The 2022-23 season was a refreshing change of pace for Devils fans; aside from making the playoffs once in 2017-18 (which wound up looking like a fluke), the team had seen no sustained success since the failed Stanley Cup run of 2012. While the postseason started off rough for the Devils, they recovered to win their first round series, before inexperience and errors caught up with them in round two. Despite an exit earlier than any of us wanted, the season ended on a high note for a club that started 0-2 and had the fans chanting for Head Coach Lindy Ruff to be fired.
Now it is up to management, coaching and the Devils players themselves to find a way to push further. Getting back to the second round would be great, but that’s obviously not the goal. The goal for every NHL team is to win the Stanley Cup, whether they are rebuilding towards contending, approaching contendership, or in a window where they have the pieces to possibly win it all. I fully believe with last season’s showing that the Devils are in that third group, and are wanting to take yet another step forward. 2023-24 might not be a cup winning season for the Devils but today we take a look at three criteria that I believe would allow them to take another step forward and call the upcoming season a success.
Make the Playoffs Again and Get Beyond Round Two
I don’t think it is “Stanley Cup or Bust” for this group of New Jersey Devils quite yet, but they’re at the point where they need to be pushing into that territory. I think making the playoffs again is the absolute bare minimum bar for success in terms of finishing their season. To really be successful though, barring something completely unforeseen happening, the team needs to not only get back to the second round, but also to push past it. More than likely this would mean a rematch with the Carolina Hurricanes.
While a lot of people have the Canes as a favorite in the East, I think the Devils stand a chance against them. The good news for the Devils here is that they now have a year of playoff experience under their belts, which goes a long way towards a team’s confidence. Sprinkle in some new parts that could improve the outcome (namely Tyler Toffoli, Luke Hughes, and Colin Miller) and we could see a different result in 2023-24 if this past season’s second round does indeed get a rematch. The possibility of this, however, more than likely hinges on the next two criteria.
Develop the Young Players Correctly
While there won’t be a ton of new young players in the Devils’ lineup (especially if you exclude Luke Hughes due to him playing for the team last year), we have to remember this is still a very young Devils team. Jack Hughes turned 22 in May, Jesper Bratt turned 25 less than a month ago, while Nico Hischier will turn 25 halfway through the season and Dawson Mercer won’t even be 22 until a couple of weeks after the season opens. That’s not even getting to Luke (turning 20) and Kevin Bahl (23) on defense, Akira Schmid (23) in net or any of the other prospective players.
While pretty much every forward above is going to be seeing regular minutes this season, it’s important to not rush guys who aren’t used to full time minutes, or who have their struggles, which we could see with those latter three. While Brendan Smith is past his prime, outside of the penalty per game he seems to take, he’s not the worst guy to fill in when someone is having a bad stretch. The same could be said of Curtis Lazar if he’s deemed to not be an “every night” guy.
What I really don’t want to see this season is the Devils just playing young guys for the sake of it. If the right defense gets depleted, for example, I don’t want Simon Nemec being the guy called up if there’s not a plan in place to help him develop while he’s up. Same for forwards; Graeme Clarke and Alex Holtz might be the best performing players in Utica, but if there’s an injury in the Bottom 6 that requires a call-up, maybe they’re not the guys best suited for that role. The Devils under Tom Fitzgerald have been a smart organization in terms of not rushing players into certain positions, touting the development of a player like Nolan Foote, who has been allowed to progress his game in Utica. As long as the team stays this course, that will be one area where they’re almost certain to find success this year.
Solidify the Goaltending, At Least for the Near Future
Okay, raise your hand if you’re surprised by this one? No? Nobody?
While it may not be a shocker to any Devils fans/followers, I think the upcoming campaign is critical for the Devils to identify their solution in net. Vitek Vanecek had a great regular season in 2022-23 only to follow it up with some of the worst playoff goaltending I’ve ever seen in my nearly 30 years of watching the sport. Akira Schmid put up great numbers overall, but had some individual stinkers of games as well. While the team went out and got Erik Kallgren, I dont see him making the opening night roster over Schmid. Nico Daws is also an option, though he’ll be out until at least December, and probably needs to keep developing in Utica.
This season will be a test of sorts for both Vanecek and Schmid: can Vitek replicate his regular season success and if so, can he carry it to the playoffs? Does Schmid usurp the starter’s role from him and develop into the consistent starter the Devils need? Does the team go out and trade at some point for a short-term or even long-term solution? That last option may not manifest, depending upon who teams are willing to part with and the price they’re asking. Even if there are no trade options, the Devils need to figure out who’s going to be leading the team out onto the ice that gives them a chance to challenge for the Stanley Cup once again. Solving this riddle may be the biggest obstacle in whether or not we will be able to label 2023-24 as a success or not.
Closing Thoughts and Your Take
The Devils improved some aspects of their roster this summer in hopes of making a deeper playoff run in the spring of 2024. There may still be some question marks with the roster, but this group has a fantastic combination of youth, speed and skill that could surprise a lot of opponents this season. While I may be optimistic in saying I think they can get to the Eastern Conference Finals or beyond, at the very least getting back to where they were last season while not rushing player development and figuring out the goalie mess isn’t too much to ask for.
What do you think makes for a successful 2023-24 for the New Jersey Devils? Would you be happy to see them replicate last season? Do you want to see them at least push the Canes beyond five games if the rematch happens? Are you concerned they’ll take a step back this season due to some of the player departures? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!