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:
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).