Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2022-23 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team over the course of the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2022-23 New Jersey Devils.
2022-23 New Jersey Devils
After being awarded the off-season winners for another year, it was a basement finish for the New Jersey Devils. The team finished with a lowly 63 points and ended up finishing 7th in the Metropolitan Division and 14th in the Eastern Conference. Things were looking good on paper, but that never translated into on-ice success. Looking back on the year, three things derailed the season for the team. Injuries, poor goaltending, and bad special teams play were the Achilles’ heel for the team.
The first order of business was on day two of the draft, trading for Washington Capitals goalie Vitek Vanecek. Goaltending for the Devils was abysmal, which will help solidify the crease. Up next was a trade swung with division rival Pittsburgh Penguins. The Devils would send youngster Ty Smith and draft picks for John Marino. Marino slots in on the bottom pair and is locked in for five more seasons. In addition, the Devils bolstered the top six with two-time Stanley Cup champion Ondrej Palat. Palat comes over from the Tampa Bay Lightning and provides leadership and a boost to the top six. The team needs more scoring punch and he provides that and more.
The team swung a trade and removed Pavel Zacha from the equation, and acquired Erik Haula. Haula spent the year with the Boston Bruins, and he fills an immediate need at third-line centre. To cap everything off, shut down defencemen Jonas Siegenthaler signed a five-year extension. He earned it with his stellar defensive play and solidifies the top four on the back end. Fitzgerald went to work and now it’s time for it to translate on the ice.
If there is one area the Devils excelled in, it was offence. It was the least of their problems during the dreadful season. The Devils were one of the better teams when it came down to even-strength play. They finished 15th in Corsi For (50.52%) and finished top ten in even strength goals with 182. An already good offensive group got even better. This is the best the top six has looked in years.
Down The Middle
The Devils boast a young, but talented centre group with Hughes and Hischier. Hischier quietly put together a career year scoring 21 goals, 39 assists, and 60 points. It was his best since his rookie season. Hughes is a bonafide superstar that has improved every season. He was a point-per-game player scoring 56 points in 49 games and was on pace for 80+ in a full season of game action. Both players are getting better with each year and give the Devils a nice 1-2 punch down the middle.
On The Wings
Rookie phenom Dawson Mercer is coming off a solid campaign which saw him tally 42 points in 82 games. A solid sophomore season should be in the cards for him. He can play centre but excelled on the wing for the team during the season. Bratt is coming off his best season with 73 points. His skill and chemistry with Hughes are special and terrorize teams. Sharangovich has cemented himself in the top six and is poised to improve this year. After a slow start, he put together a nice second half of the season and finished fifth in points on the team.
The most significant addition in Palat boosts the top six. New Jersey got another forward they can count on for goals. In addition to his scoring touch and production, his defensive game is good. Palat will thrive in the system. Coming from Tampa and knowing what it takes to win is valuable in its own right to this young team.
The Devils’ bottom six is in better shape than last season. As the additions to the top six solidified, the depth in the bottom six is more profound, making one more effective. Tatar is suited for a third-line role, and Haula is the perfect third-line centre. He is fast and physical and can produce. After seeing what he did alongside David Pastrnak and Taylor Hall, if he can do that for the third line, it will take pressure off the top six units.
Zetterlund should make the team when pre-season concludes. He was solid down the stretch netting eight points in 14 games. He put together mini point streaks and you got a glimpse of the player he could be. A player like Andreas Johnsson could be traded and the roster spot opens up.
In exciting news, Miles Wood returns to the team. He brings a bit of everything that the team missed last year. After being out all last year, his return will boost the bottom six. Bastian was very good coming back over from the Seattle Kraken. He played the power forward role perfectly and even saw some power play time. The bottom six are feisty, gritty, and will be physical. Production from the bottom six is a must and this bottom six improved and should be a better overall group.
Jonas Siegenthaler-Damon Severson
Brendan Smith-John Marino
Top Four/Bottom Pair
The top four are the same as it was last season. The only difference is that everyone is healthy. Hamilton suffered a broken jaw and never returned to proper form. He is the clear-cut number one defenceman and is poised for a bounce-back season. The best pair all of last season for the Devils was Siegenthaler and Severson. In regards to that, the duo spent over 600 minutes together. They averaged 2.13 goals for per 60 minutes and 2.71 goals against per 60 minutes. Siegenthaler is one of the best shut-down defensemen and displayed that with numerous stats. The Devils finally have a player they can rely on in that role and in certain situations.
Solid extension. Siegenthaler eats big minutes at even-strength and on PK. Tough to get around, wins possession back with stick & body.
D Ranks Last Season..
— Mike Kelly (@MikeKellyNHL) July 26, 2022
The bottom pair is the best it has looked. Marino is no slouch of a player. He is good in transition and will help push the play forward to get the offence going. Smith is a versatile player and brings physicality to the back end. The Devils have one of the best-looking blue lines on paper.
The goaltending was brutal. It was so bad that they ranked low in just about every category. The term had five goalies finish in the bottom 20 for goals saved above expected. As a team unit for goaltending, they ranked 31st in have percentage with .881. Also allowing the second most goals in the league is not a recipe for success.
Vanecek is the perfect upgrade for this team. Forming a tandem with Blackwood is perfect and they are both young. Vanecek has posted a consistent .908 save percentage in the last two seasons. In fact, he finished top 10 in save percentage at even strength with .926. The Devils are getting a good young goalie that provides stability to the crease. Relying on AHL goaltending to get wins is no more.
Blackwood is returning and management believes in his potential. Now that he is in full health, all eyes are on him to bounce back after the season he had.
Players To Watch
Just stumbled on the Jack Hughes 2021-22 XL Player Card again.
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 21, 2022
The superstar centre is must-watch hockey. After displaying his talents at the all-star game and throughout the season, the sky is the limit. A breakout year is coming, and surpassing the 56 points he had is not a tall task. He is fast, has great vision and slick mitts and is arguably the team’s best player. Health is his biggest concern as he has been hurt every year, but he is a great talent. The number one centre will be one to watch as the Devils aim to right the ship.
If there is one player to watch it is Blackwood. After opting to keep him in the fold, the bounce-back season is one to watch. His last season was abysmal and that is being nice. He started in 25 games and allowed 79 goals. Blackwood would post a .892 save percentage and 3.39 goals against average. His -12.7 goals saved above expected was the 12th worst in the league. Now that he is healthy, all eyes are on him to see if he returns to form. If not the crease becomes Vanecek’s and he takes a back seat.
Predictions for the 2022-23 New Jersey Devils
This is the year. The year all Devils fans have been waiting for. To conclude the 2022-23 season, the Devils make the playoff and hold the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. A fourth-place finish is where this writer has them.
The issues that occurred last year are no more and this team finally returns playoff hockey to the Garden State. Get The Rock rockin’ and enjoy the season.