Five predictions for the 2021 New Jersey Devils

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In an NHL season that promises to be unpredictable given the surge in COVID-19 consequences, the Devils are among the few teams that offer little divergence when it comes to experts’ forecasts – and those projections aren’t pretty.

While New Jersey has reportedly been infection-free through training camp, adversity has already struck in other ways. Top-line center Nico Hischier has yet to practice due to a foot injury and will be out for at least Thursday’s season-opener versus Boston, while skilled wing Jesper Bratt, who couldn’t enter the U.S. from Sweden until his restricted free agency resolution, signed his extension on Sunday but now is in a seven-day quarantine before he can return to work. Then, there’s the curious case of Corey Crawford, who was expected to be Goalie 1A or 1B alongside MacKenzie Blackwood when he signed as a free agent in October, but decided to retire last week after several “maintenance days.”

New coach Lindy Ruff also got no help from a shortened camp, which truncated the time he had to install more aggressive systems all over the ice – and given that New Jersey will be solely facing an East Division that includes five of last season’s top 11 teams, it wouldn’t be a shock if they reprised last season’s slow start.

Here are five other predictions for the Devils’ 2021 campaign:

1) Devils Extend Kyle Palmieri, Trade Travis Zajac and Nikita Gusev Before Trade Deadline
Re-signing Palmieri may just be dreaming, since the Devils and the New Jersey-bred right wing have had a mutually beneficial partnership for the past five seasons while he has averaged over 26 goals per season. However, the Devils will again be sellers in April, and pending free agents Palmieri, Zajac, and Gusev are their most prized assets for teams looking to stock up for a Stanley Cup run. A 15-year vet, all in New Jersey, Zajac will be this season’s Andy Greene, the former captain who was dealt to the Islanders last season to make room for younger players. Meanwhile, Gusev, who developed into a terrific playmaker after needing half his first NHL season to adjust from the KHL, would need to show Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald more of a two-way game to warrant a market value pay raise over his $4.5 million salary. That doesn’t appear to be in his skillset.

2) Andreas Johnsson Will Finish Second Behind Palmieri On Devils’ Goals Leaderboard
Quick: who was the Devils’ second-leading goal scorer last season? You’re forgiven if you forgot it was Blake Coleman, a checking line wing who was dealt to Tampa Bay in advance of the last trade deadline. In other words, the Devils lacked punch, and they still do. Johnsson, who was obtained in Toronto’s offseason salary dump for Joey Anderson, has underrated hands that give him the potential to excel whether he’s paired with Hischier or sophomore Jack Hughes. A knee injury that required surgery limited Johnsson’s production last season, but he’s healthy now and will get ample power play time to hunt for scoring chances around the net.

3) Another Year, Another Subpar Save Percentage
This is an annual tradition. As I noted in a prior column, the Devils have reached the top half of the league’s save percentage rankings just twice in the last decade, and finished 21st last year in a season where the netminders on Blackwood’s nights off were sieves. The Crawford signing was made to rectify that, but now the Devils are back in hold-your-breath mode, with journeyman Scott Wedgewood – who had a scalding four-game cup of coffee with New Jersey in 2016 but has since become a journeyman – and waiver pickup Eric Comrie as backup options. To paraphrase a Mad Men meme, “Not great, Tom.”

4) Damon Severson Will Lead The Devils In Ice Time For Third Straight Season
Severson, entering his seventh NHL season, could be the player most helped by Ruff’s system changes. He excels at moving pucks up the ice, but defending the areas around the net while the opposition cycles pucks has been more problematic. He may fare better in his advanced metrics by attempting to end plays in the defensive zone earlier – or it could lead to more goals against for a player with consistently high-negative plus/minus numbers. With his excellent shot and skating, though, Severson will likely see power play time in addition to continuing his penalty kill duties by default. Either way, you’ll see a lot of Severson on the ice this season.

5) Hughes Is Still At Least A Year Away
Coming off a somewhat disappointing rookie season as the league’s No. 1 overall draft pick, Hughes allegedly was a finalist for the annual offseason Reshaped Body award. At Devils Media Day, he claimed he “put on 14 pounds of pure muscle” since New Jersey’s last game in March. That’s a great start, but by no means is he a finished product at 19. Judging from the Devils’ streamed scrimmages, he still has work to do in terms of puck retrieval and staying up on his skates through contact. He has immense skill, and the hope is that in the coming years, he’ll be the Devils’ go-to play driver. For 2021, a 30-point season (in 56 games) should be an attainable goal.

Season Prediction: 52 points (no playoffs)

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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