The hype was certainly there. In a preseason article, ten out of twenty analysts had the Devils making the playoffs, with most predictions placing them in a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division. Today, the Devils sit eighteen points away from a playoff spot with almost no chance of making it. So, what went wrong?
During the offseason, the Devils made groundbreaking moves. They brought in former Norris Trophy-winning defenseman P.K. Subban and selected Jack Hughes with the first overall pick in the 2019 draft – the roster was starting to come together. The biggest problem the Devils had in the previous season was defense. The addition of Subban alongside young prospects such as Ty Smith, who was selected 17th overall in the 2018 draft, was supposed to clean up the back line. Connor Carrick was also acquired as a conservative defensemen, further strengthening the Devils’ blueline.
Another issue the Devils were supposed to have solved in the offseason was the lack of depth scoring. The first line, with Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall, All-Star Kyle Palmieri, and former first overall pick Nico Hischier, carried most of the weight on offense over the past two seasons. But with the development of Miles Wood and Blake Coleman, as well as the addition of Jack Hughes and Wayne Simmons, the Devils were starting to look even more dangerous on offense. Nikita Gusev, who was the MVP of the KHL in 2018, was also added to the Devils’ roster after a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights to further bolster the offense. The biggest question left was goaltending. Cory Schnieder, who has a long history of injuries, suffered an abdominal strain in December of 2018. The former NHL All-Star goaltender has never returned to his peak form, but hopes were still high for a bounce back season in 2019. Mackenzie Blackwood had also emerged as a solid goaltending prospect. The Devils chose him to back up Schnieder when they traded away Kieth Kinkaid to the Columbus Blue Jackets in February 2019.
The preseason showed promise. The Devils went 5-2-0, ending the preseason tied for the most points. Jack Hughes tied for the most preseason points among rookies and Schnieder had a .952 save percentage. It seemed that coach John Hynes had successfully prepared the team to make a playoff run this season. However, as soon as the season started, nearly everything fell apart. The Devils went 0-4-2 in the first six games, allowing twenty-nine goals in that span. They were also shut out twice. The Devils’ hopes of having a powerful, revamped offense with solid defense and goaltending were not working out. Throughout October and November, the Devils’ struggles continued. Their playoff hopes started to dwindle, and the “fire Hynes” movement spread throughout the fanbase.
The collage of atrocities on display throughout the first third of the season was the work of not only poor leadership on the bench, but also a lack of offensive production, among other things. Through the first month, Hall had 1 goal, tied with Jack Hughes. Hynes struggled to put together cohesive lines while the goaltender may have as well been replaced a snowman. To say the offseason acquisitions were not performing would be an understatement, as the KHL MVP and Norris Trophy-winner had a combined 31 points by New Years. Everything that could have gone wrong for the Devils did go wrong, and the mentality quickly switched from Stanley Cup contenders to lottery pick hopefuls.
In early December, Hynes was finally fired and replaced with Alaine Nasredinne. Taylor Hall, whose contract terminates at the end of the season, likely wouldn’t linger with a team still fighting to make the playoffs when he could play for a cup contender. So, the Devils traded him for a few prospects and draft picks from the Arizona Coyotes on December 16th. Perhaps the final nail in the coffin was the firing of GM Ray Shero earlier this month. According to a statement released by the Devils, Shero’s vision did not align with the organization’s. The statement went on to say that Shero wanted to start over and rebuild the franchise while the organization had a ‘win now’ mentality.
In more hopeful news, Mackenzie Blackwood has been playing well and Gusev and Coleman have emerged as solid talents, and the Devils recently beat the Capitals and ended the Lightning’s ten-game winning streak on back-to-back nights. The string of wins and the level of play provide hope for the future. Had this play started back in October, perhaps Hall and Hynes would still be with the organization and this would be a very different article. At the end of the day, the season is as good as over, and us Devils fans can only hope that the organization can turn it around next season, maybe after getting another lottery pick in the draft.