No player stood out more this year than defenseman Ty Smith. The Devils' first-round pick in 2018 (17th overall) was highly-touted by management. But his quick adaption to the NHL and development into the team's top defensive contributor surprised even the Devils' brass. Smith led all Devils blueliners in assists (21) and points (23). Those numbers were also the NHL's best among all rookie defensemen.
Smith, 21, made the Devils' squad out of training camp, scoring his first-career NHL goal in his first game. He followed by putting together a six-game scoring streak to start his career, one-game shy of the NHL record for a defenseman. And he never slowed down from that hot start. By the end of the season the 5-foot-11, 175-pound D-man was working on the team's top defensive pairing, leading the club in ice time and quarterbacking the power play. But if you really want to know about Smith's potential, think of this - General manager Tom Fitzgerald often talks about Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes as being the team's foundational players; this year, he's added Smith to that list.
Season Stats: 48GP, 2G, 21A, 23PTS
Improvement: "My shot, I think I can continue to work out, getting it off quick and shooting a little harder. Obviously, physical strength. … I think I need to continue to work at being more explosive and adding to my skating … have more pop in my stride."
Quotable: "I expect a lot of myself. I expected to be an impact guy as soon as I could. So I think I kind of started to do that as the year went on."
Video: NJD@BUF: Smith nets PPG to tie game at 1
While Smith's fast development was the biggest surprise of the year, a close second would be the breakout season from forward Yegor Sharangovich. The Belarusian forward finished third on the club with 16 goals and 30 points. Those 16 goals tied for third-most among all NHL rookies while his 30 points ranked fourth.
Sharangovich, 22, developed early chemistry with linemates Janne Kuokkanen and Travis Zajac. The former pair continued to flourish when Jack Hughes supplemented Zajac. Sharangovich, who hadn't scored more than 10 goals in two seasons in the American Hockey League, also developed into one of the club's most reliable penalty killers.
Season Stats: 54GP, 16G, 14A, 30PTS
Improvement: "I will work on my leg quickness. It's a smaller rink and small ice. You need a quick first step. And playing harder."
Quotable: On his goal for next season: "Play better than this season."
Video: NJD@PIT: Sharangovich scores shorthanded goal in 3rd
Bastian, 23, perhaps more so than any other rookie, found himself a perfect role for the Devils. He provided grit and physicality, evidenced by his team-leading 136 hits. That number ranked second among all NHL rookies (just two behind leader Alexander Romanov of Montreal, who appeared in 12 more games).
Bastian etched a role on the team's Energy Line or BMW Line with Michael McLeod and Miles Wood. The trio was the club's most consistent throughout the entire season. The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder also carved out a place on the team's penalty kill unit.
Season Stats: 41GP, 3G, 7A, 10PTS
Improvement: "The offseasons tend to be the same, it's skating, getting quicker, getting faster, putting myself in better positions on the ice to make my feet match everything else that's going on. … I'd like to contribute more offensively, shooting pucks, tipping pucks. Every area of your game needs to get worked on."
Quotable: "I think if you told me coming into the year that I was going to play every game and be a regular, I would say that is a success for me."
Video: NJD@PHI: Wood hammers Bastian's tough pass for lead
Merkley, 23, made the team's lineup right out of training camp. He notched his first-career point (assist) Jan. 26 vs. Philadelphia. In his fourth game, Feb. 16 at NY Rangers, Merkley scored his first goal. Though he found himself going in and out of the lineup throughout the year, he logged 27 games overall.
Season Stats: 27GP, 2G, 8A, 10PTS
Improvement: "Being consistent every night, and my skating. That's the biggest thing I'm going to work on this summer, and just getting stronger legs and core. Trying to work on whatever I can to get that extra first couple of steps quicker."
Quotable: "When I was in the lineup, I thought I made an impact on the game. Try to do that more next year."
Video: NJD@WSH: Merkley cashes in on a mistake by Vanecek
Forward Nolan Foote, the progeny of 20-year NHL defenseman Adam, had a brief stint in New Jersey toward the end of the season. Foote made his NHL debut April 18 against the NY Rangers and picked up his first-career NHL point (assist). Two nights later, he scored his first-career NHL goal on a one-timer from one-knee.
That skill is what made Foote, 20, a first-round pick (27th overall) in 2019 by Tampa Bay, and why he was a key acquisition for New Jersey when it traded Blake Coleman. The Devils have tremendous depth at the center position, and are in need of goal-scoring wingers. Foote hopes to fill that bill next year.
Season Stats: 6GP, 1G, 1A, 2PTS; AHL*: 22GP, 6G, 10A, 16PTS
Improvement: "Continue to improve my quickness, that's the biggest thing. … Not only quickness, but wall play, using my body, my size to my advantage. Continue to get stronger in the gym."
Quotable: "Next year for myself, I feel like it's going to be a tryout. There will be other guys that want to be taking other guys' spots. And I'm one of those guys."
Video: NJD@PIT: Foote nets Merkley's feed for first NHL goal
Bahl, 20, received a late-season call-up due to a rash of injuries and COVID-19 related diagnosis. He made his NHL debut April 29 against Philadelphia. Two nights later, he picked up his first-career NHL point with an assist. He would finish out the season by playing in the team's final seven games.
It's easy to see why management is intrigued by Bahl's potential. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound defenseman has incredible range and a long stick that can take away time and space. Bahl, who was a key piece in the Taylor Hall trade, also has the size to play a mean, physical game. Though it was a small sample size, there is a lot to like from his play.
Season Stats: 7GP, 0G, 2A, 2PTS; AHL*: 26GP, 1G, 4A, 5PTS
Improvement: "I think the biggest thing for me that I learned this year was to use my feet to get up to players instead of relying on my stick, which I tended to do coming in here. I think a big thing I learned is just to always get that extra step up to get a better gap." Bahl also noted he would like to improve upon gaps, reads, breakouts and skating.
Quotable: "I think there is definitely a huge leap in terms of hockey IQ and skill that players have at this level. So I thought that was really huge to come up and just learn all that and especially get a big chance here to get called up and just play some games. … I showed confidence."
Video: VERIZON TOP PLAYS | Bahl's First
Thompson, 21, joined the Devils immediately after completing his junior year at Providence College. He stepped into the lineup April 6 against the Buffalo Sabres and his older brother Tage. He recorded his first-career NHL point (assist) on his first shift.
Thompson would play seven more games for the Devils before be re-assigned to Binghamton, where he will finish out the campaign.
Season Stats: 7GP, 0G, 1A, 1PTS; AHL*: 8GP, 1G, 2A, 3PTS
Improvement: "Strength is probably the biggest thing. I have a big summer of working out and putting on some weight and getting stronger. Some other areas of my game could use some fine tuning, but strength is my biggest focus for the summer."
Quotable: "It's been a whirlwind. I'm super excited to be here. I was really happy to have the opportunity to get out here and get some games and play at this level. It's good for my development. … I'll be a little more confident coming into next year."
Video: BUF@NJD: Severson cleans up Thompson's rebound
Studenic, 22, finally made the jump to the NHL following two-plus seasons in the American Hockey League. The Slovak native certainly paid his dues, and his first NHL goal was worth the wait. Charging down the near side he snapped in a shot against the NY Rangers April 18. Studenic was one of several players that got an NHL look in the final weeks of the season.
Season stats: 8GP, 1G, 1A, 2PTS; AHL*: 22GP, 3G, 4A, 7PTS
Video: NYR@NJD: Studenic shows off speed with goal
Maltsev, 23, made his NHL debut Jan. 31 at Buffalo. It would take him two weeks before he would play again because the team was shut down for 14 days due to a COVID-19 outbreak. In his second game, Maltsev scored his first-career goal Feb. 16 at NY Rangers into an empty-net. He scored his first goal against a goaltender Feb. 28 vs. Washington. Maltsev was in and out of the lineup during the season, but managed to appear in 33 games.
Season Stats: 33GP, 6G, 3A, 9PTS
Video: NYR@NJD: Maltsev gives Devils life with goal
*All AHL statistics are as of May 11.