MacKenzie Blackwood, New Jersey Devils, News & Rumors

In this edition of New Jersey Devils news and rumors, we’ll highlight some key points from a week that saw the team go 2-1-1 in the toughest part of their 2021-22 schedule so far, including their 4-3 shootout loss to the New York Rangers last night. We’ll check in on the Utica Comets and their record-setting start to the 2021-22 AHL season. Finally, an update on some Devils prospects playing around the globe. 

Devils Steal a Point Against the Rangers

The Devils were fortunate to get a point against the Rangers last night. Shot attempts at five-on-five were about even (53-52 Rangers), but the Rangers had a decisive advantage in expected goals (xG). The Devils had an xG of 1.80 compared to the Rangers’ xG of 2.97, an xG% of just 37.8 percent. 

The Devils got by with some strong goaltending from Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier, who replaced Blackwood in the third period after concussion spotters called for him to leave the game for testing. The two goalies ended up combining for 38 saves on 41 shots on goal — a .926 save percentage (SV%) — while stopping 0.6 goals above expected (GSAx). Had it not been for them and Pavel Zacha, Mr. I will tie every one-goal game late in the third period, the Devils would not have gotten a point. Those kinds of efforts could be crucial late in the season in a highly competitive Metropolitan Division. 

Devils Goaltending Covered up Concerns at Five-on-Five

Results are results. The Devils came away 2-1-1 with wins against two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and a point against another. There’s certainly no shame in that, but there are some concerns at five-on-five. They finished the week with a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 48.09 percent and xG% of 40.71 percent. That latter number was third-worst in the league for the week. So how did they come away with a 2-1-1 record?

Timely scoring and some strong special teams play in their two wins helped, but their goaltending was outstanding all week long. The Devils had a .929 SV% at five-on-five and all strengths. Blackwood was particularly great, posting a .947 SV% and GSAx of 3.64, including a 42-save shutout against the New York Islanders on Thursday evening. 

Mackenzie Blackwood New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Any team needs strong goaltending to have a chance at making the playoffs. But the Devils will have to be better at five-on-five than they were this past week to try and lighten the workload on their goaltenders. It’s not a sustainable formula to winning long-term, and it’ll come back to bite them at some point if it doesn’t improve. 

A reason for the Devils’ lagging five-on-five play is their bottom-six depth is less than desirable without Jack Hughes in the lineup after he dislocated his shoulder. One option is to move Tomáš Tatar back to the third line and play Alex Holtz:  

  • Pavel Zacha – Nico Hischier – Yegor Sharangovich
  • Andreas Johnsson – Dawson Mercer – Jesper Bratt
  • Tatar – Jesper Boqvist – Holtz
  • Janne Kuokkanen – Michael McLeod – Jimmy Vesey

Related: 5 Takeaways From the Devils’ Convincing Win Against the Islanders

Sharangovich has struggled to score this season. But he has an xG% of 51.88 percent, and his shot and chance generation has been quite good. They need to get him going, and perhaps playing with Zacha and Hischier can help him do so. Another option is to look to the Comets, who have a few players off to fast starts that they could use to give their bottom-six a jolt. They have to figure out something to at least stabilize things until Hughes returns, so it’ll be interesting to see what head coach Lindy Ruff has in mind. 

Utica Comets off to a Roaring Start

While the Devils are off to a pretty good start themselves at 7-4-3, the Comets are absolutely lighting the AHL on fire. They’re off to a franchise-record 10-game winning streak to the start season, and they’ve gotten big-time performances from multiple players. Chase De Leo has 12 points in seven games, while Tyce Thompson and Boqvist were both point-per-game players before their NHL call-ups. Other standouts include Fabian Zetterlund, who has nine points in 10 games, and Nate Schnarr, who has eight points in as many games. 

But the two biggest stars of the Comets’ start have been their goaltenders, Nico Daws and Akira Schmid. Daws has made six starts and has a .936 SV%, while Schmid has started four games and has a stellar .957 SV%, which leads the AHL. Those numbers will even out as they play more often, but they’re both high-end goaltending prospects. Daws even showed the NHL potential he possesses when he led the Devils to a 2-1 overtime victory against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 23 during his NHL debut. 

Nico Daws Guelph Storm
Nico Daws with the Guelph Storm in the OHL (Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

The Comets will look to tie an AHL record on Wednesday for wins to start a season. But even if they don’t match that record, they’re clearly one of the best teams in the AHL. Kevin Dineen seems to have made a significant difference in his first season as the head coach of the Devils’ AHL affiliate. Players like Schnarr and Zetterlund, who were never high-end scorers in the AHL, are leading the charge. That obviously bodes well for long-term development, but it could also help the Devils’ bottom-six issues without Hughes in the lineup.

Devils Prospects Update

A few quick hits on Devils prospects who have been performing well as of late.

Arseni Gritsyuk

Not every Devils fan may be familiar with the fifth-round pick from the 2019 draft, but the Russian winger is off to a strong start in the KHL. He has seven goals and 12 points in 19 games for Avangard Omsk, the defending KHL champs. If I were to re-rank the Devils’ top 20 prospects, he’d likely move into the top 10 with his start in the KHL. 

Graeme Clarke

Clarke has also been one of the Comets’ best players, totaling seven points in nine games. The 20-year-old is a talented offensive winger who possesses a powerful shot and underrated playmaking ability. If he keeps it up, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Devils give him a look in the NHL later in the season. 

Related: Five 90s NHL Jerseys Gone Too Soon

Samu Salminen

A third-round pick at the 2021 draft, Salminen has been playing well in the Finnish junior league, totaling 13 goals and 24 points in 19 games. The 18-year-old forward has a powerful shot and good size at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds. It’ll be a while before he plays in the NHL, but he does have middle-six potential. 

Luke Hughes

Jack Hughes’ younger brother Luke is off to an impressive start with the Michigan Wolverines in the NCAA. The freshman has 13 points in 12 games and has been one of the best players on a stacked Wolverines team. It’ll probably be a couple of years before he plays in the NHL, but he’s displaying the top-pair potential that made him the fourth overall pick at the 2021 draft. 

Luke Hughes of the USDP
Luke Hughes with the USNTDP (Photo by Rena Laverty)

That wraps up this edition of Devils news and rumors. The Devils take on an Ottawa Senators team tomorrow night that’s been decimated by a COVID outbreak. They’ll conclude this week with matchups in Florida against the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. So make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest Devils coverage. 

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