The New Jersey Devils are coming to a crucial part of their multi-year rebuild. 13 players have their contracts up next summer, and many are competing with an extra chip on their shoulders. With that said, it’s a big year for some in particular when it comes to proving themselves for the 2022-23 season. Here are three Devils that have to showcase the most over the next several months.
When John Marino’s name came up in trade discussions, many teams were linked to his services. When the trade finally happened, it surprised both Penguins and Devils fans, as he was acquired in exchange for Ty Smith and a 2024 third-round pick.
Marino played a total of 189 games over three seasons in Pittsburgh. While he was not a goal scorer, he did put up 10 goals and 84 points during his time in the Steel City. His main strength comes in his plus/minus. During the 2019-20 season, he was a plus-17 and finished eighth in Calder Trophy voting. This past season saw him score a lone goal, but he also added 24 assists. With the Penguins in cap trouble and needing to sign Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, Marino was shipped to their division rivals in New Jersey.
The Devils have been searching for a top-four defenseman for years, and Marino is the team’s latest attempt to bolster the core. He’s likely to play a bigger role with the Devils than he did with Pittsburgh, and they have him locked up for the long term. He’s signed through the 2025-26 season at $4.4 million per year, and he’s just 25 years old. It may take some time for Marino to gel with his new teammates, but his three years with the Penguins show that he is up for the challenge.
I recently discussed how big the 2022-23 season is for Mackenzie Blackwood, and with increased competition from Vitek Vanecek, he will once again need to earn his spot at the top of the depth chart. He’s one of the pending free agents, and depending on his performance this season, he may want a raise from the $2.8 million he is making this season.
Blackwood was once a highly-touted prospect within the Devils’ system. After a few years of highs and lows with the franchise, the man that fans call “Mack” has his back against the wall this season. He only played in 25 games last year, and it resulted in the worst numbers of his career. It was also the first time in which he finished with a sub-.900 save percentage.
With Vanecek in the fold, Blackwood will probably share starts with him, especially if he is still not fully recovered. Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov split the duties with the Washington Capitals last season, with Samsonov playing 44 games compared to Vanecek’s 42. Plus, with the potential return of Jonathan Bernier later in the season, Blackwood’s time in the net could be cut even more. Entering the 2021-22 season, he was the clear top option for the Devils in net. This year, though, his status with the team is as murky as ever. While each goalie has something to prove, Blackwood certainly has his fair share of reasons to try and make this season his best.
Depending on who you ask, the days of Michael McLeod as the Devils’ fourth-line center might be over. With the addition of Erik Haula, and Jesper Boqvist’s impressive showing last season, time may be ticking on his tenure in the Garden State. The former first-round draft pick has struggled, and he is trying to show that he has the ability to be a consistent presence in the lineup.
McLeod did not show true flashes of his potential until the 2020-21 season, in which he played 52 games and scored 15 points. Last season saw several career highs for him, putting up 20 points in 77 games. However, his greatest strength is his ability in the faceoff circle. He won 604 of them in 2021-22, losing just 451 for a 57.3 win percentage. He’s also just 24 years old and is slowly starting to find his stride.
Despite his success as the Devils’ fourth-line center, McLeod is experiencing more and more competition. Boqvist had 23 points in 56 games last season, and there’s still a chance that Aarne Talvitie could make the team before the end of the season. Both are a year younger and if they continue to grow, McLeod could be the odd man out – even with his positive trajectory.
Every Devil feels like they have something to prove this season, and the entire staff does as well. Lindy Ruff’s tenure as head coach could be cut short if the team falters, especially to start the season. General manager Tom Fitzgerald spent the summer making savvy moves, acquiring the services of Ondrej Palat, Brendan Smith, and the aforementioned Marino. With Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier continuing their development, 2022-23 could be the season in which we see the Devils take significant strides forward, with the ultimate goal of winning their fourth Stanley Cup.
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Erik Johnsen is one of the NJ Devils writer for The Hockey Writers. He is also a writer for Triple Play Newsletter. Erik is a 2022 Rider University graduate, and co-hosts a podcast called Too Many Men.