Devils, NJ Devils

Is it enough? Sound strategy puts the Devils on the verge of contention

As the calendar heads into the "real" last weekend of summer, the Devils sit exactly two weeks from the start of rookie camp marking the unofficial start of the season. General Manager Tom Fitzgerald has been busy this offseason, like a contractor trying to finish a project both on schedule and under budget. Fitzgerald has worked diligently to stretch every dollar of the salary cap and may still have a few moves left before the puck drops in Philadelphia on October 13.

At the conclusion of the 21-22 season, a dejected collection of players, coaches, and management stepped to the podium and bemoaned another lost season, but also demonstrated a resolve to continue to improve and compete for the playoffs in the 22-23 season. From all reports, they have honored that resolve.

Several players competed earlier this summer for their countries internationally. Others have committed to off-season improvement by working on strength, speed, and skating. This has been epitomized by the almost daily Instagram posts from Sweden showing Alexander Holtz and Jesper Bratt grinding with personal trainers both on and off the ice.

Lindy Ruff has remade his coaching staff by replacing the much-maligned Mark Recchi and Alain Nasreddine, with coaches touting records of proven success and deep playoff runs. Jack Adams Award finalist Andrew Brunette is the new associate coach and will direct the power play. Ryan McGill was brought over from the Vegas Golden Knights to rebuild and stabilize the defense and penalty kill. Former Devils stalwart Sergei Brylin was brought up from the Utica Comets, the Devils AHL affiliate, to work on player development. Several players, including Yegor Sharangovich, cited Brylin's help in improving their play.

Fitzgerald spent his offseason trying to balance continuing to stockpile young assets while making his team grittier and harder to play against. Despite what was rumored to be a torrid trade market, Fitzgerald held fast to the number two overall draft pick and used it on an elite right-shot defenseman, Simon Nemec. He flipped a third-round selection to fill the team's biggest need by acquiring goaltender Vitek Vanecek to share the net with a hopefully rejuvenated Mackenzie Blackwood. He also extended defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler and prioritized resigning all of his RFAs, including Vanecek, notably avoiding arbitration with Bratt and Miles Wood.

When the Devils were spurned by free agency's top prize and New Jersey native Johnny Gaudreau, Fitzgerald quickly pivoted to signing veteran winger, Stanley Cup Champion Ondrej Palat away from the Lightning. They also bolstered the defense corps by signing veteran Brendan Smith to a team-friendly contract. Not satisfied, the Devils orchestrated two trades, exchanging former first-round picks Pavel Zacha and Ty Smith for Erik Haula and John Marino. Haula should improve the Devils' face-off percentage and provide grit and depth at center. Marino is viewed as one of the top, up-and-coming, two-way right-shot defenseman in the league, and he is also under team control through the 26-27 season at a manageable cap charge of $4.4 million.

Is it enough? The question is on the mind of every Devils fan as they temper the excitement of a new season with the reality of years of dashed hope. There is certainly room for optimism. The team robustly addressed each and every weakness this offseason: goaltending (Vanecek), coaching (Brunette, Brylin, & McGill), experience (Palat), and grit (Haula). The other glaring weakness, the power play, should be improved by having a healthy Dougie Hamilton, Jack Hughes, and a scheme run by Brunette. There are likely to be more additions before the start of the season, whether through PTOs or a trade.

Additions to and restructuring of the roster were undoubtedly needed. However, the season may rise and fall on two factors, health and growth. Last year outside of opening night, it was rare to even have Hughes, Hamilton, and Blackwood together on the ice, let alone playing at 100%.

This year it is imperative that Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, Hamilton, and Blackwood stay out of the trainer's room. The growth of young players will either keep the team in mediocrity or elevate it to contention. Hughes assuming the mantle of elite, all-star center, followed by Hischier continuing to play a 200-foot game at a point-per-game pace, puts the Devils directly on the precipice of the playoffs. They will need Bratt to demonstrate that last year was not a fluke and that he can be counted on as an elite winger. It is not inconceivable that Sharangovich also takes a huge step forward, especially with Brylin on staff. These returning players, bolstered by the emergence of Alexander Holtz, Fabian Zetterlund, and Nolan Foote forcing their way into the lineup is how the Devils can break through and play meaningful games into spring 2023.