NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — All the talk about the New Jersey Devils being young, talented and on the verge of restoring the organization to its past glory is starting to get old.
While there were glimpses of potenial this season, the Devils did not play with the consistency needed to be an NHL playoff team.
New Jersey posted a 27-46-9 record and missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year and ninth time in the last 10. A major part of the problem was playing the majority of the season without its top two goaltenders, Mackenzie Blackwood (heel) and Jonathan Bernier (hip).
While disappointed after missing the playoffs for the second straight year since taking over as coach, Lindy Ruff said it’s hard to evaluate the season bacause of the goaltending as well as injuries that limited center Jack Hughes to 49 games and kept key players Nico Hischier, Dougie Hamilton and Miles Wood off the ice for extended periods.
“I think we’re close, but it is so hard to evaluate where you’re at and, at the same time, you don’t want to blame everything on we’re missing our two goalies,” Ruff said. “You have to be real about where you want to be and what you want to say; what’s the biggest thing missing and why we didn’t get there.”
Ruff said his position as coach is being evaluated by general manager Tom Fitzgerald when asked if he would be back for a third season. Fitzgerald is scheduled to have a news conference later this week.
The Devils beat the likes of Colorado, Carolina and Las Vegas when they were competing for a playoff spot. They also imploded at times, blowing a four-goal, third-period lead in an overtime loss to Florida and a two-goal lead against the Hurricanes with less than five minutes to play in another OT loss.
Good teams don’t do that. The Devils’ 63 points were 28th in the 32-team league.
“It’s defintely frustrating, you know, and it’s not even like we’re close, you know, we’re far away from the playoffs, but, you know, that’s sports man,” said Hughes who had a breakout season with 26 goals and 30 assists. He missed the final month with a knee injury.
“Teams go in and out of the playoffs, good teams turn into bad teams and bad teams turn into good teams,” the soon-to-be 21-year-old said of his third season. “It’s just one big cycle so I think the fans should be really positive with what we have here.”
Forward Jesper Bratt, who set personal bests with 26 goals, 47 assists and 73 points, said all the players need to take a step forward in the offseason and make the Devils a playoff team.
“I’ve been a part for five years now of a team not really succeeding and organization that has not been succeeding,” Bratt said. “I want to become a part that changes that. I want to be a part of the team which brought this team back to be a championship team.”
The Devils used seven goalies because of the injuries to Blackwood and Bernier. Blackwood was limited to 25 games by a heel injury and Bernier played in 10 before hip surgery. Scott Wedgewood, Akira Schmid, Nico Daws, Jon Gillies and Andrew Hammond also played.
It’s the second year in a row of multiple goalies. Last year, veteran Corey Crawford retired before the start of the season and Blackwood had more injuries.
FORMER NO. 1s
Hughes and Hischier both took huge steps, particularly Hughes, who at times dominated the ice with his puck handling. Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in 2017 — two years before Hughes was the No. 1 — finished with 21 goals and 39 assists for 60 points, all career bests.
Besides Bratt, there were a couple of surprises. Yegor Sharangovich avoided the second-year blues and finished with 24 goals, 22 assists and 46 points. Dawson Mercer was an even bigger surprise, making the jump from junior hockey. He was the only player on the team to skate in all 82 games and he finished with 17 goals and 25 assists.
Signing Hamilton to a monster contract gave New Jersey a solid No. 1 defenseman. He started the season well but missed 17 games with a broken jaw. He also played with a broken toe before that.
Damon Severson had a career year with 11 goals and 35 assists and Jonas Siegenthaler emerged as a solid defensive defenseman in his second season with the club.
The Devils need to hold serve more at home (16-20-5) and definitely improve away from the Prudential Center (11-26-4). The road record was the second worst in the league. The home mark was 26th.
Defenseman P.K. Subban and forward Jimmy Vesey are the only unrestricted free agents. Don’t be surprised if the Devils go after a top goaltender.
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