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How Will the Devils Handle Life with a Target on Their Backs?

As the Devils venture into the recently unexplored space of “the Devils being good at hockey,” the focus now shifts to how they will handle the attention that comes with being a frontrunner instead of an also-ran.

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NHL: NOV 26 Capitals at Devils Photo by Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Waiting for the other shoe to drop has been the name of the game for Devils fans over the past decade, and almost invariably, that shoe has indeed dropped as the Devils, even after promising starts, would freefall their way through the standings to the league’s basement. The 2022-23 version of this team, though, has blown right past “promising start” and ventured into territory that has not been seen for quite some time in New Jersey: the land of teams getting “Cup contender” buzz. The Devils have been winning, yes, but they have also been doing it in such a way that it is very difficult to dismiss them as a fluke or a flash in the pan. This has led to such a rapid paradigm shift for the team and its fans that everyone is still attempting to recover from the whiplash and respond to a new level of expectations for a team whose brand has largely been perennial disappointment since the summer of 2012.

The Devils have turned their fortunes around so comprehensively over the past 20 games that they pretty much sailed by the “plucky upstart” or “dark horse to look out for” phase that many young teams pass through on their way to contention and gone right to a team sitting at or near the top of power rankings lists around the league. It’s a state of affairs that you will not see me complaining about as the Devils move into the second quarter of the NHL season, especially because the work that they have done so far has already drastically lightened the load for what they need to do over the remainder of the season to qualify for the postseason. It is something that will change the way teams prepare to play the New Jersey Devils, though.

The Devils pretty much yielded the possibility of sneaking up on anyone somewhere around their 10th consecutive victory in a streak that finally ended (in controversial fashion) at 13 wins last week. The Devils have also avoided any immediate post-streak malaise, winning a back-to-back set this weekend to quickly return to the win column. Though not quite everyone is convinced, the Devils have most people thinking that they are a team that is for real and a problem to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference. They are continuing to keep pace with a ridiculous Boston Bruins team that also seems to have no interest in losing and doing it typically in convincing fashion. Now, instead of a soft landing spot for teams or an opportunity to rest the starting goaltender, the Devils have, overnight, become a game that teams are likely circling on their schedule and upping the intensity for.

This is new territory for most of the players on the Devils, as even the last time they were in the playoff picture in 2017-18, they were never putting up anything approaching the kind of dominant run they’ve been on in the last 20 games. The big question now is “How will the Devils handle this newfound spotlight and drastically elevated expectations?” These Devils have never had a target on their back before and will now have to deal with teams that are putting a bit more scrutiny on New Jersey’s systems and bringing more intensity to the rink to put the sudden league darlings in their place.

If the Devils can maintain the kind of pace and control that they have exhibited over most of the opening 22 games, though, it’s unlikely to matter all that much if opponents have a little extra motivation with the Devils across the ice, at least at a season-long level. NHL teams are full of professionals who are trained to bring a certain level of effort and preparation to each game and, even if there is some impact on the margins, teams weren’t just laying down for the Devils when they came to town because they had a bad prior decade. Add to that the fact that the Devils have not exactly been winning most of these games so far by thin margins and the team does have some amount of wiggle room to come back to earth (whether in the run of play or the percentages) and still play quality hockey.

The other factor to consider for a team suddenly finding themselves near the top of the heap for the league is motivation. Could the Devils begin to get complacent or rest on their own laurels with the big early season success? They certainly wouldn’t be the first team to get a little ahead of themselves and lose focus, but to this point they have done a good job remaining focused on the task ahead of them each night. And the truth is that I think the Devils are unlikely to yield the hard-won (through a lot of losses) chip on their shoulder any time soon, even as they convert large swaths of the league and its viewers into believers. This team, and especially the guys who have been here for more than a season or two, have been yearning for a team that can play the type of hockey the Devils are playing right now for a long time. If the Devils see their fortunes turn, I don’t suspect motivation will be the culprit.

Ultimately, the thing that will stick as the seed of doubt as the Devils move forward as a favorite instead of bottom-feeder is just the fickle nature of hockey itself. The Devils are not hugely different in makeup from a team that had an utterly disastrous 2021-22 that resulted in 63 standings points. The Devils are, somewhat comically, only 27 points away from that mark from last season with 60 games still to play, so they have effectively eliminated the possibility of finishing anywhere near last season’s depths, but a return of some of the issues that plagued last season’s iteration are at least conceivable. If a surprisingly stable goaltending situation gives way to something more akin to last season’s chaos in net, that would represent a significant hurdle. And while the Devils remain utterly dominant in expected goals share at 60% for all situations and 61% at 5v5, some regression could come there as well to take them from a team that can outrun even pretty shoddy goaltending with a dominant territorial advantage to a team that could be more readily hindered by leaky netminders.

Even these theoretical reversals of fortune, though, are not necessarily linked to being in the spotlight. So, the short answer to the question posed at the top of this piece is that, if you look at how the Devils are playing on a nightly basis and look at the way they are handling themselves even in the midst of a growing hype train (or wagon, as it were), I think there is plenty of reason to think that they can avoid wilting under the newfound pressure of having some real expectations.