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What Your Team Is Thankful For: New Jersey Devils

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What Your Team Is Thankful For: New Jersey Devils

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With American Thanksgiving now behind us and the holiday season coming up, PHR continues its look at what teams are thankful for in 2022-23. There also might be a few things your team would like down the road. We’ll examine what’s gone well in the early going and what could improve as the season rolls on for the New Jersey Devils.

Who are the Devils thankful for?

John Marino.

There are a bunch of good answers to this question. Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier – heck, even Tom Fitzgerald. But those that have watched the Devils for the last few years know that there was always something missing, something holding them back from taking that next step.

Marino, acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins in the offseason in a deal that included prospect Ty Smith and a third-round pick going the other way, has been everything the Devils hoped for. The 25-year-old defenseman has been a rock for the team on the back end, eating up the toughest defensive minutes and tilting the ice in New Jersey’s favor. Despite starting far more shifts in his own end than in the opponent’s, the Devils have outscored teams 22-12 with Marino on the ice at even-strength this season.

Some of the credit for that should also go to Ryan Graves, his partner for most of the year, but there is just something that Marino has done to transform this group into the Stanley Cup contender that it has been through the first part of the year. The fact that he’s locked up at a $4.4MM cap hit through 2026-27 is just the cherry on top, and will allow the Devils to continue to invest in their dynamic young forward group in the coming years.

USATSI_19509625-200x300.jpgWhat are the Devils thankful for?

Front office patience.

When Jack Hughes stepped into the NHL, he was an extremely undersized, overmatched teenager. You could see his incredible skating ability, elite vision, and high hockey IQ, but he was being pushed around every night. Hughes couldn’t find a way to contribute on a regular basis, and through the first two seasons of his career, he had just 18 goals and 52 points.

Plenty of fans and media members alike wondered if he was a “bust,” because of the slow start to his career, and probably wouldn’t have blamed Fitzgerald for looking elsewhere for a franchise centerpiece. After all, he wasn’t in charge when the Devils used the first overall pick on Hughes in 2019 – he took over as general manager in early 2020.

But with a little patience and support, Hughes has brought the highlight reel that made him a star for the U.S. National Team Development Program to the NHL, and is now one of the must-see players in the NHL. With 15 goals and 34 points in 28 games this season, he is the engine that drives the offense.

Hischier too has rewarded the Devils’ patience. While his career started stronger than Hughes, there was plenty of time when people wondered if he would ever be more than a 50-60 point middle-six center. Now, with 29 points in 27 games and real momentum behind his candidacy as a Selke nominee, he’s showing he is an elite player in the NHL and the kind of foundational piece that powers a Cup contender.

What would the Devils be even more thankful for?

A breakout goaltending performance (which may already be underway).

Part of it was the holes on defense, part of it was health-related, but the Devils haven’t had a reliable goaltender for years now. They tried to fix that problem by signing Vitek Vanecek to a three-year deal, and while he has been solid, a breakout from one of their young netminders could push this team over the edge. With how well the Devils have played, they don’t need all-world goaltending every night. Vanecek’s .912 save percentage has resulted in a 12-2-2 record on the year.

But if they had a young option that could turn into a bonafide star, this core could be a legitimate force for quite some time.

Wouldn’t you know it – Akira Schmid has posted a .940 in six appearances this year. The 22-year-old hasn’t allowed more than two goals in any of his six appearances and may have found the key to unlocking his 6’5″ frame. Schmid and Nico Daws are still on their entry-level deals through 2023-24; if either one becomes a bonafide NHL starter by the end of it, the Devils will be set up for long-term success.

What should be on the Devils’ holiday wishlist?

A (net-front) powerplay piece.

If there is one spot where the Devils are actually underperforming, it’s with the man advantage. Despite having names like Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, and Dougie Hamilton to whip the puck around, the group sits 23rd in the NHL in powerplay percentage, at 20.69%. While this isn’t meant to be Nathan Bastian slander, an upgrade to the net front could make them even more dangerous and draw some focus to free up the elite talents on the wall.

When Bastian and Ondrej Palat return, the team will have plenty of options. But adding one more forward with experience playing that role would put them over the top. You can see the effect of a player like that in Edmonton, where the Oilers have the best powerplay in the league by a wide margin. Zach Hyman’s five goals would lead the Devils, and his ability to pull a defender into the blue paint gives Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl an extra step. Though those two would likely find a way no matter who was on the ice with them, the reason Edmonton is up over 30% on the season is that they aren’t the only two threats.

There is also an option of bringing in another player to sit on the dot and hammer one-timers, though head coach Lindy Ruff explained to Ryan Novozinsky of NJ.com why he would hesitate at that idea.

If you look at the best powerplays, they have that flank-shooting one-timer that is dangerous. The trouble with going to something like that with us is that it means [Hughes] or [Bratt] has to come off the powerplay, and that’s a tough scenario. 

In today’s NHL, it is difficult to compete without winning the special teams battle, and while the Devils are among the league’s best when shorthanded, they’re throwing away opportunities on the powerplay. For a team that looks like one of the best in the league, a small upgrade can make a big difference in the spring.

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