Devils season breakup day in Newark

Instead of getting ready for Game 6 of the second round at the Rock, I’m listening to exit interviews with the media – or at least I’m about to. So it goes in a league where thirty-one of thirty-two teams will come up short of the ultimate goal. Of all our playoff losses and season endings, this one probably bothers me the least though. I could bother going through some of them, obviously just missing the playoffs is galling – whether it’s on the last day like ’95-96 when they were humiliated the year after their first Cup, or whether it’s been like many recent seasons where it’s more or less been over by January. Losing playoff series as either a higher seed or to a rival are usually next on the annoyance list.

This was one of the rare seasons which didn’t have any of that, and indeed when you look back at 2022-23 it’ll be remembered as a redemption tour rather than any kind of missed opportunity. Even if losing still bugs you in the moment, especially without any clearcut favorite left in the playoffs. Carolina’s paid their dues so to speak, with a number of early playoff exits after good regular seasons. Even winning coach Rod Brind’Amour alluded to the cycle of life as a contender after Game 5:

I think in the Devils’ case, their learning curve in the postseason was twofold this year…not only in trying to figure out how to manage games and learning how to win on the ice, but also how to manage yourselves off the ice when the schedule gets condensed. Clearly the managing games part was an issue, Thursday night’s OT loss was our first under three goals all postseason. Sometimes you have to figure out how to keep games close in order to put your stars in position to make a play at the end. We did that in the regular season and in Games 3-4 against the Rangers, but still let too many other games fly off the handle in the playoffs.

Also, clearly the schedule itself got to certain players by the end…when you’ve generally played only 82 games with many of them meaningless, it’s a little different playing an 82-game schedule where the games are meaningful, plus twelve more playoff games besides. At least you can say Jack Hughes handled it admirably with six goals and eleven points in twelve postseason games, though too many other key players slumped, whether due to workload or injury. Of course, this time of year you never know what injuries guys are playing with – exhibit A Dougie Hamilton, who admitted he suffered a bad wrist injury during the Ranger series. To his credit, we never even had an inkling anything was wrong. Guess I have to back off my criticisms of him during this postseason.

Still, you wonder if going above and beyond games played factored into depressed scoring for guys like Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt. Even guys like Vitek Vanecek (who has been a part of a playoff run before) had never quite played anywhere near the amount of games he did this season. Perhaps that was a reason the rails came off in the postseason, though he also didn’t get much help from the rest of the roster in his starts and I’m sure his teammates would acknowledge that.

There’s too much to look forward to for me to even really care about looking back to be honest, at least today. As good as this season was, you also saw glimpses of the future in the postseason, starting with Akira Schmid forever earning a place in Devils folklore…winning a playoff series at 22 years old with just twenty-four games of NHL experience before this postseason. Of course, that’s twenty-two more games than Luke Hughes had before his entrance into the playoffs, with spectacular results in Game 3 (two assists) and Game 5 (25:02 played, second on the team). He’s only nineteen and probably has already taken a lineup spot for good. Although he didn’t get any NHL postseason action, Simon Nemec is another promising youngster who could earn a lineup spot next year, putting up 34 points in 65 AHL games – and four in six playoff games – as an 18-year old rookie.

For everyone that comes in, someone necessarily has to go out too. This was obviously going to be the last game in a Devils uniform for some guys. It remains to be seen how many, but with Vitek having a strong regular season and Schmid proving himself in the playoffs it would seem that Mackenzie Blackwood’s played his last game here. No big loss given how his last three years went, but a shame nonetheless for someone that started his career on such a promising note before injuries derailed him, plus an unfortunate off-ice situation that doesn’t need to be rehashed also caused a deterioration of trust between him and the team. It’s likely best for both sides to move on, though Blackwood’s still on an RFA deal he could be a candidate for a non-tender.

With Hughes and perhaps Nemec being added full-time to the defense (not to mention Kevin Bahl earning more minutes throughout the season), I’m not sure what the future holds for UFA defensemen Damon Severson or Ryan Graves. It’s unlikely that either would stay on a short-term contract, or that we’ll re-sign them long-term given that we have three guys on the blueline already on long-term deals, and money that needs to be allocated to the forwards – more on that soon.

For Graves, he had a solid two regular seasons here for the most part, with 26 points and a +34 (second on the team) this year, but he struggled in the playoffs with the speed of the game, and that was seemingly an issue when he was in Colorado as well. My relationship with Severson can be best described as love-hate. He certainly gives you reason for both, but even I’d admit through little fault of his own he became as associated with the losing as anyone given the length of his tenure here. At least if this is it for him, he got to enjoy some reward for years of being on bad teams, and he gave us arguably our most memorable regular-season win this year, the early January OT winner over the Rangers to end a long home losing streak and our general December malaise.

I might do a separate recap of the season itself and review of the highlights, god knows there’s more than enough to comment on for a separate blog, but I probably will stick more to previewing the offseason with this post. In that vein, assuming we stay as is and promote from within in goal (Schmid) and on defense (Hughes, Bahl, and Nemec), Tom Fitzgerald’s major work this offseason will be up front, especially in working out long-term deals with RFA’s to be Bratt and Timo Meier. Although it’s long been expected Meier would be the easier of the two to sign, Bratt was more definitive than I would have thought when he was asked about his contract status on breakup day:

Hopefully this isn’t just posturing and there’s finally about to be a meeting of the minds here. Although Timo had a slow start after arriving (partially due to getting over a pre-trade injury) and was barren of production against the Rangers, he started to crank it up late in the series with Carolina and brings an element to our forward core we need. I don’t think Fitz would have traded what he did for Timo with the intention not to sign him along with whatever he’s offering Bratt. Don’t buy the nonsense of we won’t be able to fit them both in under the cap, we can. The question is just will they play ball enough for it not to be too prohibitive elsewhere?

Our other RFA’s – forwards Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Boqvist, Nathan Bastian and Michael McLeod and defenseman Bahl probably won’t require much drama in order to get deals done. As good as the latter two were in the postseason, they’re still fourth-liners with limited skills, although you do kind of wonder what McLeod will ask for after a 26-point regular season (albeit with just four goals) and six points in twelve playoff games.

We do have some UFA’s to deal with up front including fellow fourth-liner Miles Wood, who had 13 goals and 27 points in 76 games this year. He has his flaws for sure – namely his penchant for bad penalties and dumb decisions – but also his pluses like speed and ability to get double-digit goals with fourth-line minutes. I’m not sure the pluses will outweigh the minuses when it comes to matching the offers he’ll get in free agency though, especially given that a long-term deal for a guy who plays his style and has already had a major injury probably wouldn’t age well.

Also questionable to return is Tomas Tatar, despite a good regular season of 48 points and a team-high +41, he was largely invisibad in the postseason, as he has been for much of his career. You definitely need regular season players to win in the regular season but with more money likely to be spent on the star forwards, Tatar and Wood are probably two spots where you should go cheaper and/or younger going forward. On the other hand, not only should they bring back Erik Haula but if he has anything to say about it there won’t even be a question whether the veteran center returns next year:

Given his intangibles (leadership, faceoff wins, ability to play center and wing) with his restored scoring touch down the stretch and in the postseason plus the need to keep a solid third-line center, I don’t really see any reason not to bring him back on a one or two-year deal in all likelihood. Not to mention it’d be nice to get him a playoff win over Carolina, after pulling the near impossible feat of losing to them three straight postseasons with three different teams.

Assuming the contract negotiations with Bratt and Timo go off without a hitch, there probably aren’t a lot of other big moves for Fitz to make this offseason. That’s okay, he already did a lot of heavy work in previous offseasons helping the team get to this point where they’re insanely well positioned cap/contract-wise and personnel-wise to have a window of contending for the next several years. There is one other pink elephant in the room that’ll have to be addressed in the near future though, perhaps it even already has been addressed…the contract status of Jack Adams finalist Lindy Ruff. I’m sure he’ll be asked about it at some point when he speaks to the media for the final time this offseason.

Guess he was asked about it as I was typing, and pretty much took a pass saying they’ll talk at some point, since they’re still going through evaluations and other stuff. It’s certainly been quite the arc for Lindy this season, going from two consecutive seventh place finishes with 63 points last season (our lowest total in three and a half decades) to a franchise record 112-point campaign. This season was surely enough to earn him another contract, and I assume he will get offered at least a short-term extension at this point. Unless it’s a total lowball offer, I’d have to imagine he wants to stay given this team’s potential to win something in the near future.

Whether that happens or not is likely the GM’s call at this point, but given his previous relationship with Lindy dating back to their Florida days in the mid ’90’s, it’s hard for me to see a scenario where Lindy’s not the coach next year. I don’t really buy the whole coach-in-waiting stuff with Andrew Brunette, at least not now. It could have worked out that way if we had another poor or unsatisfactory year, but I really don’t see us pushing Lindy out or nudging him upstairs in that way.

I can’t imagine any more news will be made in the near future unless Fitz drops some bombshell when he speaks to the media, so I probably will go on hiatus for a while until the offseason other than a possible season recap at some point, or commenting on news when it does happen. At least it’s nice not to care about the draft for once, given the fact we’re not in the lottery and don’t even have a first-round pick anyway.

In Fitz We Trust when it comes to the offseason plan.

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1 Response to Devils season breakup day in Newark

  1. Derek Felix says:

    Excellent write-up Hasan. I was thinking about what I wrote the other day regarding Bratt. The Devils have enough room to keep both him and Meier. Meier played with a broken nose on that vicious Trouba hit. I didn’t know Hamilton had a wrist issue. Your suggestions are good.

    I think McLeod will get between 2 to 2.5 million.


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