Four pre-season games into the 2023-24 campaign, New Jersey is 4-0. This should be no surprise to fans who have been paying attention to Executive Vice President and General Manager Tom Fitzgerald’s build of a Stanley Cup contending team.
Last season, Fitzgerald’s fast and opportunistic Devils took risks and made their opponents pay. Even though there is a little bit of a different look this season, this team is still made for speed; it just has a little more grit and alot more experience. With 112 points (second in the Metropolitan Division) during the regular season in 2022-23, a lot is expected of the Devils in 2023-2024.
The team that beat the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs last spring was unceremoniously upended by Carolina in the second. The Canes knew how to slow the game down and effectively neutralized New Jersey’s attack. So, Fitzgerald set out to fix the issues. Part of what was missing for the Devils last year was playoff experience. So, in the off-season, Fitzgerald set out to fix this shortcoming. New Jersey added Curtis Lazar, Collin Miller, Tomas Nosek, and Tyler Toffoli, all of whom have playoff experience. The additions up front will stabilize the forward lines, and Miller should be a very solid sixth or seventh blueliner.
Gone are Damon Severson (who had been a Devil for 9 seasons) and Ryan Graves (a stalwart defenseman who consistently had amazing plus/minus numbers, but was a cap casualty). At least one young D-man, Luke Hughes, is slotted to take (and exceed) Severson’s offensive blueliner role. Although Miller was signed to be the sixth defenseman, it remains to be seen if top defensive prospect Simon Nemec is ready for the NHL or will be at some point during the season, but if he is, it will be an added bonus for the Devils. Up front, the highly talented winger, Yegor Sharangovich, is gone (he had to be included in the Toffoli trade to make that work). But the Devils believe that Toffoli is a critical piece to the team’s plans this year (and beyond if they can resign him), so there was no way that Sharangovich, who needed a new contract, was able to stay in New Jersey.
So, how good are the Devils now? Are they better than last year’s 112 point team? If you are asking, will New Jersey win the Metropolitan Division title, the answer is, it is possible. But there will be very strong competition in the Division; several teams will be much improved. But winning the division does not matter–what this team needs is to be sure to make the playoffs as one of the top three teams. And the Devils are certainly built better for are the playoffs. This year’s attack will be somewhat different than last spring’s. It will be grittier, with more battles along the boards. And Akira Schmid (who shone during the playoffs) will have one more year of experience.
It is Schmid that will actually be the key to playoff victories. Although Vitek Vanecek is considered a “co-number one”, and he has played well for both Washington and the Devils during the regular season, his playoff record over the years is abysmal. Schmid, on the other hand, shone during the playoffs last spring. And he continues to show why he should be considered the number one netminder in New Jersey during the preseason. It will almost certainly lay on his shoulders to take New Jersey as far as the team goes in the playoffs.
Other players to watch this season include Alexander Holtz, who is looking to breakout in a top six role, and Dawson Mercer, who will be competing with Holtz for a spot on the second line. That should be a fun competition between two highly talented wingers. Also to watch is the Devils’ faceoff win percentage. With Erik Haula and Michael McLeod, New Jersey has two of the best faceoff men in the league. Critical to the Devils’ game is quick possession of the puck, which is a result of faceoff wins. If McLeod continues his development into a top fourth line center and Haula continues to take critical offensive faceoffs, this team should be a Stanley Cup contender.
So, there is a lot to look forward to this season in New Jersey. Significant improvements have been made to the roster, with the playoffs in mind. This team should be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. With Toffoli being a UFA after this season, there is some pressure to make that happen now or get awfully close, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s not out of the question that everything comes together, and Lord Stanley comes to visit the Prudential Center this coming June.