Looking forward into 2022-23, the New Jersey Devils stand out as a team that made serious improvements to their roster without making a ton of noise about it. The last decade has been difficult to Devils fans, who endured the transition from the reign of Lou Lamoriello to Ray Shero--whose tenure was defined by the PK Subban trade as well as both Taylor Hall trades. In the fallout of a messy era of Devils hockey, the new management group under GM Tom Fitzgerald have taken a slow and steady approach, choosing to build through the draft, craft a strong development pipeline, and build a process by which they can field competitive teams, not just in the short-term, but for years to come.
While that process is slowly working out, Devils fans are tired of cheering for a losing team. So far this offseason, Fitzgerald has brought in 2x Stanley Cup champion Ondrej Palat, G Vitek Vanecek, D John Marino, F Erik Haula, and D Brendan Smith.
Consequently, they bid farewell to former sixth-overall pick F Pavel Zacha, D Ty Smith, as well as a few free agents they opted not to retain.
The story of the 2021-22 New Jersey Devils is: an offensively gifted team disproportionately affected by league-worst goaltending and a bottom-five powerplay. The youngest team in the NHL last season, there is much room for maturity on this group, but it is incredibly difficult to argue that this group wasn't kneecapped by goaltending. It is also worthy of note that the 14th ranked offense finished with 28th on the powerplay.
Goaltending has improved two-fold; Vitek Vanecek was acquired for a draft pick, and compared to Jon Gillies and rookie goaltender Nico Daws, he is an immediate improvement. Couple Vanecek's acquisition with a 100% healthy, contract-year Mackenzie Blackwood, and the Devils should receive, at the bare minimum, reliable goaltending. For what it's worth, it is theorized by advanced analytics that the Devils' goaltending alone cost the team 11 wins, which would place the Devils ahead of the New York Islanders for fifth in the Metro Division.
Defensively, the Devils were better at preventing chances than many believe. They finished 22nd in the NHL in expected goals-against per 60, ahead of teams like the St. Louis Blues and New York Islanders. And last season Dougie Hamilton played the latter half of the year with a broken toe and a fractured jaw.
The additions of John Marino and Brendan Smith (combined with the departure of Ty Smith) automatically boost NJ's defense. Devils fans were skeptical of moving on from Smith too early, but I think Fitzgerald deserves all the flowers for that trade:
So assuming the Devils' goaltending and defense both see significant material improvements, I would say it is more likely that the Devils MAKE the playoffs in 2022-23 than MISS the playoffs. You heard me, the Devils more than likely make the playoffs.
Keep in mind, the Devils were a top-ten offensive team last year. Led by Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt, the Devils finished tenth in expected goals-for per 60 in 2021-22 and Hughes missed more than a quarter of the season.
Seems like a considerable loss.
Essentially, the New Jersey Devils acted surgically this offseason, precisely attacking areas of need, shoring up both goaltending and defense, while adding a proven-winner to their young group. Those additions alone make me bullish on New Jersey. But the biggest additions to their team have been on the bench rather than on the ice.
New Jersey added 2022 Jack Adams Trophy finalist Andrew Brunette to their bench, tasked with managing the team's forwards and powerplay. And on the back end, they hired former Vegas Golden Knights assistant Ryan McGill to run defense and the penalty kill.
2022-23 looks like as good a year as any for the Devils to take a leap forward and surprise the hockey world. Going beyond this season, the Devils have a bevy of top-prospects. D Luke Hughes--brother of Jack and Quinn--is currently lighting up the World Junior Championships, while 2nd overall pick Simon Nemec and former 7th overall pick Alexander Holtz both spent the entire summer training with members of the big club. This is going to be a scary, scary group once all of these players reach their prime. And Tom Fitzgerald has proven to be a prudent and effective manager, so fans are in good hands.
Except maybe Mason Geertsen. I don't know what all that is about.