What a rollercoaster the last week has been for the New Jersey Devils, and the season hasn’t even begun yet.
Starting on Monday, the Devils continued to look brilliant in the preseason as they took down the Capitals again, this time, by a score of 4-1. In their five-game preseason slate, the Devils managed to accomplish things they hadn’t been able to do all through 56 games last year. Not only did they beat the Capitals once, but they did it twice, unlike last year when they couldn’t manage to beat them once in eight games. They also iced a competent powerplay that went 5/21 in the five-game preseason set.
Compared to last year’s powerplay that ranked 3rd worst with a success rate of just 14.2%, the 2021 preseason Devils powerplay had a solid 23.8% success rate, which would have been good for 4th best last year. Say what you will about it being preseason, but this massive jump isn’t because they’re playing the opposing team’s B lineup, it’s because of Dougie Hamilton. Last year, Hamilton quarterbacked a Hurricanes powerplay that ranked 2nd in the league and converted at a quarter of the time.
In the two preseason contents Hamilton participated in, the powerplay went 4/9, and he finished with three assists. Of course, the powerplay won’t operate at 44% during the regular season, but it sure as hell won’t be struggling at 14.3%.
Through four games, the Devils looked like world-beaters, then Wednesday hit, and the championship parade had to be postponed. A Devils lineup that had only seven starters was tasked with slowing down a full opening night Rangers lineup. As you could predict, the Devils lost 6-2, P.K. Subban had a bounty on his head because of a possible slew foot on Rangers forward Ryan Reaves, and Jonathan Bernier was left out to dry, so an all-around, bad night, but hey, it’s preseason.
A beatdown from the Rangers, preseason or not, is never fun, but Thursday night made you forget all about the spanking. What was supposed to be the Devils’ final preseason contest, a bout against the Islanders, spiraled out of control a half-hour before 7 p.m. Word got out that starting goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood wasn’t going to suit up, which we later found out was an issue related to COVID. Around puck drop, the Prudential Center experienced a power outage, and the game got canceled. So, in a matter of 24 hours, the Devils got thrashed by the Rangers, their starting goaltender had a COVID scare, and the arena can’t seem to afford to pay their electric bill.
Blackwood’s COVID scare is the real takeaway from all of this considering he’s the only Devils player who isn’t vaccinated. Whether or not you’re pro or anti-covid vax, there is no denying how hard this team was hit from COVID last year. They had a hot start, then missed two weeks due to a COVID breakout, and seemed to never get back on the right track. Blackwood was one of the many Devils who got COVID last year, and he also blamed his second-half struggles on his fight with COVID stating, “I got off to a good start and then missed about a month with COVID. Trying to get your feet back underneath you for a while, and you’re playing catch up and going uphill.” Blackwood hasn’t decided if he’s getting the vaccine yet, as he said he’s going to continue to do more research on it.
As for some good news, in four days the New Jersey Devils will be playing hockey in front of a 100% capacity crowd. And if that is not enough for you, it seems all but confirmed Dawson Mercer will be in the lineup opening night. Mercer looks to be the team’s third center, and if I had to guess his linemates, I’d go with Kuokkanen and Johnsson. As for the other rookie, Alexander Holtz, I’m not sure I see a spot for him on this roster after the signing of Jimmy Vesey, and knowing this team’s obsession with winger Andreas Johnsson, I expect Holtz to either start the year as a healthy scratch or play in the AHL from the jump. The Devils have a few more days before cutting down their roster before October
“Photo: Frank Franklin II/AP Photo”