The New Jersey Devils haven’t shown a lot of flaws through the first two months of the 2022-23 season, jumping out to first place in the Metropolitan division with a 21-4-1 record. It’s as good a start as anyone who follows this team could’ve asked for, and barring a catastrophic collapse or some other unforeseen circumstance, it appears the Devils will be playoff-bound for the first time in five years.
With that said, the Devils aren’t a perfect team by any means. Tom Fitzgerald, Lindy Ruff, and everybody else in the Devils braintrust are constantly evaluating this team and not getting complacent after getting off to a good start. The Devils are currently running neck-and-neck with the Boston Bruins in the race for the President’s Trophy, but as we all know, the one trophy that actually matters is the Stanley Cup. New Jersey is as well positioned as anyone to go on a deep playoff run, but that also doesn’t mean we can’t take a step back with roughly 1⁄3 of the season in the books, be honest with ourselves, and determine where this team can be better. Some improvements might come internally, whether it be the continued growth and maturation of the Devils best players like Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Dawson Mercer, and others. Other improvements may need to be addressed with an external addition. Nobody is suggesting that the Devils should be trying to fix things that aren’t broken, but you also can’t address a potential issue if you can’t identify it.
I plan on writing a lot between now and the trade deadline about types of players the Devils may wind up pursuing leading up to the trade deadline (and even naming names, as I’m compiling a list), but that’s not the purpose of this article, as I simply want to highlight the biggest potential problem-areas with this roster and what the Devils should be looking to do to address it.
Let’s get into it.
The Devils core lacks playoff experience
For most of the players on the Devils roster, this will be their first time being a part of a playoff run. There’s no getting around that. The average age of players on this Devils team is 26.4 years old, which is below the league average of 28.2, and most of the Devils best players are far younger than that.
The Devils have four players remaining on the roster from their last playoff team in 2017-18 in Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood, and Damon Severson. Between the four of them in that five-game first-round exit to Tampa, they have only played in 15 playoff games combined. None of the other Devils homegrown players have ever appeared in a Stanley Cup playoff game, although some have experience in international tournament settings such as World Juniors.
Now, that’s not to say the Devils don’t have playoff experience on the roster. Ondrej Palat, who the Devils will get back at some point, has won two Stanley Cups in four appearances in the Final and leads the way with 138 playoff games and countless moments in those games. The only other player on the Devils roster who has previously lifted the Cup was Jonathan Bernier, who backed up Jonathan Quick for the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and appeared in 9 other postseason games throughout his career. Erik Haula has played in 61 playoff games with his five previous teams. Brendan Smith (56 games), Dougie Hamilton (54), Tomas Tatar (40), Ryan Graves (25), John Marino (17), Jonas Siegenthaler (11), and Vitek Vanecek (3) are the only other Devils players who know what its like to play through the pressure cooker of postseason hockey.
To some, experience might be a bit overrated. We all have no experience doing something until we are given the opportunity to go and actually do it. But we all know playoff games are far more intense than a run-of-the-mill regular season contest in January. The Devils have made strides in terms of addressing their compete level and being tougher to play against, which leads me to this next part.
The Devils could stand to get a little tougher
Make no mistake. You’re not going to win the Stanley Cup without high-end skill. There’s a reason why the list of Conn Smythe winners the last few decades is a who’s who of Hall of Famers and all-time greats. High-end skill is required to win. But with that said, you can’t win with just high-end skill alone.
I’m not necessarily saying the Devils need to go out and add a Tom Wilson for the playoff run (although I’d certainly endorse it if the Caps are out of it and he’s actually healthy), but there’s a reason why teams were falling over themselves two summers ago to find their answer to Tom Wilson. Getting the real thing would be quite a lift for this group.
I hate speaking in generalities but trying to measure stuff like grit, sandpaper, and ENERGY can be difficult to quantify (and no, I don’t care how many hits someone has necessarily). You’re either willing or capable of battling in the corners, forechecking, and backchecking, or you’re not. You’re either willing or capable of going to the dirty areas and be willing to pay the price or you’re not. You’re either willing to sacrifice, get down, and block a shot with the game on the line, or you’re not. The 2022-23 Devils have more of those type of players than the team has the last few years, but adding another one wouldn’t hurt.
Its one thing for the Devils to withstand the rigors of, say, a back-to-back against Calgary that is battle-tested and comfortable playing that style. It’s another to do it consistently over two months. The Devils have passed a lot of these types of tests already this season, but again, the playoffs are a whole different animal.
The recent trend of falling behind early
One of my favorite aspects with this year’s Devils team is their tendency to wear opponents out over the final 40 minutes of any given game. There’s been quite a few times this season where they haven’t had to go “all gas, no brakes” in the 3rd period because they’ve simply overwhelmed teams in the middle frame after playing with their food in the first period.
The problem is that we’re starting to see the Devils surrender a couple early goals and dig themselves a hole. Mike wrote about this the other day and I don’t have much else to add so I’ll keep my thoughts on this brief. It’s good that the Devils have shown the ability to come back and shake off a poor start, like they did recently in The World’s Most Overrated Arena. Generally speaking though, spotting the other team a couple quick goals isn’t a recipe for success. It falls upon the coaching staff and the players to be ready to go at the start of the game.
It’s great that the Devils have that ability to strike quickly and come back against teams that are mid like the Rangers. It’ll be much tougher to do so against experienced teams like Boston and Tampa.
The Power Play is still middle of the pack
The Devils power play is slightly improved from last season, where they were ranked 28th and converted at a 15.6% clip, but its still not good enough as they sit 25th and at 20% prior to last night’s game.
There’s a common belief that the officials tend to swallow the whistle and call fewer penalties as physicality picks up in the postseason. The data from last year shows that that actually might not be the case, but I’d operate under the assumption that last year was an aberration and power plays will be fewer and far between in the most important games of the year. This would make it all the more critical that the Devils convert on those opportunities when they have the chance. We saw first-hand last week how not converting on a power play when they had a chance to bury a team came back to bite them.
The Devils do have some room for improvement on the power play. They seem to have settled on a foursome of Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, and Hamilton while rotating in different options for the 5th man, whether its Nathan Bastian or Dawson Mercer or Tomas Tatar. I think I’d prefer to see a right-handed shot at forward in that spot, so I’d probably roll with Mercer for a stretch since it appears Bastian will miss some time.
Goaltending is still somewhat of a concern
You may be surprised that I brought up goaltending with how well Vitek Vanecek has played, but with him emerging as the Devils #1 goaltender, we are entering uncharted waters as he assumes a starter’s workload. Perhaps he’ll hold up fine (his previous career high in GP is 42 which he did last season), and perhaps he won’t.....I don’t have a crystal ball to give you a definitive answer. We won’t know whether or not he can do it until he does it.
The Devils will likely pick one goaltender and ride him for as long as they’re in the postseason, as every game at that point is a must win and they must ride the hot hand. I’d love nothing more than for it to be Vitek Vanecek, but injuries happen and goaltending is fickle to begin with.
To potentially complicate matters further, we know that Mackenzie Blackwood will be back at some point in the next few weeks. Blackwood hasn’t looked much better than he did the last two seasons, albeit with a small sample size this season. Akira Schmid has outplayed him to this point. The Devils do have the ability to send Schmid down without clearing waivers, but we’re also now at a point where the Devils are good and bad goaltending performances like what we’ve seen from Blackwood the last few years can no longer be tolerated. Especially when the Devils appear to have multiple options that are better than him right now.
The bottom line is that the Devils made their bed when they committed to a Vanecek/Blackwood tandem for this season and any lingering doubts haven’t gone away even with a good 26 game stretch to start the season. The hope is that someone.....anyone.....emerges, grabs the proverbial brass ring, and runs with it. So far, Vanecek and Schmid have been up to the task which is a big part of the reason why the Devils are where they are in the standings.
Do the Devils need another defenseman?
The most common complaint among the Devils defensemen has circled around Brendan Smith continuing to draw into the lineup over Kevin Bahl. The second most common complaint likely has to do with the patented Damon Severson defensive gaffe that typically winds up in the back of the Devils net. But the reality is that they’ve actually played pretty well in their third pairing role.
Best defensive pairs by xGoal % with at least 150 minutes played together 5 on 5. https://t.co/N0eMdvSQjI pic.twitter.com/SbgI9tIlWn— MoneyPuck.com (@MoneyPuckdotcom) December 3, 2022
The Devils top four is locked-in right now with the Siegenthaler-Hamilton and Graves-Marino pairings going nowhere, nor should they. Maybe the distribution of ice time will fluctuate, but the Devils are already playing Marino, Hamilton, and Siegenthaler over 20 minutes a night. They’re correctly identifying their three best defensemen and playing them accordingly, so I don’t see much changing in that respect.
The one potential wrinkle that could pop up later in the season is if the Devils sign Luke Hughes to an ELC after Michigan’s season ends and/or if Simon Nemec does enough in Utica to earn a long look. Working rookie defensemen into the lineup though can be tricky as there will be growing pains even with players as talented as the youngest Hughes and Nemec. I don’t know that the Devils have the roster space to add another veteran defenseman, but with Bahl being able to be sent down, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility. The Devils are deep on the blueline but I don’t think there’s such a thing as being too deep.
Lastly, since it falls under this umbrella....no, I don’t believe the Devils should trade pending UFAs Ryan Graves or Damon Severson at the deadline. I’ll likely expand more on this the closer we get to the playoffs, but the Devils have a chance to win right now. Getting a future 2nd round pick for Severson so you don’t “lose him for nothing” does nothing for me when you can win a championship right now. The Devils owe it to the fanbase to go for it, and for all his flaws as a player, the Devils best chance of winning a Stanley Cup in 2023 is with Damon Severson still being on the roster.
Do the Devils lack a sniper?
Probably, although I’m not entirely sure the Devils need one. They’re averaging 3.72 goals per game, trailing only Boston, Dallas, and Buffalo at the moment. Putting the puck in the back of the net hasn’t been the issue for the Devils, and that’s with them missing Palat for most of this stretch and getting very little from Alexander Holtz, who the Devils hope will be their sniper but isn’t quite yet, to this point.
Even if the Devils wanted to go out and add a sniper, I don’t know that that guy is A) available in the first place and B) would make this team better. Not to mention that those guys typically have a high cap hit and the Devils are up against the cap ceiling as it is (with the possibility of a Bratt extension looming), so there would need to be some creativity on the part of Tom Fitzgerald to make it all work somehow.
Now, that’s not to say that the Devils shouldn’t add another Top Six forward if the opportunity presents itself. But it would need to be something that makes sense from a cost acquisition standpoint and a stylistic fit with this roster. Even if the Devils could make Patrick Kane work, I don’t think he moves the needle all that much for this group. If they could make Timo Meier work, considering his size, skillset, playing style, playoff experience, and chemistry from playing with Nico Hischier on the Swiss national team? Who also happens to be an analytical darling? Even though he’s not a traditional sniper, that’s probably a conversation worth having.
You may have read the previous 2500 words and thought to yourself “these flaws that Jared singled out seem very nit-picky” or “why is he being so negative when the team is 21-4-1”, but that’s kind of the point. This isn’t about trying to be negative, as its about trying to get the Devils to that next level. The Devils have shown us through 26 games they’re a really good team. Now its time to raise the bar, raise the level of expectations, and hold the team to a higher standard.
The last thing I’ll say is that while this appears to be the first year of a multi-year window of contention opening up for the Devils, I don’t think resting on their laurels and saying “there’s always next year” is the best way to approach this. Nobody knows with any certainty what the future holds and there are plenty of examples in sports of a player or team thinking they’ll be back or contending for championships every year, only to never get back. Ask the Yankees post-2017 or Dan Marino who got to the Super Bowl in his second season in the NFL and never got back.
You have heard enough from me though, so now, I turn it over to you. What do you think are the biggest flaws with this Devils team? What do you think they can do to address said flaws? Are there any potential flaws that I didn’t touch on that you want to address? Please feel free to leave a comment below, and thank you for reading!