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Fear and Optimism in New Jersey

The Devils have been a team with minimal expectations for much of the past six-plus years. With a huge offseason that has the team and its fans buzzing, it appears real preseason stakes have made their return to New Jersey.

We made it.

Some form of honest-to-goodness Devils hockey against a real opponent from a different city will occur tonight. The Prospect Challenge is just a series of exhibitions between prospect groups, but there will be a team wearing Devils jerseys and opponents wearing the uniform of another NHL team. It will feature Jack Hughes. It will also feature other top young Devils like Ty Smith and Jesper Boqvist. That’s good enough to count as hockey being back in my book.

This offseason was quite a journey for Devils fans. When the 2018-19 season came to a close on April 6th in a largely meaningless tilt against the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, good feelings around the Devils were in short supply. The fanbase was coping with a disastrous season that saw the team crash back to earth after a surprise playoff appearance the year prior. The team finished with their second-fewest points since the 1980s, only eclipsing the low-water mark set by the 2016-17 team on that final day of the season. The team was decimated by injuries. The fanbase was largely wrapped up in infighting about the merits of tanking to improve lottery odds. The future wasn’t necessarily bleak, but uncertainty abounded on what this team would do to make itself a viable contender.

Then, good things started happening. And they kept right on happening for much of the duration of the offseason. It started with the ping pong balls once again bouncing the Devils’ way at the draft lottery (the third time in a decade for the organization). All of the hemming and hawing about whether the Devils, who basically played with 60% of an AHL roster over the final month-plus, had tanked enough was forgotten. The biggest prize you can hope for in a lost season fell into the Devils lap and — despite some pockets of dissent in the Hughes/Kakko debate, as it were — it meant they would take home the top prize at the draft in June, USNTDP phenom Jack Hughes.

Little did everyone know that much more intrigue was heading the Devils way, starting almost immediately after that first-overall selection. The following morning, another Ray Shero Special™ landed in New Jersey, as a blockbuster trade that would bring PK Subban to Newark was announced. Going the other way was a B+ prospect in Jeremy Davies and a couple of second round picks in 2019 and 2020. All told, the Devils dealt a handful of decent futures and nothing from their current NHL roster (unless you count Steven Santini) to bring back a former Norris Trophy-winner and a number one anchor for their defensive unit.

Following that massive trade, the Devils would open free agency in a quiet fashion — just signing Wayne Simmonds to a low-risk one-year deal — but then bring it home strong by securing the rights to KHL MVP Nikita Gusev in a trade with Vegas (again for just some mid-range draft assets) and signing him to a two-year contract. In a span of just over a month the Devils added the first overall pick, a new number one defenseman, and possibly the best player outside of the NHL in the world. Not a bad month-plus of work for Ray Shero.

The culmination of all of those moves has been a level of buzz and excitement around the Devils (at least excitement not tied directly to results like the 2012 Finals run) not seen in quite a while, likely going back to at least the 2010 Ilya Kovalchuk trade. In terms of positive pre-season vibes, I don’t know that the lead-up to any post-2004-lockout season can match the energy around the organization right now. The Devils entered this offseason needing to make major moves to get better and, at least on paper, they cleared that bar in a big way. Add a few upper-tier prospects coming of age to the mix and the Devils could be looking at a lineup that adds three to five legitimate difference-makers without losing any major pieces — save the oft-injured Marcus Johansson — from last season’s roster as well as returning a (hopefully) healthy-again Taylor Hall.

It is fun to have this much anticipation for a Devils season again. The possibilities for this team are as high as they have been since the roster started to splinter in the aftermath of the 2012 Cup Final. You can look at this roster on paper and see a top nine about as robust as the team has had possibly in close to two decades. Two first overall picks and a stalwart two-way veteran are set to make a potentially formidable spine. Arguably at least three top-line quality wingers (Hall, Gusev, Kyle Palmieri) will be riding shotgun on those lines with strong depth behind them. The defense has its most talented anchor since the days of Brian Rafalski and a legitimate undisputed number one for the first time since Andy Greene’s heyday of four to five years ago. Behind him, they have a group that will hopefully thrive on moving the puck, potentially bolstered by the team’s 2018 first-round-pick/2018-19 CHL Defenseman of the Year, Ty Smith, entering the fray. Plus, the emergence of a talented young goaltender last season in MacKenzie Blackwood has people hoping the team has a new heir to the starter’s net (if not just a straight-up new starter). All over the roster, there are reasons for optimism.

Now here comes the “but” you must know I have been building to. But. The sword of optimism cuts both ways. All of these possibilities mean that most, if not all Devils fans, have their preseason hopes as high as they have been in years. Sports are a fickle beast, though, and, as I touched on a little bit after the preseason a couple years back, with hope comes the possibility for a letdown. I can feel myself wanting to believe this team could be special, but with that feeling comes the undercurrent of fear. There’s no rule that says things have to work out the way they’ve been laid out in the above paragraph. Injuries, slumps, bad fits — these are all possible with any team in any sport, and in hockey, where luck can figure into your fate more than any other major North American sport, there are absolutely no guarantees. Ask your local Debbie Downer fan friend, and he can probably list at least a half dozen looming disasters for this team. Add in a heaping dose of contract uncertainty for the team’s best player, and there is more than a pinch of dread baked into the preseason optimism for this Devils team.

Here’s the thing, though. That fear is good. It’s what makes sports worth watching and what makes the successes — when they happen — so sweet. Going into every season with the attitude that has pretty much maxed out at “well maybe they won’t be horrible” for the last six or so years has kept the pain threshold low when the team has fallen flat, but it also means that the team is unlikely to land among any list of legitimate contenders. Even the upstart Devils of two seasons ago ended up as round-one cannon fodder. Here in September 2019, though, if the window for this Devils team isn’t opening now, at the very least it theoretically could be soon. It’s a big change.

What you might be feeling heading into this season is that there are actual stakes for the Devils and their staff for the first time since maybe 2014. Any team that has picked first overall twice in three years without their coach or GM ever being in serious danger of getting fired has been playing the game with Monopoly money. It’s now time for the team to slip on its big boy pants and enter the fray with actual dollars on the line. For fans, a team surrounded by optimism has real stakes behind it that require an emotional investment. To believe is to be willing to get hurt. For the first time in quite a while, I can feel the fear heading into an NHL season. And it’s great.

Hockey is back. Get excited.

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