I admit it, I’ve become almost completely disengaged from this Devils season. And why not, considering they were eliminated from the playoffs at least three months ago (heck, most of the East was more or less eliminated two months ago – it’s almost unheard of to have every playoff spot decided with six or seven games left) and other sports are in full bloom with the beginning of the MLB season, the upcoming NFL Draft and the NBA playoffs – with the nationally polarizing quest of the Brooklyn Nets to win a title. Not to mention the fact the Devils are at the tail end of a five-game West Coast swing, barely two weeks after an unconscionable meltdown against the Panthers which was almost my last game attended this season, other than both Wings games next week.
Make no mistake, I’m going next week mostly because A) I have club seats for Fan Appreciation Day and have a friend going with me, and B) because I want to use as much of my food and beverage card as possible in any other game(s) I go to. I might wind up going Saturday as well if I can’t sell those tickets (again mostly to cash in on the f/b card), but against the mighty Hurricanes I’ll probably be plotting my exit around the second intermission. Given my general apathy, it’s hard to know what to write about. Maybe it’s a little early for a full season wrapup post but let’s be honest, what is going to happen in the last seven games of the season that’s going to have a major impact on next season, barring something catastrophic like a major injury? Heck, it’s harder to muster up enthusiasm for low-pressure games when you have Jack Hughes on the shelf again, after his star turn the previous two months…not to mention defensive pillar Jonas Siegenthaler, who broke his hand at around the same time and is also out for the rest of the year. It’s also become boring to do draft lottery watch when even having successful high picks haven’t helped this organization out of its decade-long malaise.
I’m more in the mood for a little bit of a look ahead to next year anyway before closing the book on this season, especially since that’s mostly what these last seven games (and the previous couple of months) have become about. Not to mention the AHL playoffs for our prospects, as well as the recently concluded college hockey season for Jack’s brother Luke, in a heartbreaking OT loss at the Frozen Four. At least we’ll be almost assured of seeing big games if Luke stays in college for one more year, although Michigan won’t be as stacked next season, with some of their other studs like Owen Power making the jump to the NHL. There’s no indication yet Luke will follow immediately, but it seems likely he’ll be playing in the NHL by the start of the 2023-24 season at worst.
Utica is cruising to the playoffs after their historic start in the AHL, hopefully they’ll have a deep playoff run themselves. It’s been a while since any city’s fans of a Devils affiliate have seen a deep Calder Cup run but for guys like former first-rounders Alex Holtz and Nolan Foote, defensive prospects like Kevin Bahl (who’s recently improved his play at the NHL level), Reilly Walsh and Nikita Okhotiuk, plus our young goalie duo of Nico Daws – who’ll presumably be sent back down before the AHL postseason – and Akira Schmid…any playoff experience they get can only help. It’s still hard to get into prospect games you can’t readily watch or listen to without paying a fee though. Not to mention actually going to a minor league game is more prohibitive travel-wise now than it was in the days of them being in Albany, which in itself was almost a three hour drive.
It’s safe to say at least a handful of players on the AHL team plus Luke and perhaps an overseas player or two can put themselves in the mix for a spot on the NHL roster next camp. Especially since it’ll take far less time to list guys who will definitely be with the team next year, than it will be to play guesswork on the rest of the roster. For example, I’m not sure there’s a single goalie in the organization you can make a definitive case should be here next year. Mackenzie Blackwood may help his cause if he comes back and has a few good games down the stretch, but there’s also the rumors of discontent between player and team regardless of his health status. He certainly hasn’t helped his standing in the organization on the ice the last two seasons regardless of any off-ice drama. Jonathan Bernier’s under contract for next year but can you really count on him at his age, after a major hip injury? Nico Daws has stabilized his game a little bit after short-circuiting for a while but you’d still rather have a 22-year old get another full season in the AHL than throwing him back into the fire, or giving him menial games as an NHL backup.
On D there are only a couple more sure things to be on the roster through next year. Obviously Dougie Hamilton’s one of them but I’m not gonna lie, I’m a little concerned over this recent stretch where he’s had just four points in his last nineteen games. He started well early before his run of injuries, and certainly playing with a facial cage is probably hindering his game but still, you’d think a guy with his talent could get more points by sheer osmosis, especially with our top forwards swimming in points over that same stretch. We need him to rebound next year though, he’s not going anywhere with six years left on his deal. Siegenthaler has less contract security but a lot of equity built up after a solid season, I’d even put him slightly above Damon Severson in terms of chances to stay but that’s only because of Severson’s pending UFA status after next season.
Management’s going to have to decide what to do with Severson coming off a bit of a breakout year offensively (eleven goals and 42 points in 73 games so far), along with fellow D Ryan Graves who’s also a UFA after next season. There’s only so many guys you can give UFA money to, even with forwards Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier already looking like quasi-bargain signings. And wither Ty Smith? After struggling most of this season, he’s been showing more flashes of his rookie form lately. Still, a long and rough sophomore slump which finally led to a couple of recent benchings has got to concern the franchise at least a little. And it shows how far he’s fallen I almost forgot to even give PK Subban a cursory mention…nice guy, solid locker room leader by all accounts, but I doubt he’ll be back next season. If anything, maybe he’ll even get a jump on his next career in the media unless he gets an opportunity to play a back-end role for a contender.
Up front, clearly Hughes and Hischier are keepers and obviously the best part of another terrible season has been the dual breakout of both our recent #1 overall picks. Hughes put up 26 goals and 56 points in just 49 games (which is the only mild concern tbh…the GP total) while Nico’s finally blossomed into the uber two-way force many thought he could be, with 20 goals and 58 points in 66 games. Yet you could argue neither one was the team MVP this year given the breakout of Jesper Bratt, who’s only put up 70 points in 70 games. My only concern with Bratt’s breakout is contract-related, after he and his agent played hardball and Bratt bet on himself, now he’s set to cash in and I doubt any hometown discount will be in the cards, the way it was with Jack and Nico to a degree. Although not on the level of those three you also have to put Dawson Mercer in the ‘definite’ column for next year, after a solid rookie season with 16 goals and 41 points in 75 games – all as a teenager.
After that is when you start getting into conjecture. Yegor Sharangovich’s second half has been encouraging, after a slow start that got him benched for a few games. Still, how much can you complain about a 23-year old winger with 38 goals and 73 points in his first 123 NHL games (about a season and a half)? While I’d like to see Miles Wood healthy next season, he’s also coming up on UFA status and who knows how much missing all but three games this season with his own injuries and hip surgery will affect him going forward? He looked great in his brief return, before going on the shelf again with an undisclosed ailment. Perhaps a future replacement/complement will be Fabian Zetterlund, a big body who showed a scoring touch in Utica (24 goals and 52 points in 58 AHL games) and has contributed in his brief stint as a Devil so far. While I still remain a skeptic of this player, I can’t deny Jesper Boqvist has played better recently. Still, is eight goals and nineteen points in 49 games really enough production to hand him the third-line center role and keep Mercer on the wing? And Nathan Bastian’s story was one of the feel-good ones of the season, as his eleven goals in 65 games provided some tangible production to go along with his physical presence. You never know with fourth-liners though, sometimes their production randomly spikes then goes back downward after.
Among guys I’m less invested in coming back are mercurial forwards Pavel Zacha and Andreas Jonsson. As far as the former goes, enough is enough already. I’m a bit tired of seeing Zacha disappoint on our dime. If we’re ever going to take a step forward as a team we need to get rid of players like Zacha who constantly needs the right fit or the right motivation to compete. As far as Jonsson, I do think he competes but he’s been completely invisible in his two years as a Devil other than his Bratt and Mercer-induced surge of scoring the first month of the season. Since getting Bratt taken off his line, Jonsson’s production has flatlined again, to the point where I almost typed in Marcus Johansson instead of Andreas Jonsson (another perimeter winger who couldn’t hack it long-term here). I’d put Tomas Tatar as a Jonsson plus…a guy who will compete and can score a little, but no longer gives you enough production to be anything more than a stopgap if needed through the remainder of his contract, i.e. next season. Jimmy Vesey and his 14 points with a -23 in 66 games will almost surely be a one and done with the Devils, and may be playing his final NHL games this year. After a decent rookie season, Janne Kuokkanen’s played himself into irrelevancy this year. I’m not a huge fan of Michael McLeod…to me he’s like a Dave Steckel, with speed. All he’s really good for is faceoffs, and when you have two franchise centers you don’t really want to carry another guy who can only win faceoffs.
Last but not least (in terms of importance) is the coaching staff. I’ve bounced back and forth on Lindy Ruff all year, mostly cause I’ve always been a fan of his before he got here, and he’s a high-class individual. But let’s face it, after two of the worst seasons in franchise history it’s hard to justify bringing back the same head coach and the same staff for a third straight season. I get you can lump some of the issues of last season on COVID and the wonky division format and some of the issues of this season on goaltending woes but still, it’s ultimately a results-based business and nobody knows this more than an NHL lifer like Lindy. Since he didn’t exactly hire his own staff, his staff’s job security isn’t necessarily going to be tied to his, which I’m not sure is a good thing. Especially when it comes to Mark Recchi, who’s somehow managed to have a woeful power play this year despite three forwards having major breakout seasons…and also somehow managed to have a mediocre power play in Pittsburgh with two of the best forwards ever there. I’m less anti-Alain Nasreddine than Recchi but come on now, how many assistants on losing teams really get to stay through two staff changeovers?!
So that’s basically my thoughts on the organization going forward. Maybe I’ll have a look back on the season in general at some point next week, but there’s not really much positive to go through that isn’t individual player based (and that I haven’t already touched on here – a la Hughes, Nico and Bratt’s breakouts, Mercer’s promising rookie season and Siegenthaler being a revelation). It was nice for the three weeks or so they looked like they were improved early in the season…just like last year’s illusory 6-3-2, this year’s illusory 7-3-2 start was swept under an avalanche of losing streaks.