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The Devils Need to Shed Their Reputation for Disappointment This Season

The Devils have been subverting expectations (in a bad way) for long enough that even the previews that have them outside the bottom ten have trouble believing themselves. As the preseason opens tonight, the Devils will get to work on ridding themselves of the label “perennial underachiever.”

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NHL: MAR 26 Devils at Capitals Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Devils open the preseason tonight against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Even if it is just an exhibition and it is, aggravatingly, only being broadcast on the Devils app if you are in-market, it is real, honest-to-goodness NHL hockey and it will be happening this evening. The open of the season has been a time of hope these past several years for Devils fans, thinking that maybe, just maybe, this time around things will be different. On paper, this team has frequently rated out as a potential challenger for a playoff spot.

In reality, they have not finished higher than 25th in the overall league standings since 2018. Over the last four seasons, only the Detroit Red Wings have fewer standings points (not including Seattle, who has only existed for one of those seasons). In short, despite frequently getting some hype coming into the season, these Devils have been a rough watch on the ice.

The Devils have now taken ownership of a bit of an unfortunate reputation here in 2022. They are a team that, based on splashy offseasons and rosters that show up as half-decent in most analytics models, has been a popular pick to make some noise in the playoff race or at least hang in the vicinity of the playoff bubble these past few years. They have responded to (honestly quite modest) expectations each of these years with a parade of largely unmitigated disasters. Even the people who predict relatively good things for the Devils lack much confidence in that assessment at this point. The last time the Devils had any realistic hope of reaching the playoffs at even the midpoint of the season, Taylor Hall was a franchise cornerstone in the middle of an MVP campaign. Hall now feels like ancient Devils history, two teams removed from his time here playing a bit part on an aging Bruins team. The Devils, despite reasonably elevated expectations in 2021-22, were effectively dead in the water by mid-December.

The thing about the NHL, though, is that droughts don’t last forever, and things can turn quickly. Many teams have gone through eras filled with horrors much worse than we’ve seen in New Jersey and, eventually, even if by accident or through blind luck, a competitive team materializes. Hockey is a game where teams are frequently not as bad (or not as good) as they look on the ice or in the standings. The hope is that the Devils have been victims of bad breaks and bad timing befalling them the past few years to lead to such rotten results.

What fans are asking for from the Devils in particular should not be an impossible bar to clear. No one is saying the Devils need to be Cup contenders at this very moment. They don’t even necessarily need to make the playoffs to be considered a success. They just have to be competitive enough to make everyone think the playoffs are a realistic possibility somewhere beyond the 35th game of the season.

So as the new season dawns and the Devils play a real NHL hockey team tonight for the first time since April, my plea to them is to not live up to their recently acquired reputation of relentless disappointment. I reiterate that I’m not asking for a lot here. Hell, clearing the low bar of NHL .500 might be enough for me to call the season a relative success. There is enough talent on this roster to keep games interesting beyond New Year’s Day. Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Dougie Hamilton, Jesper Bratt, these players, plus what seems like a pretty solid supporting cast, should be enough to keep things at least competitive. The goaltending remains a bit of an issue, but even just normal bad goaltending instead of an absolute goaltending catastrophe should be sufficient to keep the Devils in games.

Make us believers, again. Bring back fun hockey in New Jersey this season and live up to the mild expectations that have been bestowed upon you, Devils. Good luck, we’re all counting on you.