In sports, a team’s “window” refers to their status as being a championship contender. Nothing lasts forever, but teams do try to extend their time to compete for a championship. When it closes, a re-build often follows. Hockey may be chaotic enough that the best teams on paper often do not even get to the Stanley Cup Finals, but some teams are more legitimate threats to win it all than others. After an amazing 2022-23 season, I am pleased and proud to write that the New Jersey Devils now have their window open. They are currently contenders.
For at least through 2027 with the current roster. One that I am going to call The 2027 Window Crew.
Why? Look at the roster at CapFriendly and you will see that the 2027 offseason will be the next one where there could be a major roster upheaval. Consider the following:
The Devils’ top six forwards for this upcoming season will be some combination of The Big Deal, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Timo Meier, and Dawson Mercer with a competition of sorts for the sixth spot (I am penciling in Tyler Toffoli). Four of those six are signed long-term and Hischier’s contract will expire in 2027. Hischier will be an UFA in 2027. The captain is on pace to be the team’s most important internal free agent that is not on an entry level contract right now.
By the 2027 Summer, Hughes will have two seasons left on his current contract and Bratt & Meier will have three seasons left. Depending on what Mercer’s next contract could be, he could be close to free agency by then too (I believe his first offseason he could be an UFA is in 2028.) While I do not see him as a top-six forward, Ondrej Palat’s contract ends in 2027 too.
The Devils’ blueline is currently led by Dougie Hamilton, John Marino, and Jonas Siegenthaler. In 2027, Marino’s contract will end while Hamilton and Siegenthaler will enter the final seasons of their respective contracts. Given how teams have opened up this year to trade players with a season left on their deal - like Tyler Toffoli - the Devils would need to be prepared for the future of those two defensemen.
In other words, all of the long-term deals that are on the books will begin expiring or getting close to it in 2027. This is the window for the Devils as we know them today since it is unknown what their futures will hold by then. If you look at the 2022-23 Devils and think, “I think this is a championship quality team” then look for them to Go For It for the next four years as they are now.
This is also why I think some of the People Who Matter are hoping for General Manager Tom Fitzgerald to find a “big name” goaltender. Vitek Vanecek is not signed long-term and last season’s playoff did him no favors in the eyes of the People Who Matter. While Akira Schmid was a hero and performed admirably, he is a 23-year goaltender with limited experience. It is unclear if he is a long-term answer in the net. This crucial position is the only one with a real question mark. The concern is that it could keep The 2027 Window Crew from getting anything within the next four seasons. As they are now, that window is the next four seasons. Why not swing big for a goaltender to carry them to where we want them to be? I have different thoughts on that, but I get it.
Of course, that’s the rub: as they are now. GM Tom Fitzgerald can (and should!) expand this window beyond 2027 with some developments that could happen as soon as this next season.
Expanding the Window Beyond 2027
There are four Devils that could show up and prove they are long-term contributors to the team in the upcoming 2023-24 season. Based on how they are signed and how they perform, they can effectively push this window beyond 2027. I would argue one of them already proved that they can be a part of that answer: Mercer. It is why I think he should be signed long-term, securing an already effective and productive forward group for the rest of this decade. I already mentioned Schmid and this upcoming season is going to be rather crucial for his own career and what the Devils do in their net.
The other two are exactly who you would expect: Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec. Luke Hughes made his NHL debut near the end of the last season, scored one of the most brilliant season-ending goals you ever will see, and not only appeared in three playoff games but saw his ice time rise from 14:28 to 18:16 to 25:02 in those three games. Luke Hughes is going to be a stud and he has only just begun. Nemec spent all of last season in Utica and produced at a very high rate for a 19-year old in the AHL. While Nemec may have more to do in camp to earn a spot in New Jersey in 2023-24, I do not think it he will remain a Comet for much longer. My feeling is that they are both going to be Devils real soon, if not on opening night in October. The Devils signed-and-traded Damon Severson away and let Ryan Graves walk and their only transaction on defense was to trade for Colin Miller, who has one season left on his deal. I think they would have done more if management truly did not think either was really ready.
Their growth in their ELC years could very well be the natural answers for who leads the defense beyond 2027. It is not like John Marino will be useless at age 30 or Dougie Hamilton cannot contribute at age 34. But should Hughes and Nemec ascend as I think they will, then they will lead the Devils blueline and the window of contention can be pushed out further. It also increases flexibility as to what Fitzgerald (or the next GM) does to the defense in 2027.
This is based on the current pool. It is possible that the Devils unearth quality players in future drafts. Even if they only fill in gaps in the lineup, it will likely be cheaper than finding those players in the open market or trading them. Plus, they can be developed to play how the Devils want to play more directly.
The Devils can also extend their window by being smart in who they try to retain. Short of a fractured relationship with the team, Nico Hischier should absolutely be kept beyond 2027 the moment it becomes possible to do so. He may command more money than his $7.25 million cap hit, but that would be fair by what he has done from last season and onward. Even if they take lesser roles, Siegenthaler and Marino could be kept further when their respective deals end depending on how much they are willing to take. It is not as if the pending UFAs in 2027 or 2028 or 2030 or 2031 all have to walk. Of course, the Devils would need to pay the players and have enough success to sell the player that they can still win it all - or do it again.
The Factors in Favor of New Jersey Pushing It Out Beyond 2027
It will not be easy but the Devils do have plenty of factors in their favor. For one, the Devils are currently young. So much so that keeping these players may truly be the smart move when it happens. When Hischier’s deal ends, he will be 28. Hughes will be 29 after his current contract ends. Marino will be 30 and Sigenthaler will be 31 at their respective deals. Palat and Hamilton are the only ones signed for the next four or more seasons that will be well into their mid-30s when their current contracts end. This makes it easier for some decisions to be made; it is unlikely that the players will be shells of their former selves when it comes time to sign a new deal. This is to say nothing of Mercer, Luke Hughes, and Nemec among other future prospects.
For another, the salary cap could very well rise quite a bit over the next four seasons. This would help in keeping Mercer, Luke Hughes, and Nemec paid well enough to keep them happy. This would also help the Devils make other transactions to improve the roster outside of their core. When it comes time to extensions, provided Fitzgerald (or a future GM) does not overspend on the middle or the bottom end of the roster, the money should be there for it.
For a third point, I am admittedly using a very broad definition of core. Other teams, like Pittsburgh and Washington as local examples, have limited it to just three or four players. You could argue that the Devils’ actual core is currently Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, Meier, and Hamilton. Or, four of the team’s top forwards and their top defenseman. This designation matters as it opens up what the Devils could do should they need to shake things up or move on from someone before their contract ends. It may be a significant to do so but the team is built around the core as long as they are viable.
For a fourth point, the goaltending position - despite its crucialness - is heavily varied. The best five goalies in the last three seasons, statistically by Goals Saved Above Average, are Juuse Saros, Igor Shesterkin, Ilya Sorokin, Linus Ullmark, and Andrei Vasilevskiy. All great goalies (and Connor Hellebuyck is in sixth, he’s pretty great!). The only one of those five (and six) to be a starter in the Stanley Cup Finals of those five is Vasilevskiy. (Aside: Saros was Pekka Rinne’s backup in 2017 with all of two playoff appearances.) My point is that even a goalie with a well-earned reputation and/or a big contract is not needed to win it all. The one the Devils could manage to go without a long-term or “name” goaltender. This may require a separate post, but the general idea is for a team to have a good enough goaltender. Should they get hot (think 2023 Las Vegas with Adin Hill) or just perform well (think 2019 St. Louis with Jordan Binnington or 2022 Colorado with Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz), that is enough for a superior team at other positions to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup. So why spend a lot or commit to someone for a long time to align with the core? I do not think it is so essential; I think Fitzgerald correctly identified that with how the current roster is structured.
For a fifth point, Fitzgerald’s good decisions in this offseason and past bets allow this to even be discussed. While some rings have to be earned before he can fully earn the trust of more of the People Who Matter, there is no reason to think Fitzgerald will make good decisions for the team’s benefit in the future. He has at least earned a benefit of the doubt. There will always be difficult decisions and deals to make, pursue, and reject. I just hope he does not fall too much in love with this roster (a common GM issue), overpay for third liners and third pairing players, and avoid flying too close to the Sun to making a deal happen. So far, he has shown he can do all that and construct a roster that is built to compete. For at least the next four seasons.
With these points, I do think that is very possible for the Devils to push their window beyond 2027. And I think they will. The next crucial year will be 2030 - when Jack Hughes’ contract ends - and so much can happen by then. Hopefully there are banners, parades, and lifetime memories made in the process. And the window can be pushed out further. For now, with the current roster going into 2023-24, I see the window is through 2027. This is the 2027 Window Crew.
This is how I see the Devils from a bigger picture. I think the current team’s window is through 2027. The team is in a very good place to Go For It and do so for at least the next four years. I think the window can be pushed beyond 2027 - even from this season. Plenty can be done to do so along with further development. This is a very hopeful time to support the Devils. Winning it, well, that is always easier said than done.
Now I want to know your take. Do you see the current team’s window as being open through 2027? What would you do or what do you want to see for the Devils to push it beyond 2027? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the team’s long term prospects in the comments. Thank you for reading.