The Devils are a team that has exploded onto the national scene this season in the NHL with the most notable performances coming from the stars leading the way. Players like Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes, and Dougie Hamilton have been scoring at will and driving play at elite levels all season, winning their matchups handily and making individual efforts that can turn games on a dime. That group firing on all cylinders has obviously made a huge impact for the Devils, but they are not where the success ends for this team in 2022-23.
No, the Devils are not only powered by the elite performances at the top, but also by a roster filled out with a group of players serving as a rotating cast who can play the hero on any given night and help create the matchup problems necessary to allow for the kind of success the Devils are having so far. Depth is something that every team is always chasing and can be a difficult thing to maintain in a salary capped world, but the Devils have it in spades for the moment, even with one of their biggest offseason acquisitions (Ondrej Palat) sidelined with an injury the past 20 games.
Yes, the Devils have a burgeoning middle class of skaters out on the ice helping drive things in the right direction even when the big dogs aren’t out there on the ice. Some of them originally arrived to some fanfare (Tomas Tatar) or were selected relatively high in the draft (Dawson Mercer), but many of the players are just mid-round picks from the past decade who have carved out a role as a steady contributor now in New Jersey. Beyond the big three of Hischier, Hughes, and Bratt, the Devils have five other forwards right now scoring at a pace of 0.5 points/game or more. The full group is Tatar, Mercer, Yegor Sharangovich, Fabian Zetterlund, and Miles Wood. That group of players is serving as an army of proverbial Mark Donks for the Devils right now as they can collectively hurt teams almost as much as the big names at times while evoking reactions of “Why is this guy killing us right now???”
The group is successful because they all bring different skillsets that can beat teams in a bunch of different ways. From the cerebral Mercer who thinks the game at a high-level and can assemble beautiful plays with guys like Jack Hughes to the blunt instrument Miles Wood who uses his speed and big frame to act as a sort of wrecking ball on skates as he crashes the net and fires shots at will. Tatar has found his niche as a straw that stirs the drink next to Nico Hischier as the duo have been burying opponents on the ice together and Tatar has regained some of his missing touch from last season. Yegor Sharangovich has been a little uneven at times but still possesses perhaps the quickest release on the team and is a counterpunching weapon on the penalty kill. Fabian Zetterlund has shown himself to be an all-around pain in the you-know-what for opponents, mashing together many of the qualities listed above for others and then packing them into a 5’-11” frame made out of granite.
Having so many guys who can contribute means that when three or four guys on the roster are having an off week, there are plenty of others who can step in and pick up the slack. This isn’t just the case on offense, though, the Devils now have enough horses to manage what other teams are throwing at them on defense to keep the ship afloat, even if guys aren’t at the top of their game. The Dougie Hamilton-Jonas Siegenthaler duo has been electric and has been one of the very best defensive pairings in the entire league this season, but when they stumble, the Devils have some legitimate support options who can handle some tough assignments.
The best example of this on the defensive side is of course John Marino, who has shown outstanding prowess as a one-on-one defender this season, but players like Ryan Graves and Damon Severson, who are now more comfortably situated in support roles, also have some chops to step up and play more minutes when called upon. Even if nobody can replace the kind of dynamic contributions on offense that Dougie Hamilton can provide, Severson at least has proven himself a capable playmaker over the years on the offensive end of the ice. Severson has been, likely for everyone’s benefit including his own, had his role reduced quite a bit this season (about 18 minutes ATOI instead of the roughly 23 of the past three seasons) but he can deliver offense when called upon, given he put up 46 points last season (the most for a Devil since Rafalski in 06-07). Given the nature of the blueline and how fewer roster spots are devoted to it, it’s tough to have the same redundancy as the Devils have at forward but they still have some quality depth now on the back end.
What this all adds up to is a team that can come at you in waves and make you sweat every single shift on the ice against them. Even if you shut down one top line or the other, the Devils still have a pretty effective third line unit and a fourth line powered in large part by the chaotic energy of Miles Wood to keep you honest. To wit, not a single player on the team has an on-ice expected goals share below 52% at 5v5 at this point. Having elite players at the top is critical to a team’s success, but surrounding them with guys who can generate some of their own opportunities and prevent teams from having a soft-landing spot when those top players end their shift can take a team from an inconsistent, top-heavy unit to the consistent problem the Devils have shown themselves to be for opponents thus far this season.