The New Jersey Devils will begin their preseason schedule of games tonight. They will have two games tonight with the training camp squad split between Newark, New Jersey and Montreal, Quebec; three more games away from the Rock; and a trip to Bern, Switzerland to play the local team on October 1 to close out preseason. Five days after that one, the 2018-19 regular season for New Jersey will begin against Edmonton in Gothenburg, Sweden. We are less than twenty days away from that game; but the true start of the whole campaign begins tonight.
A quick recap of the Devils’ situation. The 2017-18 season was a total success for the Devils. Against what many predicted - including myself - the Devils made the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Yes, they were defeated by Tampa Bay in five games. Yes, the Devils were still done in April. But they played beyond 82 games for the first time in a while and experiencing all of Game 3 - especially when Stefan Noesen scored - it was all worth it even if it was just a five-game run. The fans were - and are - energized for what happens next.
The Devils had a fairly quiet offseason. There were some high points. At the NHL Awards Ceremony, Brian Boyle won the Masterton and Taylor Hall became the first ever New Jersey Devil to win the Hart Trophy. At the 2018 NHL Draft, defenseman Ty Smith fell to the Devils at 17th overall - which was a big get. The Devils were far quieter at free agency and several players would move on: Moore, Gibbons, Grabner, Hayes, and Maroon all signed elsewhere. All RFAs except for Miles Wood were signed. Wood remains the only Devil to not be under contract; as an RFA, he does not have much leverage to force a deal. Drew Stafford was unsigned - but he came back to camp on a professional tryout deal. There were no trades or massive deals. Away from the roster, assistant coaches Geoff Ward and Ryane Clowe moved on; the Devils promoted Rick Kowalsky from Binghamton, hired Mike Grier, and named Mark Dennehy the head coach of Binghamton. The only other notable off-ice move was the return of Martin Brodeur to the organization on the business side of the franchise.
What about health? At the end of last season, it was revealed that Cory Schneider, Nico Hischier, Pavel Zacha and Taylor Hall were not 100%. Their various conditions, as reported by Chris Ryan of NJ.com: Schneider had surgery to repair torn cartilage in his hip; Hischier had a wrist injury that kept him away from the World Championships; Zacha had a ligament injury that also kept him away from the WCs; and Hall had surgery to repair torn liagments in his left hand. The good news is that Hischier, Zacha, and Hall are all performing in training camp and should be active in preseason. Schneider is a bigger question mark, but it is encouraging that he did take part in a part of the team’s first practices. I would figure on Keith Kinkaid and Eddie Lack opening the season as the goaltending tandem in New Jersey, but that may not be for very long. Other than that, the rest of the team should be ready to go.
Training camp has been underway for the past few days. Tonight really starts the campaign for 2018-19. The preseason are just exhibition games. Except these are meaningful for everyone up and down the roster. For the established players, they are to make sure they are in form for when games that count begin. For the coaches, it is to see who works well with each other and how the tactics play out for the start of the season. For the younger players, it is an opportunity to get onto the roster or at least have the decision-makers know that the have a future in Newark. For the Binghamton players, these games will not only get them somewhat prepared for the AHL season but also give the NHL coaches an idea of who can be called upon when players get hurt. There may not be much room on the roster on defense or in the crease, but these games could make some of the decisions to be tougher. For the fans, it is a chance to see what the team can do ahead of the regular season.
These are preseason games, so the results do not matter so much. No one wins a championship by going undefeated in exhibition games. But teams can get on the right path to success if the games properly prepare the players. The main goal should be that no one gets hurt. Even a minor injury can be a setback for the start - or longer - to anyone’s season regardless of whether they make the NHL or not. A secondary but almost equally objective should be to identify (or confirm) what potential lines, pairings, special teams units, and other roles can be established. This is the time to try out new things and experiment if only because a win or a loss will not matter in any standing after October 1. Winning is nice but it is not critical for preseason. The Devils will make that their main goal from October 5 all the way to April 6, 2019. But the groundwork laid in these preseason games can set them up for success. The goal for 2018-19 might as well be to try and make the playoffs again. Will they? We hope but we’ll have to see. The preseason game scores may not matter in a few weeks; but the performances absolutely do for various members of the roster.
As fans, I hope we will enjoy the process that starts tonight. We will get our first (and only) chance tonight to get to the Rock (and the first and only preseason game in Montreal for the Devils fans up there) and see the genesis of how 2018-19 will carry on for the red, white, and black. This will be the first game where veteran Devils will be in the lineups. It is a split-squad game and it is against Our Hated Rivals; but the points remain: don’t get hurt, find out what works and what doesn’t, and see how it plays out. The games after tonight will form the season opener’s roster. Hopefully that roster will be set by October 1 since it would be kind of rough to be cut from the team in Switzerland have to fly back. All the same, this is the time for the New Jersey Devils to starting take a step forward to take that proverbial next step as an organization. Welcome to the 2018 Preseason. Welcome the return of NHL hockey to the Rock tonight. Welcome back to Devils hockey - both in Newark and in Montreal. Welcome to the beginning of the 2018-19 New Jersey Devils campaign.
May it be as successful as last season’s. Thank you for reading. Go Devils.