What Went Wrong is our annual series where we look at the teams that failed to make the playoffs. Over the coming weeks, we’ll go through them team-by-team, discuss how their season went and then highlight the players that either significantly underperformed in 2018-19 or that they’ll need more from going forward.
Today we’re looking at the New Jersey Devils, which were one of the league’s pleasant surprises in 2017-18, but regressed completely in 2018-19.
The campaign at least got off on the right foot for the Devils. New Jersey opened with a 4-0-0 run and Keith Kinkaid posted two shutouts over that span. Given that start, it’s almost hard to believe that Kinkaid would end up being a big part of the problem. Cory Schneider spent a fair amount of 2017-18 on the sidelines and struggled mightily when healthy in the second half, failing to win a single regular season game after Dec. 27. If not for Kinkaid being a stabilizing force, 2017-18 would have gone a lot differently for New Jersey and early on it seemed like he would be able to serve in that role again, especially with Schneider being unavailable at the beginning of 2018-19 due to a hip injury.
Things unraveled quickly though. From Oct. 18 through Dec. 18, the New Jersey Devils went 7-14-7 and only posted back-to-back wins once over that span. During that two month stretch, Kinkaid posted an 11-9-6 record with a 3.00 GAA and .902 save percentage in 27 contests. Those are ugly numbers, but he was seemingly the Devils only option given that Schneider was terrible when he returned with a 4.66 GAA and .852 save percentage in nine games. New Jersey was about to get a new hope though.
On Dec. 17th Schneider was placed on the injured reserve list with an abdominal strain and on Dec. 20th, Mackenzie Blackwood made his first career start. Though it extended the Devils’ losing streak to three games and dropped their record to 11-15-7, Blackwood stopped 36 of 38 shots in a preview to what would be a largely successful rookie season. He led the Devils to three straight wins from Dec. 27-31 while only allowing two goals over that span.
That brief turnaround was overshadowed by a far bigger problem though. Taylor Hall suffered a knee injury that pretended him from playing past Dec. 23. He won the Hart Trophy in 2017-18 in large part because how vital he was to the Devils’ offense. He had 39 goals and 93 points in 76 games in 2017-18 while no other Devils player recorded more than 52 points. With him out for the second half of the season, New Jersey had no major offensive threat. No one on New Jersey would go on to record more than 50 points in 2018-19.
Blackwell also proved to be inconsistent. He still went on to have a good rookie season with a 10-10-0 record, 2.61 GAA, and .918 save percentage in 23 games, but the 22-year-old couldn’t single-handily carry the team and it would have been unfair to expect him to. Meanwhile, Kinkaid’s struggles continued and he was fast becoming the odd-man out. Corey Schneider returned in February and earned his first regular season win in nearly 14 months on Feb. 15. With that monkey off his back, Schneider finally began to play like himself again, winning three of four starts from Feb. 17-25 while allowing a combined six goals.
On Feb. 25, the Devils traded Kinkaid to Columbus in exchange for a 2022 fifth round pick, cementing Blackwood’s spot as New Jersey’s backup goaltender. At that point though, New Jersey was 25-30-8 and clearly the playoffs were no longer realistically in their sights. New Jersey also sent Marcus Johansson to Boston, Ben Lovejoy to Dallas, and Brian Boyle to Nashville in February as the Devils shifted its focus towards the future.
The final nail in the coffin was a seven-game losing streak from Feb. 27-March 12 that pushed them down to 25-36-9. They finished with a 31-41-10 record.
Despite how the season went though, there is some reason for optimism about New Jersey going forward. While the season was a regression for them, the Devils still have a great young core and you could easily make the argument that 2018-19 was a campaign of growing pains rather than a complete disaster. On top of that, New Jersey won the draft lottery. Although there is some merit to taking Kaapo Kakko with the first overall pick, the Devils will almost certainly select Jack Hughes, who is commonly regarded as the top prospect in the draft, bolstering that already impressive young core.
Cory Schneider – The rise of Mackenzie Blackwood takes some of the weight off Schneider’s shoulders, but it’s still fair to say that 2018-19 will be a big campaign for Schneider. Prolonged slumps and injuries have largely ruined Schneider’s last two seasons. With that all hopefully behind him, Schneider is in a position to bounce back and if he does, it will go a long way towards the Devils getting back into the playoffs.
Taylor Hall – The New Jersey Devils have some promising young forwards and they’re about to draft another, but Taylor Hall is still by far their biggest offensive weapon at this time. Unfortunately, he also has a lengthy injury history and in 2018-19, he played in just 33 games. If the Devils are to get back into the playoffs next season, they’ll almost certainly need Hall to stay healthy. Although that’s assuming he even sticks with the team. He’s going into the final campaign of his seven-year, $42 million contract and is due for a big raise. The Devils might be the ones to give it to him, but until a contract is finalized, there’s an element of uncertainty when it comes to his future.
Nico Hischier – Hischier had a solid rookie campaign with 20 goals and 52 points in 82 contests, but his sophomore season wasn’t a major step forward. He scored 17 goals and 47 points in 69 games. The 2017 first overall pick is definitely someone to watch in 2019-20 because his third NHL campaign could be a big one. As mentioned above, the Hall is still the Devils’ main offensive weapon, but great teams need more than one high-end forward. Hischier could elevate his game and become another big threat for New Jersey.
Pavel Zacha – Speaking of players that need to elevate their game, Pavel Zacha really hasn’t lived up to expectations thus far. He was taken with the sixth overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, but he hasn’t developed into a significant offensive threat. He had 13 goals and 25 points in 61 games last season despite averaging a career-high 16:05 minutes per contest. He’s still just 22-years-old though, so all hope isn’t lost, but when you look at Timo Meier (9th overall in 2015), Mikko Rantanen (10th), and Jake DeBrusk (14th), and Sebastian Aho (35th) all making major contributions already, it’s hard not to look at Zacha as a disappointment thus far.