With the signing of UFA Tomas Tatar and re-upping of breakout RFA Yegor Sharangovich yesterday, Tom Fitzgerald all but locked in a position as one of the “winners” of the offseason once the dust finishes settling around the league. He identified three areas where the Devils needed substantial help this offseason — top-four defense, top-six wing, and a 1B for his goalie tandem — and he landed some of the best options on the market in all three of those areas. Add in a draft where he had a top-four pick and used it to select Luke Hughes, a potential franchise defenseman of the future, and you have a recipe for a summer that will substantially elevate expectations going forward in New Jersey. Yes, it is the Summer of Fitz for sure, as the new(ish) GM has now stepped out of the shadow of his erstwhile boss, Ray Shero, to make this officially his operation moving forward.
It’s possible that Fitzgerald is not quite done, as he could sill be sifting through the market for some other bargain options or maybe a 3C candidate, but if he does nothing but get his other significant RFA in Janne Kuokkanen signed before training camp, this season will widely be considered a rousing success for the New Jersey Devils. People both within the fanbase and around the league seem to be in agreement that the Devils have done some great business this summer and have substantially improved their roster. And honestly, what’s not to like?
The Devils signed the very best UFA on the market on day one in Dougie Hamilton and they payed a relatively reasonable price to do so while locking him down for seven years. They also added a goalie to share the starter’s workload with Mackenzie Blackwood with the acquisition of Jonathan Bernier, a netminder who has been consistently solid across his entire career in multiple locations. They grabbed another top-four defenseman prior to free agency by trading for Ryan Graves from the Avalanche in a trade facilitated by expansion draft exposure rules, sending a second rounder and a bottom-sixer (though admittedly one with some potential) in Mikhail Maltsev back the other way. Then, yesterday, the team built on those moves further with the signing of Tomas Tatar, a highly productive 5v5 forward and effective play-driver, for a reasonable two-year contract. The only one of those deals that carries any significant long-term risk is Hamilton and, given that he was top-five in Norris Trophy voting last year, that’s just the cost of doing business.
So given all of that mostly excellent news, why do I have a slight feeling of unease as we head toward the quiet stretch of the season? Well, look no further than two summers ago, when the Devils made big splashes on defense and at forward, drafted a Hughes at the top of the first round of the draft, and had a palpable feeling of excitement through the offseason right up through the 39th minute of opening night of the 2019-20 season. We all know how that ended:
Most Devils fans have been pounded into a cycle of cautious optimism followed by intense disappointment over the past nine-ish years now, so when good things start to happen for the Devils, it’s difficult not to be waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Can the aftermath of this offseason be different, though? I still wouldn’t consider the expectations for the Devils sky high, as most people will likely be hesitant to predict more than a finish in the neighborhood of the playoff bubble for New Jersey. Those tempered expectations are to be expected for a team with the recent history of the Devils, who are averaging 0.1 postseason wins per season over the past nine seasons (fun fact: they averaged 5.7 postseason wins over the prior 24 seasons). But even for a franchise bearing the scars of a decade of failure, it’s pretty hard to argue with the work Tom Fitzgerald has done this offseason. So can the Summer of Fitz really be different?
The most substantive losses from the roster at the end of last season are Ryan Murray, Nathan Bastian, and Mikhail Maltsev. The Devils, in turn, added Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Graves, Tomas Tatar, and Jonathan Bernier, remaking their defense, bolstering their offense, and solidifying their situation in net. Even before the Tatar signing, the Devils were among the teams that added the most value to their roster this offseason. Add in the fact that many of the players from last season are young and expected to continue their progression heading into next season and this team really should be considerably better than the one that just finished third from the bottom of the standings last season.
That last bit is the kicker, though, it’s a long climb from the basement and even a Devils team that is six wins better than a season ago is a middle-of-the-pack outfit rather than a true contender. For a fanbase begging to see steps in a positive direction and signs that a dragged-out rebuild is coming to an end, that might be enough, though. For the Summer of Fitz to be a success, the Devils don’t need to be among the league’s elite teams, they just have to be playing some meaningful early spring hockey.
Given these moves and the makeup of the roster, I do think this team is capable of doing just that. The arrival of Hamilton remakes the defense in a major way and gives the Devils a legitimately strong top four to run out every night with Hamilton, Graves, Ty Smith, and Damon Severson. A third pairing of Jonas Siegenthaler and PK Subban seems pretty serviceable in its own right and certainly a step up from the pairings that included journeymen Connor Carrick and/or Matt Tennyson.
On offense, the leaps made by Jack Hughes along with breakout rookie seasons from Kuokkanen and Sharangovich, along with the add of Tatar, gives the Devils real options to put together a strong top six, accounting for Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt. Add in a Pavel Zacha seemingly much more suited to the wing than center and finally playing that position, plus a litany of prospective scorers hoping to break into the league (Alexander Holtz, Dawson Mercer, Graeme Clarke, and Nolan Foote) and the Devils have something approaching real depth on the wings. If there’s a real question mark anywhere on the roster, it might be at 3C, where the Devils are currently carrying some risk hoping that maybe Jesper Boqvist can step into that role.
Overall, my general feeling on this offseason is this: I’m ready to get hurt again. The Devils really needed to make some moves to try and accelerate their rebuild this summer and ward off growing frustration and apathy within the fanbase. Above all else, adding a player like Hamilton gets that done by adding a defensive cornerstone to go with their young core. With many of the prospects in the organization also seemingly not quite ready to insert into big roles, the moves for Graves and Tatar also help by bridging that gap. Solidifying a goalie situation that was flung into chaos by the Corey Crawford retirement last season will also go a long way toward improving results.
In short, without the benefit of a crystal ball to see how it all shakes out this coming season, it’s hard not to be happy with the work Fitzgerald has done. Let’s hope the Summer of Fitz works out a whole lot better than the similarly titled summer of his predecessor.