The New Jersey Devils have spent the summer improving the team in a variety of ways. Whether it was signing players, trading for them, drafting a talented young defender second overall, or even just investing in the players already here, the Devils have attempted to patch the holes in the ship. Now, whether this has the desired results remains to be seen, as the games still have to be played. Jersey’s Team, however, does face a bit of an uphill climb.
The Devils finished the 2021-22 season with only 63 points, leaving them seventh in the Metropolitan division; the sixth place Columbus Blue Jackets had 81, and they still missed the postseason by 19 points. The Devils could need to improve by as much as 40 points from last season to find themselves in playoff contention, especially as some of the other non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference made moves to improve themselves as well. We could hypothetically see a situation this upcoming season where the Devils improve drastically and it still isn’t good enough to make up the gap.
But would that be best for business so to speak?
An improved Devils team would be a great thing for fans: some proof after two more or less back to back rebuilds would give the supporters of the team some confidence that things are turning around, and the next era of Devils relevance could be upon the franchise. This situation would bode well for players as well; if the Devils are a team that is up and on the rise, this could allow them to potentially lure a free agent or two to get the team across the gap. It could also make re-signing players easier, selling them on the fact that the team is on the cusp of being a true contender for years, and said player(s) will want to be in on this.
Of course the above is all hypothetical, much like any scenario posed today. The Devils could improve by 30 points, still miss the playoffs, and NOT have the above things go right. Maybe fans decide that the improved Devils will just be a middling team, good enough to, at best, make first round exits like they did in 2017-18. Perhaps free agents see the Devils as a good, but not good enough team, opting to sign with teams they view as true contenders instead. Players staying in New Jersey will push for the most money they can get, or will walk elsewhere if they’re not satisfied.
So if the Devils aren’t a playoff team, and being an improved yet middling team could go either way, is it maybe best for the team to just...be bad again this season? Let’s face it, the goaltending situation wasn’t really solved this offseason, barring one or both of Mackenzie Blackwood and Vitek Vanacek figuring things out. If the goaltending is what it was last season, the Devils will not improve by much if at all. However, if things go wrong, could this be a better long term solution? The team would again have a high draft pick, which could be used to finish rounding out the prospect pool. A fresh crop of unrestricted free agent goaltenders would be waiting as well, and perhaps the Devils use some of the cap coming off of the books to invest in a true starter. If some players due for a new contract falter, perhaps signing them to a more team friendly deal becomes easier.
As mentioned earlier, everything is hypothetical here; we could even see the opposite in the above scenario with players asking for more money to sign with a “bottom feeder” like New Jersey. Nothing is set in stone yet, well except for one thing:
The rebuild for the Devils has essentially been ongoing in two phases since the summer of 2013. After losing Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk across a calendar year, a retool was attempted via the acquisition of Cory Schneider, Jaromir Jagr and a variety of other role players. While Jagr impressed during his time here and Schneider played well in his first few years in New Jersey, the wheels fell off the rest of the bus when they were playing well, before injuries caught up with Cory when the team around him was starting to somewhat develop. The Devils, as a result, have had one winning season in the past decade, mostly thanks to Taylor Hall dragging the rest of the team to regular season success in 2017-18. After jettisoning Hall due to his impending UFA status, the Devils entered phase two aka the Jack Hughes phase of the rebuild.
If I had to choose between being a middling team this season, or being a dumpster fire on ice again, I easily choose middling. Maybe the Devils still miss the playoffs and wind up with roughly the 15th overall pick; I’d still rather see Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt have great seasons. I would rather see Dougie Hamilton rebound from a tough 2021-22, and Yegor Sharangovich and Dawson Mercer build on what they’ve previously done. I would rather see John Marino and Jonas Siegenthaler show fans that they’re going to be helping to keep pucks out of the net for roughly the next half decade. I would rather see one of the goaltenders seize the starting job and show the fanbase that they will carry this team back to glory days.
Because I want to see competitive Devils hockey again. Maybe the players need a season or two more of development, or a season or two of current teams aging, and fading from relevance. I want to see the Devils at least winning games; I want to see Devils players attempting to set new team records; I want to see the Devils playing games in March and April that could see them qualify for the playoffs; I want to see them match into said playoffs and bring the Stanley Cup back to New Jersey once more.
I’ve seen both viewpoints online: be bad again for prospects and team development or be good again for the fans and the future. I choose the latter, because I think it will wind up being the more important path for the fans, the future and the prospects/team development.
Do you believe the New Jersey Devils need to be improved in 2022-23 or would you rather see them struggle to set up for a better run in 2023-24 and beyond? Are you of the mindset that an improved team is what’s best for fans and players or not? Do you think this Devils’ core is ready to propel the team to success this season? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!