There comes a time in every parent's life when you release your grip from the back of the bicycle seat and watch nervously as your child thrashes away, pumping their legs as fast as they can while gripping the handlebar with all their strength trying to will the bike to stay upright and continue forward into a world previously unexplored.
Devils' general manager Tom Fitzgerald and his staff must feel the same way as the Devils embark on a season where they will seek to shed the training wheels and venture into a realm previously uninhabited by the majority of this group, the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Gone are the days of moral victories and touting wins over eventual champion Colorado, now with all the pieces in place it is time for results.
ADDRESSING NEEDS THIS OFFSEASON
After yet another disappointing season rife with mounting injuries and extended losing streaks the team identified very specific areas of need (goaltending, toughness, and experience) then went out and strategically addressed each area. While the fanbase expressed disappointment at the failure to land a superstar via free-agency or trade, Fitzgerald instead set out to fine tune rather than overhaul.
Fitzgerald solidified the goaltending by adding Vitek Vanecek to team up with a healthy and motivated Mackenzie Blackwood; traded away early-round scapegoats Pavel Zacha and Ty Smith for gritty, two-way center Erik Haula, and young stalwart right-handed defenseman John Marino; then invested in two-time Stanley Cup Champion Ondrej Palat and veteran defenseman Brendan Smith (56 Stanley Cup Playoff games in his career) in free agency.
The team also replaced its assistant coaches with a deep bench of experience including Jack Adams Award Finalist Andrew Brunette, who will serve as the associate coach and focus on improving the team's lackluster powerplay. Assistant coach Bruce McGill was brought over from the Vegas Golden Knights to stabilize the defense and penalty kill. Former Devil and fan-favorite Sergei Brylin was promoted from the Utica coaching staff to become an assistant coach with the NHL club.
Yegor Sharangovich credited Brylin with being a great resource as he acclimated to playing in the NHL and meeting expectations. Brylin has also been valuable at setting the tone and intensity in practice, often flashing the skills that made him a three-time Stanley Cup Champion.
IT'S THE GOALTENDING, STUPID
In the classic 1993 documentary, The War Room, filmmakers followed then Governor Bill Clinton's campaign for the presidency. The film focused on the behind-the-scenes strategy of upstart campaign staff members including Paul Begala, James Carville, and George Stephanopoulos. During the campaign, the team struggled with messaging and defining the race until they came up with a simple slogan that became the campaign's touchstone, "It's the economy, stupid."
For the Devils in 2022-23, the team's ascension to contention will be determined by the play the team gets in the net by Vanecek, Blackwood, and possibly veteran Jonathan Bernier when he returns from his hip injury. The Devils finished 31st of 32 teams last year in save percentage at even strength. No team can overcome poor goaltending at that rate. One of the common arguments made by detractors is that the team will never be able to improve the over 30 points in the standings it would need to be at true playoff contender.
The fallacy in that argument is that had the Devils simply received league average goaltending last season they likely would have put up an additional 15-25 points in the standings placing them still on the outside of the playoffs, but within striking distance. Simply put, when trying to assess last year much of the team's failure could be encapsulated in one phrase, it's the goaltending, stupid.
This year, the team figures to get at least average goalie play from newcomer Vanecek who comes from two seasons with the Washington Capitals where he excelled in 5 on 5 play posting a .926 save percentage placing him in the top ten in the league in a virtual tie with Vezina Trophy Candidates Frederik Andersen and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Blackwood struggled through several injuries last season that limited his mobility.
After the season, he conceded that he never felt healthy and was missing the flexion and strength in his ankle and heel which accounted for his noticeable lack of burst going from post to post and his trademark athleticism. Blackwood experienced a precipitous fall from contender for the Canadian Olympic Team to posting a .892 save percentage.
Now healthy, and in a contract year, Blackwood has flashed the poise, athleticism, and confidence that made him one of the brightest young goalies in the league in 2019-20 and in contention for the Calder Trophy with a .915 save percentage and 2.77 goals against average. Both numbers that the Devils would be ecstatic to see repeated this season.
Despite being a small sample size both goaltenders have shined in the preseason. Blackwood was spectacular in a home contest against the Rangers when his team was outshot 17-1 at one point in the first period. Similarly, Vanecek has excelled between the pipes in the preseason for his new team posting a .928 save percentage with 1.58 goals against.
The raw numbers themselves don't tell the entire story, much of the Devils difficulty last season stemmed from giving up goals at the wrong times, often right after scoring a tying or go-ahead goal which only served to deflate the team.
Both goalies have thus far shown a knack to make tough, acrobatic saves and have been able to protect leads. When trying to ascertain the fortune of this team it is simple, they will only contend if the goaltending is, at worst, league average.
COFFEE IS FOR CLOSERS
To the victor goes the spoils, and for the Devils, victories were difficult to come by as the team found closing out games mightily difficult. The Devils hope this season that being able to deploy stout defenders Jonas Siegenthaler, John Marino, Ryan Graves, Brendan Smith, and Kevin Bahl will allow them to shut down opponents and close out the final minutes of games even in situations where the opponent has a man advantage.
Siegenthaler put up elite defensive defenseman statistics last season and leads a core of young, strong, and tactically proficient defenders. Marino will bring second pair skill and versatility to the third pair and will likely have his partner shuffled between the likes of Smith and Bahl depending on the needs of the game.
Smith, who notably stood up for his Rangers teammates by challenging menace Tom Wilson to a fight in retaliation for Wilson's brutal attack on Artemi Panarin and Pavel Buchnevich, brings accountability, stability and experience to a room of young defenders.
His veteran presence is calculated to mentor the bevy of young, talented defensemen waiting in the wings and likely ready for NHL time within the next year (Nikita Okhotiuk, Reilly Walsh, Simon Nemec, and Luke Hughes)
The team also possesses two elite offensive defensemen in Dougie Hamilton who is one of the premier power play quarterbacks and looked every bit of the expected superstar until breaking his jaw and toe fundamentally changed his ability to play at a high-level last season. Hamilton stayed in New Jersey training all summer and appears to have returned in top shape and ready to be the player the Devils expected when they gave him a 63-million-dollar contract in the summer of 2021.
In Hamilton's absence last year, fellow right-side defenseman Damon Severson stepped in and had a career year offensively putting up 46 points, 16 of which came on the power play. Hamilton, Severson and Marino form the deepest and most talented right-side defense corps in the NHL and if they remain healthy will propel the Devils into contention for a playoff bid.
EVERYONE NEEDS A SWISS ARMY KNIFE
Tampa Bay Lightning Head Coach Jon Cooper fondly referred to Ondrej Palat as the Swiss Army Knife of the Lightning run to three consecutive Stanley Cup Championship appearances. On the free agent market, a 31-year-old Swiss army knife can be yours for a mere 30 million dollars over five years. The Devils believe Palat is worth every penny and could be the key to their resurgence.
At the close of last season, head coach Lindy Ruff demanded that the team become more difficult to play against and, along with Fitzgerald, cited the need for grit. Palat is battle tested, known for clutch play and for not being afraid to do the grinding, dirty work necessary for a team to win.
Thus far, the Devils have slotted Palat next to Center Jack Hughes to much success in the preseason. Hughes already benefits from Palat's hockey sense and immense compete level as well as the freedom Palat's defensive acuity provides Hughes to look to drive plays and attack.
A healthy Jack Hughes playing at the 1.14 points per game clip he put up last season is what has the fans most excited and will keep opposing coaches from having comfortable sleep after landing at Newark-Liberty International Airport. Hughes is seen around the league as an elite skater and a burgeoning superstar with the potential to score 100 points before he turns 25.
Hughes is impossible to take your eyes off when he is on the ice, his speed and play driving ability is certainly elite and with the improved shot he has brandished thus far in the preseason the only thing that could derail his ascent is injury. Having missed significant time last year with shoulder and knee injuries there is reason for concern about Hughes's durability. As Jack Hughes goes, so goes the Devils.
The other number one overall draft pick on the team, captain Nico Hischier, has come into his own as both a leader and a two-way player. Hischier has the respect of his teammates and has the ability to win a Selke Trophy in the next few years.
In many ways, Hischier is the perfect complement to Hughes's brash, reckless abandon style. Few teams boast a better 1C and 2C than Hughes and Hischier. Hischier is coming off a 60-point campaign where he won 52 percent of face offs and became a dependable penalty killer and continued the trend of improving his shooting percentage for the fourth year in a row.
Hischier has drawn favorable comparisons to Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, a stalwart two-way player and captain. Like Bergeron, Hischier now has wingers like Sharangovich, Jesper Bratt, Tomas Tatar, Alex Holtz, and Dawson Mercer who are finishers and will reward Hischier's efforts. Bratt, a former sixth-round draft pick broke out last season scoring 73 points despite constantly being shuffled throughout the lineup.
The diminutive Swede believes he is poised for another breakout year, as he turned down a multi-year contract from the Devils to sign a one-year prove it deal that will lead him into free agency. Fans and the team are hopeful that Bratt repeats another elite season and then is locked up by the team for the foreseeable future.
Sharangovich, a versatile, big forward who possesses a deceptive and accurate shot, was able to pot 25 goals last season after a difficult start. His size, penalty killing ability and pure shooting skill make him one of the most underrated yet dependable and versatile wingers on the roster. Sharangovich can play anywhere in the top nine including at center and has shown skill both on the power play and penalty kill. Winning teams need players like Sharangovich, who already has 40 goals in only 130 career games.
Flexibility and versatility have been hallmarks of the Devils' preseason. Players like Sharangovich, Mercer, Haula, Tatar and Miles Wood have played throughout the lineup from the top six to the bottom six and give Ruff the opportunity to strategically craft his lines and to fill in when injuries occur, or players need a break. He did not have those luxuries last season. Tatar came to camp reinvigorated and motivated by his poor counting totals last season.
He recently admitted that the anger from last season drove him all summer and that he returned ready to prove a point. There is no reason, after leading the team in preseason goals, to doubt that Tatar can return to the 20-goal scorer he has been for much of his career. Erik Haula brings toughness, experience and the flexibility to play up and down the lineup at center. Haula also will contribute on the penalty kill and power play and take many of the most important face offs especially to close out games. Haula's grit has shown and seems to have rubbed off on his linemates and certainly influenced the play of Mercer.
The two candidates for breakout seasons are Mercer and Holtz. Both first round picks have shown continued improvement and are poised to step into meaningful roles. Mercer was the only Devil to play all 82 games last season where he shifted from 3C to a winger next to either Hughes or Hischier. Mercer has returned to the team more confident and stronger. He has split time between center and wing and says he feels equally comfortable in either role.
His emergence as a reliable defensive forward and face off taker along with his offensive flair and ability to finish around the front of the goal puts him in position to improve on his 42-point performance last year. Holtz, the seventh overall pick in 2020, often looked lost last season in his audition with the Devils despite steamrolling through the AHL. Holtz took to heart the deficiencies in his game and spent the summer improving his skating, speed, and looking to get stronger to help him win battles along the boards. If the preseason is any indication, the work has paid off. Holtz has looked like he belongs and finished the preseason strong scoring in his final appearance.
The team has increased its depth to the point that there is fierce internal competition for each and every of the 14 forward spots on the roster. This increased depth will permit the coaching staff to shape the team differently game to game, allowing it to make choices based on strategy rather than being forced to players who clearly are playing where they are not ready. Case in point is the ability for the staff to comfortably demote Mason Geertsen to Utica despite his ability to play both forward and defense and to drop the gloves at a moment's notice either to protect a teammate or change momentum.
The Devils now have the ability to foster toughness with skill as shown largely by Miles Wood and Nathan Bastian neither of which will shy away from contact or a scrap, but both are skilled enough to contribute to the power play. When you have this level of depth including players like Jesper Boqvist and Fabian Zetterlund who both showed they can put up points in the NHL last year the Devils have every element needed to make the playoffs.
Fitzgerald has assembled a playoff-caliber group of talent. It is time to unshackle the team from low expectations, take the training wheels off and expect nothing less than a playoff appearance. To a man the team has commented that they each believe this team is special and has a different feel. When the puck drops tonight the journey to yet unexplored heights for the likes of this version of the Devils begins.
THE MOMENT YOU HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR
In trying to predict the outcome of the season I consulted the biggest Devils fan I know (and live with) my 11-year-old daughter Maddie. I asked Maddie a series of questions for the season. Her answers along with mine are below. We will revisit at the end of the season and if she beats me then she will have eternal bragging rights (or I may have to buy her a new Devils jersey)
Trophy Predictions (Bold are Maddie's Answers, mine are in italics)
Hart: McDavid Huberdeau
Norris: Josi Hamilton
Vezina: Shesterkin/Vasilevskiy Saros
Calder: Power Beniers
Adams: Gallant/Bednar/Brindamour Montgomery
Will the Devils make the playoffs: Yes Yes
Will Hughes score 100 pts: Yes No
Who will Lead the Devils in Goals : Yegor/Bratt/Hughes Hughes
Who will lead the Devils in Assists: Hamilton/Mercer Hischier
Who will lead the Devils in Penalty Minutes: Bastian Smith
Who will lead the Devils in Hits: Bastian Wood
Which Goalie will have the most wins: Blackwood Blackwood
Which Devils will make the All Star Team: Yegor/Bratt/Hughes Hughes Hamilton
Who will have the most penalty minutes for fighting: Okhotiuk/Bastian Wood
10 Bold Predictions: (These are mine alone, not Maddie's)
- Yegor Sharangovich ends the season with more goals than Jesper Bratt
- The Devils power play end the season in the top half of the league
- Jack Hughes wins the Lady Byng Trophy
- The Devils make the playoffs with 94 points
- Lindy Ruff retires at the end of the season
- The Devils trade either Severson or Graves at the trade deadline
- Hamilton, Mercer, Wood, Marino, and Sharangovich set new career highs in points
- Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec both play NHL games this season
- Tatar scores 25 goals
- The Devils win a round of playoffs and lose in the second round.