My name is John Fischer and I was wrong. Prior to this season, I was down on General Manager Tom Fitzgerald, head coach Lindy Ruff, and the New Jersey Devils. I was not looking to get fooled again by another “winning offseason.” I was down on a team that has been out of the playoff picture well before the halfway mark of the last two seasons. I was annoyed with a nickel-and-diming of Jesper Bratt and the growing possibility of the Devils organization wasting some of the best years of Bratt, Jack Hughes, and Nico Hischier among others. I was increasingly fed up with a certain subset of the People Who Matter who insisted that everything was fine and that Fitzgerald was building a good team and that Ruff was a good coach and how dare you criticize either of them anytime I jotted down a few words noting the reality that the 2021-22 Devils sucked, the 2021 Devils sucked, and the 2019-20 Devils sucked.
As such, my hopes were not at all high for the 2022-23 season. In our season prediction post back in October, I wrote the following:
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.
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.
At the time, I wanted to see improvement in Ruff’s final season under contract. I wanted the Devils to actually take a step forward. I had no allusions that this was a playoff team as of October 2022.
After two horrid games, the 2022-23 New Jersey Devils proceeded to prove me and any other pessimistic and downcast fans of the team wrong. Quite wrong. Very wrong. It does not matter how well-founded my concerns were. It does not matter if what bothered me was valid at the time. Over most of this season, the Devils have proven to an enthusiastic surprise. They won 13 games in a row, which was sandwiched between a shorter 3-game winning streak and another 3-game winning streak afterwards. The rule of thumb of playoff teams being in playoff positions by Thanksgiving was met Devils. More than that, they were atop the Metropolitan Division by substantial margin. I noted that the Devils could basically play NHL-average hockey from Thanksgiving onward and still get a 100+ point season.
Furthermore, there was a lot of substance behind those wins. The Devils were absolute beasts in 5-on-5 play in October and November. They were a wagon lighting teams up with loads of goals in most of their games. Even with a lackluster power play. Jack Hughes has emerged as one of the league’s best players and top scorers. Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier shined while frequently being on the scoresheet. Dougie Hamilton has brought it in both ends with excellent defensive runs from Jonas Siegenthaler and John Marino. Even Miles Wood provided more than just a few scores. Goaltenders Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid have been largely sensational. The Devils were doing this without Ondrej Palat and Mackenzie Blackwood as well. A less-than-100% healthy team just running through teams on the road, at home, in Canada, and outside of Canada? Yeah, this was not just a hot squad edging out wins in a row. The Devils were, and by some metrics still are, a force.
The 2022-23 Devils currently stand at 22-9-2. They spent several weeks in first place in the Metropolitan Division. They would need to collapse a whole lot and never get back up over the next 49 games to miss the playoffs at this point. The 2022-23 Devils are still in a strong position to achieve something the team has not done since 2017-18: a playoff spot.
To that end, I have to credit Lindy Ruff and Tom Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s decisions this offseason have paid off in a big way as Marino was a big improvement to the team’s blueline. Vanecek has provided a level of goaltending Blackwood simply has not this season. Brendan Smith has some ridiculously good 5-on-5 numbers as a third-pairing defenseman that should garner the same defenses some fans give to Damon Severson. Erik Haula has been a workhorse albeit with the worst puck luck I have seen in a while. Palat has missed most of this season, but early signs were positive that he would mesh well with the likes of Hughes, Bratt, Hischier, or Dawson Mercer. Further, past moves to bring in Siegenthaler, Hamilton, Tatar, and Ryan Graves have reflected well as all three have stepped up in various ways to contribute to the team’s success. As Hughes, Bratt, Hischier, and Mercer have flourished, the team’s wins are the products of a roster largely contributing in various ways. Fitzgerald’s transactions and decisions (and non-decisions) have borne delicious fruit.
As for Ruff, I did not see the Devils being a top team in 5-on-5 under his ways. Aggressive as they have been with how weakside defensemen activated, the team is one of the best when it comes to expected (59.29% xGF%) and actual goal differentials (60.94%) in 5-on-5 hockey. Even recent weeks cannot undo what the Devils have done over 30 games. The team is legitimately good in the most common situation in hockey. Sure, the power play could be better. Sure, the penalty kill had a swoon. Sure, there are things to clean up. But the team is not getting wrecked on the weakside on defense like they were in the last two seasons, the goaltenders are not total liabilities nor hung out to dry, and the attacking players are free to attack - and they do it a lot. The People Who Matter literally called for Ruff to be fired and then, weeks later, literally apologized. That is rare. It was also earned.
What’s that? The Devils have had a slump? Of course, I know they have. They just broke it on Wednesday. On national television, no less. Even during their slump, they were arguably goalie’d in half of those six winless games. They did not get crushed by their opposition. A little more focus and attention (and fortune) in Manhattan and the slump would not be six winless games. Do not get me wrong. I hated some of those results. I was frustrated like many of you. I also know that the Devils are not going to keep finishing shots at a rate of 5.63% or get goaltending at 85%. Plus, the teams chasing them are all hot right now and will cool off themselves. Which actually happened this week as out of all of them only Carolina remains on fire. Oh, and the Devils are currently tied with them in points. I would be a whole lot more worried if the Devils were getting boatraced during the last week and a half, but they were not.
So I was wrong in my earlier pessimism. I was wrong to think the Devils should just try to compete in March and not draft high (which would not be a bad thing in this year’s deep draft class). I was wrong in my assessment of the Devils ahead of this season. Fitzgerald has constructed a very good roster and Ruff has successfully coached them up to wins. I was wrong.
Hockey and life are not held in a vacuum. Fans are fickle and a big reason why is because the team’s situation changes as a season goes on. Injuries, performances, potential changes on the team’s roster, and thinking beyond the season all make an impact - and more. The Devils went on an epic winning streak and one of their best months ever in a regular season in franchise history. The Devils have, again, been in first in the Metropolitan Division for several weeks. Their playoff odds are still in the 90% range even with an ongoing slump. I was wrong about the Devils struggling through this season after multiple seasons of doing just that. They have soared.
As a result, so should our expectations of the 2022-23 New Jersey Devils soar. Mine have. Anything short of a playoff appearance at this point would be a catastrophic failure. This Devils team missing the playoffs should cause heads to roll.
Again, the Devils do not need to be amazing to do this. A perfectly average run of 55% of points earned since Thanksgiving will all but secure a playoff position. Yet, should this slump transition into a freefall, then pretty much all goodwill will go away along with any strong position in the standings. Even with the winless streak over, the Devils are no longer in first and not that far ahead of their competition in the division. Yet, that competition are occupying playoff spots. They still have a healthy eight-point lead on the Islanders and Capitals, who have the last playoff spot and the first non-playoff spot in the East respectively as of this writing. This is not a team on a knife’s edge; this is a team that just needs to take care of business. Now I am expecting that they do so.
And this should weigh heavily on Fitzgerald and Ruff. The Devils thankfully won a game filled with so much grit (hits! intensity! five defensemen! a third-period comeback! a massive scrum when Matthew Tkachuk decided to target Nico Hischier at the end!) that anyone complaining about the team’s lack of it just tells me they do not know what they are talking about. That does not mean the Devils are out of the proverbial woods. The next few opponents - Boston twice (tonight and after Christmas), Pittsburgh, Carolina - could see the Devils slip back into a losing streak. Detroit and St. Louis certainly will not be doormats. Ditto Our Hated Rivals or much of their five-game road trip after January 7. The point is that the team, as constructed, is capable of succeeding against pretty much anyone. They just have to keep doing it more often than they falter. Which is why making the playoffs is both achievable and a requirement in my eyes.
Fitzgerald and Ruff also need to be objective about their roster and seek to make moves to improve the team after the Holiday Freeze ends. Sure, a returning Ondrej Palat would help. But if the Devils can add another scoring winger , then Fitzgerald really has to consider it. Likewise, if management knows Severson or Graves is not returning, then they need to identify a short-term replacement until prospects (read: Simon Nemec, Luke Hughes) are ready to fill in long-term. Within the current roster, Ruff really should utilize the line ups he is putting together. It makes little sense to put four forward lines, give one of those lines just five to ten shifts, and shorten the bench early in the game to lean even harder on Hughes’ line, Hischier’s line, and whatever McLeod’s line can muster up. This may mean some actual adjustments to the game plan beyond switching up lines. But if Ruff is not satisfied for one reason or another, then some actual changes to the roster may be needed, especially if Ruff does not want to play all twelve forwards that he chooses for a game. Improvement is always a desirable goal and pretty much every team in the NHL is looking to do that as the season goes on. As the Devils absolutely have something to play for, Fitzgerald, Ruff, and the other decision-makers in New Jersey need to identify what that is and then go out and get it - without undercutting what the Devils have achieved so far.
Should the Devils return to losing ways, they will feel pressure. Again, the expectations for this season are now very different. Ruff’s own position is not at all secure. He is in the final season of his contract and team tailspinning their way out of the playoff picture after a month will only make it easier for management to move on from Ruff. I will be so bold as to point out that if anyone falls first for any significant slide, then it could very well be Ruff. If the Devils have to sacrifice his position and give control to, say, Andrew Brunette to salvage the season, then so be it. As for Fitzgerald, he may be safer as he put the roster together and he can only do so much about the on-ice performances. That the team has achieved much with the team Fitzgerald put together does speak well of his work. 22 wins out of 33 is hardly nothing. Of course, any good things we can say about his moves will ring hollow if they do not get results. Should he make some efforts to keep the campaign from sinking, I think he will remain for at least a little longer if the season collapses. But no collapse is happening now. The Devils did end their slide in Florida and a couple of wins in their next few games should restore confidence in the team achieving far more than what I and several of the People Who Matter expected.
What is being asked here to meet this new expectation of making the playoffs? I do not think it is very much either. The ask is not to go out and win 13 games in a row or 11 games in a row on the road or sweep an entire road trip again. It would be great but not necessary at this juncture. The ask is for the team to get wins and points at a NHL average of about 55% since Thanksgiving. They have 49 games left to earn 54 points to hit triple-digits in the standings this season. That may seem like a lot but that is a point percentage of 55.1% to earn starting with tonight. In other words: NHL average. It is not asking for a miracle, although it may feel like that given the Devils’ recent run of play. It is asking for about NHL average results. Yes, even with the Devils suffering a six-game winless streak recently. The Devils just need to be an NHL average team to totally secure a playoff spot. And a playoff slot may not even need 100 points by the time the season gets to crunch time in March. That is a fair and re-defined expectation for 2022-23.
As penance for my earlier pessimism, I want to be more optimistic. I want to believe the Devils can achieve this. I think this is a playoff team. Again, the Devils have not been this team fortunate to be where they are in the standings. They do not have 22 wins in 33 games because of a hot goaltender or a hot forward line or an unlikely run of incredible luck. They have won in various ways, scored a heap of goals, have a very healthy goal differential, and generally have been great in 5-on-5 against a lot of different opponents. They have the signs of what you expect to see from a very successful team - because they have been a very successful team. That is why my expectations are higher than they were. That is why it must change. The Devils are in a great position to make the playoffs; they must now make it. And I think it is an achievable one.
Your mileage may vary about how far they will go in the playoffs. I really do not care all that much about that; getting there is the main goal in my eyes. I do not think beggars can be choosers after the team missed the playoffs by huge margins from 2018-19 to 2021-22. Not to mention the Devils do not have a lot of control on their opponent would even be in the playoffs. Further, the Devils have not made the playoffs since 2018 so it is not like there is a lot of recent knowledge of the playoffs for the Devils or the People Who Matter or me about what the Devils need. What you or I want may not be what they need. This also complicates what Fitzgerald & Co. have to do to improve the team. Still, that is a potentially a future problem.
The more pressing issue is continuing to earn enough points to get there at all. Since the Devils have earned so many points already, it is fair to expect that they get there. And I think they will.
Don’t prove me wrong on this, Devils. Oh, and Merry Christmas Eve’s Eve.