The New Jersey Devils management has given the fan base a reason to be joyful. The off-season has been full of fireworks and the good kind. Tom Fitzgerald grabbed the best defensemen in the draft in Simon Nemec. Every position got an upgrade, and Fitzgerald has checked off all the boxes on his checklist. He almost hit a home run with Matthew Tkachuk at the draft, but it fell through, but that train has not stopped yet. With the currently constructed roster, there is room for optimism to think this team could be an improvement and not live in the basement of the Metropolitan Division.
The Devils may have missed out on the Johnny Gaudreau sweepstakes, but they addressed the need at the winger position. The Devils signed former Tampa Bay Lightning winger Ondrej Palat to a five-year contract worth 30 million dollars that carries an AAV of $6 million per season. Ondrej Palat is a solid two-way winger that can succeed in every aspect of the game—excelling at even strength, the power play, and the penalty kill. His leadership and veteran presence is crucial for the young Devils team.
Palat is an excellent addition to an already solid offensive Devils group. Shockingly enough, the Devils finished in the top 10 in goals for with 182. They ranked 15th at even strength Corsi For Percentage with 50.52%. The team scored at its expected rate. The teams’ power play ranked 28th in the league and could improve with Palat and now run by new associate coach Andrew Brunette.
Palat is entering an offense that features Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, and Dawson Mercer. Despite the injury, Jack Hughes was on pace for a 90-point season over an 82-game span. Hischier quietly had 60 points, and Bratt led the team in points and was nearly a PPG player for the Devils. Dawson Mercer had a solid rookie campaign for the Devils, finishing with 42 points.
The Devils did part ways with Pavel Zacha, but replacing him with Erik Haula for third-line center duty is the perfect fit. His 44 points with the Bruins this past season ranked higher than Zacha and any other forward in the
bottom six. The group in general got better up an down the lineup.
Things can change as the Devils are circled around Matthew Tkachuk again. The top six is better than it was a year ago, and an already good offense is going to be better.
Tom Fitzgerald deserves an award for the work he has done with the Devils’ defense. The overhaul that has been in the works since Day Shero got fired is completed. On the date Ray Shero got fired (January 12, 2020), the Devils’ defense looked like this:
Like all great Devils teams of the past, the team is building the back end. Tom Fitzgerald locked down a franchise-altering move in Dougie Hamilton. The Devils inked Hamilton to a seven-year contract. He took advantage of a defensive log-jammed Colorado Avalanche squad and traded for Ryan Graves. He traded for Jonas Siegenthaler and just a few days ago acquired John Marino from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Entering the 2022-23 season, the Devils’ defense looks like this:
This is a massive overhaul and should prove to be better than this past season. Hamilton will be fully healthy. Ryan Graves will look to bounce back in his second season in the system. Marino could see bigger minutes eventually. After being acquired via trade, he is locked in for five more seasons. He averaged 20:38 TOI with the Penguins, and that’s valuable in the lineup. Also, being good in transition, he will be huge in the offensive game. The Devils were brutal defensively, as they finished almost dead last in goals allowed with 216. If the Devils got creative and switched things up, they could pair Siegenthaler and Marino to form one of the best defensive pairs.
The above demonstrates how well both players defend. Their ability to play a shutdown role could be impactful if they play together. While not being offensively gifted, being the defensive stay-at-home pair could be impactful. Each team has one of their own, and now the Devils do if they are to see time together. Fitzgerald has done well in the draft. The Devils drafted left-shot defenseman, Luke Hughes last year and drew right-shot defenseman Simon Nemec this year. The Devils have two young guns on the way, and Nemec could find his way into the lineup this season.
It is such a low bar, but the Devils’ goaltending cannot be any worse than it was last season. Overall, the Devils finished dead last in goals saved above expected at -47.9. That was in all situations. No Devils goaltender finished with a positive goals saved above expected. The Devils rode AHL-level goaltending the majority of the season, and going forward, that is not sustainable for success. Not to mention, Blackwood was among the worst despite having a nagging injury.
The Devils made upgrades in the crease. Opting to not go after Darcy Kuemper and Jack Campbell, Fitzgerald made a splash trade during the draft. The Devils acquired Vitek Vanecek from the Washington Capitals and have signed him to a three-year contract that carries a $3.4 million AAV.
Vanecek is an upgrade in net. He is coming off two 20-win seasons with the Capitals. He is coming off a year in which he had 2.67 goals against average and a .908 save percentage (which he had the year before). He would have been the best goalie on the Devils, and his above-average NHL goaltending could have gone a long way for the Devils this past year.
The Devils are better in net. They believe in Mackenzie Blackwood, and adding Vanecek to the mix gives the team a young tandem in net. If Blackwood can return to his old form and Vanecek keeps up his level of play, the wins should pile up in the win column.
Can They Make The Playoffs?
With the current constructed roster, there is no reason why they cannot be. Even in a stacked Eastern Conference, the Devils can be competitive and stay with the pack. The team, on paper, has upgrades in every aspect. All it has to do now is translate on the ice.
It will be important that they can do this. The division alone got tough as their rival New York Rangers got better as well as the Carolina Hurricanes. Despite an aging core, the Penguins put up a 100-point season.
The Devils have a better team and improved coaching. The Devils won’t be basement dwellers any longer and could shock the world and make the playoffs. Buckle up, Devils fans; it will be a fun season.