Three questions facing the New Jersey Devils

NHL.com offers in-depth analysis for each of its 32 teams from Aug. 8-Sept. 8. Today, three important questions facing the New Jersey Devils.

[Devils 32 in 32: Season preview | Top prospects | Fantasy breakdown]

1. Is the goalkeeper situation finally settled?

Ongoing health issues have hurt the incumbent starter Mackenzie Blackwood the last two seasons. After a promising rookie season in 2019-20, when he was 22-14-8 with a 2.77 goals-against average and .915 save percentage, the 25-year-old was 14-17-4 (3.04, .902) in 2020 21 and 9-10-4 (3.39, .892) last season. General manager Tom Fitzgerald said he expects Blackwood to improve this season.

“He got hit really hard with COVID-19 (in January 2021) and still had a pretty good year, and then he had the ankle surgery (June 2021) and the recovery was a little bit longer and things kind of turned around,” Fitzgerald said. “He knows how I feel about him as my goaltender, and he wants to be our guy. We think he’s going to have not only a bounce-back year, but a great year.”

As insurance, the Devils acquired a goalkeeper Vitek Vanecek in a trade with the Washington Capitals on July 8. He was 20-12-6 with a 2.67 GAA, .908 save percentage and four shutouts in 42 games (39 starts) for Washington last season. The devils have too Jonathan Bernier, who is entering the final season of a two-year contract. Bernier played 10 games before being placed on injured reserve on December 10 due to a season-ending hip injury.

Video: CBJ@NJD: Blackwood dives over to stop Bjorkstrand

2. How much have the Devils improved from last season?

New Jersey did a lot to upgrade its top nine forward group and defensive depth with size and experience, and could challenge for a Stanley Cup playoff spot by getting solid goaltending and staying relatively healthy. After trading for Vanecek, the Devils acquired a 31-year-old forward Erik Haula (5-foot-11, 191 pounds; nine NHL seasons) in a trade with the Boston Bruins, then signed 33-year-old defenseman Brendan Smith (6-2, 200; 11 seasons) to a two-year contract and 31-year-old forward Ondrej Palat (6-0, 194; 10 seasons), a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Tampa Bay Lightning, to a five-year contract. They acquired a 25-year-old defender John Marino (6-1, 181; three seasons) in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

New Jersey also hired Andrew Brunette as an assistant coach. Brunette, who is expected to run the power play, finished second last season for the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year with the Florida Panthers, behind Darryl Sutter of the Calgary Flames.

3. Which prospects will get key spots in the lineup after training camp?

Forwards Alexander Holtz and Fabian Zetterlund are ready to play more prominent roles. Holtz, the No. 7 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, had 51 points (26 goals, 25 assists) in 52 regular season games with Utica of the American Hockey League last season. A second-round pick (No. 63) in the 2017 NHL Draft, Zetterlund scored 52 points (24 goals, 28 assists) in 58 games for Utica, leading the team in power-play goals (eight) and game-winning goals (seven) ).

Defenseman Simon Nemec, the No. 2 pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, could challenge for a spot, but the expectation is that he will spend this season with Utica. Defenseman Luke Hughes, selected No. 4 in the 2021 NHL Draft, will play a second season at the University of Michigan.

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