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FanFirst Friday: Ch-Ch-Changes Edition

Whether we like it or not, change is a part of every offseason. And it’s begun to happen around the Devils.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Florida Panthers at Tampa Bay Lightning
Oh Bruno, how we hate to see you go.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason happened a little faster than any Devils fan wanted it to. One second you’re celebrating the demise of our Hated Rivals and then next, you’re packing your golf clubs and wakeboards for a long summer. As Ferris Bueller once so famously said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once and a while, you might miss it.”

The offseason carousel of change has now begun spinning in full force. And while the Devils aren’t likely to make a lot of changes with regards to their off-the-ice personnel, they did lose Andrew Brunette this week to the Nashville Predators, who named him the fourth head coach in their history.

There were also rumors that some other front office folks for the Devils, namely Kate Madigan, Dan MacKinnon and Meghan Duggan were all interviewed for the front office opening in Pittsburgh. But as of today, the Pens have hired Kyle Dubas as President of Hockey Operations.

As John has repeatedly pointed out, having other teams interested in your executives can only be considered a good thing.

Here’s the thing though. There will likely be a lot of change coming to the Devils team on the ice. More than enough to make up for any lack of changes in the front office or behind the bench. GM Tom Fitzgerald has stated Lindy Ruff will be back as head coach. Devils fans don’t have any of the details on that yet, but Fitz has said it, so it will likely be coming. Ruff kind of tied Fitz’s hands on that one, given the historic improvement of the team from last season to this one.

Though honestly, the Panthers did let Andrew Brunette go after winning the President’s Trophy and then losing in the second round. I get that it’s a safe choice to run it back as is, but what is that saying? Oh yeah, fortune favors the bold. GM Bill Zito was bold to switch coaches and make the bold move for Matthew Tkachuk and now his team is in the Stanley Cup Final.

On the ice, we’ve likely seen the last of a good number of New Jersey Devils. Just talking about unrestricted free agents, the Devils could lose Damon Severson, Ryan Graves, Tomas Tatar, Miles Wood and Erik Haula. Haula was about as clear as someone can be about wanting to come back to New Jersey, but you never know. Severson and Wood have suffered through some of the worst times in Devils history and the team was finally good and now they will both likely take their game elsewhere. No matter how you feel about both of those players, and lots of people do not like Severson or Wood, it’s sad to see guys with a long tenure end while the window is just opening.

In terms of restricted free agents, the most likely to be shopped and shipped elsewhere is goalie Mackenzie Blackwood. You don’t have to be a mind reading after seeing his end of the season discussion:

He talks about opportunity and the lack thereof in New Jersey. And while he’s right about what happened down the stretch when Akira Schmid essentially replaced his spot with the Devils, you also can’t blame the Devils for going with a player who wasn’t constantly injured and playing as inconsistently as MacBlack did (granted the injuries and inconsistent playing time probably contributed to that status, but it is what it is at this point). I still think MacBlack could be a legitimate number one goalie for a team. It was a long time ago now, but his first two seasons of NHL action, he posted a .918 and .915 save percentage. He also made one of the craziest saves I’ve ever seen. Possibly the best I’ve ever seen.

It would not surprise me at all to see MacBlack traded and become an absolute stud in a Los Angeles Kings or Winnipeg Jets or Ottawa Senators uniform. He’s always had the talent, it was just a matter of whether his body would cooperate or not. Thus far during his Devils tenure, it has not. That doesn’t mean that it won’t be better somewhere else.

The other RFA that would not surprise me if he’s moved would be Yegor Sharangovich. Part of the reason is he has a $2.05 million qualifying offer. And if the Devils are to re-sign Timo Meier and Jesper Bratt, they might need cost savings elsewhere. Now, that might not make a lot of sense since the team would be selling low on Sharangovich. Shara has become a fan favorite in New Jersey because of his wicked shot, his humble and stellar cellys (the simple joy of holding the stick up high like that is beautifully understated) and his adorable personality (sealing it with Santagovich). Shara can be an effective penalty killer but has yet to produce much when he isn’t with Jack Hughes. My belief is that he needs to learn to shoot the puck more frequently as he has an absolute bomb. But having a missile of a shot and not using it is very problematic. And Shara seems like he would be easily replaceable by some of the talent knocking at the door of the NHL team from Utica, whether that’s Nolan Foote, Graeme Clarke or Alexander Holtz, it would appear like a couple of them could be ready for promotion. One darkhorse here, who could be a similar player to Shara would be Josh Filmon. Filmon filled the nets this year with the Swift Current Broncos to the tune of 47 goals in 64 games. He profiles somewhat similarly to Shara, though his lack of size is a concern (he allegedly was 6’1” and only 159 pounds) and he needs to bulk up quite a bit so he doesn’t get destroyed in the pros. But he’s got a wicked and accurate shot. Regardless, my love for Filmon knows no bounds. Do I think he leap frogs those others? Probably not. But one can dream. And maybe the Devils feel like Sharangovich isn’t worth moving on from right now given his very low stock.

The rest of the RFAs are Bratt, Meier, Jesper Boqvist, Nathan Bastian, Michael McLeod and Kevin Bahl. I would anticipate the team bringing all of them back, though with Meier and Bratt, the number they’re asking for could impact a decision there. If Bratt is asking for $10 million a season and Meier is asking for $11 million a season, perhaps you need to ship one of them out. I would hope that Fitz doesn’t do it because I think both of them can be core pieces to the next great Devils team, but Devils fans have no idea what the agents are putting in front of Fitz.

I would anticipate Bahl, Boqvist, Bastian and McLeod all back. Bastian and McLeod will likely be two thirds of a fourth line next season along with affordable Curtis Lazar, who gives you consistent efforts nights in and nights out. Bahl finally took big steps forward this year in proving that he will probably lessen the sting of losing Ryan Graves in unrestricted free agency. And Boqvist fits the Devils scheme very well as someone who is very fast and can make plays at speed. The issue with Boqvist is consistency. He tends to have a stretch of five stellar games where maybe he records a point or two and then disappear for the next five games. It’s time he become consistent. And the team likely feels the same way about him as he became a regular scratch as the playoffs wore on. He wound up appearing in six games and had zero points.

One thing is for sure. Next October, when the puck drops on the 2023-2024 season, the New Jersey Devils will be different than the franchise-record setting 112-point team of 2022-2023. Possibly VERY different. The Devils defense of this year was a stellar group that was able to thrive, in part, because a seasoned veteran like Damon Severson was able to feast on matchups as a third pairing defenseman. There’s a possibility that the six defensemen that start 2023-2024 feature Kevin Bahl, Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec as opposed to Ryan Graves, Damon Severson and Brendan Smith. Bahl’s maximum amount of regular season NHL games he’s played thus far is 42. Luke Hughes has maxed at 41 games at Michigan and only played a few for the Devils. And Nemec has yet to play in the NHL. And while Nemec and Hughes are two of the very best prospects in the game, Nemec will be 19 and Luke will be 20 when the puck drops on the next season. Bahl will be 23. For a team that will have monstrous expectations in 23-24, that’s HALF of a defense corps that will essentially be babies at the NHL level.

Remember the other aspect to this is that Mackenzie Blackwood will likely be jettisoned this offseason and unless the team trades for a proven stud like Connor Hellebuyck or Juuse Saros, the goaltending will also feature a very young and unproven Akira Schmid and an inconsistent during the latter half of the year Vitek Vanecek behind an extremely young and unproven defense. Maybe Fitzgerald and the Devils brass expect growing pains during the regular season and are willing to allow it to happen? But as a fanbase that’s suddenly gotten a taste of being a top team during the NHL regular season, would sputtering about and struggling out of the gate be acceptable? My guess would be no for the fans that were chanting fire Lindy during the home opener last season.

Regardless, changes are coming. Possibly very significant ones. Fitz carefully planned for this day by picking super stud prospects like Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec. As fans, we just have to hope they are as ready as they appear to be because the defense could experience massive growing pains on the blueline in 23-24. Up front, a full season and training camp with Timo Meier should allow him to better acclimate to the Devils system and develop chemistry with a more regular center than the revolving door that Lindy used at the end of the year. Maybe a full year of Timo might counterbalance the changes on the back end. Maybe Graeme Clarke or Alex Holtz prove to be a missing piece up front and help alleviate any other kinds of losses to the roster. Maybe a healthy full year from Ondrej Palat where he doesn’t have to have his groin surgically repaired mid-year helps him be more of an impact guy that fans expected when he was signed to a big-ticket deal last offseason.

Changes are a big part of every offseason and Fitz has done well to add good pieces at the right time. His under-the-radar trade for John Marino last offseason was a HUGE part of why the Devils did what they did in 22-23. Getting Vitek Vanecek also gave the Devils something they haven’t had for quite some time. Stable goaltending for about 3/4s of the season. While bringing back Ruff probably wouldn’t have been my choice, I see why the team was kind of painted into a corner with it and why they wound up losing Andrew Brunette to another opportunity. I just feel like eventually a coach loses the room. Every coach loses every room. It’s inevitable. As Devils fans, let’s just hope that with Lindy, it doesn’t happen this season.

On a more personal note, while change is exciting and keeps the offseason interesting, I am worried that the team could take a step back because of the young defense. Not to mention, I do get sad when players like Mackenzie Blackwood don’t reach the expectations that I personally have for them when they join the organization. At one point, MacBlack appeared like someone who could be an answer to the who replaces MB30 for the long-term. MB29 is the answer. But the injuries, the inconsistency and all of it sours a fan-player relationship where you’re just ready to let him go have that success elsewhere (Pavel Zacha, anyone?). Still, I can’t help but be sad for feeling like that chapter of hope came, went and is now leaving.

Regardless, what big changes do you anticipate in 23-24? Do you think the Devils run with half of their defense being unproven commodities or is the pressure of winning next season going to force Fitz to find a different solution? Maybe he even re-signs Severson or Graves? The show off the ice this offseason is going to be entertaining as hell. Buckle up.