The New Jersey Devils went into 2023-24 seen as a team that had both a good amount of premier names and depth level players. We know there were still question marks around the team after the additions and departures of this past summer, but expectations were still high that the Devils would be competing for the top of the Metropolitan Division. With a little less than half a season to go, it’s still technically possible, but as of now looking unlikely. The Devils entering play tonight are 10 points back of the division lead, five back of a Metro playoff spot and two off of a wild card berth, albeit with games in hand on every team in front of them.
The biggest issue impeding the team’s success? Depending upon your viewpoint, it’s the either the defense, the goaltending, a combination of those, or the sheer volume of injuries. Today, I’m going to talk about that last point, as the Devils have had to play large stretches of the season already without a number of key players, and with some still set to miss varying lengths of what remains. This is not to make excuses for the team, but rather to examine the idea of depth in the NHL, and that even the best laid plans don’t always go to plan.
To talk about time missed, I suppose we should start with a player who has missed a good chunk of time already in Dougie Hamilton. Hamilton is one Devil who has missed more games (25) than he was able to appear in this season (20) prior to going down with what appears to be a season ending pectoral injury. Now, fans and pundits alike have been critical of the defending this season, even when the team was healthy. Hamilton was not playing at the level that saw him have a career year offensively last season, however I would rather a player of his caliber in the lineup over someone such as Santeri Hatakka. Now, that’s not even a knock on Hatakka, that’s just to say I prefer to have an experienced, proven defender on the ice.
The same can be said of Jonas Siegenthaler, who has missed only seven games (he will miss his eighth tonight) with a broken foot. While he is certainly going to miss a chunk more, and while he’s another player who isn’t performing at the same level as last season, it’s still a veteran player who is more skilled than many of the pieces the Devils are attempting to use to fill in for him. Even another defender like Brendan Smith, who made the opening night roster, and is now also injured (and to my chagrin, has had some good moments this season) isn’t the same level of player that a Siegenthaler or a Hamilton is.
Now the Devils were fortunate that one part of their depth came in the form of teenage rookie Simon Nemec. Nemec has made mistakes, heck he has had some flat out bad games. However, the mistakes made by a teenaged rookie who is still developing are usually ones that can be lived with. Additionally, Nemec has shown a ton of poise beyond his years and has been a solid contributor in a large number of the 24 contests he has appeared in. Nemec may technically be a “depth” piece, but with his importance and potential for the franchise, he’s been a more capable substitute than some others.
The forward situation has been impacted even more due in part to Nolan Foote having been out since the preseason. With a forward who was predicted to be on the roster in some way, shape or form already out, the Devils were already shorter on depth. Then the bigger injuries hit. Jack Hughes and Timo Meier have each missed 13 games, with Hughes set to miss more still. Nico Hischier has also seen 11 contests lost to injury this season. This resulted in other centers and forwards being bumped up and having to, in some cases, play beyond their depth. Then we see a player like Tomas Nosek also go down, and suddenly the Devils are needing forwards from Utica as well.
The depth, however, is obviously not the skill level of the “bigger names” who are missing from action. Some of the depth, namely the Utica call-ups, aren’t even the same level of skill as the depth NHL players. For as much depth as the Devils had coming into this season, the team is still spinning their wheels because they don’t have the talent to replace the premium players who are out. The Devils may not have the best depth in the league, however they were still viewed as being a deep team coming into the season, with the possible exception being in net.
Again, even with how much time some players have missed, the postseason is still within striking distance for the Devils. Get some players healthy, get back to winning games and right the ship of this season.
What are your thoughts on how having to dive so deeply into their depth is affecting the Devils season? Do you think the title of this article holds true? Do you think the lack of results for the Devils is making this opinion overblown? Do you think one of the other aforementioned problems is the true bigger issue? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!