Optimism and enthusiasm as Devils open training camp

After enduring an uneven season full of flashes of potential but wrought with significant injuries and disappointing results, the Devils took to the ice in Newark on Thursday energized, healthy, and overflowing with optimism. 

"Excitement is an understatement" is how General Manager Tom Fitzgerald began his media availability shortly after the last 56 players finished up the first day of practice. Fitzgerald, Head Coach Lindy Ruff, and the newly formed Devils have many reasons for optimism. The sense of the group was a quiet confidence that this team is poised to change the recent fortunes of the franchise. 

"You feel the energy from everybody," Ruff said as he laid out his expectations. He described the expected lift from a new group of playoff-tested veterans (Ondrej Palat, Erik Haula, John Marino, Brendan Smith) to guide the burgeoning young stars of the team (Jack HughesJesper Bratt & Nico Hischier). "(The veterans) know how to play the game, they know how to prepare, and their personalities are infectious." 

Rather than add expensive free agents, Fitzgerald chose to find pieces that complement his breakout stars and add the depth and grit that was lacking through last season and to a man, the players declared the off-season a success. Bratt epitomized that feeling, "I think right away we could tell the mentality, and the players and leadership is different this year."

The biggest surprise of the first day of camp was the return and full participation of goaltender Jonathan Bernier who missed much of last season recovering from hip surgery. Bernier slotted into the third practice group, rarely relinquished the net throughout the team drills, and finished up with some individual work on the side. A competitive Bernier to go with new addition Vitek Vanecek along with a healthy and motivated Mackenzie Blackwood ("The Summer was good for me, good for my ankle, I have no pain anymore") would go a long way to shoring up the team's biggest weakness of last season in net. Fitzgerald recognized this by saying, "I wanted to go into the new season protected in that position." 

The team cannot afford to waste another prime year of Hughes and Hischier due to non-competitive goaltenders. Last season the team shuffled through seven goaltenders, finishing with a team save percentage of .886, placing the Devils in the bottom two of the NHL, just above expansion Seattle Kraken. With simply league-average goaltending, the Devils are estimated to have won at least ten more games, putting them on the precipice of contention. The team can legitimately contend for a spot in the playoffs if it gets even average goaltending and could vault into the playoffs should the netminders play to their potential.

While just the start of training camp, the lines seem to provide insight into how Ruff may look to deploy his team. He began camp with Palat and rookie Alexander Holtz being centered by Hughes and Hischier centering Yegor Sharangovich and Bratt. He also put together an intriguing third line of Haula, Miles Wood, and Dawson Mercer and a fourth line of Andreas Johnsson, Michael Mcleod, and Nate Bastian.

These combinations will likely change as camp develops, but the Devils seem to signal to Holtz that they believe his time to seize a spot in the top six and live up to his first-round pedigree is here. The line of Mercer, Haula, and Wood would be a dynamic group with speed and interchangeable centers in Mercer and Haula, a group to watch and see if chemistry develops. Conspicuously absent from the group today were Tomas Tatar and Fabian Zetterlund, who are likely to have opportunities to break through into the top 12.

The defensive pairings were as expected: Dougie Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler, Damon Severson and Ryan Graves, and John Marino with Brendan Smith. The Devils' right-side defensemen compare favorably to any team in the league and have added depth in this year's first-round pick Simon Nemec who was paired today with Kevin Bahl, both candidates to make the opening night roster.

Fitzgerald remarked early on that the first day of training camp is the best day of the year. His optimism and enthusiasm seemed to have permeated the team and echoed comments throughout the lineup, most notably by the Captain. When asked why this year is different from the start of last year, Hischier indicated that he just believed this was a better team, following up with a smile. 

"I've just got a good feeling."

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