It’s been an interesting week or so for the New Jersey Devils, who have been busy in pursuit of producing a more competitive result for the 2022-23 season. How far they have gotten down that particular road depends on your opinion of the significant group of new faces that have arrived over the past couple of weeks, but the Devils have been active.
In terms of likely/potential impacts to the 2022-23 team, they selected Simon Nemec at second overall and traded for Vitek Vanecek at the draft; they added Ondrej Palat and Brendan Smith in free agency so far; and they swapped Pavel Zacha and Ty Smith for Erik Haula and John Marino, respectively, in a pair of one-for-one trades. The Devils also finally brought in an assistant coach with the hiring of Andrew Brunette, previously the head coach of the Panthers during their successful 2021-22. Whether the front office has done enough at this point is open for debate, but I think it’s fair to say they haven’t sat on their hands.
Among all of that activity, the Devils missed on their big free agency target in Johnny Gaudreau, ending up with Palat as a perceived consolation prize. There was significant disappointment around the fanbase when Gaudreau took his talents to southwest Ohio, and understandably so. Gaudreau was the best player available on the UFA market and, as late as midday on Wednesday, the Devils were seen as the team most likely to land him. To not get him was a blow to the offseason goals of the team, but at the same time, it’s been good to see the Devils widening their view and trying to improve the team in multiple ways, including via trade.
The Devils are a team with a lot of problems to solve and while I would certainly prefer Gaudreau over just about any other player available this offseason, missing out on him does not have to be the end of the world, and I seems like, despite an initial bitter taste about how the first afternoon of free agency played out, the hockey ops group of GM Tom Fitzgerald, AGM Dan MacKinnon, and new AGM Kate Madigan, did not have tunnel vision on that one move. The signing of Ondrej Palat had the aura of a panic acquisition in a vacuum, but in the context of the past two weeks, it’s another incremental move to try and plug one of the variety of holes this team has.
Winning the biggest sweepstakes in free agency is desirable when you are a team trying to make a leap, but as we saw in the aftermath of the 2021 offseason and the big signing of Dougie Hamilton, it’s not an automatic fix. The Devils were too flawed a team in 2021-22 to bank on one player to come in this summer and fix it. That’s not to say they Devils could not have been similarly active in other ways even if they had secured the services of Gaudreau, but I think the Devils have “won” enough offseasons at this point to begin to internalize that splashy moves are not a guarantee of future success.
Running through the major issues the Devils had coming into this offseason, the Devils have a least made some effort to rectify all of them. The chief issue in 2021-22 was obviously the goaltending. To address that, Tom Fitzgerald went out and brought in Vitek Vanecek from the Washington Capitals at the draft. The Devils needed at least one more top-six wing, so they went out and grabbed Ondrej Palat after missing out on Gaudreau. The Devils wanted players with more experience on good teams and veteran presence, so they got Palat and Erik Haula. The team needed to improve their defensive structure in their own end, so they got a highly capable defender in exchange for perhaps their biggest defensive liability on the blue line when they sent Ty Smith to Pittsburgh for John Marino. The Devils needed to fix a putrid power play, so they went and got a coach that oversaw one of the league’s very best power plays in Andrew Brunette. The Devils wanted more of an edge, so they brought in Brendan Smith and veterans they went out and got in Palat and Haula were battle-tested and came in exchange for some of the least, uh, edgy players on the roster in Zacha and Smith.
Laid out like that, it’s clear the Devils have been trying to take a varied approach to check off all of the necessary boxes to improve this team. I still have questions about whether they have done enough, particularly in places like goaltending, where Vitek Vanecek comes in plenty of question marks of his own to join in a tandem with the volatile MacKenzie Blackwood. I also remain a bit perturbed that the head coach that oversaw last season’s debacle remains in place, but at least some new assistants (and perhaps a head coach in waiting in Brunette?) should help on that front. I do think the approach of trying to make as many incremental improvements as possible is a defensible one for a team that theoretically has much of its core already in place. Can a deeper and more experienced roster make this team realize some of the potential that has theoretically been bubbling under the surface for years? That remains to be seen, but one player was never going to cure all of the Devils’ ills.
Further to the above point, I want the Devils to continue to stay active through this early stretch of the offseason. Some opportunities to add depth and quality are still out there, and a team that finished with 63 points should continue looking at every single avenue for improvement if the goal is to actually compete for a playoff spot. The need to tidy up their business with their own RFAs, chief among them Jesper Bratt of course, but they should also be pulling as many strings as possible to improve in other ways, too. If they can continue to build on the moves of the past week, perhaps the 2022-23 season could be a different story after all.