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Sharangovich was tremendous while on loan in the KHL, where he totaled 17 goals and 25 points in 34 games. Kuokkanen has three seasons of AHL experience and looks ready for a shot at a regular NHL role. While Boqvist primarily played left wing last season, he’s looked much more comfortable at center during camp. It may be a line of three rookies, but their performance as a unit during the scrimmages suggests they might offer the Devils some depth to start the season.

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The fourth line, at least out of the gate, should have some familiar faces. Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha are likely to begin there, but there’s still one spot to fill alongside them. Nathan Bastian looks to be in the running for that opening, as does Michael McLeod, which would give the Devils some size and scoring punch on the fourth line.

Related: Devils Have Uphill Climb to Qualify for 2021 Playoffs

All of this will change when Hischier and Bratt return, though. It’ll be interesting to see where everyone fits when that happens, especially if the Sharangovich, Boqvist, and Kuokkanen line clicks during game action. That could give Ruff some difficult decisions to make in the bottom half of the lineup, but that’s not a bad problem to have.

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Defense
The Devils’ defense will have a mixture of new and old faces after a few offseason moves. They acquired Ryan Murray from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for a fifth-round pick. Despite having chronic lower back problems, Murray has been an effective top-four defenseman when in the lineup. If he can stay healthy, he’ll give the team a significant boost on their top pair.

Also joining Murray is Dmitry Kulikov, who the Devils signed during free agency to a one-year deal worth $1.15 million. Kulikov isn’t going to have the significant role Murray will, but he should provide the team with some defensive depth as their no. 6 or 7 defenseman.

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In a somewhat surprising move, the New Jersey Devils have brought back defenseman Sami Vatanen on a one year contract worth $2 million for the season. Vatanen will need to quarantine and arrive in New Jersey before he can participate in team activities. His timetable to join the team and be ready for games is yet to be determined. Vatanen brings a familiar presence on the backend that does nothing but strengthens the depth of the Devils blueline.

The Devils originally acquired Vatanen from the Anaheim Ducks for fan favorite Adam Henrique, en route to the first playoff appearance since the run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. The Devils then traded Vatanen almost one year ago to the Carolina Hurricanes for Janne Kuokkanen, Frederick Claesson, and a 2020 3rd-round draft pick that became Nico Daws. Kuokkanen looks to be a lock for the opening night roster and could make a major impact on the Devils. Claesson is still a free agent and Dawes waits in limbo for the OHL season to start.

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Vatanen did not play a game in the regular season for the Hurricanes last season due to an injury, which added to the drama of the conditional draft pick acquired by the Devils. He did play seven games in the playoffs, accumulating three assists in those games.

An NHL ready player and a 3rd-round pick is a steep price for only seven playoff games in hindsight for the Hurricanes. This only adds to the legend of good moves that Tom Fitzgerald has done so far in his tenure.

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The move does throw some confusion to the roster though, as it was thought the Devils already had their blueline set up with the assumption Ty Smith would make the team. Right now, if Ty Smith makes the team, the Devils would have 8 NHL caliber defenseman on the roster. PK Subban, Damon Severson, Connor Carrick, and Vatanen would be on the right side. Ryan Murray, Will Butcher, Dimitry Kulikov, and Smith on the left. It is yet to be seen how the Devils roster will shake up over the course of the season while the question of how the taxi squad will be used remains.

NEXT: How Devils Turned Jason Arnott Into Shakir Mukhamadullin
In all, this is a good move for the Devils to bring back Vatanen. He was seemed to be well liked by his teammates and he is capable of being a player the Devils could really use. He can work the powerplay as well as the penalty kill. The only question is, can he stay healthy? Like Murray, if health isn’t an issue, both players are top four quality defensemen. If they aren’t healthy, the Devils will be back to square one and more questions than answers. But all in all, bringing Sami back is a smart decision.

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Ryan Murray Columbus Blue Jackets
Ryan Murray, Columbus Blue Jackets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Returning for his second stint with the Devils is Sami Vatanen, who signed a one-year deal worth $2 million less than a week ago. Like Bratt, he needs a work visa then has to quarantine for seven days before joining the team. So he’s likely to miss their first couple of games, at a minimum.

In addition to those three defensemen, the Devils return Damon Severson, Will Butcher, P.K. Subban, and Connor Carrick. Subban looks like he’ll start the season paired with Murray, while top prospect Ty Smith looks as if he’ll play alongside Severson on the second pair. Once Vatanen is eligible to play, the Devils’ defense pairs should look something like this:

Murray – Subban
Smith – Severson
Butcher – Vatanen
Kulikov – Carrick (extras)
No one will mistake the Devils’ blue line as the best in the NHL. With that said, it’s a pretty capable group. Subban had the worst season of his career in 2019-20, so giving him top-pair minutes won’t work if he doesn’t rebound to some degree. Though, it does help that Murray is the best defenseman Subban will play with since becoming a Devil.

Smith looked terrific during the Devils’ camp scrimmages, and he appears ready for the NHL. Severson was the team’s best defenseman in 2019-20, so Smith looks to be walking into a favorable situation to start his NHL career.

Once Vatanen is eligible to play, he and Butcher should give the Devils a reliable third pair. Butcher is one of the team’s more effective puck-moving blueliners, and he’s put up good numbers paired with Vatanen over the last three seasons. Vatanen should also get some meaningful minutes on both the power play and penalty kill.

New Jersey Devils Sami Vatanen
New Jersey Devils Sami Vatanen (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)
And with Kulikov and Carrick as the team’s seventh and eighth defensemen, that makes the Devils’ defense one of their better position groups.

Goaltending
Goaltending looked like it was going to be a strength heading into this season. But it’s now the Devils’ biggest question mark after Crawford announced his retirement. Crawford had a .917 save percentage (SV%) last season and would’ve been a significant upgrade as a 1B to Blackwood.

Now the Devils are left scrambling to find a backup to Blackwood with just two days before the regular season begins. Scott Wedgewood is the de facto no. 2 goaltender with Crawford retiring, but he hasn’t played in an NHL game since 2017-18. His recent AHL numbers aren’t all that encouraging either – he had a .893 SV% last season and .908 SV% in 2018-19.

If the Devils want to be competitive this season, they need to find a veteran backup behind Blackwood. They could look to the trade market, but it might be a challenge finding a willing trade partner since teams must carry a goalie on their taxi squad.

The Devils’ best bet seems to be scouring the waiver wire and hoping someone useful ends up on waivers. One team to watch is the Toronto Maple Leafs. If Jack Campbell wins the backup job to Frederik Andersen, as expected, the Leafs could place Aaron Dell on waivers with the intent of sending him to their taxi squad.

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The New Jersey Devils have finally signed RFA goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood to a deal worth $2.8 million each of the next three seasons. This is a huge deal for the Devils, who now have a solid two goaltenders for two seasons after signing Corey Crawford in the offseason. Both are good enough to make a bottom-five defense in the league look far more serviceable. Blackwood and Crawford are the biggest keys to the Devils team this year and any success they have will be thanks to their efforts.

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Last season with Blackwood in net, the Devils record was 22-14-0-8 while without him they were as bad as the bottom of the league sporting an awful 6-15-0-2 record. This is why so much relies on good goaltending.

With solid stats on a bad team including a 2.77 goals against average and a .915 save percentage at only 24 years of age, Blackwood has room to improve. If the team in front of him takes a step forward, these numbers could push him into a top-10 goaltender in the NHL. His save percentage was good enough for 26th in the NHL last season. While that does not sound great, factoring in the defense that’s in front of him, it is very good. While comparing and looking at more advanced stats, Blackwood was only one of four goaltenders last season to have a positive goals saved vs expected goals against. All the others (Tuukka Rask, Carter Hart, and Connor Hellebuyck) were on solid teams.

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When looking at this from a team cap perspective, Blackwood is making less than bottom-pairing defender Will Butcher and only $50k above bottom-line forward Miles Wood. Around the league, the other goaltenders Blackwood is comparable to are making three times his money. While he still, if he continues this level of play, has a big chance at a contract when he is a free agent in three seasons, this is still a steal for the Devils with zero risk. Fitzgerald has given a team with a ton of cap space room to make moves and keep anyone they need. With this contract in the books, all focus will be on Jesper Bratt and what he signs for next before camp can get under way and the season of hockey to begin.

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NEXT: Ranking New Jersey Devils Possible Divisional Opponents
It is a good day to be a Devils fan.

Normally, I use a studfinder as if I’m reading the wall: left-to-right. So when I hit the left edge, that means that there is a stud coming up. In other words, the screen indicates a “future stud”.

I could have gone a few different directions with this, but I wanted to choose someone who is steadily improving and is not quite a stud yet. Over the past 2 seasons, among the 82 goalies who have faced 200+ shots, Blackwood has been worth 24.2 goals more than a replacement-level goalie (21st in NHL) and is saving 0.12% more goals than expected (33rd). So, he’s clearly not elite YET. But he’s younger than every goalie on that list other than Carter Hart and Ilya Samsonov and, unlike the other possible choices for this category, the age curve is in his favor — the average peak performance for a goalie is 26.7 years old on my model.

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And it’s not just blind faith. From the time Hynes was fired, Blackwood prevented more goals than any other goalie in the NHL (13.6), according to Evolving Hockey’s GSAx. He’s got draft pedigree, size, athleticism, stretches of elite play, and an age curve pointing upward. The NJDSF scans Blackwood and sees a stud in our future.

Right Edge: P.K. Subban

If you’re reading the wall left-to-right, then the right-edge shows you’ve hit the end of the stud. As a player, this means your days as a stud have come to a close.

There’s only one player on the team who was indisputably a stud at one point, and is indisputably not a stud anymore: P.K. Subban. Given last year’s results, I think it’s important to remind everyone of the scope of his greatness. This is his value in standings points per year.

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He was worth about 5 standings points from 2011-2018. That made him the most valuable defender in the NHL during that time. He fell on hard times in 2019, but with 7 years as the best D-man in the NHL, and 1 as a replacement-level player, that’s absolutely a chance that you take, and Shero did. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out. And that’s putting it mildly.

P.K. Subban — the most valuable defender in the NHL from 2011-2018 — was the least valuable defender in the NHL in 2020. He tied Johnny Boychuck, being worth 10.1 goals LESS than a replacement-level player.

To be honest, I do expect a little upward regression. Someone as talented as Subban doesn’t become this bad this fast, typically. But both my aging curve, linked above, and Micah McCurdy’s show P.K.’s age, 31, as an inflection point where performance typically nosedives. Perhaps he hit it a bit early. Regardless the NJDSF scans P.K. and sees the end of a stud.

Center: Nico Hischier

When you see this marker on your stud finder, it means that this is where you want to drill. Putting up my TV, I want to hit the center of the stud to make sure that the screw catches the wood comfortably on all ends. This is the screen you see when it’s time to go all in — you’ve got yourself a stud.

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To me, this is Nico Hischier. His rookie year, you could write off as benefiting from Taylor Hall. Sure enough, the next season, with Hall injured, Nico’s point rate did take a dip ever-so-slightly, but his impact on the pace of play remained in the top 2% of the league due to a supremely underrated even-strength offensive impact, and an improved defensive game.

In the tire fire that was the 2020 season, Hischier was not immune to the spiral, but was still in the top third of the league in value (and more stable metrics had him in the top quarter).

No matter what was you slice it, Nico is a stud. The NJDSF says this is the player you plant your pilot hole in and build the mount around.

Deep Scan: Will Butcher

Some walls are built a little thicker than others and that can wreak havoc on the studfinder readings. When this happens the Tavool studfinder has a “deep” setting that increases the depth of the scan up to 1.77 inches into the wall. This is what you use when you have to look a little deeper than the surface to see the stud that’s there.

There is only one reasonable choice here, to me, is Will Butcher.

Butcher is 25 which is near the peak age for a defender. And his peak is pretty peaky. It’s among the peakiest in the NHL. Since joining the league 3 years ago, this is his peer group in terms of value.

I know, I know, I can already hear the chorus of commenters that has invaded my past 3 “Will Butcher is great” articles. But the whole premise here is that this is a player that might be a stud if we just look a little closer.

His pairing with Ben Lovejoy was among the most efficient in the NHL. He never found a pairing that worked last year. There are a lot of new faces likely to join the starting 6 this season and that gives Butcher a chance to prove that not only was last year a fluke, but that he can handle increased responsibility while maintaining his efficiency.

Butcher is small, slow, and plays 18 minutes a game. He does NOT looke like a stud. So, when NJDSF prepares to scan him, it needs a deeper setting.

Metal Scan: Blake Coleman

I know, he’s not on the team anymore. But, that’s why he’s perfect for this setting. This setting is used to change the type of stud we’re searching for. A metal stud is serves the same purpose as a wood one, but you can’t drill into it. So, for the purposes of mounting a TV, the stud just won’t work out.

Blake Coleman was a STUD with the Devils. He was the NHL equivalent to a 3-and-D forward. He could score by getting in the high-danger areas with his underrated athleticism, and he was a Selke-caliber forward in terms of defensive impact, both even-strength and penalty-killing.

Blake Coleman was absolutely a stud in terms of value to the team. But, he didn’t pan out here. He was a little too old for the core of this team, and we wouldn’t have room for his next contract. To some degree, he was never able to shake this “depth forward” mystique and so, with the potential to acquire two chances at usable studs in Nolan Foote and Shakir Mukhamadullin, management decided to move on.

NJDSF scans Blake Coleman and sees a stud, but not one to build a mount on.

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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.