A few weeks ago, Mike asked if the New Jersey Devils can survive winning the offseason. It’s a fair question as the Devils ‘won’ the offseason in 2019 (drafted Hughes, traded for Gusev, signed Simmonds) and 2021 (signed Hamilton, Bernier, Tatar) only for those seasons to blow up in their face and end in frustration and disappointment.
The Devils might not have won the offseason in 2023 and whether or not they did or didn’t doesn’t matter a ton as the goal is to win the postseason. But if they didn’t win the offseason, they’re certainly close after checking off many boxes on the to-do list.
The Devils get Jesper Bratt signed long-term after years of going back-and-forth on a contract? Check. The Devils get their prized trade deadline acquisition in Timo Meier to buy in and also sign long-term? Check. Retain Erik Haula at a fair price? Check. Add another weapon in the Top Nine with the Tyler Toffoli trade? Check. Tom Fitzgerald even managed to appease a vocal portion of the fanbase who wanted their not-so-favorite whipping boy shipped out of town to make room for the players we like.
These moves, combined with the highs of last season, understandably have Devils fans and hockey fans everywhere excited for what the 2023-24 season will bring. Confidence in the front office has never been higher. The demand for the New Jersey Devils to be on national TV has never been higher. The Devils have gone from being a team we were just hoping would show signs of progress to being one of the chic, sexy picks to win it all this season. It’s not just Devils fans who are excited about the direction of this team, it’s hockey fans in general who are ready to see this team fulfill what are becoming very lofty expectations.
The vibes surrounding this team are immaculate with training camp just weeks away.
But are the vibes too good right now? Are things going too well for Tom Fitzgerald and company?
When will the proverbial other shoe drop?
The Devils might be a popular preseason pick to win their division, win the conference, and even win the Stanley Cup, but success in this league isn’t always linear and nothing worth having ever comes easy. Sure, some teams like the 2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks are able to win a Stanley Cup a year after their first deep playoff run as a team, but there are plenty of examples where it took a team years to fulfill that promise and live up to expectations. It took the Golden Knights five years just to get back to the Cup Final before winning it. It took the Capitals coming up short nine previous times in the playoffs in the Ovechkin era before finally winning it. The 2010s Rangers got close, never won it, did a so-called “rebuild”, and a whole new version of the Rangers might have already peaked as a team. There are countless examples.
The Devils are a talented team and they have reached the point where they should be able to navigate an 82-game regular season and make the playoffs off of sheer talent alone, even with as talented as the Eastern Conference is in general. That is all well and good and certainly one of their strengths. But for all their strengths, we know this Devils team has some flaws and question marks that will need to be answered sufficiently in order for this team to get where we all want them to go in the most important games of the season next spring.
Damon Severson and Ryan Graves were polarizing players for a reason. They might be gone now, and the Devils weren’t necessarily wrong to move on from either player, but it doesn’t mean Severson and Graves didn’t serve important roles when they were here. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t play a lot of tough minutes that now need to be covered by somebody else. Colin Miller is a perfectly fine bottom pairing defenseman and I’m as high on Luke Hughes’s upside as anyone, but do the Devils have enough depth on the blueline to successfully hold onto a one goal lead in the closing seconds of a given game? Do they have enough depth on the blueline to see to it that their penalty kill, one of the strengths of last year’s team, doesn’t drop off?
There are major questions with the goaltending right now, and rightfully so. The goaltending more than anything might cap what the upside of this team for this season truly is. I wouldn’t argue with anyone who says the Devils aren’t truly a legitimate contender until they figure out the position. I don’t need to see Vitek Vanecek struggle again in the playoffs to know he’s probably not the answer. Very smart people have said the Devils need to, once again, be in the goaltender business. They weren’t just pulling that take out of thin air. It was said for a reason.
Adding a veteran like Tyler Toffoli makes a ton of sense on paper, but the games aren’t played on paper. Is he going to have the footspeed to keep up on a line with Jack Hughes? If he doesn’t, are you right back in the same spot as last year where Hughes and Bratt are together on a line? Lindy Ruff didn’t seem all that thrilled with that combination as the season went on, and its debatable whether or not having Meier and Hughes on a line together is a great idea either as both players are heavy volume shooters. Who is the ninth forward going to be in the Top Nine and how are all the pieces going to fit together? For that matter, how are some of the new faces going to fit in? Players like Alexander Holtz, Graeme Clarke, and Nolan Foote are trying to stick as NHL players going forward while veterans like Tomas Nosek and Miller are new to the team and new to Lindy Ruff’s system, although Miller has played under assistant coach Ryan McGill before.
Speaking of Lindy Ruff, the lynch mob calling for his head might be quieter nowadays after he earned a Jack Adams nomination for the job he did last season, but there is certainly pressure on him to make all of the pieces fit. We know Ruff will exhaust every possible combination of forwards in the Top Nine to the point where its almost silly to speculate on line combinations, but at some point, he’s going to have to find something he likes. One could argue that last year’s Devils roster was ahead of schedule and now that they’re good, they’re better equipped with how the roster has been reconfigured. That said, it would also help matters if the coach didn’t self-sabotage the effort with questionable lineup decisions and/or waiting until a game was out of reach to call a timeout to settle the team down, a trend we saw all too often last season.
There’s also the matter of injuries. Hockey is a physical sport and the Devils managed to get through last season relatively healthy. Three returning Devils played in all 82 regular season games in Dougie Hamilton, Dawson Mercer, and Bratt (Tomas Tatar accomplished this as well), while Hughes, Hischier, Haula, Michael McLeod, and Jonas Siegenthaler each missed just a handful of games. You can’t really predict injuries, but the Devils were fortunate in this regard one year ago (keep in mind, the numbers are skewed due to Jonathan Bernier spending the season on LTIR). It would stand to reason there would be some regression in this regard.
I don’t intend to be overly negative, poke holes, or pour cold water on those who are optimistic about the team going into the season. I think people are right to be excited about the team going into the year, and the possibility of what the ceiling might be. The Hughes brothers and Mercer are young enough where they may have another level to gain, which is scary in its own right considering Jack Hughes and Dawson Mercer are already established and are pretty damn good hockey players in their own right. The young core of the team is locked up. The Devils already experienced the highs of winning a playoff series and the pain of losing a playoff series, and that shouldn’t be understated. They know what it takes to play playoff hockey, but they also know that every last player on the roster needs to be better to get where they want to be.
With expectations being as high as they are and the vibes being as good as they are at the moment, I would caution Devils fans not to get too high going into the year as you’re setting yourself up for disappointment if things don’t go perfectly. We’ve been eating well as Devils fans over the last calendar year, but as the old saying goes, “pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered”. I’m not saying not to indulge or not to get excited with the team going into 2023-24. You’re a fan, and you should be a fan how you see fit. But anyone who has been a sports fan as long as I have has seen their share of “Dream Teams” come and go. For as much talk and excitement as there is with this Devils team, I would simply remind everyone that things rarely go as well as they have for the Devils over the last calendar year, let alone continue to go well into perpetuity. There will be roadblocks, setbacks, and adversity along the way. It doesn’t necessarily mean the team was overhyped or anything like that....its just the normal ebbs and flows of the season. How the Devils deal with that when the time comes though will ultimately shape what they become as a team.