Tomorrow is the official start of the 2022-23 NHL regular season for the New Jersey Devils. The offseason was, once again long. A result of an abysmal 2021-22 campaign that saw the Devils finish with 27 wins out of 82 games, and 37 points behind the last playoff team in the Eastern Conference. The offseason was, once again, active. The team was awarded the second overall draft pick in the 2022 NHL Draft Lottery and selected Simon Nemec to lead a draft class filled with defenders. General Manager Tom Fitzgerald made moves to acquire a goalie (Vitek Vanecek), move on from underwhelming players (Pavel Zacha turned into Erik Haula; Ty Smith turned into John Marino), and spent big on a free agent (Ondrej Palat) while settling accounts ahead of arbitration hearings (Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood, Tyce Thompson). The preseason has excited some of the People Who Matter, others have had pessimism give way to cautious optimism, and others among the People Who Matter feel as they have seen this movie before - just last season.
With the first game starting tomorrow - exclusive to ESPN+! - it is time for the traditional end to the multi-part season preview: predictions. I requested each of the staff members of All About the Jersey to provide their predictions for this upcoming season weeks ago. Here are their thoughts. Just for full disclosure: none of us were right about last season - even the most negative ones were off. Still, this is where we stand and, as always, we hope to be strong enough to say we were wrong if the Devils prove us wrong in the right way. Thank you for reading and I hope you continue to do so throughout this coming season.
Season Thoughts: The Devils certainly got better on paper. Vitek Vanecek is an upgrade over Jon Gillies and Andrew Hammond, and might be an upgrade over MacKenzie Blackwood as well. Ondrej Palat is a respected veteran who brings leadership and a winning pedigree to the table. Erik Haula is a pro. John Marino is an upgrade over Ty Smith defensively. I do think Brendan Smith will help on the blueline.
So why do I get this feeling that nothing will actually change?
We have seen the Devils make drastic changes before in recent years. We havve seen them make what we thought were well-thought out moves, fill holes, balance the lineup, and “win the offseason” only to have everything blow up in their face before Christmas, coaches be fired, and veterans be traded away at the deadline.
My thoughts on this coach and GM are well-documented. I am not a fan of the coach and I am not 100 percent convinced the GM knows how to build a winning team; so I will not continue to beat that proverbial dead horse. But I am at the point in my Devils fandom where my patience with this rebuild is running out and I need to see it - the ‘it’ being wins - to believe it, because I will be calling for jobs if we do not. You should as well, as prolonged losing should be unacceptable moving forward.
A Bold Prediction: Damon Severson is traded at the trade deadline for an underwhelming return. Yes, that feels like cheating a little bit since we know the Devils have Dougie Hamilton and John Marino locked in at RHD the next 5 seasons and just drafted Simon Nemec #2 overall, so the ‘bold’ part of that prediction will be the underwhelming return.
In most normal years, a defenseman of Severson’s skillset, handedness, and effectiveness would command a 1st round pick plus despite being a rental. Ben Chiarot fetched that last year and Severson is a better player than him. So why do I think the return will be underwhelming? The Devils don’t have the Montreal media machine behind them saying “Damon Severson is worth a 1st round pick” like what happened with Chiarot, and I think teams will be more protective of 2023 first rounders given how deep that draft class is projected to be.
I expect we see the same Damon Severson we’ve always seen for the Devils, for better or worse. But I would be surprised if he was extended to a new deal and I think regardless of where the Devils are in the standings, he will be moved.
X-Factor: If the Devils are going to be good, I think having quality veteran leadership will be a big part of it. My X-factor is Ondrej Palat.
The Devils have been one of the youngest teams in the NHL for several years now, which is a good and bad thing. It is good that Tom Fitzgerald has been able to figure out who can swim and who sank, but the Devils have definitely missed not having adults in the room to help the young talent make the next step towards becoming a winning team. I think the other veterans the Devils imported this offseason will be key there as well, but Palat is the most accomplished player the Devils signed so he’s my pick.
Its not just the leadership I like from Palat. I like that he’s made a career out of being a grinder who can play with other elite talent. I like that he can do the dirty work, but also still get his offensively. To me, he’s the perfect Robin to Jack Hughes’ Batman.
The 2022-23 Season Prediction: The Devils finish 7th in the Metropolitan Division with 78 points.
Season Thoughts: Once again, I am excited for the upcoming season, despite this organization consistently under-performing and finishing in the bottom five to seven of the league. Maybe I will never learn. However, this young roster pumps me up. I think this offense can continue to grow, with a young core that has a chance to become truly dominant for quite some time. The defense should also be at least somewhat improved, and if the young kids can make the jump even earlier, than it could get much better even quicker. The goaltending scares me to death, as you would expect; but it only dampens my excitement somewhat. How can you not be excited about a young, electric roster which should be fun to watch night-in and night-out? Bring it on.
A Bold Prediction: Jesper Bratt will go Aaron Judge-esque. Judge is in a contract year, and he bet on himself. And he won, bigly. He was good beforehand, but he played like an MVP this year. Bratt will do something similar. He did not turn down a big extension, but he also was not offered one. This is his year to prove that he deserves an extension as big as the one Jack Hughes got, and I think he will go out there and prove he deserves it. I can see him getting 90+ points and being in the MVP discussion. That will get him paid next offseason, and paid quite handsomely.
X-Factor: Isn’t everyone going to write goaltending here? It has to be goaltending. The offense is going to be the best part of the team this year, and the defense needs to be improved, but it doesn’t compare to the goaltending. If Blackwood is bad again, and Vanecek is a bust, there is absolutely no chance that New Jersey will make the playoffs. They probably will be playing meaningless games as early as February. However, if Blackwood rebounds to some degree and Vanecek proves that he can be a #1 goalie in this league for 40+ starts, then they are a playoff-caliber team. It really is that simple.
The 2022-23 Season Prediction: The Devils will finish 4th in the Metropolitan Division and take a wild card berth.
Season Thoughts: The New Jersey Devils have seemingly been a team experiencing varying stages of a rebuild forever now, but this is the season where the narrative needs to change. The young core of the team is in place, and the club looks as though they may finally have the necessary supporting pieces in place to start seeing some substantial results. The biggest question mark remains the goaltending, and while there may not be an answer right away, the team has two talented young goalies, with a need for one of them to seize the starting role and lead the team back to relevance. The Devils shipped out some underperforming pieces and replaced them with players who are set to play specific roles now with the team. The talent is there, the Devils and their coaching staff now need to put all of the pieces together and start showing results on the ice. While some may be ready for 2022-23 to be more of the same, I think this season winds up being the one where the Devils begin to rise again.
A Bold Prediction: Jack Hughes becomes the first Devils player to break 100 points in a season and Alexander Holtz puts up 30 goals on his wing.
X-Factor: Injuries. If the Devils stay healthy, or close to it, they will be a dangerous team this season.
The 2022-23 Season Prediction: The Devils will finish fourth in the Metropolitan Division and make the playoffs as a wild card team.
Season Thoughts: With new voices on the coaching staff, an improved group of skaters and the potential of anything somewhat resembling a pulse from the goaltenders (it could happen!), it feels like the Devils might finally be able to return to the promised land this season. This really does feel like a team that finally has some depth, and it seems like the defensive group could actually be a strength. I am trying to temper my optimism somewhat given the pain that this team has taught me over the last few years, but I am feeling a little bullish on this season. I think this year’s Devils team will surprise a lot of people as The Young Core takes another step forward.
A Bold Prediction: A healthy Mackenzie Blackwood returns to the form we saw in his first two seasons in the league, and Vitek Vanecek shows himself to be a capable backup option. Goaltending becomes a strength (?!) for the Devils for the first time in years.
X-Factor: Goaltending. Surely it cannot be as bad as last season? It feels like even league average netminding gets this team into the playoffs, given the upgrades made elsewhere in the lineup. With the improvements to the defensive group, it seems very possible that we could see a big step forward in the goaltending department. Tom Fitzgerald seems to have bet his job on Mackenzie Blackwood and Vitek Vanecek. Let us hope for all our sakes that it works out.
The 2022-23 Season Prediction: The Devils finish third in the division and make the playoffs.
Season Thoughts: Last year, I stated that I wanted to see improvement. I wanted to see a team that may actually play some meaningful beyond the NHL Trade Deadline. I wanted to see a team worth watching beyond hope for a better tomorrow. I didn’t get any of that at all. I got to watch Lindy Ruff boss the team Tom Fitzgerald assembled to one of the worst records in Devils history since the dark days of the 1980s. I have to conclude that 2021-22 was a big, fat failure. So I am once again asking to see the same thing. Last season was beset by bad goaltending, injuries, bad goaltending, a terrible power play, bad goaltending, and questionable coaching and management. Can it be better in 2022-23 based on the changes made in the offseason? In theory, absolutely. But I cannot be confident or optimistic or hopeful based on theory anymore. I want to see actual improvement. I want to see the team do this season what I was hoping and expecting they do last season. Until that happens, I cannot go any further.
A Bold Prediction: Somehow, someway, Tomas Tatar is scoring twenty goals and he does not get traded by the deadline.
X-Factor: Lindy Ruff. I wrote about him at length in Part 5. Will he continue his high-risk, not-high reward style of aggressive hockey that has undercut the Devils the last two seasons? Will he adjust his ways with the guidance of his staff, which now has Brunette in a position to take over if and when Ruff is out? Will Ruff even last the season? Which would mean the Devils’ season is going well (which I want!) or Fitzgerald isn’t willing to fire him (which I don’t want!). So many questions in my head surround Ruff and how he performs will dramatically impact how the Devils perform this season.
The 2022-23 Season Prediction: I’m repeating last season’s prediction until further notice: The Devils will finish 6th in the Metropolitan and not make the playoffs. I would love it if the Devils proved me wrong in the right way this time.
Season Thoughts: The 2022-23 Devils are going to be a good team. After watching the team during the preseason, I feel more confident in our forward depth and the goaltending situation than I previously had. The defensive group should be excellent. With the rise of Alex Holtz and Fabian Zetterlund, I think this is the most complete team they have had in five years.
I am not sure what to make of the Metropolitan Division, though. The Penguins and Hurricanes are sure bets, as they have been. The Capitals and Rangers can always be good with their scoring talent (and Igor Shesterkin for the Rangers), and the Islanders could be a bounce-back candidate. The Devils need to develop a killer instinct in divisional games - and my biggest worry is that could be what keeps them out of the playoffs.
A Bold Prediction: I think the Devils will have a Calder winner this season. Alex Holtz can score 30 on Jack Hughes’ wing, and I think Fabian Zetterlund is capable of a lot more than being a fourth liner. If someone gets injured, watch for Zetterlund to step up and be a rockstar.
X-Factor: I would normally point to one of the forwards, like the centers staying healthy; but I think Dougie Hamilton returning to form drives the Devils to the playoffs. We know Severson is capable of a lot this year on that side, and Marino should complement them well. But if Dougie Hamilton gets to 50+ points with the Devils this season? If Dougie Hamilton scores 15 or 20 goals? The ice will open up for the rest of the team tremendously if that happens.
The 2022-23 Season Prediction: 44-29-7, 4th in the Metro: makes the playoffs.
Season Thoughts: The Devils will finally take a big step forward after years of false starts and disappointment. The main things standing in their way will be health and inconsistent goaltending. I think Blackwood and Vanecek will each have their up and downs and once again the goaltending position will be the thing that holds the Devils back from greater success. But, this year it will be just good enough to get the Devils in the playoffs as a wildcard team, finishing with around 95 points. The skater group is looking deeper and stronger at both forward and defense with the additions the team made in the offseason (Erik Haula, Marino, Palat) and internal promotions (Holtz, Kevin Bahl, Zetterlund) and I believe they will be better able to absorb multiple injuries and not implode compared to previous seasons. Hughes and Bratt will drive the offense for the Devils, but they will get strong performances up and down the line-up.
A Bold Prediction: Jack Hughes will be a Hart Trophy finalist.
X-Factor: Bad goaltending was the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd reason the Devils stunk last year. But reason number 4 was the power play being awful. It hasn’t been all that amazing in the pre-season, but I’m willing to see how it functions in regular season games with a full NHL line-up before making a judgement. By all logic it should be good. Hughes, Bratt, Hischier, and Hamilton are a talented, skilled group of players that should be able to score at a good clip when up a man, even if they were given no instruction or scheme. But last season Mark Recchi went with the, ‘let’s stifle all creativity and be as static and predictable as possible’ approach. If new associate coach Andrew Brunette can come up with something better than that, I think it could be the difference between the Devils being a bubble team outside the playoffs looking in vs holding down a wildcard spot. If the Devils choose to feature Alex Holtz (assuming he makes the team) on the first unit, that could also give them a different look and the type of pure shooter they haven’t really had since trading Kyle Palmieri.
The 2022-23 Season Prediction: The Devils finish 4th in the Metro division and make the playoffs for the first time since the 2017-18 season.
Season Thoughts: I have been burned by this team enough times that I am very reluctant to touch the stove again in my outlook on the 2022-23 season. It is hard not to get a bit hopeful when the season draws near, though. If I am being honest, almost nothing would surprise me heading into this season. The Devils have enormous potential in some respects, but at the same time, they are not that substantially different from a team that just finished with 63 points.
If this group can stay healthy, though, I think they are at least in the mix for a playoff spot. Jack Hughes is a special player who is likely to continue trending up. They have what honestly looks like a pretty solid group on defense, especially if Hamilton plays near the level he did to start last year. The forward depth is good and players like Hischier and Bratt are needle-movers that have enough support to create multiple solid lines. This should be a fun season. That is what I said about the last one, though, so in some ways only seeing is believing here.
A Bold Prediction: A quasi-stable goaltending situation and a fairly deep defensive unit vault the Devils into the top half of the league in goals allowed after several years of dismal results on that front.
X-Factor: He has become a critical piece of this defense, especially with a somewhat thin left side behind him. If he proves that the metrics that rated him as an elite defensive d-man last season were not a fluke, it is going to go a long way towards any potential successes for this team.
The 2022-23 Season Prediction: The Devils finish 5th in the Metropolitan Division and 9th in the East, they miss the playoffs as the first team on the outside looking in.
Again, thank you for reading this sixth and final part of our multi-part season preview of the 2022-23 Devils season. In case you missed the other parts, here are links to each one. Please feel free to leave your predictions in the comments. Thanks to everyone who wrote up the earlier parts in this series. Thank you again for reading.