It's hard to break down almost an entire hockey season in three bullets, but we're going to try. The Devils season has officially come to an end. We know this following the league's "Return to Play" plan announcement on Tuesday afternoon. The league will move toward re-opening with a 24-team playoff, of which the Devils will not be involved in.
And so, the Devils season comes to an end with a record of 28-29-12. Under the announcement of this format, the Devils missed the playoffs narrowly. Had they won against Pittsburgh on March 10, they would have been in.
It's sad that Devils hockey has ended prematurely, but let's move forward by looking back at the season that was.
1. DEVILS 'CLIMB THE LADDER' AFTER DISAPPOINTING START
The New Jersey Devils were the talk of the hockey world this summer. Everything seemed to be pointed in the right direction and the club appeared poised for a fun, competitive campaign on the backs of a returning former MVP, several big-name acquisitions and a group of promising young players.
The thought was it could take time for the new pieces to gel, but not many would have predicted the start to the season the Devils had. The club's October and November effectively sunk the team into a deep hole they'd never get out of.
New Jersey lost six-straight to begin the season and only won two of their games in October.
Though they did make a bit of a run on the back half of the season, shortly after turning to Interim Head Coach Alain Nasreddine.
Christmas was a bit of a turning point for the team, however. They beat the Blackhawks on December 23, and then proceeded to win four of their next five.
Beginning in late January, the Devils earned at least a point in 16 of their final 21 games of the season. Their 17 victories in the season's final 34 games put them at 9th in the league during that span.
The Devils late-season turnaround was further evidenced by their special teams. After struggling on both the power play and penalty kill to begin the season, plummeting to the bottom of the league standings, Jersey turned it around after Christmas. They were 10th on the power play from the holiday onward and first on the penalty kill.
A late rally means little in terms of making the playoffs, but it does show that there is talent on this team to build around and that progress can be made quickly given the right tools and coaching.
2. MACKENZIE EMERGES
One big reason the Devils were able to win some games down the stretch? The goaltending that eluded them at the start of the year turned around in a big way largely thanks to an emerging young star between the pipes.
There is little doubt in this writer's mind that Mackenzie Blackwood is a bonafide number one NHL goaltender, or will be considered as such moving forward.
Blackwood played in 47 games this season, shouldering a huge load as the year went along. Among NHL goalies, rookies, and veterans, to play 40+ games, Blackwood ranks seventh in save percentage [.915] and eighth in saves [1,328]. Among rookie netminders to play at least 15 games, his save percentage ranks second to Columbus' rookie phenom Elvis Merzlikins.
From February 6-22, Blackwood won all six of the games he played in and recorded a save percentage of .943 or better in every single game.
A lot of NHL front offices like the idea of being able to build a team from the net out. If the Devils are one of those clubs, they should be extremely happy that their 2015 second-round pick has begun making an impact on the game's big stage. The best part is, he's only 23.
In addition to Blackwood, the Devils saw impactful play - at least in stretches - from several other young players including Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes [all 23 and under], and even some prospects like Nick Merkley and Joey Anderson who shined in short stints with the club.
3. RE-TOOLING THE FUTURE
Speaking of prospects, the Devils did some accumulating of young players during the season. A lot of which was in direct correlation with their place in the standings.
If you had looked at the Devils prospect pool before you would note it was stronger now than it had been in a while. But that doesn't mean the franchise could or should rest on their laurels. There was and is still plenty of adding and growing that can be done to bolster the group.
So the Devils set out to do just that this year when they realized the playoffs we're likely out of the picture. It all really began with the Taylor Hall trade in December, in which the Devils received some promising young prospects back from Arizona. Kevin Bahl is the most notable name from the return. The hulking 6-foot-7 defenseman has the skill, size, and characteristics to be an aggressive and imposing fixture of the New Jersey blueline for a long time. Nick Merkley was also involved in the trade and the former first-round pick may be on the smaller side but he showed in a very brief four-game stint with the Devils that he isn't afraid to throw his body around, finish checks and create offense.
Then came the NHL trade deadline two months later and Interim General Manager Tom Fitzgerald did even more adding to the Devils core group of prospects - namely with two forwards in particular.
The Blake Coleman trade moved a productive fan favorite to Tampa in exchange for, quite frankly, an even younger version of Blake Coleman, and a first-round pick. Fitzgerald said at the time that the compensation was too good to pass up, even if it meant parting with an a well-liked and well-appreciated member of the current roster. Nolan Foote was the centerpiece to the trade.
The 6-foot-4 19-year-old winger and captain of the Kelowna Rockets is an offensively gifted player with good hockey IQ and strength on the puck to go along with a tenacious style of play. In 66 games last year, Foote scored 36 goals and tallied 63 points. In battling injury. Foote only played 27 games this season but recorded 33 points in limited action.
While the additions of Bahl and Foote might take a little more time to reach the NHL, Fitzgerald's most recent addition of Janne Kuokkanen belongs alongside Merkley among players who could make the leap full-time next season from the prospect pool. On Feb. 24, the Devils acquired Kuokkanen from Carolina.
Fitzgerald said at the time it was like acquiring a second-round pick, which in essence they did. Kuokkanen was a second-rounder in 2016 and has shown extremely well in the American Hockey League. With the Charlotte Checkers the last two seasons, Kuokkanen compiled 80 points [24-56-80] in 100 games. In four games with Binghamton following the trade, he registered three goals and three assists. He's shown he can be a solid player but has not had many opportunities in the NHL. Judging by the makeup of the Devils roster as it currently stands, it's likely that Kuokkanen will receive plenty of opportunities next season.