clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

FanFirst Friday: Evolving Expectations Edition

No one expected the New Jersey Devils to be doing what they are doing in 2022-2023. Not in our wildest hopes and dreams. Yet here they are. Does that mean our expectations should change? Yes. And no.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Dallas Stars
Thanks to these two beauties, the New Jersey Devils find themselves solidly in a playoff position at the All Star break in 2022-2023.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Devils fans, here we are. We’ve made it to the NHL All Star Break, which, if I’m being honest, is kind of good for my mental health. 10 days without Devils hockey kind of makes me relax ad breathe a little bit. I’m not stressing seemingly every third day that this Cinderella season of the team from New Jersey is about to derail. What can I say, I have some serious PTSD when it comes to the Devils. A decade of incompetence and false hope will tend to do that to you.

At the same time, it’s also a great time to reflect upon what’s happened this year. The Devils are at the All Star break with a 32-13-4 record for 68 points and sit second in the Metropolitan Division, right behind one of the biggest Stanley Cup favorites in the league. The Carolina Hurricanes were a popular choice for armchair and offseason experts to win their second Stanley Cup. And there are our young, plucky Devils right behind them, sandwiched between them and another VERY popular Stanley Cup pick this past offseason, the New York Rangers.

I’m not giving any of these experts a hard time because I felt like my favorite sports team wouldn’t have a chance of being where they are this year. I felt like the team would basically wind up about 8 games above .500 by season’s end and fall just short of making the playoffs. I think that was my prediction on their final record. I also thought the Bruins would stumble, bumble and tumble out of the gate this year and they are currently on pace to have the best regular season in NHL history, so it shows that either A. I know nothing, Jon Snow, or B. The NHL is REALLY unpredictable. Or maybe it’s both?

Regardless, I’ve thought a lot about fandom since I basically wound up creating an entire company based on crazed fandom and obsession. Vox Media exists because I couldn’t get enough coverage of my Oakland Athletics way back in 2003 so I created Athletics Nation. Now the company evolved a lot and changed a lot in the nearly 20 years of existence, but at the core of what I did was creating a place that attempted to channel an unhealthy obsession in a healthy way. In other words, I wanted to share my crazy with a lot of other crazies. I always felt like I wasn’t alone in the universe in terms of how deeply I would fall into an obsessive state and AN cemented that I was very right. Fan is short for fanatic, after all.

And my Devils fandom goes back so many decades that Ronald Reagan was still the president when I became a Devils fan. The Transformers (animated, not that Michael Bay CGI crap) were my favorite TV show (I would later go on to become a part of the Transformers franchise once I left Vox Media). And That’s What Friends are For was the number one hit.

Any way, I’ve been through the cyclical nature of sports with the New Jersey Devils. They were very moribund when I first embrace the horn and tail. Like, really bad. But a guy named Lou Lamoriello wound up making that team that I first fell in love with...the Mickey Mouse franchise...into a powerhouse that won three Stanley Cups. And then the dark years, post-Brodeur years enveloped my soul. It made me realize that greatness, always had to end. The Tom Brady retirement this week is a reminder of that. IF he stays retired.

So I felt like the promise of Jack Hughes becoming an otherworldly Man-God capable of the greatest feats of strength in human history would eventually come, but it would also mean a mid-level team. Especially because of that goaltending. Oh boy that goaltending. Blackwood, Daws, Gillies, Bernier, Hammond, Schmid, Wedgewood. And endlessly painful parade of waving at pucks. Random deflections from teammates. Soft goals that squeezed through holes that never appeared to be there.

Enter Tom Fitzgerald and his merry band of analytics heroes who somehow figured out that a guy that the Washington Capitals decided wasn’t good enough to tend goal for them not only once when he was claimed by the Seattle Kraken, but twice when they sent him to the Devils for a pick swap. Enter The Vitek. The Vitek. So pure. The Vitek. So wholesome. The Vitek. So crazy good. The Vitek. So fun.

Look, love affairs between a new player and teams happen a lot in sports and it’s rare that the player winds up becoming a long-term mainstay for a franchise. So I’m trying to just enjoy this moment while I can after the abysmal season last year. I do believe The Vitek is really good. Just don’t know if he’s going to remain THIS good.

I’m not sure anyone could’ve imagined the first half The Vitek would have. But that’s not all, folks! Dougie Hamilton, after an injury-plagued first year with his new team, will likely shatter all his previous career highs in terms of points and goals this year. And he did this in two games in a row just a short while ago:

He’s four points away from his career high of 50 points when he was with the Flames in 2016-2017 and five goals away from his best goal season with the Canes a few seasons ago.

The Devils version of winning hockey is Hughes, Hamilton, Hischier, Bratt and The Vitek. That’s their ultimate Voltron. And literally ALL of them are currently on pace for career seasons. In Hughes’ case, he’s on pace of all-time franchise seasons.

And fingers crossed that John Marino, a guy that Tom Fitzgerald acquired this past offseason for Ty Smith, will be back to make the Devils defense that much stronger in the near future. Maybe as soon as Monday against the Vancouver Canucks. And the Devils have recent four-goal-in-one-game-as-a-defenseman Luke Hughes joining the team once the college season for Michigan closes.

Simon Nemec is cooking at Utica right now. Alex Holtz hasn’t even cracked the lineup yet on a consistent basis. AND, if you believe the rumor mill, Tom Fitzgerald is going big game hunting in the form of a Mr. Timo Meier.

Devils fans, listen closely, we’ve suffered some dark times this past decade. I never thought this team would be where they are in my wildest dreams, but here we are. On the precipice of completing that never-ending rebuild. I thought playoffs should be the main goal this year. And experience in those playoffs. But to be here, so close, and getting that lottery ticket to enter the playoff scrum rather than the draft pick scrum is so much sweeter. I don’t have to spend days reloading Tankathon until the Devils come up first (yes, that was a real thing that happened, remember: fanatic).

I try hard not to act like the end of the world when the Devils cough up a game like they did against Nashville, both in New Jersey and on the road, but I’m not always rational when it comes to my team. Now that the team is here, seemingly actually GOOD, I want it all. I have to often tell myself that, like Dante from Clerks, we aren’t even supposed to be here today.

Yet since the Devils are, in fact, here, they might as well smash open that window of contention like the Kool Aid man punishing a brick wall and announce their arrival at the party. That’s why I want Fitz to chase Meier and whomever else can make this a long and extended run for the New Jersey Devils. Because the dark times should be in the rear view mirror. For at least a few seasons.

That being said, do you have to pull back your expectations and reset or are you currently of the mind that futures be damned, we live for today? I kind of hope Fitz takes the more measured approach and not that of a crazed fan (I know, redundant) like myself, but we shall find out come Monday. For now, enjoy our Superstar that has gone Supernova this year. Second place this year in Hart Trophy voting, but first in our hearts, Jack Hughes doing Jack Hughes things this weekend. I know I will. And I won’t stress about the outcome. Other than who wins the epic shootout competition. Did anyone invite Jon Hamm? Please say no.

Have a nice All Star Weekend, Devils fans. Enjoy the rarified air up here. It’s been a long, long, LONG time.