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FanFirst Friday: I’m Back, Baby! Edition

Lots has happened since I took off for Mexico with my family and my kids had to learn the hard lesson of constant change in professional sports.

NHL: Calgary Flames at Vancouver Canucks
Hope to see Toffoli doing this all year long.
Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

I went to Mexico with my family for two weeks. We visited Mexico City, which was absolutely spectacular, spent several nights in the city of Zacatecas and then went to a small Mexican village called San Pedro Piedra Gorda which is where my father in law grew up. The food was amazing, the people were friendly and they even put up with my family yelling and screaming in celebration when we found out that Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald had traded a pick and Yegor Sharangovich for Tyler Toffoli.

Boy, the team has changed since I left. Damon Severson? See ya. Off to Columbus. Ryan Graves? Let fly to the Steel City. Miles Wood? You’re spending the next six (6!!!) years not eating carbs with Nathan MacKinnon. Yegor Sharangovich? Off to the Calgary Western front. Jesper Boqvist and Reilly Walsh? Go have fun with Pavel Zacha in Beantown.

Is that it? Probably, though no word on Tomas Tatar yet, which seems strange since he was such a very good regular season player for the Devils last season.

My poor daughter isn’t having a great time this offseason, even though the Devils definitely appear to have solidified their top nine forward group to be one of the best in the NHL on paper. Obviously the key is on paper. How things play out on the ice can sometimes betray those paper lineups? Yegor was one of my daughter’s faves. And Tatar threw her a puck last year in Anaheim. My son also worships Ryan Graves as he was his first favorite Devil. This is how my daughter reacted to Sharangovich being dealt:

Now part of the reaction was for comedic effect. But she’s also sad that the purity and sweetness of Yegor has moved on. No more moments like this any more. And yes, Toffoli is a significant upgrade over Sharangovich. He should make the Devils top two lines more complete than they have been in a very, very long time.

My son has a signed puck from Ryan Graves that I arranged for him to receive in his seat at the Prudential Center. Fun fact: It was during the infamous Toronto game this year so he was beaming ear to ear while beer was flying past our heads onto the ice.

So the lesson learned for my young kids is that attachment to players in sports can be a dangerous thing. I learned this lesson at a young age. My first favorite hockey team when I was about 7 or 8 was the Hartford Whalers. I tended goal and I loved Mike Liut, who happened to be the Whalers goalie at the time. He eventually was jettisoned and I moved teams because I couldn’t believe they could do that to someone I liked. I picked the Devils originally because of their cool Christmas colors and how they looked in person. But then 1988 came around and Sean Burke arrived on the scene to carry the unheralded Devils to the playoffs for the first time in their history. I loved his style. I loved his mask and I loved his combative attitude.

The 1988 run secured my Devils fandom forever. I’d never experienced sports excitement like this before and I assumed Burke would lead the Devils to the promised land sooner or later. Then on August 29, 1992, Lou Lamoriello dealt Burke to the Hartford Whalers for Bobby Holik and a pick that would turn into Jay Pandolfo. It was at that point in my life when I had to decide if I was going to follow player or the team. Would I renounce my Devils fandom and go backwards to the Whalers or just continue on? Since I’m writing here, you can figure out which I chose. I realized that, as my friend Billy Beane who runs the Oakland Athletics told me many times, that you almost have to root for laundry (especially with the budget constraints that team had). Otherwise you’d be switching teams every season. And that just wasn’t doable for me.

My kids are kind of learning that same lesson now. As an aside, I still was rooting for Burkie in his other locations. And this year, almost 35 years to the day after he nearly led the Devils to a Stanley Cup Final appearance, Burke got his name on the Stanley Cup as goalie coach of the Vegas Golden Knights.

So while my kids mourn the losses of Graves, Tatar and Shara, I’m excited to watch Tyler Toffoli improve our offense, especially on the power play. Opening up that spot on defense by letting go of Severson and Graves for at least Luke Hughes should be exciting for Devils fandom. Hughes can do things offensively that Ryan Graves has even imagined. And it isn’t like the Devils are losing a physical force in Graves. Guy is monstrously huge but doesn’t really take the body other than using it to angle opposition players defensively.

Severson is more interesting because he feasted on being a third pairing defenseman last season. We all know about his tendency to commit a turnover at the worst time, but he probably has one of the best long-bomb pass abilities in the NHL. And playing him on the third pairing made the Devils team a formidable matchup for whomever they faced that night.

That’s where the Colin Miller deal makes sense. James Nichols wrote an article citing Lindy Ruff as saying that the defense can’t get too young too quickly. And he’s not wrong. I said something similar a while back in this very space about it being possible that while the Devils set a franchise record for wins last year, plugging in two rookies to make up one third of your defense corps could be asking for a step back. Nichols says:

I believe that’s what has led to so many people focusing so much on the Devils goaltending situation. It becomes much easier to insert two rookie defensemen back there if, say, Connor Hellebuyck is sitting back there dealing with whatever mistakes they happen to make.

Regardless, the summer of changes and the summer of Fitz have been a net positive in my opinion. But what would make this summer go from a double to a home run would be addressing that goaltending. I believe in Akira Schmid and do think he’s going to be special. The problem is that the roster Fitz has assembled could win a Stanley Cup. And do you want to believe that it’s going to happen with two rookies and an unproven goalie in net? I would love to believe it. But that’s a lot of chance and change all at once.

This summer my kids have learned about losing favorite players and continuing on. I’ve been through it many times in my Devils fandom. Scott Niedermayer. Zach Parise. It’s a rite of passage. The question is whether the team on the ice will live up to the precedent set by those favorites from before?

And for that answer, it’ll be a long wait. Though not as long as Burke had to wait to hoist that Cup.