I consume a lot of hockey media. Like, a LOT. Sometimes it’s great and stuff that I feel makes me more intelligent like Boomer Gordon and Jake Hahn on SiriusXM. Sometimes it’s not. I’m spare the names on that one.
Interestingly enough, Boomer is a huge Jack Hughes fan and loves the way the Devils play. You won’t hear a more serious proponent of the New Jersey Devils than he is. Yet, during a segment called five burning questions this week, Boomer suddenly stopped Jake in the middle of him lavishing praise on the Devils and Hurricanes as the two teams to beat in the Metro this year and said, kind of out of nowhere, “I feel like the Devils love-in has gone a little too crazy this offseason. As anyone who has followed sports for a long time knows, a team ascending to greatness rarely happens in a straight line. So assuming because the Devils beat the Rangers in a 7-game series last year means they’re Stanley Cup contenders could prove to be a foolish bet.”
Now Boomer isn’t a Devils hater at all. He’s rarely negative about this young and fast team and he was one of the ones lamenting the lack of a quality goalie keeping the team from popping in 2021-2022.
But when it comes to this, he does have a valid point. I get that the team took absolutely gigantic, historic steps last year. And all the arrows are pointing up. I mean earlier this week I bought Devils tickets to three games in December and lordy, none of the seat choices I wanted were available. And they basically JUST went on sale:
The most interesting part about buying my #NJDevils tickets? I couldn’t get my normal seats in section 1 because they’re largely all sold out. Even though I’m disappointed, it’s nothing but good vibes around this team this year so it’s not surprising the tickets went faster.— Tyler Bleszinski (@papiblez) August 14, 2023
I think the fans have received the very clear message that the Devils are one of the teams to watch in 2023-2024. As has Vegas. Depending on where you look, the Devils are anywhere from fourth to seventh on the odds board to win the 2024 Stanley Cup. Radio shows besides the one I mentioned have listed the Devils as a favorite, especially to come out of the East, which appears to have lost some sex appeal this offseason. I imagine some magazines will put the Devils up there too.
Now, just for the record, I always prefer to be the underdog. I think part of what makes life difficult is when people throw expectations at you. It’s much easier to come out of nowhere to win. No one expected the Devils in 1995 to win the Cup, even though they’d proven they were on the doorstep against the Rangers in 1994. People doubted that team all through the playoffs, but more so against the Red Wings in the Finals. I don’t think a single person picked them to win that series. And they trunk-slammed them.
Now, I do believe the Devils should be favored. Tom Fitzgerald has put a roster in place that has depth, that has speed and skill and youth and should be able to skate most teams into the ice. That being said, every team in the NHL in the salary cap era has holes and reasons why they may not reach whatever lofty expectations are bestowed upon them. If the Devils are not going to achieve what’s expected of them in 2023-2024, there are a few reasons why it may not happen. And unfortunately, a lot of it is out of their control. Here is my list:
- Injuries: The Devils stayed relatively healthy in 2022-2023. Jack Hughes only missed four games and he’s the straw that stirs the Devils drink. Ondrej Palat missed significant time with groin surgery. John Marino missed 18 games. Mackenzie Blackwood was constantly injured and he was supposed to be a big part of the roster. Other than that, every significant piece of the Devils roster stayed healthy. If the Devils are going to compete for a Stanley Cup, they need their most significant pieces to remain healthy as much as humanly possible. That’s Hughes most of all, but also Hischier, Bratt, Hamilton and Marino. And the goalies as well. Erik Kallgren is a nice depth piece in Utica, but if he winds up as the Devils starting goalie for any significant time, then the team is in serious trouble. Speaking of goaltending...
- Goaltending: I know, I’m tired of talking about it just as much as you are. But as people say, goaltending can be voodoo. And I’m truly fearful that whatever Vitek was suffering through in the playoffs could carry over to the regular season. OR maybe it was just because it was the playoffs. OR maybe he had a nagging injury that was unreported. Regardless, Vitek needs to be the three quarters of the season Vitek and not the stumbling, bumbling version of himself we saw in the playoffs. Akira Schmid could be him. I believe he IS him. But it’s a lot to expect for a 23-year-old with limited experience. Goaltending is also the easiest thing to point at when a season goes awry. Hopefully not addressing this in the offseason doesn’t undo all that Fitz has built.
- Coaching: Lindy Ruff is going on his fourth year in New Jersey now. All coaches, no matter how beloved, have a shelf life. Their voice will eventually be ignored. Guys will do their own thing and not stick to the system. A coach will sometimes let internal fighting fester and not address it. There’s a ton of reasons why coaching might not work. Lindy also loves his line blender so much that it sometimes seems like change for change and no apparent rationality to it whatsoever. Even if that isn’t it, it’s possible that Ruff’s voice might just start falling on deaf ears. And Andrew Brunette departed this offseason to coach the Preds. Taking over the power play? Travis Green. Will that help? Because the power play needs a definite adrenaline shot. The Devils have WAY too many talented players for the power play to not be clicking and making a huge difference in games.
- Defense: I believe that adding in Luke Hughes (he’s another one the Devils absolutely, positively need to stay healthy and I know that’s weird to say about a rookie, but he’s that good) will be a massively huge net positive. I think that Colin Miller should be a seamless add in place of Damon Severson (if Simon Nemec doesn’t prove ready in training camp), especially in terms of the ice time against the lower competition that Sevo feasted on in 2022-2023. I think that Jonas Siegenthaler is better than the inconsistent version Devils fans saw at times last year. And John Marino should be a stud alongside the younger Hughes. This is all stuff I believe. But I don’t know any of it for a fact. In sports, things are really never a guaranteed thing. Unless you’re talking Martin Brodeur winning 40 games or Scott Stevens wrecking at least one human per series in the 90s/early 2000s. So it’s possible Luke proves in over his head. Miller is washed and Nemec isn’t ready either. And I guess it’s possible that the coaching doesn’t deploy the defensemen in optimal fashion, either. Defense shouldn’t be an issue. But it’s also not a sure thing when you’re adding a rookie in for a major role.
- Pressure: The weight of expectations was mentioned above. Sometimes teams collapse when greatness is seemingly all but guaranteed. Remember that the Devils still remain one of the very youngest teams in the league. They likely believe in themselves and their potential. They’re probably still flying high from taking out the big dog in their market in the playoffs. But could that earler-than-expected success breed overconfidence bordering on cocky? Yeah, it most definitely could. Though I seriously doubt it. This is the least likely one to me given the Devils leadership and the personality of their superstar who seems to just ooze a brashness that is infectious. Maybe they get off to a slow start and then the pressure starts to mount and snowball, but again, I just have a hard time envisioning it.
- Divisional Improvements: The Hurricanes are arguably better with the addition of Orlov and Bunting. The Penguins added Erik Karlsson and Ryan Graves and Reilly Smith. The Columbus Blue Jackets added Adam Fantilli and supposedly upgraded their defense with Severson and Provorov (though how much is debatable). And the Blue Jackets suffered through a serious case of number one (injuries) all last season. Not sure any team can suffer two consecutive seasons like that one. And the Rangers probably aren’t better on paper (they’re older and slower with all the random signings they made), but I wouldn’t doubt they get the sugar rush from having a new coach behind the bench. The Islanders didn’t improve much other than having Horvat for a whole season. The Caps added a bit of youth with Rasmus Sandin last year and should have a healthy Tom Wilson all year (plus the new coach sugar buzz) and the Flyers are the Flyers. So theoretically, the Canes, Pens, Blue Jackets, and maybe the Rangers and Caps (thanks to new coaches) will be better. There won’t be any gimme wins in the Metro in 2023-2024.
Notice I didn’t mention forward depth or scoring here? Yeah, I can’t envision a world where that’s a problem unless number one happens to a major pieces of the forward group. Regardless, I wrote this in large part to assuage my own fears and temper the current sky-high expectations that are dancing around my head right now. Because believe it or not, I thinking this highly of this team is scaring me half to death.
I honestly don’t think there’s much outside of the six reasons above that can bring this team down to earth. Number one is and always will be my biggest worry. But here’s the thing about injuries. It could happen to other teams as well. It certainly isn’t a unique threat to derail the Devils. I think each of the other five will likely prove to be false worry. Hopefully.
What about you? What’s the biggest worry you have heading into the season? Did I miss something here? Let’s hear it in the comments. And thanks for reading!