Are Injury Histories Worth Risk For New Jersey Devils Offseason Additions?

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - DECEMBER 23: Ryan Murray #27 of the Columbus Blue Jackets skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on December 23, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey. The Blue Jackets shutout the Devils 3-0. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - DECEMBER 23: Ryan Murray #27 of the Columbus Blue Jackets skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on December 23, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey. The Blue Jackets shutout the Devils 3-0. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The New Jersey Devils have been fairly active this offseason, signing two-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender Corey Crawford, along with trading for defenseman Ryan Murray and forward Andreas Johnsson. While there’s still much work to do before they can be considered an adequate playoff contender (worth noting General Manager Tom Fitzgerald has signaled he isn’t done making moves), the team that hits the ice whenever next season starts should be more competitive and talented than the 2018-19 and 2019-20 squads.

On paper, these moves improve New Jersey’s roster, addressing glaring depth issues up front, on the backend, and in net. The trio of players acquired, however, all have a mutual flaw—notable injury histories—that could hinder their ability to become as impactful as many are projecting. Hopefully this doesn’t wind up being the case, and all three make huge differences in how the New Jersey Devils fare next season. Having said that, the trio’s nagging health issues cannot be ignored when projecting their true capabilities moving forward.

With that in mind, are these players worth the risk? The short answer is yes. Absolutely.

Sports in general provides countless examples of recurring injuries limiting or outright derailing once-promising careers. Ryan Murray is a prime example. He was touted as a premiere prospect going into the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Not only was Murray selected second overall, but the Columbus Blue Jackets reportedly rejected a trade offer from the New York Islanders, who apparently offered all of their 2012 draft picks to swap spots. That’s how much teams thought Murray was going to be the real deal.

Murray’s NHL career hasn’t met those sky-high expectations due to his injury susceptibility. Over seven NHL seasons, Murray played a full 82 games just once (2015-16), and two campaigns with more than 60 contests (2013-14, 2016-17). Since 2015-16 alone, Murray has missed 129 regular season games, including 43 in 2019-20.

When healthy, Murray has proven to be a competent two-way defender who’s effective in all three zones. Among blue liners with at least 340 NHL games played since 2013-2014 (Murray’s rookie season), he ranks 68th in average points-per-game (.32), which is quite commendable, given how injuries have hampered his career. In 2018-19, Murray was on pace to have 40+ points had he played a full season, and would have netted around five goals and 28 points if he appeared in all 70 of Columbus’ regular season games in 2019-20 (prior to the stoppage).

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At five-on-five, Columbus has had the majority of expected goals (xG), regular, and high-danger scoring chances when Murray is on the ice, and his goals-above-replacement (GAR) is positive across the board in all situations (except penalties drawn). There’s no doubting Murray’s ability to contribute when he plays. What amount of the season his volatile health permits him to however, is the big question. A healthy Ryan Murray improves this team’s blue line, but if it’s to the point where the defense’s success becomes contingent on the 27-year-old defenseman playing regularly, the outcome could be detrimental if he gets sidelined for an extended period.

Andreas Johnsson’s situation is slightly different than Murray’s. 2020-21 will be Johnsson’s third full season as a lineup regular, prior to which he tallied 20 goals and 43 points as a rookie, along with eight goals and 21 points in 43 contests during his injury-plagued 2019-2020 campaign. Despite playing considerable time with Toronto’s big three, Johnsson—whose ceiling is potentially a lot higher—appeared to be shaping into more of a complimentary asset for the Leaf’s core offensive players.

Health-wise, the last year hasn’t been kind to Johnsson, who missed 37 regular season games. In addition to a late-January concussion, Johnsson also suffered leg injuries in December and February, with the latter requiring surgery that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. These injuries will obviously be a concern worth monitoring moving forward, which played an instrumental role in his lackluster 2019-2020 campaign. Based on last season’s numbers, Johnsson was projected to finish with about 13 goals and 34 points had he played in all 70 contests for Toronto. While those totals are a hefty decline compared to his 2018-2019 stats, one could argue those numbers would have been higher if he wasn’t suffering and recovering from multiple injuries.

On the New Jersey Devils, Johnsson comes out from playing under the shadows of all-star players like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares. He’s a definite fixture in the team’s top nine, and will likely start 2020-2021 on New Jersey’s first or second line. Best case scenario for Johnsson is he pans out similarly to how Kyle Palmieri did when coming to New Jersey, and establishes himself as an adept top-six winger. Of course, these scenarios unfolding rides on whether or not Johnsson’s injuries last season don’t come back to haunt him in 2020-2021.

New Jersey Devils Head Coach Lindy Ruff proclaimed his belief that Corey Crawford is still a starting net minder in the NHL, and alluded his preference to going with a 1A/1B tandem. The last few years have been particularly hard on Crawford who at 35 years of age, endured some serious wear and tear. Since 2018, Crawford was sidelined for 81 games due to injury, although he was in relatively good health throughout 2019-2020. Despite only appearing in 40 contests last season, Crawford split net minding duties with Robin Lehner, managing to go 16-20-3 with a 2.77 GAA and .917 SV%.

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Considering Chicago’s fall from grace and especially when compared to any New Jersey Devils goaltender not named Mackenzie Blackwood in recent years, Crawford’s numbers aren’t too shabby. Given how the Devils lost all but six games when Blackwood didn’t start last season, this is an area where Crawford is expected to help immensely. Even if New Jersey won just half of the 26 contests where Blackwood didn’t play, that would have given them 82 points on the season—more than enough to qualify for an extended playoff spot.

It’s no secret goaltending has been nothing short of an absolute catastrophe in New Jersey that’s factored mightily in their struggles since 2018. Signing Crawford gives the Devils their best goaltending tandem in years, providing much-needed stability to that position. Outside of Crawford and Blackwood however, the organization lacks any quality net minders to have faith in, if Crawford or Blackwood get sidelined for an extended period of time. One of journeyman Scott Wedgewood or Gilles Senn (who played his first professional season last year) are currently in line to fill such a vacancy.

This scenario would essentially put the New Jersey Devils back to where they were the last two seasons—unable to rely on their backup, and might be forced to ride their 1B as a starter (risking fatigue) until their 1A counterpart returns. Despite getting through last season without incident, you can’t discount Crawford’s extensive injury history when appointing him with such an integral role on this roster, and must acknowledge such scenarios are likely to transpire as a result.

The players acquired will address glaring shortcomings that contributed mightily to this team’s dismal play over the last two seasons. Them making a maximal impact will be largely reliant on staying consistently healthy. For some of these players, this could pose as a formidable obstacle (arguably an inevitability), but their respective upsides ultimately make the risk worthwhile. Whatever deals or signings Fitzgerald is able to swing between now and next season will not only further improve this roster, but lessen any burden the players he’s already obtained would have on the team if they succumb to injury for a lengthy stretch. Should this New Jersey Devils roster stay fully healthy throughout 2020-2021 however, fans could be treated to a brand of hockey they haven’t seen their team play in quite some time.