The 2022-23 season for the New Jersey Devils has come to an end. While it didn’t end the way many Devils fans would’ve wanted with them hoisting the Stanley Cup, its tough to argue that the season wasn’t an overwhelming success. The Devils announced to the hockey world that they were to be taken seriously going forward. With 52 wins, 112 points, and a Game 7 win over their biggest rivals in the first round of the playoffs, who can argue with that? The hockey world has taken notice.
Jack Hughes won’t be a Hart Trophy finalist as those have already been announced, but he’ll get Hart votes for the first time as he solidified his status as an NHL superstar in Year 4. Nico Hischier earned a Selke Trophy nomination for the first time and grew as the captain of this team. Dougie Hamilton had a career season offensively, Jesper Bratt matched his career-best mark in points while playing all 82 games, and the sky is the limit for Dawson Mercer and Luke Hughes, just to name a few names.
Those players earned, or are about to earn, those accolades. Deservedly so, as their contributions were very important over the course of the season. But I think its important to take a few minutes now that the dust has settled on the 2022-23 campaign to recognize some of the less-heralded players on the Devils roster. Part of what made this year’s Devils team special was the contributions that they got at various points this season for every last person on the roster. We should give credit to those players that we don’t talk about as much as they played vital roles this season.
Without further adieu, let’s take a moment to acknowledge some of the unheralded heroes from this year’s team, give credit where it’s due, and show some appreciation.
When the Devils traded Pavel Zacha to the Bruins for Erik Haula, it wasn’t widely praised as a no-doubter good move for the Devils, as they flipped a former top draft pick for a 31 year old center/winger entering the walk year of his contract. It also didn’t help matters that for much of the first half of the season, Haula suffered some rotten shooting luck and missed on a bunch of Grade A chances that Hughes set him up for. The Finnish forward had a measly 2 goals over his first 42 games of the season, shooting a paltry 2.6%, and at times drew the ire of the fanbase for not delivering the role he was asked to fill.
Fortunately, Haula enjoyed some positive regression in the second half of the season with 12 goals over the final 38 contests while bouncing back and forth between Jack Hughes’s wing and centering the Devils third line. Haula enjoyed some of the best marks of his career in expected goals and looked like a perfect fit in Lindy Ruff’s system.
Haula continued that strong play with 4 goals and 2 assists over the seven-game series vs. the Rangers and was a big part of the reason why the Devils survived and advanced.
It’s not just the goals though, as it is also the little things Haula consistently did throughout the course of the season with his two-way play, winning races to pucks, penalty killing, and faceoff acumen. It’s not luck or a coincidence that a player like Haula finds himself in the playoffs seemingly every year. It’s a testament to the unheralded work that he puts in, something which Hughes recognized.
“I’m a huge Erik Haula fan.” - #NJDevils Jack Hughes.— Kristy Flannery (@InStilettos_NHL) May 13, 2023
A year later, both teams can come out of that aforementioned deal declaring themselves winners. Zacha enjoyed the change of scenery, as well as a career season in Boston while Haula had one of his best professional seasons this past year in New Jersey. And while Haula’s return to New Jersey isn’t locked in quite yet, there’s a good chance we might see more of #56 in Jersey for the next couple years. Haula has certainly made his feelings on the matter known, and I would guess the feeling is somewhat mutual from a Devils perspective. Unless something goes horribly wrong in the negotiations, this should be one of the easiest contracts Fitzgerald has ever had to negotiate in his time as general manager.
Erik Haula: “I don’t want to play for any other team. I want to come back here.”#NJDevils— Ryan Novozinsky (@ryannovo62) May 13, 2023
McLeod, the 2016 12th overall pick, has never quite lived up to his lofty draft status in his five NHL season, but has carved out a role for himself as the center of the line known as BMW and a specialist who can be called upon in certain situations in-game. He’s a trusted penalty killer, defensive specialist, and one of the better faceoff men in the league, which can certainly come in handy in specific late-game situations where you have to win a draw in the defensive zone.
McLeod’s speed and skating was a big part of the reason the Devils beat the Rangers, as he consistently won races to loose pucks. He also showed incredible patience on his series-clinching goal in Game 7, the biggest goal of his professional career to date.
McLeod is also one of the few Devils forwards who consistently played well during the Carolina series, with a goal and three assists in 5 games. He did this again, in part, because of his skating ability and the fact that at a time when a lot of guys didn’t have their legs, he did.
I wouldn’t go crazy and suggest that McLeod has another level to gain offensively or some remaining untapped potential where he should be playing higher in the lineup. Generally speaking, McLeod has gotten exposed as a limited player every time he’s been asked to play higher in the lineup. But I do think he held his own in short spurts where he centered the third line with Timo Meier and Tomas Tatar. He’s becoming an integral piece of what the Devils are trying to build moving forward. You need quality options up and down the lineup and McLeod is becoming one of the trusted veterans that Lindy Ruff can count on.
I’ve never been the biggest fan of McLeod or the BMW line in general, as I feel their contributions as a whole have been overrated. I view Miles Wood and Nate Bastian as replacement-level wingers at best, and probably two players who the Devils should try to upgrade from if they rethink what they want their fourth line to be. But I also didn’t think much of McLeod’s game prior to these playoffs either and felt he elevated his game to a level we haven’t quite seen before.
We’ll get into the UFA/RFA breakdowns of each player on the roster over the next few weeks, but I do want to point out that the Devils center depth as an organization is pretty shallow. McLeod differs from Haula in that he’s an RFA and Haula is unrestricted, but like Haula, McLeod would not be an easy player to replace as the Devils lack quality internal options at center. There’s not much at Utica or overseas that can step in and play tough NHL minutes when next season begins. That’s not a reason to just hand McLeod a blank check, but we’re talking about a 4th line center who does have value with what he does do well. While I generally don’t believe in giving fourth liners money or term, I think the Devils would be smart to get McLeod locked in for the next few seasons at a fair rate.
In his first full NHL season, Kevin Bahl went from a player who could barely beat out Nikita Okhotiuk and Brendan Smith for playing time to a player that maybe should be talked about more as a guy who should be considered part of the future moving forward, as I mentioned in the end of season awards.
Bahl, who came to New Jersey as part of the Taylor Hall trade to Arizona, got more comfortable as the season went along and ramped up the physicality in the playoffs, much to the delight of fans who look at his massive frame and want to see him use that size and reach effectively. Developing defensemen at the NHL level is not easy, but Bahl made strides in his defensive game as he got more comfortable in Ruff’s system. Bahl still only has 77 games worth of NHL experience (regular season and playoffs), so he’s not quite a finished product yet either. He might not have the upside of being a top-pairing defensive defenseman, but he is capable of being a good option in the middle or bottom pairing.
Bahl gradually lost playing time as the Carolina series dragged on and the Devils worked Luke Hughes into the mix, but I think with Ryan Graves and Damon Severson likely departing in free agency, Bahl should be in the mix to be one of the Devils six defensemen on Opening Night 2023. Hamilton, John Marino, and Jonas Siegenthaler should all be back next year, Brendan Smith is under contract for another year, and Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec will be pushing for a spot. Bahl showed enough where he should be an option and the Devils might not need to run out and acquire a veteran defenseman this summer.
I wanted to take a few moments this week to acknowledge a few of the unheralded players on the Devils. I don’t think anyone would mistake Haula, McLeod, or Bahl as being core guys or indispensable moving forward, but they were three players who impressed me in some of the biggest games of the season. The Devils will need those types of players to give them something further down in the lineup as they hope to take the next step, and I expect them all to be back next season.
That’s how I see things. Perhaps you see them differently or have some other unheralded guys who you think deserve some love. Please feel free to leave a comment below and thanks for reading.