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Friday the NHLPA signed off on a return to play plan that would entail jumping straight into a 24-team playoff.
This, of course, means the New Jersey Devils are done for the season. While it was largely a disaster – especially relative to expectations prior to the year – there were still some positives to come from it.
Let’s take a look at a few:
1. Mackenzie Blackwood’s development
When the Devils invested a 2nd round into the high upside physical freak, they were undoubtedly hoping he could be the goaltender of the future. Iit sure looks like that will be the case.
After a slow start out of the gate, Blackwood flipped a switch and went into beast mode. He was consistently the team’s best player for the better part of four months. Only four goaltenders posted a higher save percentage from December 1st onward and all of them play for playoff teams (yes, that could be said *before* another eight teams were added to the mix).
Blackwood took on a heavy workload, faced a ton of quality shots, and passed seemingly every test with flying colors.
He finished the year with a .915 save percentage, which was well above league average. That’s quite impressive considering he was left out to dry on a regular basis.
2. Nikita Gusev is for real
In desperate need of more skill – and productivity – up front, the Devils made a gamble and acquired Gusev’s rights from the Vegas Golden Knights. That proved to be a very smart move.
Like many Devils, Gusev started the season somewhat slowly. He was one of the few that found his footing, though.
Gusev went on to put up 44 points in 66 games. That’s a 55 point pace – solid production on a tire fire team with little talent surrounding.
His 5v5 efficiency was particularly impressive. He produced points at a 1st line rate and was one of the best playmakers in the entire league. And, no, that’s not an exaggeration.
Gusev finished 7th in primary assists/60 at full-strength, behind names like Nathan MacKinnon, Brad Marchand, Sidney Crosby, and Steven Stamkos.
He certainly proved he could translate his game to the NHL. The Devils have a good value contract – for another year, anyway – on their hands as a result.
This season had a lot of teaching points. If the Devils read the tea leaves properly, and react accordingly, I think plenty of good can come of it.
It became clear things weren’t going to work with John Hynes running the ship. While he did a pretty good job of maximizing what he had on the low end of the roster, he also underutilized some of the team’s top talents (Gusev, Jesper Bratt, etc.). I think they need somebody who, you know, won’t do that. Alain Nasreddine didn’t – not as much anyway – but he needed top-tier goaltender for the team to be remotely competitive. I don’t think he is the answer either. That’s good to know.
Cory Schneider is very evidently no longer somebody the team can rely on with any amount of confidence. He’ll provide the occasional quality start, and he’s the best team guy imaginable, but his best days are long over. This season, on top of what we have seen over the last couple years, should erase any doubt he should be a full-timer on the roster. The Devils need to replace him and find somebody more suitable for the 1B role.
The defense is not close to good enough. P.K. Subban isn’t close to what he once was. Damon Severson, realistically speaking, is being forced to play above where he should and there are no recognizable names beyond them. The promotion of Ty Smith, who was just named WHL Defenseman of the Year for the second time in a row, is not going to be enough. They need to improve the defense.
Finding solutions that work isn’t always easy. But this season taught everyone a lot about what *won’t* work.
It’s up to Tom Fitzgerald, or anybody else in the GM chair, to make the necessary changes.
Numbers via NaturalStatTrick.com
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