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The New Jersey Devils need to get their RFA’s contracts before the season begins.
It sounds like the New Jersey Devils are finally going to get to play. The National Hockey League is (reportedly) going to get its league started in mid-January and camps are going to begin not long after the holiday season is over. It is an exciting time for Devils fans because we haven’t seen our team play since March. When they get going, of course, they need to make sure that all of their players are there and ready to go.

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After a year like 2020, nobody wants to see anyone miss any training camp because of contractual issues. Jesper Bratt and Mackenzie Blackwood are both RFA’s that don’t have contracts right now. They are still waiting to come to terms on new contracts with the Devils as they wait for the 2021 season to begin. Those are two extremely important players so getting them all signed up and ready to go is a top priority right now.

Bratt is a 22-year-old player that has come into the league and surprised everyone. As a teenager, 6th round picks aren’t supposed to make it to the NHL. Bratt is an awesome story and now he is a player that the Devils will enjoy having on their roster for a long time. Of every player taken in the 2016 NHL Draft, Jesper Bratt is the second leading scorer (Alex DeBrincat) of any player taken in the second round or later.

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Blackwood came into the NHL with mixed expectations. He was there when Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid were running the show in goal. He has been really good and looks like he can even be a number one. The Devils brought in Corey Crawford to help him for two years but after that, we can be confident in Blackwood’s abilities. He is even looking like a guy who could be on Team Canada’s roster for future Olympic tournaments.

HOT: Can the New Jersey Devils have success in 2020-21?
All of those things that these guys have already accomplished are awesome for players who haven’t even been in the league that long. COVID-19 has a lot to do with why they don’t have their contracts done but it is getting near the time that they should do it. Camps are going to begin soon and teams who didn’t make the bubble might start even earlier than those who did. Hopefully, the Devils are able to work something out with Bratt and Blackwood really soon.

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On Friday night, a plan for a 2021 NHL season was tentatively agreed upon by the National Hockey League and the NHL Player’s Association. This afternoon it is official. Both the NHL Board of Governors and the PA formally agreed to a plan. There will be 56-game NHL regular season for 2021 starting on January 13 and ending on May 8.

This is fantastic news in of itself. For the first time since mid-March, we will have the New Jersey Devils play a game of hockey. We are less than a month away from the Devils playing an actual game. I can hardly wait.

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Much of the details that were reported on Friday night remain true. Further details for the 2021 season have come about. Here is a summary of the major ones to know.

League Dates of Importance: In addition to January 13 being the start date for the season and May 8 being the ending date, here are the other major days for the season to know per Elliotte Friedman, Pierre LeBrun, and CapFriendly:

December 24, 2020 – Last day for a player on a non-playoff team (like New Jersey) to opt out of the 2021 season.
December 27, 2020 – Last day for a player on a playoff team to opt out of the 2021 season.
December 28, 2020 – Waivers begin.
December 31, 2020 – First day of training camp for non Return to Play teams (like New Jersey).
January 3, 2021 – First day of training camp for Return to Play participant teams.
January 12 – By 5 PM ET, all teams must be roster and cap compliant.
January 13 – First day of the 2021 NHL regular season.
February 1 – First day for teams to request players to waive No-Movement Clauses for the purposes of the expansion draft (yes, it’s this year).
February 11 – The last day a Group II Restricted Free Agent (e.g. Jesper Bratt, Mackenzie Blackwood) can sign a contract and play in the 2021 season.
March 12 – Players on one-year deals can begin to be extended on this day.

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April 12 – The NHL Trade Deadline.
May 8 – The last day of the NHL regular season.
May 11 – The first day of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. The top four teams in each division qualify for the playoffs.
July 15 – Last possible day for the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. 24 hours after the Stanley Cup Playoffs are over, teams can begin buying out players.
July 21 – The Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft
July 23 & July 24 – The 2021 NHL Entry Draft
July 28 – Unrestricted free agency begins for the 2021-22 offseason.
Per the NHL’s release, the intent is that the league will get back to the normal schedule for 2021-22 with the season starting in October.

Training Camp Size: Per Friedman, teams are limited to 36 skaters and an unlimited amount of goaltenders. By my count at CapFriendly, the Devils have 35 skaters under contract. They could sign or invite one player assuming all 35 show up for camp.

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Division & Playoff Format: As revealed earlier, all 31 teams will be split up into four divisions. All regular season games will be within the division. The top four teams will qualify for the playoffs and the first round will have #1 play #4 and #2 play #3. The winners of that will play each other in the second round. This means each division will be represented in the Stanley Cup semifinals.

The New Jersey Devils are in the East Division along with the two New York teams, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, Buffalo, and Boston. Short of multiple teams faceplanting their season (which is possible as there is no preseason this year), good luck to the Devils in this division.

Carolina and Columbus from the Metropolitan Division will be in the Central Division for this year. They will join Chicago, Nashville, Dallas, Detroit, Florida, and Tampa Bay. They should be able to hang with this group.

The West Division will have St. Louis, Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, and Las Vegas. With the current Coronavirus restrictions in Santa Clara county, San Jose is expected to start their season preparations and their season in Arizona.

The North Division is the all Canadian division. Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Ottawa will face off amongst each other. Whereas each team in the other three divisions will play each other 7 times, these teams will play each other 8 times. Hence, a 56-game schedule.

The NHL does acknowledge that home arenas are preferred for home games in the season and playoffs. But they can play games in “neutral” locations if required.

Taxi Squad: All teams can carry a taxi squad of players beyond the 23-man active roster to join in for team activities, travel, and practices. CapFriendly summarized all of the details for the taxi squad in this Tweet. Here are the highlights:

Taxi squads are 4 to 6 players, no more and no less.
Players on the taxi squad are considered to be minor league players. They will be paid at their AHL salaries unless they are on a one-way contract; then they will be paid at their NHL rate like any other one-way contract. Their cap hit would be treated as a buried cap hit as a minor league player would. They will need to be called up and subject to waivers as necessary. Any injuries to the taxi squad players will be considered as if they were injured in the minors.
Clearing waivers will still last for ten games or thirty days. Any emergency recalls will last for ten games as well. This has not changed.
Of note about injuries, if a taxi squad player is hurt and/or “unfit to play” then the team can request they not count towards the 4-6 player limit while they are out.
Taxi squads must contain one goaltender if the team has fewer than three goaltenders on the active roster.
Taxi squads can be put together first on the last day of training camp. They will end when the team’s season ends.
Basically, teams will still need to have a 23-man roster that meets the NHL’s salary cap ceiling of $81.5 million. But they will have at least 27 to 29 actual players physically with the team. There is no preseason so training camp will be primarily used to determine who will be with the team ahead of any 2021 season for the AHL. The “final cuts” of past training camps will be physically around the team. And goaltending battles will be a thing across the league.

Expansion Modifications: The games played requirements for exposing players for this July’s expansion draft have been changed. Per CapFriendly, the 40 game requirement for this season is now scaled back to 27 games to account for the 56-game season. The 70 game requirement over the last two seasons is now scaled back to 54 games. CapFriendly will adjust their expansion draft tools accordingly.

In other words, pay attention to who is able to play frequently this season. It will be a factor later in the Summer.

Subject to Change: As with everything involving the Coronavirus pandemic, a lot is subject to change between arena availability, changes in government restrictions and regulations, and player and personnel safety and health. While the league dates are what the NHL has planned for 2021 and a regular season schedule will come out soon, the NHL and the NHLPA are prepared to be flexible as needed. It is not ideal but as with a lot of things in 2020, nothing is ideal and normalcy is not expected for quite some time.

This also means there are still other details that need to be worked out. Can teams trade players across divisions, namely to the North? How will taxi squads be handled if there is an AHL season? Could the taxi squad be expanded if a team has more than six players unavailable to play for whatever reason? While it is coming soon and we have a general idea of what it will be, how will games be scheduled? What if there are postponements? Are neutral site locations ready to go or will they be sought out as needed? I would like to think we will get answers as needed over the next few weeks.

As for the Devils, they have eleven days to prepare for camp. Jesper Bratt and Mackenzie Blackwood need new contracts. To prepare for the 36-skater training camp roster, some players out on loan will need to be brought back to New Jersey and soon so they can go through a quarantine period. GM Tom Fitzgerald will have a little more time to determine if he wants to extend Kyle Palmieri and/or Nikita Gusev – assuming either wants an extension now. But I’m sure it is on his mind. And as several teams need to become cap compliant in less than a month, Fitzgerald may be working the phones to see if he can provide a solution to someone else’s problem. It is going to be a very busy time for the Devils as well as the other 30 teams, the 700+ members of the NHLPA, and the league as a whole.

And I am glad it will be because we will get a return of Devils hockey. There will be Devils hockey in 2021. There will be a NHL season in 2021. There will be a season cycle with planned dates all the way through July, which means we could theoretically have NHL hockey in every month in 2021 except for August. Game on.

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Two good goalies are better than one for the New Jersey Devils in 2020-21.
After waiting nine-plus months to watch a meaningful game of New Jersey Devils hockey, the 2020-21 season is right around the corner – and needless to say, it’s going to be weird.

The fans will be… sitting at home. The Prudential Center will be (essentially) empty, and the Devils will be playing their smallest slate of games since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Factor in an all but guaranteed division realignment to accommodate for the closed Canadian border and an abbreviated schedule that could feature less time between games, and it’s safe to say any team with even a small hope of contention will need to have their goaltending plans on lock.

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Well, fortunately, the Devils suddenly find themselves with not one, but two of the more intriguing netminders in the Metropolitan Division.

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After sticking it out with a rapidly developing MacKenzie Blackwood and a clearly diminished Cory Schneider, New Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald signed two-time Stanley Cup winner Corey Crawford away from the Chicago Blackhawks on a two-year, $7.8 million deal.

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While Schneider will forever hold a special place in the hearts of Devils fans for his impressive string of seasons in the mid-2010s, it’s hard to describe just how much of an upgrade Crow is over a player who finished out the 2019-20 season in Binghamton.
Earlier this week, The Athletic’s Pierre Lebrun unveiled what realigned divisions will look like for the shortened 2020-21 season. For the Devils, they’ll have the usual suspects from the Metropolitan Division — the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, and New York Islanders.

But they’ll also have two new division “rivals” in the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres, meaning the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets won’t be division foes. The Devils will play all 56 games within the division to reduce travel and risk of exposure to COVID-19. So they won’t be seeing the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets during the regular season.

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On the surface, this is a pretty tough division for the Devils. Every team other than them and the Sabres were part of the league’s 24-team, return-to-play format in the summer. A look at point projections from Jack Fraser (you may know him as @JFreshHockey on Twitter) has the Devils finishing with 57 points, second to last in the East Division and just ahead of the Sabres.

Though the Devils only project to finish with 57 points (an 84-point pace in an 82 game season), there’s not a significant gap between them and the Flyers. The Devils upgraded their goaltending significantly when they signed Corey Crawford to a two-year deal in free agency. If he and Mackenzie Blackwood produce exactly as they did last season, the Devils should be competitive. Combine that with steps forward from Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, and the Devils could surprise some. But there’s no doubt the team has a tall task ahead of them in a stacked division.

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Measuring in at 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, Crawford has the seventh-highest saves percentage of any active player in the NHL (91.8) and has the rare distinction of winning the Jennings Trophy twice – in 2013 and again in 2015.

Though he’s certainly seen his average number of games played drop over the past few seasons, going from roughly 53 from 2013-17 to roughly 35 in each of the past three seasons, Crawford is clearly still one of the better ‘name brand’ goalies in the league even if he’s more of a platoon player than an unquestioned number one.

In 2019-20, Blackwood appeared in seven more games with four more starts than Crawford with the Blackhawks, but is that the plan moving forward? Did Crawford sign what may be his final substantive contract extension to play second-fiddle to a 24-year-old goaltender with ‘long-term starter’ written all over him, or is there a world where the Crow makes Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman look silly for explicitly passing on giving the 13-year vet another contract?

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Well, fortunately, we may not have to have that conversation right now; not in the first half of 2021 at least.

Again, the 2020-21 season is going to be weird. The Devils will presumably be playing four-five games a week and may need to rely on a legit 50/50 goalie split. While the team will surely need to pick a number one goalie for the sake of consistency, there’s no reason to believe the team couldn’t roll with Crawford for a few games and then switch over to Blackwood and then back to Crawford the following week.

On paper, both players have their own merits. Crawford is a stable vet with 12,500 saves to his name. Playing him in net against more offensive-minded teams could help the Devils steal a few more wins and better evaluate the talents of developing defensemen like Ryan Murray, Connor Carrick, and Dmitry Kulikov. And as for Blackwood? Well, he’s the future. After impressing down the stretch last spring, Blackwood deserves a chance to prove one way or another what his ceiling is as a member of the Devils, and if he’s the kind of player who can fill out a defense alongside prospects like Kevin Bahl, Ty Smith, and Nolan Foote moving forward.

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In a perfect world, a team would have one elite goalie they can rely on for 60-plus games a season and a decent enough backup to keep them competitive when the top guy is out. Crawford was that guy for much of the 2010s, and, fingers crossed, Blackwood will follow suit in the 2020s. However, in 2020-21, having two very good guys may be more useful than one elite goaltender, especially if the season is only 56 games long.

NEXT: Will Alex Ovechkin finish his career as the NHL’s leading goal scorer?
After playing his entire career with the Chicago Blackhawks, I highly doubt Corey Crawford ever expected to wear another team’s jersey in an NHL game. Had the team that drafted him prioritized loyalty as much as he did, he likely wouldn’t have, but fortunately for fans in the Garden State, that wasn’t the case. By signing with the New Jersey Devils – after a long talk with his childhood idol Martin Brodeur, which you can read here – Crawford accepted a position in a platoon and an opportunity to pass his knowledge along to MacKenzie Blackwood over the next few seasons. While either player could conceivably outplay the other and full take on a true number one role, the Devils’ best chance to win would be running a true two-goalie system where each player can play off the other. If the 2020-21 season is going to be weird, why not embrace it?