backup goalie Jonathan Bernier picked up a knock that kept him out three games. And finally, to make matters worse, when on their west coast trip in early November, the Devils prized free agent signing Dougie Hamilton got hurt in Anaheim which has caused him to miss three games and counting, just as both Blackwood and Bernier returned to the lineup.
However, even with all of these bumps on the road, the Devils sit at 14 points, fourth in the Metropolitan division, and are coming off a huge 7-3 victory over the now 10-2 Florida Panthers through 11 games. But how? A young team in the midst of the rebuild shouldn’t have this many points when dealing with this many setbacks. Well, the answer is a bit of luck, and a few key contributors.
Starting with luck, the Devils have had an easier schedule to start the season. The Blackhawks, Kraken, and Penguins haven’t been very good this year. The Devils capitalized off this and picked up all possible six points from these games. In addition, the Devils picked up some points when they shouldn’t have. On their aforementioned west coast trip, the team played poorly. The special teams were abysmal, and individual mistakes led to multiple goals. However, even with three straight poor performances, New Jersey took three of a possible six points from the trip after taking the Kings to overtime and beating the Sharks in a shootout.
More important than luck, though, players stepped up in the absence of others. After both Blackwood and Bernier went down, AHL goalie Nico Daws was called up to the big club and was able put in a great performance against the Buffalo Sabres which resulted in an overtime victory. Following Jack Hughes’ injury, rookie Dawson Mercer stepped up, taking on the 2C role for the team. The rookie has excelled there, totaling seven points so far this season, good for third on the team.
In addition to the rookie playing well, forward Andreas Johnsson has had a bounce back season. In a shortened season last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnsson only contributed 11 points to the team. So far this season, Johnsson leads the club with nine points. Johnsson has been in the right place all the time this year, and has been a big lift in the scoring department with Hughes out. Another forward who has been playing well this year is Jesper Bratt. After missing some time last year with an injury, and a slow start to this season, Bratt has shown some flashes of brilliance. Despite having a rough first few games, Bratt has still contributed six points to Devils, and has looked a threat to create every time he’s been on the puck the past six games.
Finally, Pavel Zacha has continued to improve after his breakout season last year. Zacha led the Devils in points last season even though some of his underlying numbers said that he wasn’t playing great. However, this season he has continued to produce, as he has scored big goals such as the overtime winner against the Sabres. Zacha is currently second on the team in points with eight and hasn’t shown signs of slowing down.
With Jack Hughes expected back in the fold in about a month, and Dougie Hamilton returning any day now, the Devils have a chance to continue their rebuild at full strength. This team definitely has their share of flaws (see special teams), but the team is still really young. Playing meaningful hockey later in the season is important to the development of a young team, and the ability of the Devils to weather the storm that hit them early in the season, and to stay afloat in the standings, is only going to help this team in the future.