The Devils season came to a close last Thursday night, and I will admit it was a strange feeling to be sad that no more Devils hockey was on the horizon. In most of the past 11 years, the end of the NHL season has come as a welcome respite from the Devils’ multitudinous failures. A season ago, the relief at being freed from the season-long car wreck that was the 2021-22 Devils was palpable. Just a year later, I’m now left wanting more. The disappearance of the “results/upcoming schedule” bar from the top of the Devils’ website is now a regrettable loss rather than a relief. I want more Devils hockey but, alas, there is none.
It’s true of any elimination game your team loses, but especially when the end arrives in overtime, the feeling is peculiar when a season with promise comes to its abrupt close. At seven minutes and eight seconds into overtime, the Devils were a team on the brink, but a team that could still eventually find the promised land of Cup glory if they found the back of the net and turned the tide in their series with Carolina. When the game hit seven minutes and nine seconds into overtime, the season was at its end, and the only thing left was to shake hands and take stock of the now-concluded 2022-23 season.
It’s certainly a different experience than the typical three-to-four-month long codas for most of the prior decade, where the team was effectively done playing meaningful hockey by New Years Day and had to keep on showing up to play for another 40ish games, regardless. Life as a Devils fan for most of the mid-to-late 2010s and early 2020s was an exercise in looking forward to some distant point in the future. February through April were draft lottery simulator season and to the extent the actual results mattered at all on the ice, it was either hoping that some young player would progress in a way that made him useful for the future or a veteran might play well enough to make himself an attractive trade target for another more successful team.
This afterglow from the 2022-23 season will be unique to this version of the Devils. This was the long-awaited proof-of-concept season for this iteration of the team—the Hischier-Hughes Devils, one might call it. The Devils have been building through the draft for the better part of a decade with this eventual result in mind, but this result was still very much in doubt when we entered the fall of 2022 on the heels of perhaps the worst season in 35 years for the organization. The 2022-23 team was a delight, and was a group that won in a lot of ways, with comebacks, grind-it-out defensive efforts, and absolute demolitions. It had fun players doing fun things a lot of the time. Expectations for this group were “hopefully, they can challenge for a playoff spot,” and they, obviously, blew those expectations out of the water.
This season was a honeymoon of sorts, and while it reached a disappointing ending, as most seasons do, it didn’t take long for the attitude following Game 5 to shift from that momentary disappointment to an undeniable feeling of gratitude. A team that—excepting one season powered by an otherworldly performance from Taylor Hall—had been mired in sub-mediocrity since circa 2014 and hadn’t won a playoff series since 2012 finally made good on the promises of its rebuild. The 2022-23 Devils put together one of the best regular seasons in the history of the franchise and then followed it up with eliminating their more experienced and supposedly playoff-hardened rivals in a seesaw seven-game series that ended with a complete evisceration in game seven. That they next ran into a stouter Hurricanes team that was less inclined to let them off the hook for flushing the first two games of a series meant they would venture no deeper than the second round. The message from the season was clear and was echoed by many Devils players, though: “We’re just getting started.”
Now, a new challenge will await the Hischer-Hughes Devils as they show up to camp in the 2023-24 season: expectations. And not just “hopefully this is the year they don’t suck ass” expectations—real, honest-to-goodness “contender” expectations are likely to start arriving for this team in the fall. The Devils flung their window open this season with a 112-point campaign, but you only really get to say “and our window is just opening!” once. If the Devils find their way to the top-five of the league standings again next spring, the conversations will be different. They won’t be plucky upstarts learning the ropes any longer, they will be a team that needs to capitalize on a core at the height of its powers and its affordability.
One needs to look no further than Toronto, where the Maple Leafs had a nearly identical season to the New Jersey Devils (one fewer point, five-game second-round exit, snapped streak of >10 years without a series win), to see how expectations and the perception of a team’s place within their window can color the attitudes around it. By finally blowing their interminable rebuild to hell this season, the Devils also started a big imaginary countdown clock, deep in the lizard-brain recesses of hockey fandom at large, that invariably ticks down to someday being called “chokers who can’t get the job done.” Of course, that clock can be reset by going on a deep playoff run or largely disabled by winning a Cup, but it turns out that’s the hard part.
So, as we bask in what was undeniably a successful season for the New Jersey Devils in 2022-23, we also acknowledge that success will have a shifting definition as we advance beyond this point. The status quo won’t be “won 27 games total and finished in the bottom five with the dregs of the league” this fall, it will be “finished third in the league standings and won a playoff round,” and the obvious implication of those updated priors will be a higher bar to clear. That’s not even to say that putting up a season similar to this one in 2023-24 would be regarded as a failure, but there would likely be much less unanimous agreement that it constitutes an unequivocal success. Once the Devils raced to the top of the standings locked themselves into a playoff spot in 2022-23, they were more-or-less playing with house money. If, as we all hope will be the case, they find themselves back in the postseason next spring, they will probably have to start reaching into their own pockets.