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FanFirst Friday: Existential Reckoning Edition

Jack Hughes, Dougie Hamilton, Timo Meier, Ondrej Palat, Jonas Siegenthaler...all hurt. Can the Devils survive this plague of injuries and make the playoffs?

NHL: JAN 06 Canucks at Devils
Could Daws save the New Jersey Devils season?
Photo by Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’m officially back from my travels to the East Coast and seeing three Devils games live. And while the Devils only went 1-1-1 while I was in attendance with my kids (and my wife for one game), the trip was absolutely unforgettable. New Jersey has become unquestionably one of my favorite places to visit on the entire planet because the Devils fans are unbelievably welcoming and embrace this Boston-born, California-living human. Everyone from The Bratt Pack and M and Kya and Gianni and Capy and Jesse (all Twitter people) and John (yes the big cheese here) were just unbelievably kind and generous to us and we will never forget it. Friendship bracelets were given to us (including pride night ones by Kya and special request ones by M) and it was just one big happy party, despite the hockey team’s inconsistent play. My kids and I even got the chance to skate on the Devils practice rink where we took photos at center ice, next to the infamous Devils dummy and beneath the retired numbers and Stanley Cup banners. My kids even went for a rip around the rink with the NJ Devil Thanks to Jesse for pointing out the opportunity.

Any way, maybe I should’ve stayed in Jersey for the foreseeable future because since I’ve gotten back to California, Timio Meier has gone down to injury. Ondrej Palat has gone down to injury. Jack Hughes has gone down to injury. And Jonas Siegenthaler went down to injury with a broken foot. Notice he’s literally the only one that we know what his ailment is. The rest are a complete mystery. While we heard that Jack is “week-to-week” and he avoided the “worst-case scenario”, the mystery around him, and probably the Devils season if we’re being honest, is as clear as an algae infested swamp.

So what should the Devils do? Honestly, probably just stand pat and see if the Utica Devils can somehow withstand the tempest. I’m writing this Thursday morning but the likely starting lineup has already been released and, well, it’s just something:

Kevin Dineen...sorry, Lindy Ruff has put together a lineup that, well, only an AHLers mother can love. Brendan Smith is literally a first pairing defenseman. I mean if Simon Nemec can somehow still have a positive impact on the game with the Brendan Smith Experience(tm) next to him, he should win the Norris this year, never mind in the future.

Not to mention, Vitek Vanecek is in goal for our beloved Devils and well, let’s just say that his season has been less-than-stellar. At least the Devils will have one number 86 in Tampa Bay tonight...wait, Vitek is 86th in the Moneypuck goals saved above expected stat? Out of 87 goalies and the 87th just got recalled from the AHL on Wednesday? Maybe 86 in this case, isn’t a great thing. I get that Nico Daws has come off of hip surgery and that you can’t play him like a number one right now, but man, the Devils might just be cementing this as a lost season right now even though they’re only two points out of the wild card (possibly tied today if they somehow pulled off a miraculous feat in Tampa last night).

And here’s the thing. If the Devils do stay afloat until Jack and Timo and Ondrej return, maybe that’s when Tom Fitzgerald ventures out into the trade market. If you do it now, you’re at your most vulnerable and if you think someone will throw you a life preserver instead of an anchor right now, you’re sorely mistaken.

I wrote a piece about what could possibly derail the high expectations of the Devils heading into the season and two of the things I mentioned were this: Goalies not rising to meet the faith that Fitz showed in them this offseason by not acquiring a goalie. Remember this Fitz quote:

Advanced stats will tell you that the Devils have been decent at limiting chances, though they do surrender more high danger chances than last year, but a pretty big margin. Still, Vitek has been absolutely abysmal and I don’t just suddenly see him turning it around. Especially with the VERY thin defense he has in front of him now. And I was really hopeful that Vitek working with a therapist this past offseason would make a difference in him. Sigh.

Any way the other thing I mentioned was injuries because the Devils largely avoided the injury bug last year, outside of Ondrej Palat’s groin surgery. This year, it’s been completely the opposite. Dougie Hamilton is basically out for the year. And I already went over all the rest. But let Gianni recap the entire season for you:

To be honest, it kind of feels like the season that the Vegas Golden Knights went through in 2021-2022. Then we all know what happened in 2022-2023 after replacing their coach (imagine them not just using excuses for the guy behind the bench!!) and making some changes to their roster.

Perhaps we’re at the point now where the Devils just say, use this as a building year and letting Luke Hughes as well as the surprisingly awesome right out of the gate Simon Nemec figure out this National Hockey League thing. The cap is going up, so you make the necessary tweaks this offseason, including a new goalie, maybe a new coach (not gonna happen) and definitely a new goalie coach and come back as a scary-ass monster in 2024-2025. Injuries seem like they’re usually a one-year kind of thing and then the luck levels off.

I know realistically there’s too much money to be gained by making the playoffs. Even a round or two lines ownership’s pocket in a way that the regular season never will. And if Jack is back and 100 percent as well as the rest of the MASH unit and maybe a new goalie and/or defenseman via the trade deadline, you have to still think the Devils would be a hell of a matchup for anyone (yes, I chose that word deliberately). But I still think that’s the longest of shots and has me thinking of that infamous Dumb and Dumber line...”So you’re telling me there’s a chance!?”

Maybe the cards were stacked against the Devils at the beginning of the season? The most back-to-backs in the league with 16 total. A rookie defenseman breaking into the league with Brendan Smith as his partner for like the first 15-20 games (Miller was hurt, but there was no reason no to put him next to Marino given last year’s playoffs). Goalies that were a question mark at best...a huge liability at worst. Team speed decreased significantly in the offseason (Boqvist, Tatar, Wood, Sharangovich, all gone) and even a Michael McLeod unexpected ascension to greatness this year hasn’t buoyed the Devils. Even a league-leading power play (that has slowly been losing members as the season progressed and therefore, efficiency) hasn’t been able to counteract the putrid goaltending and repeated defensive breakdowns. And the omnipresent slow starts in every, single, game. I’m wondering at this point what the record for the team allowing the most first goals in a season and still making the playoffs? Someone, somewhere probably knows this record and I could imagine the Devils threatening it if they miraculously pull off a playoff push.

Regardless, I’ll continue to put on my Devils lucky socks before every game. I’ll watch every game, knowing that they’re very likely going to concede an early goal and defend throughout most of the first period. My fandom doesn’t wane when times get harder. I double down. Hell, I watched every single game during the 2013-2022 era. It’s been a long, slow, torturous march towards climbing the mountain, even if a piece of it broke and knocked us back down a quarter of that climb. If you think I plan on bailing on these New Jersey Comets right now, well you simply haven’t been paying attention. LET’S GO DEVILS!!! Oh and thanks for reading.