Next up is the Tom Fitzgerald-led New Jersey Devils. Fitzgerald has only been on the job since January 2020, and he only shed the interim tag in July of that year. The Devils are in the post PK Subban era now and Fitzgerald has made a number of moves to position the Devils to compete in the tough Metropolitan Division. The Devils last made the playoffs in 2018 and they took steps backwards which led to Ray Shero being dismissed as GM. They fell to third last in the conference last season and here are their prospects for the upcoming season.
Acquired F Erik Haula from Boston in exchange for F Pavel Zacha
Signed Ondrej Palat to a five-year UFA deal worth $30 million
Signed D Simon Nemec (2nd overall draft pick in 2022) to three-year max ELC
Acquired D John Marino from Pittsburgh in exchange for D Ty Smith
Signed G Vitek Vanecek to a three-year UFA deal worth $10.2 million
Signed D Jonas Siegenthaler to a five-year contract extension worth $17 million starting in 2023-24 season
Signed F Jesper Bratt to a one-year RFA deal worth $5.45 million
Signed F Miles Wood to a one-year deal worth $3.2 million
Remaining cap space: $73,375.00
Here is the roster for the Devils heading into training camp.
Left Wing Center Right Wing
Ondrej Palat Jack Hughes Andreas Johnsson
Jesper Bratt Nico Hischier Dawson Mercer
Miles Wood Yegor Sharangovich Tomas Tatar
Jesper Boqvist Erik Haula Mike McLeod/Nathan Bastian
Left Defense Right Defense
Ryan Graves Dougie Hamilton
Jonas Siegenthaler Damon Severson
Brendan Smith John Marino
Fitzgerald put PK Subban’s cap hit to good use in the off season by inking some key pieces such as Palat and Vanecek. The Devils have drafted two number one overall centers in Nico Hischier (2017) and Jack Hughes (2019) and both are central to their plan moving forward and now they have been insulated with some good core pieces which should move them out of the cellar of the Eastern Conference. However, do they have what it takes to swing with the big boys? That remains to be seen.
Here is the S.W.O.T. analysis for the Devils.
The Devils are deep down the middle, and they definitely have a legitimate #1/2 center combination in Hughes and Hischier. The former seems to be on the cusp of becoming what he was projected to be when chosen if he can stay healthy.
Palat was a great acquisition from the Lightning and will bring the experience that some of the young players can draw upon along with an underrated offensive side to his game.
Compared to the Senators, their defense core is much more established. This is particularly true of the right side. Dougie Hamilton may not be worth his $9 million cap hit. He is a legit top two defenseman and along with Damon Severson, they provide more offensive versatility from the backend.
Head coach, Lindy Ruff, has managed to stay relevant as an NHL head coach since 1997. He is heading into his third year as bench boss and the first two, admittedly, were not pretty. He was hired by Fitzgerald, but only for three years. It’s safe to assume he will need to at least show the team is headed in the right direction to get an extension. He has far more experience than DJ Smith and, in a straight up match up, that could be a factor in games between the two teams.
Despite the acquisition of Palat, the Devils are very young up front (25.4 years) and only slightly older than the Senators (24.9 years).
When it comes down to the wire and trying to win those key games in March and April, the lack of experience could catch up to the Devils as it could the Senators.
There is also the saying that the good thing about being inexperienced is that “You don’t know what you don’t know”. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that theory.
The Devils crease doesn’t exactly scream Vezina or Jennings. Vanecek’s numbers in Washington were respectable. Mackenzie Blackwood has been the one the Devils have been waiting on for few years. His numbers were pedestrian last season, but then so were the Devils.
The Senators have far more cap flexibility than the Devils though, as I hinted in my Blue Jackets piece, it is unclear if or how they will use it this season.
The Devils do have Jonathan Bernier on the Injured Reserve list after having hip surgery in January. Depending on how they play that situation, they could use the LTIR maneuver to fill some pieces with spending over the cap.
The Devils have six pending UFAs on their roster and five pending RFAs and they are up against the cap as it is. That may not affect this season. However, something is going to have to give in the spring and if the Devils find themselves on the outside looking in as the deadline approaches, they are going to need to decide who they keep and who they don’t. They won’t want to lose any of those players to free agency for free. However, if they make a run for the playoffs and don’t move assets, then whether they make it or not, losing players is almost inevitable.
Jonathan Bernier is on LTIR to start the season. This puts them up against the cap now. However, with the acquisition of Vanecek and signing him to a three-year contract, it creates a crowded crease. Word is that Bernier should be good to go by American Thanksgiving. They don’t have to take him off the LTIR even when he is cleared to play. However, if they do activate him, they will likely have to play him to create a market and move him. If they don’t, it could create some internal toxicity that nobody will want. Of course, if either Vanecek or Blackwood get injured, the Devils have a capable option at their fingertips.
The Devils roster should not be taken for granted. However, I still feel they are playoff pretenders rather than contenders.
Their forward group is trending in the right direction. Hughes is likely to elevate his game to that next level. Hischier has emerged as their leader and legit #2 center in the profile.
That said, they had no 30 goal scorers last year. Hughes did get injured and surely would have if he hadn’t. However, Palat was never high enough on the depth chart in Tampa to score 30 and only scored more than 20 once.
They do have more scoring depth on defense and a more clearly defined top four group. I have to believe that number two overall selection, Simon Nemec, will be integrated into the system this year and will be counted on more than he should be as an 18-year-old.
I like the Senators scoring depth upfront more than the Devils supplemental offense on the backend.
In the crease, I like the Senators tandem coming off the seasons they both had last year versus the seasons that Vanecek and Blackwood had.
Since we are only talking about next season, I like the Senators over an 82-game schedule. The Devils will score more than last year. So too, will the Senators and I think the Devils will be sellers at the deadline as they continue to move core pieces up the depth chart.
The Devils we know should beat the Devils we don’t, but it will be closer than Sens Nation might like.
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey