The New Jersey Devils have a record of 15-23-5 and are in last place in the Metropolitan Division entering games on Jan. 31. While the results are not surprising, given the roster is the youngest in the league and the strong competition in the Metro, it is disappointing. The team has struggled for years as they continue to work through a rebuild.
The Devils have had their share of injuries to key players who missed significant time in Jack Hughes, Mackenzie Blackwood, and Dougie Hamilton. Players who were placed in COVID health and safety protocols also missed games. However, there have been some surprising and underwhelming performances from players in 2021-22. Here are three Devils players to keep an eye on during the second half of the season.
The rookie from Carbonear, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, has been arguably the most surprising performer on the Devils. Dawson Mercer has nine goals and 13 assists in 43 games so far. His 22 points rank him fifth on the team behind top performers Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, and Hughes.
Bratt, Hughes, and Hischier have been the core of the offense this year, and Mercer has proven through the first half of his rookie season that he can complement the trio. Devils general manager (GM) Tom Fitzgerald had good things to say about the 20-year-old in a piece by Shayna Goldman of The Athletic, “I have compared him to the guy (Patrice Bergeron) he’s playing against tonight. You know, just a good two-way centerman that really cares about all inches of the ice. Nico is that way too. I never thought Mercer’s offensive ability was this high. We’ll keep knocking on wood and hope he keeps scoring” (from ‘How rookie Dawson Mercer earned the Devils’ trust and early-season Calder hype: ‘He’s just good at everything,’ The Athletic, 12/6/21).
Head coach Lindy Ruff had positive things to say about Mercer as well. “He’s paid really good attention to his defensive awareness. He has a good stick in tight areas. I think the small-ice compete level for a guy who isn’t all that big is something that may go unnoticed at times but is a really valuable part of our team.”
Mercer ranks in the top 10 in points among NHL rookies so far. While it looks like Lucas Raymond (Detroit Red Wings), Trevor Zegras (Anaheim Ducks), or Moritz Seider (Red Wings) will win the Calder Trophy for best NHL rookie, the Devils forward is having a productive season so far. It will be interesting to watch the progress he continues to make in his rookie year.
The fourth-year goaltender is having an up-and-down season compiled with injuries. Blackwood missed the beginning of 2021-22 while recovering from offseason heel surgery. He has dealt with an injured neck and is currently on injured reserve (IR) as he has been affected by the same heel he had surgery on.
Assuming he plays again this season, Blackwood is a player to watch in regards to his future as the Devils’ starting goaltender. After 2021-22, he has one year remaining on his contract before he becomes a restricted free agent (RFA). With young goaltenders Akira Schmid and Nico Daws spending time between the Devils’ roster and the Utica Comets (AHL), it is fair to wonder if the Devils’ number one goaltender will be a part of the team beyond 2022-23.
Blackwood has a 9-9-3 record, a 3.29 goals-against-average (GAA), and a save percentage (SV%) of .894 in 23 games played (GP). Whether or not his play is due to being hampered by injuries, he has been mediocre for the organization in 2021-22. If his performance is due to the heel surgery, the team should consider shutting him down for the rest of 2021-22 in order to get him healthy in preparation for training camp next summer. Putting him on IR for the remainder of the season will also give coaches and Fitzgerald the opportunity to judge Schmid or Daws if they continue to get more starts in net.
The fifth-year player from Stockholm, Sweden, leads the Devils with 14 goals and 25 assists in 40 GP. Hughes missed several games with a shoulder injury earlier this season, which is the primary reason why he does not lead the team in points. However, Bratt has stepped up to be the Devils’ leading offensive player through the first half of 2021-22.
Bratt will be an RFA at the end of the season and has earned himself a payday with his play at this point in the season. He has excelled playing with Hughes, as the latter is emerging into one of the best passers in the NHL. He looks to join the team’s core of the former number overall pick, Hamilton, and Hischier in helping the Devils become a contending team in the Metro.
Bratt leads the Devils with an individual point percentage (IPP) of 86.67. IPP is defined as how often a player picks up a point when a goal is scored when that player is on the ice. He continues to remain consistent and has a good chance of leading the team in one or more offensive categories when the season concludes.
After a victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets earlier in January, Bratt said, “We were all sick and tired of losing. We felt we could play so much better than that. We knew we could do more, and we just had to look ourselves in the mirror and be honest with each other and say, ‘We’ve got to step up, and we’ve got to be better.’ Since the break, I feel like we’ve been more honest with each other and we’ve played some really good hockey here” (from ‘Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt continue torrid pace as Devils outlast Blue Jackets,’ NorthJersey.com, 1/6/22).
Bratt added, “I think I’ve become a little more mature, and I’m going into my fifth year right now, and I’m trying to be a leader on a younger team. You kind of grow into that role a little bit, and I feel like I take a lot of pride (in that). It’s been working out. I feel confident out on the ice with the system and the guys that I play with.”
Many players on the Devils besides Hischier, Hughes, and Hamilton have an opportunity to show Fitzgerald and the coaching staff that they belong at the NHL level and can contribute to turning the team into a contender. When the Devils are playing well, the young team looks like it has the potential to be an elite team with the talent they have accrued. If the organization can continue to get clarity on who can complement the core players and determine if a goaltender on the roster can be its starter for the long term, the Devils will have a bright future.