After coming out of the break 1-1-1 (and 0-1-1 since Jack Hughes returned to the lineup), the New Jersey Devils have given themselves a more difficult road to the playoffs. Taking at least another point in either of their losses last week would have done a lot to alleviate the pressure created by the last month or so of Devils hockey. They are six points down from the Maple Leafs and Red Wings, and eight points back from the Flyers. Their easiest playoff spot target is still the Metropolitan Division’s third spot, as the Flyers have three more games played. If the Devils want to surpass the Flyers and put the tough start of this season behind them, they are going to need to make big improvements up and down the lineup over the final months. But even as they do that, they need to be very careful about reading too much into performances in a rough season.
Learning From the Past
The Devils have shockingly few playoff appearances since they last went to the Stanley Cup Finals. With only the 2018 and 2023 appearances, it is vital that the Devils continue building a winning culture by making the playoffs this season. Otherwise, they risk falling onto an all-too familiar path. When losing becomes a pattern and a sort of learned helplessness sets in, it can have disastrous consequences for the surviving structure of the team.
When the Devils went to the playoffs in 2018, they defied expectations by getting Taylor Hall to play at a Hart Trophy-level alongside rookie Nico Hischier combining such contributions with those of intense, gritty players like Blake Coleman, Stefan Noesen, Brian Boyle, and later Pat Maroon. In just their first full seasons in black and red (Coleman had his cup of coffee in 20+ lost games at the end of the prior season), these guys brought a complete effort to the team. Even if Taylor Hall didn’t score, the Coleman-Zajac-Noesen line might forecheck a team to death, creating chances off of turnovers. Maybe Brian Boyle would step up and score a big goal. Or Miles Wood would break the defense and score one of his reckless speedster goals.
It is a bit frustrating to know what came of some of these players. While the Blake Coleman trade tree helped lead to Timo Meier’s arrival in New Jersey, Stefan Noesen was buried by John Hynes and let go for nothing by Ray Shero just a year after the Devils made the playoffs in part thanks to him. These days, Noesen produces at a clip of a bit over half a point per game played on a divisional leader, having become a big part of Rod Brind’Amour’s Carolina Hurricanes squad. (Also, a happy 31st birthday to Stefan.) Blake Coleman, of course, went on to win two rings in Tampa Bay; he is now sitting at 21 goals and 22 assists in 53 games this season, which would put him third on the Devils in scoring this year. But even in their mid-20s, these two, on the wings of a veteran center in Travis Zajac, were able to shut down opposing top lines, allowing the Devils’ scorers to work enough magic to get them into the playoffs.
I look at Stefan Noesen in particular as a case of giving up too early on a guy, and I do not want the Devils to make the same mistake with any of their current young NHL players. Being in Carolina’s system has brought Noesen’s game to the next level, and the Devils’ coaches and development team need to figure out how to better facilitate and foster growth in their young supporting players. While Noesen was “just a fourth liner” when the Devils gave up on him, he would now arguably be the biggest difference maker in the bottom six if he were still on the team.
As for veteran centers with playoff experience (even those, like Zajac in 2018, who had not been there for awhile), I have no idea where Tom Fitzgerald could possibly find one of those. Too often, I watch the Devils and think that their skaters do not manage the puck well enough: especially in situations where they need to limit opposing teams’ chances. Another veteran center and stabilization on the blueline would have a massive impact on the Devils’ playoff hopes, even if Tom Fitzgerald is unable to acquire a big-time goaltender.
The Devils more or less admitted that the series against the New York Rangers last postseason took too much out of them. When faced with a do-or-die situation, they were able to pull through, but they had nothing left in the tank for Carolina. If the Devils go to the postseason with this skaters group, I struggle to believe that they have the veteran scoring touches and approaches to get them through a run. Unless Tyler Toffoli and Timo Meier become much more consistent down the stretch, Dawson Mercer returns to his form from last year, and Alex Holtz starts hitting on more of his shots, they are absolutely going to need another veteran presence down the middle to at least take some scoring pressure off of Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier.
While performance in the playoffs is one thing, getting there in the first place is another. Tonight, the Devils will be facing the Seattle Kraken, welcoming Tomas Tatar back to the Prudential Center. While Tatar’s first year with the Devils went awry early and never got on track, he was a top-line even strength player for the franchise-record setting 52-win Devils of last year. His role on a line with Nico Hischier was like that of a pressure valve. Whenever opponents were threatening to go the other way with the puck, Tatar was right there, ready to stop the transition in its tracks, pushing the puck back up to Nico Hischier or Jesper Bratt.
Aside from Ondrej Palat, to some extent, nobody has taken this job among the 2023-24 New Jersey Devils. A big part of making a high-offensive pressure system work is taking the right gaps and positions in the neutral zone to prevent odd-man rushes the other way. Tatar created a lot of offense just by “playing safety” in the passing lanes, often as a third-man high in the offensive zone to support defenseman activation. The Devils recently did create a lot of offense off of Carolina’s turnovers on Saturday, and I hope this trend continues. When the puck doesn’t stay on the Devils’ side of center ice, the defense has tended to be too weak on their defensive blueline, ceding the zone without much struggle and rarely, if ever, making big stands at the line. This is, of course, an area where the losses of Damon Severson and Ryan Graves have become more and more apparent over time.
Never Giving Up
The fans of the New Jersey Devils have not given up on this team. I was at the game on Thursday, when Calgary delivered a staggering blow with some late goals to stop the Devils’ comeback. Even though he had rough moments during the game, Vitek Vanecek heard immensely loud chants of his name when he made big saves during the third period. Aside from the odd smart-mouth fan chirping our own players from the lower bowl, the fans largely sounded like they wanted to will the team to victory.
The fans have not given up. The players, who showed a lot of fight and improved structure on Saturday night, do not seem to have given up. The coaches, despite assertions about the lineups from Twitter commentators, do not seem to have given up. Now we just need to know if the upper management has given up on this season. I think such apathy would be a betrayal of the fans who have sat through so many losing seasons leading up to this point, as well as a betrayal of the players who fought through injuries to top players and the worst goaltending in recent memory (quite a statement, considering the 2021-22 season) to keep the team in the playoff hunt.
But even as I want Tom Fitzgerald to acquire a veteran center (specifically Adam Henrique), a goaltender, and another defenseman on account of the defensive downturn after the Hamilton and Siegenthaler injuries, I do not necessarily want them to give up on the players that would be pushed out of the lineup. Kevin Bahl is a unique talent at his size, and he has shown enough promise to be kept long-term for development as a shutdown defenseman. Alex Holtz is a young goal scorer, and as he continues to round out his game, he should become a very effective middle six player. Dawson Mercer might be having a rough season, but he has still scored at an effective rate in the top six at wing. When I say I want Fitzgerald to acquire pieces, I don’t mean they should give up on every young player who isn’t playing up to the best of their ability. But the playoff race is the time for the big boys — and Fitzgerald needs to make sure that the team is properly equipped.
What do you think about the Devils’ roster construction? How many pieces do you think the Devils can add just by moving draft picks and prospects? Do you think there’s enough time to build a robust bottom nine group after Nico’s top line? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.