Summer is officially coming to a close as pumpkin spice is being sold at your favorite coffee shop and the players who make up your favorite team are returning to the ice for the season ahead. New Jersey Devils general manager (GM) Tom Fitzgerald has been busy, and the moves he made have the organization and fans excited for what’s ahead. That being said, the reality is this is a team that finished 28th in the league with a record of 27-46-9. After a season where nothing went right, there is of course apprehension and genuine hope that the club can take steps in the right direction over the course of the next few months.
As the players prepare for training camp and the 2022-23 campaign, let’s break down some burning questions that will be answered throughout the course of the season.
1. Can Blackwood & Vanecek Get the Job Done for the Devils?
The million-dollar question this season has everything to do with the two players in the crease for New Jersey. After dealing with the unfortunate realities of last season, the spotlight will be on Mackenzie Blackwood and Vitek Vanecek. Both will have something to prove, and the best-case scenario is that head coach Lindy Ruff has a tough decision each night as to which player to start in net. The truth is, there is not a definitive number one goaltender in New Jersey and the competition should be enough to bring the best out in both of them because right now, it’s really anyone’s net.
It is no secret that the Metropolitan Division will be extremely competitive and some of the best goaltenders in the league happen to be playing for New Jersey’s rivals. Igor Shesterkin finished the 2021-22 regular season as the top netminder in the league as a member of the New York Rangers, while the Devils’ other New York rival has Ilya Sorokin, who finished with a goals against average (GAA) of 2.40 and save percentage (SV%) of .925, which was second best behind Shesterkin. When healthy, the Carolina Hurricanes tandem of Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta is one of the best in the league and last season won the William Jennings Trophy, which is an annual award given to the goalie(s) “having played a minimum of 25 games for the team with the fewest goals scored against it” during the regular season.
It is a fact that the Devils’ netminders will be starting the 2022-23 campaign as the underdogs of the division. No one is expecting them to carry this team to the playoffs, but if they can provide stability in goal, the team might have a chance to compete for a wild card spot.
2. Will Ruff Finish the Season as New Jersey’s Head Coach?
Some fans have been vocal about wanting a new head coach, but the reality is fans of the team do not want to see Ruff get fired at any point this season.
Fitzgerald has spoken positively about his bench boss, as have players Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt. Knowing this, one would think the team would have to be truly floundering in order to make a switch. The 62-year-old will be starting the final year of his contract and has a much improved supporting cast around him including Andrew Brunette, Ryan McGill, and Sergei Brylin. For the first time in a long time, fans are excited about the coaching staff and the additions made this summer can be the perfect complement to what Ruff has been able to do with the team’s young core to this point.
It seems like Fitzgerald could be preparing to pass the torch from Ruff to associate coach Brunette who is a realistic option as his replacement at the conclusion of the season. During a July 15, 2022 media availability, New Jersey’s GM talked about Brunette wanting to work with Ruff and learn from the veteran coach. Things could be lining up for a seamless transition at some point, which would only benefit the future of the club.
3. Will New Jersey’s Power Play Improve Under Brunette?
New Jersey’s power play was absolutely abysmal last season, there is no getting around it. Their man advantage proved to be a disadvantage as it was ranked 28th and allowed a league-leading 14 shorthanded goals. Multiple times, chants of “Fire Recchi” echoed throughout Prudential Center referring to assistant coach Mark Recchi. On May 4, 2022, Fitzgerald made the necessary decision to let go of the assistant coach and that responsibility and pressure now fall on Brunette.
Last season Brunette ran the Florida Panthers’ power play and did quite well, ranking fifth best in the league. It did not hurt that he had Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad at his disposal but, on paper, the Devils have solid options he can utilize. When healthy, Dougie Hamilton, Hughes, Nico Hischier and Bratt are all expected to see minutes on the man advantage. If healthy, Miles Wood can also provide a great physical net-front presence. With the tools in his arsenal and last year’s proven success, there is no reason why Brunette can’t help significantly improve the team’s numbers from last season.
4. Will Fitzgerald Trade Severson & Graves or Re-Sign Them?
It feels like there could be a changing of the guard happening on New Jersey’s blue line in the near future. Damon Severson and Ryan Graves are both on expiring contracts and there are two top prospects who are working towards the start of their NHL careers. There has been plenty of excitement around Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec and the only question is when will they be ready to make the jump to the big leagues.
The Devils have Hamilton, John Marino, and Jonas Siegenthaler locked in long-term. That leaves three spots with plenty of prospects who will be chomping at the bit to become lineup regulars. Severson is the most tenured player on the roster and Graves was on the Devils’ radar for quite some time before the trade came to fruition. Will Fitzgerald part with either of these players before the conclusion of the season to ensure a return before they have the option to freely walk away? It will be interesting to find out if either one is in the GM’s long-term plans.
5. Can Alexander Holtz Make the Roster Out of Training Camp?
If there is one forward who will have the attention of fans in training camp it will be 20-year-old Alexander Holtz. He had a great season in the American Hockey League (AHL) putting up 51 points (26 goals, 25 assists) in 52 games for the Utica Comets and made his NHL debut appearing in nine games and earning two assists. The Swede was drafted seventh overall in 2020 and there is a high expectation that he could make the roster this season out of training camp.
My colleague Nick Stanziale wrote an article about the team needing Holtz to be in a top-six role to start the season. This could prove difficult for the youngster as Ondrej Palat, Jesper Bratt, Yegor Sharangovich, and Dawson Mercer are expected to at least start as the club’s top wingers. Holtz will most likely have to have a better training camp than both Sharangovich and Mercer for a spot on the first or second line. This summer he spent a lot of time training with Bratt and during development camp talked about learning as much as he could from his fellow countryman. Let’s see if Holtz can find his stride and potentially have his own breakout performance this season.
There are plenty of unknowns surrounding the team and while some answers will quickly reveal themselves, like if Holtz can make the opening night lineup, others may take months to learn. Fans will get their first look at the team when the Devils travel up north to take on the Montreal Canadiens on Sept. 26.
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.