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The Devils Should Not Consider Any Position ‘Set’ This Offseason

Should the Devils focus on improving at center, wing, defense, or in net? Truthfully, there is no position where this team could not use an additional impact player so Tom Fitzgerald should avoid limiting the scope of his search to improve this roster.

Josh Harris and Tom Fitzgerald Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

In various engineering disciplines, there is a concept known as “redundancy.” Redundancy is the idea that you design something in such a way that you don’t end up with a single component that, if compromised, leads to a total system failure. Essentially, if you design a building, for example, the idea is to design it in such a way that if a single beam begins to fail, other components will be able to pick up the slack and redistribute the load in such a way that the building continues to stand. Broadly speaking, this concept applies across many areas of life and, as it happens, it can also be applied to building a hockey team.

The Devils had a terrible season in 2021-22, but there were a number of bright spots to be found on an individual performance level. Their top two centers, Jack Hughes and captain Nico Hischier, each had strong seasons, putting up career best scoring rates with strong on-ice impacts. Dawson Mercer had a very good rookie season, jumping straight to the NHL from the junior ranks and holding his own as a center and wing while putting up 42 points on the season. At wing, Jesper Bratt had a true breakout season with almost a point per game on the scoresheet and great all-around play, and Yegor Sharangovich showed that his 2021 rookie campaign was not a fluke with 24 goals in spite of a rocky start.

On defense, the team appears to have a legitimate NHL top-four with the group of Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, Damon Severson, and Ryan Graves. They have a fair amount of theoretical depth at forward as well, with veterans like Tomas Tatar and Andreas Johnsson still under contract, Jesper Boqvist finding his footing as an NHL bottom-six player later in the season, and grinders like Nate Bastian and Mike McLeod representing solid enough fourth-liners.

Add in players like Alexander Holtz and Fabian Zetterlund at forward, and Reilly Walsh, Nikita Okhotiuk, Kevin Bahl, and Shakir Mukhmadullin on the blue line and it’s easy to lull oneself into the impression that the Devils have a pretty well figured out roster at most positions. If things click, the breakout performances are repeated and others bounce back or take a step forward, this looks like a decent depth chart.

Let’s circle back to the idea of redundancy though, both as it applies to the 2022-23 Devils specifically and the Devils roster generally going forward. This is a team that could work pretty much as-is. They seem to have a solid mixture of skill and depth and with young players theoretically continuing to improve they could take a step based on that alone. But as we saw in 2021-22, things get dicey very quickly once the Devils lose a big name or two. A roster that only looks good completely healthy is one that is bound to be in for some trouble (as we saw in large sections of 2021-22).

The free agent market, as it stands, is pretty robust-looking this offseason, particularly at forward. The Devils are a team that could be convinced to rest on its laurels, but I think sitting back and not taking a proactive approach to improving this team would be a mistake. The Devils are theoretically set at 1C and 2C, but there is nothing saying you can’t acquire a top-six-level player to fill out the roster at center. Jesper Boqvist took some nice steps and Mercer might be able to take another step to be a more solid solution at the pivot, but if you lose one of the big two in Hughes and Hischier, you are immediately stretching the depth of the roster. And if you do shift Mercer back to center in 2022-23, that means you have that much more of a gap to fill on the wing where Tatar and Johnsson proved to be marginal top-six solutions at best this past year. At a minimum, the Devils should be trying to acquire one top-six quality forward, and I don’t think they have to be picky about wing or center, they just need more players they can rely on.

For the blue line, the Devils do have a lot of players poised to compete for spots behind the four players mentioned above, but unless Ty Smith reinvents himself this offseason, you’re one injury away from looking at a very rookie-heavy blue line. The Devils should probably be targeting a middle-pairing defender in the offseason business as well, though the free agent market seems considerably thinner on that front. They probably at least need someone to contribute to a stable third pairing, something that might be a bit more achievable.

Finally, as it relates to the long term, I want to turn attention quickly towards the draft and specifically the second overall pick. I don’t think the Devils need to target any position over any other at the draft, as I think all of them would be well-served by adding another impact player. If the Devils see one prospect as better than another, they absolutely should not shy away from taking a center or a defender, even if, for instance, an impact wing seems like a slightly more pressing need at the moment. The Devils have a pretty decent base built up organizationally, but I wouldn’t say they have an embarrassment of riches at any position.

I haven’t touched on goaltending because, well, I think the team would be crazy to run it back with the same duo in 2022-23 and I think most would have to agree based on how 2021-22 played out.

The bottom line is this. The Devils and Tom Fitzgerald should be exploring their options for improvement at every single position on this roster, because I don’t think there is anywhere that they would not benefit from another legitimate impact player. He should be building up this team’s redundancy at every position, because another failure just means this team is another step closer to squandering the benefit of having a young, relatively cost-controlled core. In a hard cap league, the time for a team to be competing is roughly now-ish, with core players on reasonably affordable RFA deals and other support pieces chipping in while on ELCs. The goaltending was the team’s biggest issue in 2021-22 for sure, but that should not stop Fitzgerald from improving the team’s ability to deal with missing parts across the board.