For the first time since maybe 2010ish, the Devils and their fanbase will enter the season as a confident bunch coming off a strong season. A franchise starved for success over the past decade will come into 2023-24 with a much different outlook than any Devils team in quite a while. Over the past 10+ years, “cautious optimism” was about as high as the Devils typically flew on the range of pre-training camp feelings. Yet even that particular level of hope was often met with the harsh sting of a basement-dwelling reality. Yes, “abject despair” was a preseason feeling much more likely to hit the mark since circa 2013 for this franchise, even in the summers where everyone thought the Devils had made splashes and done everything (or most things) right. Here in late summer 2023, everyone is feeling pretty, pretty good about where the Devils are at. And I’d be lying if it didn’t scare me just a little.
We all remember the Summer of Shero in 2019, when the Devils drafted Jack Hughes and made splashy adds of PK Subban and Nikita Gusev to add to a roster headed up by Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier. The hope there was that the Devils were due for a big bounceback with Hall returning from a major injury the season prior. It did not work out that way, as the Devils cratered, Hall got traded, and the coach and GM were fired by January. The 2021 Summer of Fitz had some similarities to Shero’s 2019 roster revamp and, unfortunately, decidedly similar results. The phenomenon isn’t limited to the Devils either. It became a running joke in the mid-to-late 2010s that the Stars’ Jim Nill would win the offseason every year and ultimately ice a mediocre-to-middling team in the aftermath.
Even when the Devils were still consistently good in the post-lockout years, the feelings were tempered by various factors like earlier than expected playoff exits, big free agent departures, troubles navigating the salary cap, and rumors of instability in the team’s ownership and finances. Also, the Devils were still riding one of the league’s longest runs of sustained success and the playoffs felt more like a baseline than a target. We would go on to learn how spoiled we were in the 2010s, of course, but strictly from a “which teams are people across the league buzzing about” perspective, the Devils didn’t get a ton of attention, and it seemed to serve them well, at least from a regular season results standpoint.
The vibes around the Devils heading into the season are as good as I can remember them being since perhaps the mid-aughts. They had a great team that finally burst into relevance in 2022-23 after years of toiling at the bottom of the standings. They won a playoff round for the first time since 2012. In the offseason, they locked in their own big restricted free agents, cleared space for their potentially game-breaking young defenseman prospects, and even made a big trade that everyone immediately loved with the add of Tyler Toffoli. Locking in key pieces of a 112-point team and making some strategic adds while mostly staying out of the fray and away from the future landmines of free agency resulted in many identifying the Devils as a big winner this offseason.
Objectively, it’s pretty tough to argue that Tom Fitzgerald and his staff didn’t do a really solid job with this offseason. The Devils, even before accounting for potential growth of their young players, look just as strong as a team that set the franchise’s wins record last season. I am personally as excited as I’ve been to watch the Devils in the leadup to the season in quite a long time. I’d be lying if I said that feeling did not make me a little bit nervous, though. Sucess in the NHL, with a few obvious exceptions, feels fleeting and even slightly random at times, and most years will feature multiple teams that felt really good about their outlook getting served a cold dose of reality.
I think there are reasons to believe the Devils aren’t quite as susceptible to this disappointment this time around. Namely, they were very successful a year ago with largely the same roster. Continuity can be a big benefit, and one thing a lot of us probably overlook when a team has a large influx of new players, even very good ones, is that it takes time for players to settle into roles and build chemistry. The big re-signings they made were also for guys who are still in their mid-20s, giving them more prime years ahead of them in the immediate future. And while Toffoli is now 31, he is also in the final year of a contract, making his arrival low-risk, and his role coming into a team that already has a lot of impact forwards will also limit the pressure that can sometimes build on players who are major acquisitions.
Even with all that in mind, though, the Devils are putting a fair amount of eggs in the basket of backfilling some substantial minutes on the blue line with rookies and potentially hoping for another rookie to step up on the wing in the bottom six. Add in that the goaltending situation also potentially hinges on a young player performing and you can see some elements of risk for this New Jersey team. Mosly, though, my nerves stem from the now high expectations on this team and the history of teams that are feeling great about things on paper tripping up when the season opens. I think this team can overcome that stumbling block but I really want the season to start, so we can all stop speculating and finally see them in action. Luckly, September is now just a couple of weeks away and training camp is now, mercifully, on the horizon.