Tonight will begin the 40th season of the Devils’ existence and hopes are very high in New Jersey. It’s not just the fact that the team won five out of seven pre-season games, which they did, or just that they traded for and then signed Vitek Vanecek, signed UFA Brendan Smith, traded for John Marino, signed UFA Ondrej Palat, and traded for Erik Haula, which they also did. It’s the feeling around the rink; it’s how the team all seem to be playing together; how this team is finally where the coaching staff wants it to be.
There is a good mix of young players (including a couple of budding stars) and steady veterans. There is no showboating; what we see on the ice is a team that has lots of speed, talent with the puck, and a desire to make this team a playoff contender.
There is a big upgrade in goal, as Vanecek joins Mackenzie Blackwood between the pipes. The goalie carousel last season due to injuries was a part of why the Devils did not contend, but the combination of Blackwood and Vanecek (who the Devils signed to a 3-year deal) should fix that issue. Vanacek has had rough playoff outings, but he has played excellently druing the past two regular seasons, winning twice as many games as he has lost. Still only 26-years old, Vanecek will compete for time between the pipes with Blackwood, who is trying to return to his 2019-20 form.
On defense, the Devils have solidifed their top five with the arrival of John Marino. A steady two-way defender, Marino can play in either the second or third pairing as necessary. With the second overall 2022 draft selection Simon Nemec sent to Utica on Tuesday, Kevin Bahl and veteran Brendan Smith will share the number six and seven roles on the blueline. Both are tough customers and should be able to be called upon when necessary to protect the talented forwards up front.
And there is talent among the forwards. The team’s top offensive player, Jack Hughes, looks a little different in preseason than he did during last season. During the preseason, it appeared that he made positive leaps in every area of his offensive game. Given that the 21-year-old posted more than a point per game last season, that bodes well for the Devils this season. Hughes’s continuing to mature play is one of the Devils’ strengths this season. With Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, Yegor Sharongovich, and Tomas Tartar returning, New Jersey has quite a bit of firepower. Add the Stanley Cup winner Palat, and the 20-year old phenom Alexander Holtz (who tore up the AHL in his rookie pro season last year) and the top six is dangerous on every shift. Add the newly minted third line of Haula centering Miles Wood on his left and Dawson Mercer on his right, the scoring will be spread over nine forwards.
Effectively, the Devils now have three dangerous forward lines, a much more than adequate defense, and a solid netminding tandem. It is an incredible improvement from last season. And, unlike so many other teams in the league, the Devils have plenty of cap room left. There are so many teams up against the cap that will have to make hard decisions. New Jersey could surely benefit and strengthen as the season moves on.
The Devils fans have waited quite a few years to have this good a team take the ice. If the injury gods are with them this year, the wait for a post-season will finally be over.