3 Things the Devils Should Be Thankful for in 2022

The New Jersey Devils are 16-3 and sit in the top spot of the Metropolitan Division, which is a quite drastic improvement from last season. It took the Devils 48 games to reach 16 wins in 2021-22, and they’ve done it in less than half as many games this season. They have a lot to be happy about during their turnaround, but here are the three things they should be the most thankful for this holiday season:

Vanecek, Marino & Smith Provide a Revamped Back End

The biggest question mark heading into the season was how the goaltending would hold up, but Vitek Vanecek has quickly put any doubts to bed. His 2.14 goals-against average (GAA), which is third in the NHL, and .918 save percentage (SV%,) which is 10th, have helped the Devils limit their total goals against to 27, which is tied for third least in the league. It’s been an impressive improvement from last season, which saw the Devils give up the fourth most in the league with 302 goals against.

Vitek Vanecek New Jersey Devils
Vitek Vanecek, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

As good as Vanecek has been, the defense also deserves some credit. The addition of John Marino has worked wonders for the Devils, as he’s proved to be one of the best defensemen in the entire NHL this season. He’s matched up against top players like Connor McDavid, Nathan McKinnon, and Johnny Gaudreau and has, for the most part, shut them all down. His stellar play has also pushed Damon Severson, who is widely known for costly mistakes, down the lineup, which has limited the team’s turnovers in its own end. Brendan Smith’s performances in open play have also been solid on the back end. Adding Marino and Smith to an already impressive core of Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Ryan Graves has been a dream unit for the Devils; not to mention the great work assistant coach Ryan McGill has done with the defense and penalty kill.

The Devils went from an expected goals against (xGA) of 2.88 goals per game in 2021-22 to an xGA of 2.43 per game in 2022-23. They also gave up 0.80 goals above xGA in 2021, and in 2022, they’ve given up 0.11 goals less than xGA.

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The Devils have won seven one-goal games so far this season. If they gave up an extra one-half goal per game, like last season’s xGA suggested, they would have eight or nine more goals against, which could potentially equate to four more losses and eight less points. That would put New Jersey at 24 points and tied with the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders and New York Rangers within the division. Instead, the improvement has them sitting at 32 points and four games above the rest of the competition.

Fitzgerald Preaching Franchise-Wide Patience & Consistency

Devils’ fans went from “Fire Lindy” to “Sorry Lindy” in just a few weeks. Lindy Ruff was on the hottest of hot seats, and after his team’s 0-2 start, he was likely one loss away from getting fired. However, general manager Tom Fitzgerald decided to hang onto him, and since then, the Devils have won 16 out of their last 17 games, and he is the betting favorite to win the Jack Adams Award, given to the NHL’s coach of the year.

Ruff’s criticism might have been well deserved early on, but he’s been nothing short of remarkable since the Devils’ last loss on Oct. 24 against the Washington Capitals. He’s pushed the right buttons, and his in-game adjustments have been spot-on. Whether it’s Yegor Sharangovich scoring the overtime game-winning goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs after Ruff decided to use him with Jack Hughes, or Dawson Mercer scoring against the Oilers after he decided to bump him up the lineup in place of a struggling Fabian Zetterlund, his in-game adjustments have made positive differences.

Related: Devils’ Star Players Stellar in 13th Straight Win

Patience certainly paid off in the short term and has been a common theme around the Devils. Fitzgerald has said that he wants to build his team the right way, through drafting and developing, rather than overspending on trades or in free agency. At times, this approach left fans frustrated and wondering when it would translate into winning results, and the answer is now. Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and Nico Hischier are viewed as three of the best young players in the NHL, and each was drafted and developed under Fitzgerald’s watch. Not to mention Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes, who are arguably the two best defensive prospects in the whole world, are both set to join the team within the next year or two. Fitzgerald’s patient approach is finally paying dividends, and New Jersey looks to be a team that is built to sustain powerhouse-level play for years to come.

Nico Hischier New Jersey Devils
Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Along with patience comes consistency. Building a team the right way is only effective if the players perform at a high level. Ruff’s consistent line combinations have led to all players building chemistry and familiarity with their linemates, definitely something he was scrutinized for last season. Lines were constantly shuffled, and players never got the opportunity to gain momentum because of the different faces alongside them. The script has completely changed this year. Ruff hasn’t changed his lineup, aside from a few in-game adjustments, during the Devils’ win streak, and why would he? As the saying goes, don’t fix something that’s not broken.

Good Health (Knock On Wood)

Everyone knows that the Devils went through seven different goalies last season on their way to the league’s worst save percentage, which is certainly a feat that not many teams could overcome. On top of this, key contributors in Hughes, Hischier, and Hamilton all suffered injuries that caused them to miss long stretches of the season. So far this season, the roster has been able to stay healthy for the most part. Ondrej Palat is out for an extended period of time due to groin surgery,y and MacKenzie Blackwood is out with a sprained MCL, but Zetterlund, Vanecek, and Akira Schmid have stepped up in their places in huge ways.

Related: Devils’ Zetterlund Proving He Belongs in Lineup

The Devils’ core of Vanecek, Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, Hamilton, and Siegenthaler is clicking on all cylinders; not to mention guys like Marino, Miles Wood, and Tomas Tatar all consistently contributing. Luckily, the Devils haven’t had to make any major lineup changes as a result of injury, aside from Schmid starting in net for two games, which is great for team chemistry and ultimately earning positive results. If they are able to maintain their good health throughout the season, expect the wins to continue to pile up.

Feel free to leave your comments below about what else the Devils should be thankful for amidst this win streak.

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