2022-23 Devils season recap: A franchise reborn

In seasons past, I’ve wanted to get through the year in review as fast was as humanly possible, sometimes even with a game or two left in the season. What was the point of waiting any longer when nothing significant was going to happen in those games, after all (or in many of the games before that)? After the first two games of this season, it looked like more of the same was in store for 2022-23. How could it not, after the Devils got drilled by two straight non-playoff teams by a combined score of 9-3? Both goalies Mackenzie Blackwood and Vitek Vanecek were blown up on opening weekend, with lame-duck head coach Lindy Ruff hearing loud ‘Fire Lindy!’ chants both before and during the Devils’ home opener. Facing another lottery team at home in the season’s third game of the year, the Devils hit rock bottom for 2022-23, falling behind the Ducks 2-0 after the first period.

Who could have guessed on the road back to irrelevance, the Devils would find a detour to the promised land?

Our come-from-behind 4-2 win that night didn’t seem like a big deal at the time – yippee, finally came back to win one of our winnable games at home, big whoop. Even after one win in a row turned to three after surprisingly dominating the Islanders and then holding off the Sharks the next two games, it seemed as if our 6-3 loss to the Caps two nights later was a bit of a reality check. With four of our next six on the road and one of the two home games against the defending Stanley Cup champs, I still wasn’t all that confident in this group. After all, we’d had even better starts the previous two seasons melt away once the second month of the season began.

As it turned out, that loss to the Caps was the last this year’s Devils would suffer in nearly a month.

Maybe the first real sign something special could be happening this year was when the Devils shut out the Avs 1-0, two nights after avenging the home opener loss in Detroit, housing the Wings 6-2. While we had beaten the Avs as a cellar-dweller the previous year, doing it while being able to keep their high-powered attack in check in a game with more meaning was the first hint of the maturity this team would develop throughout the year. Still, who really expected two wins in a row to turn into…thirteen?!

I don’t know if there was one single aha moment where I felt, ‘oh boy, we’re for real now’, it just became gradual over time. We won everywhere and every way during our thirteen-game heater (the term franchise star Jack Hughes used for our winning streak once it got to nine games) – we won with three goalies, high-scoring games and low-scoring games. We won at home and in Canada, some more at home and some more in Canada. Six of the thirteen wins were in six different Canadian cities. We won three games in OT and five by three goals or more. Fans even apologized by chanting ‘Sorry, Lindy!’ at a game in the midst of the streak.

When the wave finally crested, the Devils tied a franchise record for consecutive victories in the regular season at 13, with the team who had the best record in franchise history (the 2000-01 Devils) having previously set that mark. Of course, the 2005-06 Devils did manage to win fifteen straight, but the last four were in the playoffs so thirteen in a row wasn’t a true record in one sense. Not that anyone really cared about technicalities.

Regardless, there was a lot of excitement in the air by the time the streak reached double digits, and when the Devils returned to the Rock to beat the Oilers 5-2 on November 21, they got a standing ovation from a sold-out crowd after tying the regular-season record winning streak. Normally we’d be lucky to get 12 or 13,000 for a mid-week Oiler game before Thanksgiving (Connor McDavid or no Connor McDavid), but both that game and the Leafs game two nights later were sellouts and the atmosphere was buzzing in each game. Even the streak buster wasn’t so much a downer as it was annoying, due to the three disallowed goals in a 4-2 loss that prompted this fan reaction:

Irony of ironies, the shoe was on the other foot last night in the playoffs as Leaf fans took to throwing debris…after one disallowed goal, I might add. But I digress, the end of the streak only gave us another opportunity to see the Devils’ maturity as they ripped off another three in a row and five of six, juicing their record to an astonishing 21-4-1. Almost overnight we rocketed from wondering ‘is this team for real?’ to the realization that they pretty much can’t blow a playoff berth at this point.

Although December did test that belief a bit, as the Devils had their only prolonged bad stretch of the season going 1-7-1 in their next nine games and winning just three of thirteen from early December to early January. You have a lot of cushion to blow when you start out with 21 wins in your first 26 games, but it’s not like this team had any reservoir of previous success to fall back on. Even at this so-called low point, the Devils were still twelve games above NHL .500 at least. Our comeback against the Rangers at home in early January turned the tide back in our favor though, not only because we came from two goals back in the third period to win a rivalry game with Damon Severson’s memorable OT goal, but we also ended a five-game home losing streak before a long road trip.

That win got the Devils going again, and they won the first four games of a five-game road trip – going down to Raleigh and beating Carolina with another two-goal comeback, then sweeping the California portion of the trip before finally suffering an OT loss to a Seattle team in the midst of their own surprising ascension. Nothing was going to derail the Devil express at this point though, their next two-game losing streak would come in mid-March, long after a playoff berth was all but assured.

Not that the team didn’t keep things exciting, when the Devils returned from their West Coast swing they won four of the next five games, all in OT. We owned that particular skills competition, going 11-3 in three-on-three action. Thankfully, not as many games went to the shootout which we were only 2-4 in, but all those extra three-on-three points helped keep us in the division hunt up until the final day of the regular season. Also helping to keep things exciting was GM Tom Fitzgerald, who swung the big Timo Meier deal in late February, certainly our biggest in-season trade since dealing for Ilya Kovalchuk in 2009.

Despite ultimately coming up one point short of the division, the Devils’ team results went way beyond any best-case scenarios before the season…112 points and 52 wins were both team records. It is kind of telling how good the Canes were that the Devils couldn’t win their tenth division title in franchise history, given that they set both all-time records. Still, even a regular season like that would have felt slightly tainted if they’d lost to the rival Rangers in the first round – especially after the way they lost the first two games of the playoffs, matching 5-1 defeats at home.

In series, you usually have time to make adjustments though…in this case, a goalie change from Vanecek to Schmid along with some other lineup and strategy adjustments helped turn the tide, and the outlook improved at MSG after a tight Game 3 when Dougie Hamilton’s OT winner got the Devils back in the series.

You all know how that story ended…another tight 2-1 win at MSG in Game 4 which evened the series, a dominant 4-0 win at home in Game 5, a dud back at the Garden in Game 6 – then the epic Game 7 shutout, which gave us both joy and relief. We were now able to celebrate our great season properly, and with the ovations this team deserved. I don’t even feel compelled to recap the playoffs in any more depth, I’ve already written blogs on almost every game. Plus, this season was never truly about the end result of what they did in the playoffs. Yes, the season story ended quickly in the next round, but the overall journey is just beginning.

This season had something for everyone…all the team success is well-documented, but there were also plenty of individual storylines to follow. Pretty much every player had at least a few important goals, assists or other non-scoring plays throughout the season – it would take too long to even attempt to shout out everyone, so I’ll just stick to the main storylines for the most part. Although Blackwood started five of the first six games of the season in goal, it was Vanecek who would play his way into being the #1 goalie for much of the season, going 33-11-4 with a 2.45 GAA and .911 save percentage and giving the Devils stability they hadn’t had in net since the days of Cory Schneider propping up bad teams to finish just under the mediocrity line.

Much like the head coach who went from being jeered to cheered, Vitek went from getting booed and golf clapped on routine saves in the home opener to hearing Vi-tek! chants soon after and for the balance of the season, with the aforementioned shutout of the Avs giving me my first dose of confidence that maybe Vitek could be part of the solution after all, if not the entire solution in net.

Blackwood’s injury issues also provided an opportunity for Akira Schmid to shine over two different stints, which he did with a 2.13 GAA and .922 save percentage in eighteen games played, including his final appearance of the year – a relief appearance after Blackwood was pulled after giving up four early goals in Washington on the last night of the regular season. Schmid steadied the ship, and the Devils came from 4-1 down to win 5-4 in OT, a meaningless game that turned out to have a lot of meaning after all. Not just because it compelled the Devils to replace Blackwood with rookie Schmid on the playoff roster, but because it was a wildly successful second NHL game for Luke Hughes, fresh off arriving from Michigan after the Frozen Four.

More on Luke later though…after all, I should really give his brother first dibs on the bouquet throwing here. Jack had already shown signs of becoming a star last year with 56 points in 49 games, but truthfully who was going to notice when he missed most of the first half of the season and came back to a team firmly entrenched in the bottom part of the division again? This year, he took another step and with the Devils’ team success everyone was ready to notice what the 21-year old former #1 overall pick accomplished this season – becoming the first Devil to score 40+ goals since Zach Parise in 2008-09, and setting a team record for points just coming up one short of an even hundred. Seemingly all great players have the ability to use critics as fuel and Jack was no different, as his post-playoff interview proved:

Slight hyperbole but given what he did this season it’s allowed, hah. All the MVP chants he earned were both true and wish casting. Even with as good a season as he had, he never had a chance to beat out McDavid for the Hart Trophy but he’s certainly the team MVP for 2022-23, leading in all the triple crown categories of scoring (goals, assists and points). Not that we didn’t have other standouts…Nico Hischier’s always been a solid two-way player, but he added elite offense to his resume this year improving from a career-high 21 goals and 60 points last year to 31 and 80, respectively this year. Jesper Bratt also set a personal high with goals, finishing second on the team with 32. And in just his second season, Dawson Mercer had a late-season breakout to something very close to the level of our big three, putting home 27 goals and compiling 56 points while being just one of four Devils to play all 82 games.

Shockingly, none of them led the team in plus-minus – that would be Tomas Tatar, whose 20 goals, 48 points and +41 gave the team nice depth production during the regular season, along with Erik Haula who slotted in as a combination of third-line center and grunt-work winger for Hughes. Though his scoring got off to a frighteningly slow start, he rode a late-season surge to a 41-point season and kept it up through the all-important first-round series with the Rangers.

Defensively, our clear standouts were Hamilton and John Marino, for different reasons. Dougie rebounded from a disappointing and injury-plagued first season as a Devil by setting a team record for goals by a defenseman in 2022-23, contributing 22 goals, 74 points and a +23 to the cause while leading the team in average icetime. Just behind him in the latter stat was Marino, a revelation in his first season arriving after an offseason trade by the Penguins. While he had barely a fraction of Hamilton’s point production (four goals and fourteen assists), he provided a lock-down presence on the back end who also helped the team’s transition game. Marino’s presence was definitely missed during the December malaise when he was on the shelf due to injury.

Hamilton, Marino, Severson, Jonas Siegenthaler and Ryan Graves led a rebuilt defense which cut the Devils’ goals against by almost a full goal per game from last year (307 goals allowed in 2021-22, 226 allowed this season) while the Hughes-led offense also improved significantly from 248 goals scored last year to 291 this year, though Jack himself being healthy for a full season is the main reason for the latter increase. Jack’s younger brother coming in for the last two games of the regular season and final three games of the playoffs gave us a glimpse into the future. Luke added not only obvious skill to our d-core, but specifically more speed and puck moving to a defense that struggled with both at times during the postseason.

Off-ice, you can’t say enough about what Fitzy has done in his three and a half years at the helm. Doesn’t quite seem that long because of the fact his tenure pretty much began right before the COVID pause, but he’s certainly made a major impact in a short period of time. Sure, some of the main pieces like Jack, Nico and Bratt were already here but it was Fitz who brought in guys like Hamilton and vet leader Ondrej Palat in free agency. It was also Fitz who drafted guys like Mercer and Luke along with trading for Timo, Marino, Vitek, Haula and Siegs, among others. He filled in pieces not just looking to collect talent, but ultimately looking to construct a well-rounded team. I’m as confident in him being the man to finish the job as I’ve been of any GM in any sport since the salad days of Lou Lamoriello.

Coaching wise, that story’s already been dissected and re-lived multiple times including earlier in this blog. You’d normally have to write the script yourself to believe it. Lindy deserves a second act, whether he gets one and for how long remains to be seen, but for now he can be content with helping facilitate one of the biggest turnarounds in league history. He’ll be up for the Jack Adams award after the season, and deservedly so. Also up for awards are Nico (a finalist for the Selke as top defensive forward) and Jack as a finalist for…the Lady Byng?

Alrighty then…clearly there’s still more work to do, as our emphatic second-round exit at the hands of Carolina proved, but this organization’s already done a lot in such a short period of time. Given our on and off-ice personnel and the way we’re set up right now, there’s no reason to think bigger and better things aren’t on the horizon. In the meantime, it’s time to relax and blow off steam a little. Lindy joked after the ‘sorry’ chants that he not only was willing to forgive the fans, but also laugh about it over a beer someday. After our Game 7 win over the Rangers, his closing line in the presser harkened back to that moment:

I’d say that’s as fitting a note to begin this offseason with as I could think of myself.

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