“Next year if we’re standing here talking this time of year while other teams are gearing up for the playoffs, it would be a huge disappointment.”
It was New Jersey Devils alternate captain Damon Severson who made that comment during his exit interview on May 1. The defenseman has been with the team since the 2014-15 season and has only played in four playoff contests. The 27-year-old has been a loyal soldier leading all skaters in ice time since the 2018-19 campaign. Throughout this past season he, along with several of his teammates, have been vocal about their team needing to reach the next level and this summer, the pressure is on general manager (GM) Tom Fitzgerald to help make that happen.
The message is clear that the Devils are ready to put their rebuild officially behind them. The question that is on my mind is, what would constitute a successful 2022-23 campaign?
What is the Devils’ Definition of Success for 2022-23?
Every franchise begins a new season with the goal to win the Stanley Cup, but there are also different standards throughout the league. If the Arizona Coyotes narrowly miss a wildcard spot next season, it could be considered a success knowing they finished the 2021-22 campaign with a mere 57 points. Toronto Maple Leafs fans accepted their team’s loss in the first round because for the first time in years they did not beat themselves, while Minnesota Wild fans were ready to take their team down to the studs after their own first-round exit.
New Jersey has not qualified for the postseason since the spring of 2018 when they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games. Players, fans, and team executives are itching to play meaningful games and there seems to be an aura around the club that it is playoffs or bust this upcoming season.
I posted this exact question on Twitter to garner some fan reaction and it seems there are two scenarios fans deem acceptable. The first would involve simply being in the playoff hunt and playing meaningful games until the final regular-season game, the other is, of course, making the postseason. Due to their salary cap situation and need for improvement, the team has been linked to virtually every available player including Alexander DeBrincat, Johnny Gaudreau, and Filip Forsberg.
Depending on Fitzgerald’s definition of success, it could dictate what he decides to do on the draft floor on Thursday night. Let me explain.
How Does This Affect New Jersey’s Draft Decision?
One of the biggest questions surrounding the Devils is their second overall pick at this year’s NHL Entry Draft. Since the Draft Lottery, and even before, Fitzgerald has said he is willing to do whatever he can to improve his roster whether that means using the draft pick or trading it.
“I said this two drafts ago (2020) when we had the three first-round picks, I’m open to whatever can help our team improve. If that is using a pick like that, wherever it may be, to help bring in a player that we know, and feel, will help impact the results that we are looking for, absolutely.”
If it is truly playoffs or bust this upcoming season, it is completely plausible to see the Devils trade their pick for a player who can come in and help the team get into the postseason. Names that have been tossed around include William Nylander and David Pastrnak. The Toronto Maple Leafs have approximately $6 million in cap space and have a few needs this offseason, so it could be argued that it is beneficial for Toronto’s general manager Kyle Dubas to move one of his superstars and the Devils are in a position to take advantage of that. I would be remiss not to mention that it is uncommon to see a team move a top-three pick in the draft, as the last time the second-overall pick was moved was in 2001 when the Ottawa Senators traded Alexei Yashin to the New York Islanders for Zdeno Chara, Bill Muckalt and what eventually became Jason Spezza.
Related: Maple Leafs’ $6 Million Man
Unless they trade the pick, Thursday marks the third time the Devils will select second overall at the NHL Entry Draft. Previously, they selected Kirk Muller in 1984 and Brendan Shanahan in 1987. If Fitzgerald believes his team is still a season away from being consistent playoff contenders, it would be smart to keep the pick and draft either Juraj Slafkovský or Shane Wright depending on which one is available.
There are many questions surrounding the Devils including goaltending, their third defensive pairing and bottom-six forwards. As much as fans may not want to hear it, the team may need another season of development. The core of the Devils is about 22 years old and the addition of a talented 18-year-old can only strengthen what the team already has. As the draft draws closer, it is speculated the Devils will most likely use their pick when called to the stage at the Bell Centre, but a lot can happen over the next couple of days.
The Time is Coming for the Devils
Last week, during an interview with Emily Kaplan, Colorado Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic commented about his team having the league’s worst record five years ago and how they got to this championship.
“Yeah we had the worst record but we had some really good young players that were just about to become stars. We had a great core and we just built around them.”
That quote can easily be applied to the Devils. Last summer, New Jersey traded for Avalanche defenseman Ryan Graves and during an interview this season he spoke of similarities between his former and current team.
“You can make comparisons, you see, I think Nico (Hischier) a lot of comparisons to like a (Gabriel) Landeskog. And then Jack (Hughes) can kind of be your star, what (Nathan) MacKinnon is for them, said Graves on the Speak of the Devils Podcast. “You can see comparisons of where teams are and how they’re growing. And that’s obviously, it’s one that I was there to experience. I kind of see how that comparison is, but I think if the fans want to look for something, you can see how the roster is growing.”
The Devils are close to taking the next step to becoming a team that consistently makes the postseason. Since his arrival, Fitzgerald has taken the necessary steps to improve his club whether it was through the draft or free agency. As much as the players and fans want to qualify for the playoffs this upcoming season, it is just as important to keep building a roster that will find long-term success. The good news is, that the Devils are in a favorable position whether they move their second-overall pick or not.
The Devils will be hosting a draft party at The Stone Pony on Thursday, July 7, 2002, at 6:00 P.M. It will cost fans $10.00 at the door and it will benefit the Devils Youth Foundation and Asbury Park Music Foundation.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and is a credentialed correspondent covering the New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettos_NHL and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.