With just two preseason games remaining before the real deal begins, the New Jersey Devils still have some work to do to prepare for opening night. Their roster needs to stand at 23 players (at most) which means a few more will be cut/sent down to their AHL affiliate in Utica. The camp competition has been increasingly fierce this season, as the Devils have continued to add to their talent pool in a variety of ways. As they have continued to add to the team, the discussion of being a competitive NHL team has only intensified.
The last few seasons since their lone playoff appearance of the past decade have been disappointing to say the least. Despite having their first two first overall picks in franchise history in Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, as well as hitting on some later round picks like Jesper Bratt, the Devils have yet to pull everything together to find success. At times it was a lack of offense; at others, it was a lack of good defending. Most recently, goaltending was the team's Achilles heel for a variety of reasons; if this preseason is any indication however, the Devils may have found a tandem that won’t let them down.
But we’ve all been in this boat before.
We’ve had reasons to be encouraged in the past; whether it was the projections and expectations on Hughes, or the signing of Dougie Hamilton to solidify the defense, we as Devils fans have wanted to believe that this was the year that we got back into the playoff mix. And despite a brief moment in 2017-18 where it seemed as though the dream was becoming a reality, the Devils have been stuck in an otherwise perpetual rebuild.
The preseason on-ice product is encouraging, but so are the moves that have led to those results. Mackenzie Blackwood is back and healthy, with even Amanda Stein noting that he’s making saves more akin to earlier in his career. Vitek Vanacek has, in a limited sample size, played strongly as well, giving the Devils a legitimate duel for the top spot in net. The back end has been boosted as well, where new acquisition John Marino has been smooth and a bit unnoticeable (which for a defender is a good thing) in his appearances. Jonas Siegenthaler, whose defending statistics were outstanding last season was extended, while Hamilton, Damon Severson and Ryan Graves return to round out the group. There’s more promising talent on the horizon in Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec as well, even if they will see limited NHL time at best this season.
The forward group is also possibly the most promising crop the team has had in the last decade. Hughes, Hischier and Bratt lead the way, but players such as Dawson Mercer, Yegor Sharangovich, and Alexander Holtz are poised to play big roles. If the injury bug bites the team again this season, there are players such as Miles Wood and Fabian Zetterlund who could jump up and down the lineup and play a bigger role as needed. Special teams will need to play meaningful, impactful hockey this season; if the power play can’t score regularly or the penalty kill starts bleeding goals, all the talent in the world won’t keep the team afloat.
If things go as expected, the Devils should be able to challenge for a playoff spot, if not more. They have the talent, the youth, and a new coaching staff; they need to find the consistency and catch a little bit of luck with minimal injuries along the way. If those stars can line up, the Devils could see themselves playing meaningful hockey into late April and maybe even beyond.
After all, why can’t this year be the year?
What are your thoughts on the Devils making a push for relevancy this year? Interviews suggest that they believe in themselves; do you? Are you still wary that they are not quite there yet? Do you think the preseason is a mirage and things will go completely off the rails in the regular season? Leave any and all thought below and thanks as always for reading!