Looking back on last season, it was New Jersey Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald who said, “There were a lot of negatives this year. But when you look at the snapshots of the positives and what our team accomplished individually, that excites me.”
That excitement seems to be contagious as fans on social media are excited about Andrew Brunette and Ryan McGill behind the bench and the acquisitions of Ondrej Palat and Vitek Vanecek. There is a buzz around the team and expectations are even higher knowing that on paper the team has improved. The stage is set for three players to take on a bigger role and the spotlight will be on them when their season begins in Philadelphia on Oct. 13.
Goaltending: Mackenzie Blackwood
For the first time in months, Mackenzie Blackwood is in good health, and the 6-foot-4 goaltender is more than ready to put last season behind him and focus on becoming his team’s go-to guy in the net.
“Next year, I have to take it a bit personally, that I want to be the guy who is relied on,” he said. “It’s a lot of internal pressure, I want to be that guy, I want to be the rock, I want to be the guy who plays all the games.”
The Ontario native is set be a restricted free agent at the conclusion of the 2022-23 season, and will be in need of a new contract whether it’s in New Jersey or somewhere else. It is safe to assume that provides a little extra motivation for the goaltender, as his numbers have declined since he made his NHL debut during the 2018-19 season. He will be starting his fifth season in the league and will finally be sharing the net with a reliable partner. Looking back, he has shared the net with Louis Domingue, Keith Kinkaid and a declining Cory Schneider. Vanecek provides stability, healthy competition, and extra incentive as it could be anyone’s net this season.
There will be a lot of focus on the Devils’ goaltenders, as the position has been their Achilles heel for quite some time. The good news is the blue line has drastically improved over the past couple of summers, which should take some of the pressure off both Blackwood and Vanecek. Recently, I took a poll on Twitter and 60 percent of voters believe Blackwood will return to form now that his health is no longer in question. Only time will tell if he will embrace his role this upcoming season or if Vanecek takes over as the team’s go-to netminder.
Defense: Jonas Siegenthaler
When the Devils traded their third-round draft pick to the Washington Capitals to acquire defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler, fans seemed underwhelmed. Looking back through Twitter, I saw comments like, “why would they trade a 3rd for him” and “boring” written under the news of the trade. It is safe to say there was not a real expectation when it came to what fans expected from the 6-foot-2 blueliner, which meant everyone was pleasantly surprised by his performance.
Last season he emerged as one the team’s most consistent defenders and was ranked as one of the top defensive defensemen in the league. Siegenthaler began the season being utilized as a second and sometimes third-pairing defenseman playing alongside P.K. Subban, but over time found himself playing top minutes alongside Damon Severson and Dougie Hamilton.
On July 26, the club announced that Siegenthaler signed a five-year extension with an annual average value of $3.4 million. It was a solid move by Fitzgerald to lock up the 25-year-old on a team-friendly deal as he appears to be a crucial member of the club’s future. This upcoming season there will be a new expectation surrounding the Swiss defender, and now that the coaching staff knows what he is capable of, he is primed to take on a bigger role.
Offense: Jack Hughes
Truth be told, it was tough to pick which forward is poised for a bigger role since a few could be considered. Alexander Holtz would be a great candidate, except it is unclear if he will make the final roster. My other thought was 26-year-old Miles Wood, as it was clear multiple times this past season he was missed on the ice, but as I write this, he is not re-signed (his salary arbitration hearing is scheduled for Aug. 6). The aforementioned thought process led me to none other than Jack Hughes.
The 21-year-old was limited to 49 games last season due to injury, but was over a point-per-game player, finishing the 2021-22 campaign with 56 points. For precautionary reasons the team kept him off the ice at the end of the season, even though Fitzgerald said he potentially could have played.
During his end of season media availability, Hughes mentioned a big goal for this upcoming season is to stay healthy and play all 82 games. Could it be too dramatic to say the team’s overall success is dependent on his health? Potentially, but last season the Orlando, Florida, native missed 33 games, and out of those 33 the team lost 21 of them. He has proven he is a dynamic forward and at one point he was on an eight-game point streak. The 5-foot-11 center will be starting his fourth NHL season, and if he can remain on the ice he is primed for the biggest season of his young career.
Multiple Devils players are coming off career seasons and the additions that Fitzgerald made over the past few months will further help the team’s young core develop. New Jersey is eyeing a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in April and if the aforementioned can lead the way, they just might have a chance to get out of a very competitive Metropolitan Division.