I’m writing this FFF this week early because I’m actually hopping on a plane and heading to New York this week. As a matter of fact, when you first read this, I will likely be somewhere over Ohio or so (Hi, Johnny Gaudreau, you wish you made a different choice right now?). I’m going to not one, but two Devils games this upcoming week. My daughter is touring a college in NY so we figured we would make it a family trip. But I’m proactively writing this piece in many ways for my own mental health.
I’ve been going back and forth with myself this season on the Devils’ potential. The roster, the record, the goal differential...it all says that this season the team can win a Stanley Cup if they get into the playoffs. I’m not going to go over it all as Jared did a great job summarizing it all here. But needless to say, this team has been good, is good now and it has a chance to do something great once the puck is dropped on the postseason.
It’s partially one of the reasons I pushed hard for Tom Fitzgerald to acquire Timo Meier. Timo hasn’t put up a ton of numbers yet with the Devils, but his advanced numbers are VERY good. In fact, he’s been better in New Jersey than in San Jose so far (small sample size, etc.). I watched him a lot in San Jose, and I don’t see that much difference in his game. He’s hitting and creating chances and often times, he’s been one of the better forwards on the ice in Devils games. That being said, I wanted him because I felt like the Devils could extend him and he could be a part of the solution for the franchise for eight years beyond this one. Now that hasn’t gotten done yet, but I’m hopeful that it will. I don’t think Fitz makes a move like this without every intention of getting something long-term done.
And that’s the point of everything I’m writing today that because no matter what happens once April 17 arrives and the postseason puck is dropped for the Devils, this season has been a success. Though the way the roster has been constructed, it might be two steps forward, one step back for the next season or two.
See, for as much hate as I see Damon Severson get online, and he gets a lot, this is likely his last hurrah with the Devils. The same might be said for Ryan Graves. Both are unrestricted free agents at the end of the postseason run with the Devils. Whether that goes four games or a whole lot more (even 16 wins worth). So a third of the Devils defense might undergo a transformation this summer. While it would be great to assume that Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes are going to be stellar stepping right in and eating minutes against NHL competition, defense in the NHL is really hard...maybe never as hard as it is these days with all the rules against anything to slow offenses down. And while I honestly expect the net effect of replacing Severson and Graves with Nemec and Luke Hughes will be an upgrade, it might not be for the first season or two. But the Devils kind of have to make the move to let at least one and probably both go with the salary cap seemingly stagnant (though there are rumors it might be bumped a bit more this offseason) and the need to get some entry level deals to make it so the team can re-sign Jesper Bratt and possibly Timo Meier. And I think that Timo will only get better and better after this year. You can read so many stories of players who have struggled to adapt to a new team after the trade deadline. Heck, Tom Fitzgerald himself mentioned in multiple interviews, including the one with myself and AaTJ, that having been traded before at the deadline, it can be really hard for players to fully adapt until the following season once training camp happens and they really get to know an area without the grind of a hockey season impacting them. Keep that in mind since people are expecting Timo Time to be the monster we all know he’s capable of being.
The thing I’ve been telling myself especially as the playoffs approach is that this is only going up from here. Yes, I know that’s possibly presumptuous, especially with coaching and the health and development of young players. It’s not a sure thing by any means. But I never expected the team to be here already. I predicted a marked improvement on last season, but I still had the team finishing with 89 points and just short of one of the wild card spots. And they’re 11 better than that with another eight games left (depending on what happens against the Rangers). So while it’s awesome and most unexpected, the team is here ahead of schedule. The best version of this team is still to come, I believe. Not only will Nemec and Hughes eventually be fantastic on the blue line, but Akira Schmid has shown glimpses this year of what he can be. If he’s the long-term answer as a stud goalie, New Jersey can potentially be running for Cups for a decade with this core of players.
But ultimately that core isn’t what it is now, so getting guys like Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt and Dawson Mercer playoff experience is going to carry this team to that next level. You can run out every hockey cliche about the playoffs. “It’s harder.” “It’s more physical.” “Every mistake is amplified.” All of those things, whether they are ultimately true or not, will be something that Hischier, Hughes, Bratt and Mercer will get to experience for the first time (Hischier number two, granted, but a refresher course is due). I do believe that this team can win if they don’t get caught up in the pressure of the moment. If their goaltending shows it wasn’t just regular season good. If the defensive lapses that have crept into their game lately don’t repeat.
As for hockey cliches, there’s one that I fully embrace and that’s goaltending is the single-most important aspect to a team in the playoffs. I used to believe you can’t win a Stanley Cup with average to below average goaltending. Colorado was so good last year that they kind of proved me wrong on that one, but I do believe that in most seasons, you win because of your goaltending, not in spite of it. Whether or not Vitek Vanecek is the answer in the playoffs this season remains to be seen. Washington fans will tell you that The Vitek struggled mightily in last year’s playoffs. It was the impetus for that team jettisoning both VV and Ilya Samsonov in favorite of a 5-year-contract for Stanley Cup Champion Darcy Kuemper.
Tom Fitzgerald will also have to make decisions on other unrestricted free agents like Tomas Tatar, Erik Haula and Miles Wood. If he can bring back Tatar and Haula for team-friendly shorter term deals, then I would do it. But honestly, the system might have enough players ready to take those spots. Nolan Foote could take Miles Wood’s spot. Maybe the Devils see how Alex Holtz can progress in a top six role in training camp? Or Graeme Clarke?
But possibly the biggest decision of all will be who will lead this Devils team to their next generation of glory? Will Lindy Ruff be the guy for the next few years? Will Andrew Brunette? Or someone else? That probably remains to be determined, based on how the team does in the postseason. If the team continues to have a lot of the defensive lapses in the postseason that they’ve had coming down the stretch, it’s likely Ruff’s team is turned over to someone new.
Finally two more things about the postseason. 1. I’m truly just happy the team got here, but I know that rational response will go out the window once the postseason starts and I’ll be yelling and screaming and acting like a maniac. Emotional will conquer my rationale really quickly. 2. I honestly hate that the Devils will likely draw the Rangers in the first round and the only thing I want out of the season would be for the young team from the “wrong side of the river” as legendary dolt Shane O’Brien put it, wins out. I know, I know, the Devils aren’t supposed to be here and we should just be happy that they reached the playoffs, but it would make this year a rousing success if they can somehow send the New Yorkers packing. One can dream.
By the way, I’m going to both the Pittsburgh Penguins game and the Blue Jackets game at the Rock next week. Both my kids will be with me at the Penguins game, but my entire family joins for the Blue Jackets game. If you want to meet at some point before the game, or even during it, hit me up on Twitter DMs @papiblez or comment here. These will be my last live games for what has been a remarkable Devils season. It’s been so much fun to love hockey this much once again.