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Upgraded Devils face questions in taking the next step

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Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald was active this offseason, looking to address as many areas within the still-rebuilding team as possible. As he begins his second year, Fitzgerald added to the defense, to the forward group and in goal, but there are still a heap of questions looming over how the lineup will fall into place.

Coming off a third consecutive season without a playoff berth, the Devils are yearning for any sort of progress. As one of the youngest teams in the NHL, the hope is that having another year under their belts will play out well on the ice.

Here’s a look at the top three issues the Devils face heading into training camp:

Can the additions of Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves improve the overall defense?

The Devils signed Hamilton, the NHL’s top unrestricted free agent this summer, to a seven-year, $63 million contract, immediately securing a new No. 1 defenseman. Shortly after, Fitzgerald traded Mikhail Maltsev and a 2021 second-round pick to the Avalanche in exchange for Graves. Jonas Siegenthaler, whom the Capitals traded to the Devils leading up to the trade deadline last season, also signed a two-year extension to remain in New Jersey.

Defense has long been a weakness for the Devils, but the hope is that the aforementioned three — plus Ty Smith — can give the D-corps a different look. There’s a possibility Hamilton and Graves will fortify a top-notch first pair, but head coach Lindy Ruff may want to spread the wealth.

Dougie Hamilton
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Barring the all-too-familiar sophomore slump, Smith could build upon last season and carry over some of the success he had with Damon Severson in the first half of last season. P.K. Subban is sure to see a decrease in playing time, but having other notable defensemen around may light a fire under the 32-year-old and prompt him to forge a strong third-pairing with Siegenthaler.

What will be the Mackenzie Blackwood-Jonathan Bernier split be in goal?

The Devils were seeking a veteran goaltender who could not only mentor the 24-year-old Blackwood, but also compete with him. Bernier, 32, certainly fits that bill.

Blackwood is currently considered the 1A netminder, but that could change on a whim. He has suffered through slumps before and is coming off a below-average season, in which he finished with a 3.04 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage. Blackwood still has room to develop, but he’ll have to keep up with Bernier if he wants to at least split time in net.

Mackenzie Blackwood
Mackenzie Blackwood
Corey Sipkin

Bernier started just 23 times last season with Detroit after a leg injury sidelined him for some time. If he’s able to stay healthy, Bernier has the potential to form a tandem with Blackwood that would ease both players’ workloads.

Who are the fourth- and third-line centers and how will that impact the lineup?

Assuming Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier are the Devils’ 1-2 punch down the middle, there are a few options to round out the team’s top four centers.

Ruff told reporters that Pavel Zacha will start camp at center. He posted a career-high 35 points in 2021 and is one of the more intriguing options to deploy either as a No. 3 center or a top-six winger. With the addition of Tomas Tatar, however, the top six may be filled.

Michael McLeod may settle into a role as center on the third or fourth line after having immense success with Nate Bastian (taken in the expansion draft) as part of the energy line last season. It will be crucial, however, for him to find the same chemistry with his linemates. Jesper Boqvist may feel more pressure than others after he failed to make the same strides as some of his teammates last season, which may limit him to a fourth-line job to start the season.



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