Devils season preview: Hamilton, Graves added to boost defensemen

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The 2021-22 NHL season starts Oct. 12. With training camps open, NHL.com is taking a look at the three keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lineup for each of the 32 teams. Today, the New Jersey Devils.  

Coach: Lindy Ruff (second season)

Last season: 19-30-7; seventh in MassMutual East Division, did not qualify for Stanley Cup Playoffs

3 KEYS

1. Hamilton’s impact

Dougie Hamilton, who signed a seven-year contract July 28, scored 42 points (10 goals, 32 assists) in 55 regular-season games and five points (two goals, three assists) in 11 Stanley Cup Playoff games for the Carolina Hurricanes last season. He leads NHL defensemen with 59 goals since 2017-18. He should help the power play after scoring an NHL career-high 18 power-play points (two goals, 16 assists) last season, when he led the Hurricanes in ice time per game with the man-advantage (3:03). The Devils were 28th in the NHL on the power play last season (14.2 percent), when forward Pavel Zacha led them with 11 power-play points (five goals, six assists).

Video: Dougie Hamilton comes in at number 34 on the Top 50

2. Contribution from young players

They will need their young core to take another step. Captain Nico Hischier, a 22-year-old center, forwards Jack Hughes, 20; Janne Kuokkanen, 23; Yegor Sharangovich, 23; Michael McLeod, 23; Nolan Foote, 20; and Jesper Boqvist, 22; and defenseman Ty Smith, 21, will be looked upon to provide more pace and production. Alexander Holtz, a 19-year-old forward selected No. 7 in the 2020 NHL Draft, could earn a significant role coming out of camp. 

3. Blackwood’s workload

Mackenzie Blackwood is one of eight NHL goalies to play at least 82 games the past two seasons. He played 21 of his 35 games last season on one day of rest or fewer and finished with a 3.04 goals-against average and .902 save percentage. The Devils are hoping veteran Jonathan Bernier helps alleviate some of the workload. The 33-year-old signed a two-year contract July 28. He was 9-11-1 with a 2.99 GAA and .914 save percentage in 24 games (23 starts) last season with the Detroit Red Wings and has a 2.77 GAA , a .913 save percentage and 18 shutouts in 394 regular-season games (355 starts) with the Los Angeles Kings, Toronto Maple Leafs, Anaheim Ducks, Colorado Avalanche and Red Wings.

Video: New Jersey Devils 2021-22 Season Preview

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Position battles

Tomas Tatar, who signed a two-year contract Aug. 5, will have a chance to secure a role at wing among the top six forwards. The 30-year-old could also ensure that Zacha plays his natural center position for most of the season. Tatar scored 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists) in 50 regular-season games and had one assist in five playoff games with the Montreal Canadiens last season. He has scored at least 20 goals in six of the past seven seasons.

Most intriguing addition

Ryan Graves, a left-shot defenseman acquired July 15 in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche for forward Mikhail Maltsev and a second-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft (No. 61; defenseman Sean Behrens), should offer consistency on the back end and help on the penalty kill. The 26-year-old led the Avalanche with 91 blocked shots and was second with 77 hits, four behind forward Gabriel Landeskog, in 54 regular-season games. He also scored 15 points (two goals, 13 assists) and was plus-15. 

Biggest potential surprise 

McLeod, the No. 12 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, should be given every opportunity to play up to his potential, earning tough minutes in big spots. The center exhibited a lot more poise and confidence last season, scoring 15 points (nine goals, six assists) in 52 games. He was first on the Devils in face-off attempts (633), wins (326), and defensive-zone wins (158), tied for second with Zacha in face-off winning percentage (51.5 percent) behind Hischier (56.2 percent), second in hits (89) and third among forwards in blocked shots (20).

Ready to break through

Holtz, expected to make his NHL debut this season, scored three points (one goal, two assists) in 10 games for Binghamton of the American Hockey League last season. The 19-year-old right wing scored 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) in 40 games for Djurgarden of the Swedish Hockey League, the top professional men’s league in Sweden, and signed his entry-level contract with the Devils on April 19.

Fantasy sleeper 

Sharangovich (fantasy average draft position: 170.4) finished third among rookies in even-strength points (27) behind Jason Robertson of the Dallas Stars (39) and Kirill Kaprizov of the Minnesota Wild (38) last season, and fourth in points (30 in 54 games) and shots on goal (114; 2.1 per game). He is expected to play in the top six with a valuable center in either full-fledged breakout candidate Hughes or bounce-back hopeful Hischier and should also benefit from the signing of elite defenseman Hamilton. — Rob Reese

Projected lineup 

Tomas Tatar — Nico Hischier — Jesper Bratt

Janne Kuokkanen — Jack Hughes — Yegor Sharangovich

Miles Wood — Pavel Zacha — Alexander Holtz

Andreas Johnsson — Michael McLeod — Jesper Boqvist

Ryan Graves — Dougie Hamilton

Ty Smith — Damon Severson

Jonas SiegenthalerP.K. Subban

Mackenzie Blackwood

Jonathan Bernier

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