Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2023-24 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 throughout the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2023-24 New Jersey Devils.
2023-24 New Jersey Devils
It was a season for the ages in New Jersey last year. The Devils finally arose from their decade-long rebuild to a historic 112-point season. They set an NHL record for the biggest point differential between seasons after finishing with just 63 points in 2021-22. Individual performances across the board were strong, with Jack Hughes cementing himself as a superstar with 99 points. In the Devil’s first taste of playoff action since 2012, they took down their Hudson River Rival New York Rangers in seven games. Unfortunately, they were sent packing in round two against the formidable Carolina Hurricanes but showed to the rest of the league that they had arrived.
General Manager Tom Fitzgerald went to work yet again this offseason. He sent out pending free agent Damon Severson to Columbus for a draft pick, before flipping the pick along with restricted free agent Yegor Sharangovich in exchange for forward Tyler Toffoli. In addition, “Fitzy” was able to lock down key forwards Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier to team-friendly eight-year contract extensions. During free agency, however, the Devils were much quieter, opting to bring in bottom-of-the-lineup veterans. Forwards Tomas Nosek and Chris Tierney were signed to provide competition for the team’s fourth line following the departure of Miles Wood. Coming out of the offseason the Devils have found a great balance between youth and experience in the lineup.
The top six can vary depending on how balanced Head Coach Lindy Ruff wants to make it. However, the one constant is that it will contain a lot of firepower. A top line of Timo Meier, Nico Hischier, and Dawson Mercer would be brand new this year, but both wingers have spent time on Hischiers’ wing. Mercer is the type of player whose hard-nosed forechecking game fits in on any line but had a lot more success in the top six, in particular with Hischier. As for Meier, he provides a lethal shot and goal-scoring ability on a line with a high-end playmaker (Hischier) and a rabid forechecker (Mercer). This is a top line with the ability to get in deep, play heavy, and not give the other team the chance to create offense.
The second line is where a lot of the fun is. Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt are two of the most electrifying skaters in the league that can cause the opponents nightmares. Hughes is the anchor, playmaker, goalscorer, and do-it-all on this line with his ability to generate offence. For Bratt, it’s his skating and elusiveness on the ice that creates offence and makes him such a perfect partner for Hughes. Where it gets interesting is with Tyler Toffoli. While his skating is nowhere near the level of Hughes and Bratt, he has a knack for finding the open areas on the ice and getting to the crease. In addition, he has an elite shot that adds to the danger of this line. Defensively they can be vulnerable, but teams will likely be spending most of the shift chasing them around in their zone before having a chance to attack.
Entering the season it seems as though two-thirds of the third line is set in stone. Ondrej Palat and Erik Haula are textbook third-line two-way forwards who bring it every shift. The intrigue in camp is who wins that spot on the RW. The battle looks like it’ll be between Alexander Holtz, Nolan Foote, and Graeme Clarke, with Holtz being the heavy favourite. Holtz likely ends up higher in the lineup because of his skill set, but for now, he settles in there. Palat and Haula are two savvy veterans who each have 20-goal potential, while also playing stellar defence. Holtz has struggled mightily with his defensive coverage early in his NHL career so that will need to be cleaned up if he wants to stick around, but his shot gives him a chance to also be a 20-goal scorer.
As for the fourth line, no longer is it the BMW line with the departure of Miles Wood. Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian retain their spots and are very defensively solid fourth-liners, while the addition of Nosek gives them another veteran body. All three players can take faceoffs and kill penalties. McLeod was third in the league in faceoff win percentage at 60.6%, while Nosek ranked seventh at 59.3%. Their combination of speed, size, and defensive acumen makes them one of the more formidable fourth lines in the league.
The Jonas Siegenthaler and Dougie Hamilton duo have been a staple as the top pair for the better part of the last two seasons. Last year it culminated with Siegenthaler having one of his best campaigns which included a career high +/- of +27, and Hamilton smashed his career highs in goals (22), assists (52), and points (74). Both of them complement each other so well. Siegenthaler has turned into one of the most underrated defensive defencemen in the league, while Hamilton continues to be the offensive catalyst from the backend. With its current construction, I would not suspect these two to be split up for long periods.
A second pairing of Luke Hughes and John Marino comes with a ton of mystery and a ton of upside. In his first season as a Devil, Marino became a do-it-all stalwart on defence. However, he spent the majority of the year partnered with Ryan Graves, who signed with Pittsburgh in free agency. The likeliest partner for him is Jack Hughes’s younger brother Luke. In his brief stint with the Devils, he quickly looked pro-ready and was a standout player in Game Five against the Hurricanes. Luke Hughes has been the Devil’s top prospect since he was taken fourth overall in 2021 and has rightfully earned a meaningful spot in the lineup after an outstanding career at the University of Michigan. He will undoubtedly make rookie mistakes, but Marino is a sound defensive partner who will stay back while Hughes jumps into the attack.
Kevin Bahl, Colin Miller, and Brendan Smith all have NHL experience and are candidates for the bottom pair. The wild card for a spot is 2022 second-overall pick Simon Nemec, but it’s hard to imagine the Devils going into the season with two rookies on the backend. Miller came over this offseason in a trade and throughout his career has been a steady two-way defenceman. His biggest plus is that he is right-handed. As for Bahl and Smith, it was Bahl who played the majority of the games down the stretch and in the playoffs. He’s a towering presence on the ice and plays a mature, physical defensive style. Bahl is expected to have a much bigger role as an everyday player and should see plenty of time on the penalty kill.
Goaltending, goaltending, goaltending. It’s been a topic of discussion for the Devils since the heydays of Cory Schneider. However, last year saw the newly acquired Vitek Vanecek take over the starting job. And in his first go-around as the number one, he put up very solid numbers to the tune of a 2.45 GAA, a 0.911 SV%, and the first goalie not named Martin Brodeur to win 30 games. Sounds good right? Well, things collapsed for Vanecek in the playoffs, leading to rookie Akira Schmid taking over. However, entering this year Vanecek is the clearcut guy in goal for the Devils and is now conditioned for the full workload. If he struggles, the trade rumors will begin to swirl again, but if he can improve just a tick from last year, the Devils will be set up very nicely.
Projected for the backup job is playoff hero and 23-year-old Akira Schmid. His brief six-game stint in 2021-22 was abysmal, but the light switch went on last season. In 18 games he registered a 2.13 GAA and a 0.922 SV%. However, he was most impressive in a relief role against the Rangers in the playoffs. Shutouts in games five and seven and the momentum he created with his poise in goal is what propelled the Devils into the second round. Schmid suddenly finds himself as the potential long-term answer to the Devil’s goalie problem, but it will require a little patience.
Players to Watch
After coming to the Devils before the Trade Deadline, Timo Meier had a good-not-great start to life in New Jersey. He scored 14 points in 21 regular season games, but the eye test showed that he had trouble sticking on one line that late in the season. In the playoffs, his performances stuck out, but his boxscore numbers didn’t. Meier’s power forward archetype was on full display, getting to the dirty areas, finishing checks, and getting in the face of the opponents. However, he only had four points to show for it.
Entering 2023-24, Meier is armed with a new eight-year contract and something to prove. His style of play is something the team sorely lacked, and the expectation is that he brings the level of intensity shown in the playoffs in the regular season, only with more offensive production. In addition, Meier is an outstanding goal scorer. He scored 40 goals last season, and the expectation should be that he comes close to reaching that number again.
It took only two seasons for Dawson Mercer to break out. In his sophomore season, Mercer scored 27 goals, and 29 assists, and played in all 82 games. Mercer flies under the radar primarily because of the other top talent the Devils have. However, if you ask any Devils fan they will likely rave nonstop about how important Mercer is to the team. Despite his age, Mercer has shown his ability to play, and thrive, in all facets of the game. Not to mention he is a hound for the puck on the forecheck and scores a majority of his goals in and around the blue paint.
Mercer wasn’t projected to be much of a goalscorer when he entered the league. But the sky has become the limit by scoring 27 in just his second year. The next step for Mercer is to develop a shot that can beat goalies from range. If he can fine-tune that aspect of his game he should easily score 30 goals this upcoming season.
Prediction for the 2023-24 Devils
After a surprising 2022-23 season, the Devils have positioned themselves to be one of the few challengers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. They have a perfect blend of veteran leadership and experienced youth. Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier lead a forward core that can go toe-to-toe with any team in the NHL. Their two biggest question marks are goaltending and if the defense can hold up after the departure of a few key players. However, New Jersey is well-positioned to make the playoffs and have a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup.
Prediction: Second in Metropolitan Division. Lose in the Eastern Conference Finals
Main Photo: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports