Here we are again, folks. Another Devils season is upon us, with all of the requisite wishes and fears that come along with a team that actually has something approaching expectations. A momentous offseason, filled with mock drafts, speculation, anticipation, and big acquisitions is now at its end. The couple months of obligatory post-draft and post-free-agency prognostication are now in the rear view, culminating in this week’s 6-part season preview on all aspects of the team from the management all the way down to the configuration of the fourth line. We’ve sliced and diced this team every which way, argued about who should make the roster, speculated on the best candidates for the elusive breakout seasons, and wondered if the special teams can avoid dragging this team into the gutter. It’s all been covered in a dozen ways by a litany of writers at this point and, quite frankly, I’m just about all out of takes.
In all likelihood, this will be the first “normal” (ish) regular season since the 2018-19 campaign ended 2.5 years ago. That’s not a particularly long time, but it almost feels like a different universe from where we are today (for reasons both on and off the ice). Back in fall 2018, the Devils were coming off a playoff season, had the reigning MVP, and looked like maybe all that rebuild business was just about done. Three finishes in the league’s bottom-six later and, well, that clearly was not the case. That MVP is gone. Just about everyone else from that team is too. The playoff appearance turned out to be a brief oasis in a vast desert of crappy hockey. Forty-one players appeared in a game for that 2018-19 team and, of that group, just eight(!) remain with the organization at all. With the departure of Andy Greene, Cory Schneider, and then Travis Zajac (plus Kyle Palmieri) in successive seasons, scarcely any ties to the Devils of just five years ago are left. Only two seasons have passed since the last 82-game NHL season but in some ways, it feels more like a dozen.
Given how that 2018-19 team fared in that most recent full season, it’s probably not a bad thing that a select few are left from that roster. The crest on the front of this team’s jerseys will be the familiar New Jersey Devils logo, just as it’s been since 1982, but this is a new team with scarce ties to the past, for better or worse. With this team’s recent history, you’d have to say it’s for the better. The Devils are, depending on the resource you use, the youngest team in the league this season. This is a team likely to have some growing pains but it is also a team mostly free of the last decade of futility in New Jersey. Not only young, this team is talented, with dynamic players dotted throughout the lineup.
Around 80% of this roster is 27 or younger, with close to half being 24 or younger. It’s a team with a massive opportunity in front of them, if they can grasp it. If this team can be competitive in its current state and challenge for a playoff spot, the sky might be the limit, but that first honest step toward contention is often the toughest one. Emerging from the league’s basement is a tough task, but it’s a necessary one for any team with bigger aspirations. Devils teams of the recent past have a nasty habit of spiraling when things start to go awry, this team will have to prove it is more resilient. The expectations for this individual season are modest (pretty much every writer here had them situated on the bubble in our predictions, whether they were inside or out), but they represent a crucial stepping stone. The Devils don’t have to be world-beaters for fans to be happy this year, but they do have to avoid another faceplant.
It seems like they have the horses to avoid such a fate. Jack Hughes appears to be a player on the precipice of something special. Nico Hischier is healthy and fit ahead of his first full season as captain. New arrival Dougie Hamilton is a bona fide defensive cornerstone. Many others, like Jesper Bratt, Ty Smith, Yegor Sharangovich, and Janne Kuokkanen seem poised to step into big roles around that core group. Even the oft-maligned Pavel Zacha seems to be settling into a role that suits him as something of a trigger man on the wing and special-teamer. Camp standout Dawson Mercer looks like a true jack of all trades and maybe a perfect third-line accompaniment to the Devils’ two foundational pieces at center. In short, there is plenty to be excited about, and we’ve talked just about all of it into the ground.
So now, today, the talk is done, at least the talk of the speculative kind. We will have real Devils hockey to respond and overreact to tonight — a beautiful thought, to be sure. The excitement of a team that seems to have legitimate aspirations once again will collide with the ghosts of the teams that disappointed in the past. We have no idea how this game, this week, or this season will go, but it will be real, live Devils hockey played in front of real, live fans and that’s a damn good thing. A cocktail of exhilaration, hope, and dread awaits us tonight at 7:00pm. Time to drink up. Go Devils.