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FanFirst Friday: HYPE Edition

Seeing the Devils come back to the Rock this week, even for media day and their first practice has me absolutely giddy.

New Jersey Devils v Carolina Hurricanes - Game Five
ZOMG these two are about to take the ice for more than just one regular season game. Pinch me.
Photo by Josh Lavallee/NHLI via Getty Images

There’s so much to go over this week that it finally feels like my eternal Summer of discontent is finally over. But the biggest news is camp has officially opened for the New Jersey Devils. No more attempting to analyze which prospects that could, maybe, someday possibly make a difference with the NHL club.

And I’m as guilty of that as anyone. Yet Dougie Hamilton is providing mucho content. Tyler Toffoli is re-imagining the Devils logo if it was stuck in a trash compactor in Star Wars. And Dawson Mercer is thirst trapping with his salad. All feels right in Devils land.

There were some bold predictions this week from James Nichols of NJHockeyNow. Not to completely spoil it for you (but I will), but Nichols basically predicted the Devils will win the Cup this year. He said coping with the expectations will be one of the biggest challenges the team faces. I’ve heard this refrain multiple times and I do agree. So does Jack Hughes FWIW. This is from the same article quoting the Hughes interview from 32 Thoughts:

And best of all, the line combinations discussion has already started. Alex here goes into a few suggested lines, especially in the top six with Bratt, Hughes and Holtz being one and Hischier, Meier and Toffoli being another to try during the preseason. I won’t argue that trying them would be a good idea. In fact, I believe getting Holtz together with his countryman Bratt makes a ton of sense. In fact, I’m not sure why Holtz hasn’t seen that setup before. It’s time for Holtz to be put in a situation to succeed. Yes, he did succeed during last year’s preseason with Palat and Hughes and in a hopeful gesture for regular season success with the trio, I dubbed it the H2O line which was rapidly adopted by the fanbase. Unfortunately, it never saw the light of day once the regular season happened.

I love the idea of Meier and Hischier. They’ve played together internationally. Hischier sometimes hesitates to shoot more than I would like, especially since his wrister is truly deceptive. Quite a few of these are quick wristers and snappers from distance:

Yet he appears to sometimes look to his linemates and setting them up more often than selfishly taking those shots. Who is NEVER afraid to shoot? Well, besides Jack Hughes. Fuel, fire, Timo Meier. That guy will bomb from anywhere. As will Tyler Toffoli, who also happens to be exceptional defensively. So putting two very good shooters on Nico’s wing seems like the best idea.

Any way, it would also free Dawson Mercer up to be a part of possibly the best third line in hockey with Erik Haula centering and Ondrej Palat on the other wing, who I expect to have a monstrous season. Just contemplating that top nine is absolutely a dream. Especially if Holtz is ready for the NHL after a couple of false starts.

But in keeping with the theme, I’ll give you three bold predictions of my own.

  1. Akira Schmid will wind up the number one goalie by the end of the season and lead the Devils into the playoffs. Look, I’m not a Vitek hater at all. I just don’t think he’s ready to lead a team to the promised land. And it wouldn’t surprise me if by the end of the year, both goalies are fairly close on the total number of starts. I’m just a big believer in the mental aspect of sports. And Vitek seemed like a despondent and destroyed man at the end of the year last year. Maybe he’s made of sterner stuff than I think, and that would only be good for the Devils if I’m wrong, so I’m hoping I am. In fact, after his first practice yesterday, he revealed he’d been working with a sports psychologist over the summer. Someone who works with Jaromir Jagr and Petr Mrazek. When asked about last year, he basically responded with a “I’m not looking back” answer which makes me think that a lot of his issues were in his head (he said he worked “on his head” three times during his four-plus minute interview). But Akira had to walk away from last year’s playoffs on a positive upswing and in a great headspace. He was absolutely stellar in the final game of the season and the loss wasn’t on him. And the Devils don’t beat the Rangers without Akira having some absolute monster games. His demeanor, his approach and his mentality under immense pressure makes me a believer.
  2. Luke Hughes will finish top three in Calder Trophy voting. There will be some cracked skill joining the league this season. Bedard, Fantilli are the two main headliners but there will be many more like Logan Cooley, Devon Levi and Brandt Clarke. Yet, I’ve seen so much of Luke Hughes the past two seasons that I’m frothing to see him for a full year in Devils red. Will he have the occasional brain fart or rookie mistake? Of course he will. But so did Damon Severson and he was in the league for years. Hughes is confident, poised and has skill that not many NHL defensemen possess. If you say, “well Jack didn’t experience immediate success and look at how talented he is”, you’d be right. But Jack didn’t get two years of college after being drafted. If you say, “he plays a much tougher position at the NHL level”, you’d also be right. But Luke has the benefit of having someone like John Marino stapled to his other side and we all know how good Marino is defensively. Hughes should be allowed to be stellar and, as I said in a much earlier column, I wouldn’t doubt seeing Luke on PP1 very early on. Heck, Tom Fitzgerald even said it was possible in a Spittin Chiclets interview. Luke Hughes should have every opportunity on a Devils blueline that lost a lot of pieces. Having witnessed his ascent, I don’t doubt that he will embrace that opportunity and use it to excel right into the Calder conversation.
  3. Devils will make the Stanley Cup Final. I’m on board with James Nichols with the Devils making the Cup Final. I’m just not sure they match up ideally with any of the West powerhouses just yet. That Vegas defense remains a nightmare of octopi sticks everywhere. Colorado has a better goalie now then when they won in 2022. Dallas has improved and is getting more young talent joining. Los Angeles has everything but the goalie (where have we heard that before). Edmonton has to take it one of these years with the best player in the universe. I truly feel like the Devils are right on the cusp. And if they get to the Final, then who knows? A few breaks here and there. A hot goalie. Jack Hughes going supernova. Luke proving as unflappable as is humanly possible. It’s not impossible that the Devils take out a Western superpower. But I feel like the power currently resides in that conference. And if the Devils get there and fall that agonizingly close, well, it’ll be a swift kick in the nether region. But it seems like they’re ready to take a next step towards the top of that mountain. Just not reach the summit yet.

So what do you think? Am I nuts? Are these too bold? Do you have any of your own? Regardless, next week at this time, the Devils will have played actual games. Granted they’ll only be preseason but good lord, how amazing is this? Are you fully HYPED yet? I most certainly am. Let’s. Go. Devils.