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The Devils... Aren’t Bad? So Now What?

The Devils are about a quarter through the season, where do that stack up. Also, how close are they to competing for a cup and what pieces do they need to get there?

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San Jose Sharks v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

This is terrible timing by me after last night’s game, but in all fairness, I wrote a good portion of this on Monday, fresh off of a fantastic win against the Flyers.

It’s odd. By this point in the season, I’m normally watching Devils games with a weird mixture of resignation, frustration, and misplaced optimism. Kind of like I imagine Charlie Brown does when he goes to kick that football, somehow convinced this time will be different. Heck, even in the one year the Devils actually made the playoffs in the post-2012 era they largely rode percentages to get there and watching them actually play games cost me a good amount of hair. But this year, things are a little different. Sure, I can look at the standings and get that familiar feeling of sadness when I see the Devils are in 6th place. I can even watch a Devils power play and be comforted by that sense of nostalgia for complete incompetence on the ice. But the rest of the time I’m wondering, is that really a light at the end of the tunnel, or am I just hallucinating?

This isn’t to say the team is good, or that they’re going to make the playoffs this season. The Metro remains a bloodbath and at this point the Devils are fighting with 5 other teams for 2 wildcard spots. But I do think the Devils are past rock bottom and are truly on their way towards building something special. And I think it might be sooner than people think. To me, making the playoffs would be fantastic and I’ll be disappointed if they aren’t at least in the race at the end of the season. But more importantly, the Devils have been playing solid hockey for the most part. And until yesterday, they were doing so missing their best forward.

Here’s where the team ranks among the league (prior to Tuesday’s game).

Overall, they are exactly what they seem. Average. Predictably bad on the PP and on defense, with a good offense and decent enough goaltending. That shouldn’t feel like a big step forward, but it kind of does.

So what happens when Hughes rounds back into form? Do the Devils suddenly become a juggernaut? We can hope so, but more likely they go from being average to borderline good. Say from the 14th best team to the 10-12 range. And that’s assuming Hughes is fully healthy and gets back to speed quickly, which is no guarantee.

There was a good case to be made that things started to turn around last season, prior to COVID. In Ruff’s first season they started 4-3-2 prior to getting shut down with the ‘rona, and afterwards they were never quite the same. But while it is nice to have them coached by someone competent for once (yes, Ruff has his blind spots, but he’s a lot better than John Hynes), what really has me excited is what the Devils are getting out of their young talent. Dawson Mercer is on track to be a Calder Finalist, particularly since he plays center, Bratt is on pace for a 74 point season, Hischier has made strides defensively, Siegenthaler has been everything the Devils asked for, and Hughes demonstrated last season and for 4 periods this year what he is capable of. That’s to say nothing about the excellence of Dougie Hamilton, a revived Andreas Johnsson, and the solid play of Graves. Add to that that Luke Hughes looks like he could be NHL ready tomorrow, and Holtz is still lighting it up in the AHL and it’s a cliche that I’m starting to really hate, but the future truly does look bright.

The question now is how do they get over the hump and how aggressive should Fitzgerald and co be in getting the team there. I am less inclined to hold to the, ‘you need to crawl before you can walk,’ idea in professional sports because you waste valuable ELCs, players can decline with age, and history tells us that many of the best teams, at least of the cap era, ramped up fairly quickly. That doesn’t mean the Devils have to do that or they won’t be successful, but it’s certainly possible to go from a crawl to a run in this league.

To answer this next question of how they get over the hump from a borderline playoff team at best to a cup contender, I’m going to recall back to a fanpost I made back in July where I took a look at the Devils roster and analyzed it based on Dom Luszczyszyn’s Stanley Cup checklist ($). In doing so I made some projections made based on what I imagine certain players’ ceilings to be and I’ll update that now (in some cases with very generous projections based on how this season is going) to see if there are can find any major holes.

  • Elite C: (Jack Hughes)
  • Elite W: ?
  • Two top line wingers: Bratt, Holtz
  • Top line center: Hischier/Mercer
  • Two more top-6 forwards: Hischier/Mercer, Johnsson or (Sharangovich)
  • Elite No. 1 defenseman: Hamilton
  • No. 1 defenseman: (Luke Hughes)
  • 2 top pairing defensemen: Severson, ?

This looks a heck of a lot better than it did half a year ago. The Hamilton signing, along with the emergence of Mercer has really helped brighten the outlook. The biggest remaining holes on the roster are an elite winger, a #1 defenseman (just because Hughes ends up there in my fantasy projection doesn’t mean I don’t consider it a hole), and another top pairing defenseman. In my previous analysis, that spot went to Smith, but that’s much less clear at this point. You may put Graves there, but I’m not ready to do that at this point. Assuming both Hughes brothers reach their projection, that leaves just two big holes in the checklist. Should the Devils hope someone naturally grows into that role, or does Fitzgerald need to start looking into potential candidates to fill that role.

I’m personally not ready to project Holtz to be one of the best players in the world at his position right now, and no one else is even close to that talent level, so waiting for someone in the system to mature is probably not the right mindset. Free agency/trade market offers a few tempting options, mainly Claude Giroux and Johnny Gaudreau. Both are undersized playmaking wingers so I anticipate the fanbase being 100% on board with the Devils going after one of them this summer. More seriously, Giroux doesn’t fit the timeline since he’s 34, and Gaudreau would be somewhat of a redundancy and will likely price himself out of the Devils budget, even without Subban. After that there is no one that fits into the elite model. Although Burakovsky could be a nice addition. Looking beyond free agency, there are two players I hope Fitzgerald considers. First, Matthew Tkachuk is an RFA and would certainly add a different dimension to the top of the lineup. His name was floated around in a potential Jack Eichel deal, and there have been murmurs about him wanting to get out of Calgary in the past. Certainly not a likely scenario, but smoke and fire and all of that. And second, the Devils were reportedly close to a deal for Meier at the draft. San Jose is performing better than expected right now but if they come crashing back down and decide to pull the trigger on a rebuild, they would certainly get a lot for the 25 year-old Swiss winger.

Right now, I’m going to try and enjoy the ups and downs of finally having a mediocre team. On the other hand, I hope Fitzgerald can pull one more big move out of his rear-end to address the team’s largest remaining lineup hole. Your Thoughts

How do you feel about the state of the Devils 14 through the season? Are you happy with where the team is right now? Do you agree that lack of an elite winger is the main roster hole right now? How would you address any remaining roster holes? Thank you for reading!