“I think we can surprise. I do believe we have a good team, and I’m excited if we stay all healthy to see how dangerous we can be.”
Those words were said by New Jersey Devils captain Nico Hischier during an interview with Tom Gulitti of NHL.com this summer. The Devils had a busy offseason and general manager Tom Fitzgerald improved his roster, at least on paper. It is no secret that it is going to be difficult for his team to make the playoffs this spring. As fans know, the Metropolitan Division is arguably the toughest in the NHL and the addition of Johnny Gaudreau and the emergence of Igor Shesterkin have not helped matters. While injuries are part of the game, and every team deals with them, New Jersey can only hope they won’t be as plagued as they were last season.
Looking back on the 2021-22 campaign there were three areas of concern that the team will need to quickly rectify if they hope to remain competitive this season and fight for a playoff spot. Let’s start with an issue that Jesper Bratt discussed before he left New Jersey for the summer.
1. The Team’s Inability to Hold Onto a Lead
The Devils finished the 2021-22 campaign with 63 points. They were 37 points shy of the Washington Capitals for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. I looked back at last season’s results and there were more than 20 instances where they had a lead, but eventually lost the game whether it was in regulation or overtime.
Before leaving New Jersey for the summer, Bratt was a guest on the Speak of the Devils Podcast and host Matt Loughlin asked the 5-foot-10 Swede if the team hated to lose enough, referring to a comment made by head coach Lindy Ruff during a post-game press conference. Bratt gave an honest answer that fans could appreciate: “I don’t think so, because I think that if we did, then we would have obviously won more games when entering the third period with the lead. I think that is a learning experience and a phase that this team has to go through now.”
This is where veterans like Ondrej Palat, Erik Haula and Brendan Smith come into play. Having experienced players who have the ability to calm down the younger guys either in the locker room during intermission or on the bench will be invaluable this season. The presence of the aforementioned three is already paying off and it will be interesting to see how they will affect the team’s overall mentality this season.
2. New Jersey Must Reduce Their Amount of Goals Against
New Jersey finished last season with 302 goals against, which was fourth highest in the league. On the contrary, they only scored 245. In addition to the inconsistent goaltending, the team really struggled in all areas of the ice. Fitzgerald signed Vitek Vanecek to work alongside Mackenzie Blackwood, and Jonathan Bernier was on the ice the first couple of days of training camp taking shots from his teammates.
The Devils should remain competitive between the pipes, and it does not hurt that they have an improved defense in front of them. New Jersey parted ways with P.K. Subban and Ty Smith this summer and brought in veterans Brendan Smith and John Marino. When healthy, their defensive core, which is led by Jonas Siegenthaler and Dougie Hamilton, should be able to compete with the best of the Metropolitan Division. The upgraded blue line should also be able to keep some pressure off of their goaltenders, and hopefully lead to a better result.
3. Devils’ Special Teams Need to Improve
Even if a team manages to get into the playoffs they will not get very far with subpar special teams. Last season the Devils had an atrocious power play and allowed a league-leading 14 short-handed goals. On the other hand, their penalty kill was decent and ranked 14th in the league.
Assistant coach Ryan McGill, who was hired on July 29, will now be in charge of running the team’s penalty kill. He replaces Alain Nasreddine who was let go early in the offseason. Fitzgerald opted to not re-sign 29-year-old Jimmy Vesey, who along with Michael McLeod, played the most minutes on the penalty kill among forwards. Janne Kuokkanen was another forward who was utilized, but the Devils bought out the final year of his contract and he is now playing overseas. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see newcomer Erik Haula take on the task as he has played that role throughout his career. Regardless, this is an area where there is an opening, and it will be interesting to see who will eventually take on the responsibility during the preseason.
The power play can only get better, right? Fans should have faith in the fact that it will be run by associate coach Andrew Brunette, who was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award last season as coach of the year. A five-man unit that consists of Hamilton, Hischier, Bratt, Palat and Jack Hughes sounds lethal, and if the team can remain healthy this is an area where there can be a vast improvement.
There are equal levels of excitement and apprehension surrounding this team, and how can there not be? The improvements in both the locker room and behind the bench are undeniable, but there is still a question mark surrounding the goaltending. It would be unfair to say the team is weak in the crease because at this juncture no one knows what a healthy Blackwood can do along with Vanecek as a partner. Over the next few weeks, the coaching staff will try different combinations to see what will be successful when the team opens up their season in Philadelphia. Be sure to follow along as I continue to provide news and updates from the Devils’ 2022-23 training camp.