With Stanley Cup Expectations, Devils Eye Continued Consistency

Pat Pickens
Last Updated: Sep 22, 2023

NEWARK, N.J. — For the first time in Nico Hischier’s seven-season NHL career, the New Jersey Devils will enter a season with legitimately high expectations.

The Devils stunned the hockey world by setting team records with 52 wins and 112 points in 2022-23, improving by 25 victories and 47 points from the season prior. They caught the hockey world off guard and appear aware that isn’t likely to happen again.

“It is different,” Hischier told The Game Day Hockey Thursday at New Jersey’s opening day of training camp. “Nothing is going to be easy. Teams are going to be ready for us, but that’s what you want. You want those expectations to be high. We all have really high expectations, and that’s how you become a winning team.”

New Jersey will return most of its roster, and almost its entire core, from the club that lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference second round in 2023. It will enter the season among the teams with the shortest Stanley Cup odds after locking in key free agents Timo Meier and Jesper Bratt to long-term contracts and acquiring forward Tyler Toffoli from the Calgary Flames.

The Devils are leaning into those Stanley Cup expectations with the caveat that their window to win a championship has just opened up.

“My expectations are to be the best version of the Devils we can,” Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. “Winning the Stanley Cup is extremely hard — only one team can do it. Cup or bust isn’t something I believe in, but [expectations are] just [to] have a team that can challenge to be one of the better teams in the league from Day 1 of training camp to whenever that last playoff game ends.”

On paper, the Devils look good. But the NHL is played on ice, and with added expectations comes extra pressure as well.

Much of the Devils’ young roster got its first taste of playoff hockey in 2023, and those players will get one more fresh experience: having to duplicate that success the following season while also getting every team’s ‘A’ effort.

“We’re not a surprise to the league anymore,” Devils forward Ondrej Palat said. “The teams are gonna give us 110%. We have to be ready for that.”

Palat, who went to the Stanley Cup Final three straight seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning and won twice, and Toffoli, who won the Stanley Cup twice as a member of the Los Angeles Kings, should help ease the transition.

Meier and defenseman Dougie Hamilton, neither of whom has won the Cup but have each played for it previously in their careers, should also be critical veteran voices in ensuring those expectations don’t cause the Devils to come unglued.

“They know how to win. They’ve been on winning teams,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said. “When they know how to win, it’s easy for them to say to the next young guy, ‘This is how we’re gonna get it done.’ The young player can’t go ‘What do you know about winning?’ because they’ve won. They’ve been through that battle.”

Ruff, who previously coached teams with Stanley Cup aspirations in Buffalo and Dallas, cited the team’s need for consistency, speed, and to play to its offensive identity as his goals in maintaining the club’s growth. New Jersey was fourth in the league in goals (291) and ninth in goals-against (226) after finishing 19th and 29th, respectively, the year prior.

“You have to know who you are. There are teams in the league that know they’re going to build their team around winning 2-1 every night,” Ruff said. “We know right now we’re a good offensive team. That’s a strength. We knew last year we had to become a better defensive team, and everybody bought into that. Now, it’s just to remain consistent to not lose sight of how we got there.”

Ruff and Fitzgerald also seem to grasp that success isn’t linear, and there is the potential for the Devils to keep progressing — or even win the Eastern Conference or Stanley Cup — even if they finish with fewer wins or points than last season. New Jersey finished tied for second in wins and third overall in points behind only Carolina and the Boston Bruins.

“We want to continue to play to our strengths and improve in the small areas that we can,” Ruff said. “We’ll see where we land at the end of that. It may not be third overall, but you want to be in the playoffs; you want to be in a good position in the playoffs. There are a lot of things you can control, but there’s a lot of things you can’t control.”

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With Offseason Additions to Loaded Roster, Devils Are Team to Beat in East

July 3, 2023

Tom Fitzgerald has called his New Jersey “a hidden gem.”

But the secret is out, and the New Jersey Devils are loaded.

New Jersey made the NHL’s biggest leap in 2022-23, going from 65 points and the No. 2 pick to the second round of the playoffs in just nine months.

And the Devils will enter the 2023-24 season as the team to beat in the East.

The latest NHL Eastern Conference odds have New Jersey second, trailing only the Toronto Maple Leafs. But Toronto still needs to offload $8 million to get cap compliant and work out a new contract for 2022 Hart Trophy winner Auston Matthews to avoid a season-long soap opera.

Meanwhile, the Devils’ core that carried them to a team-record 112-point season and first-round series win over the New York Rangers is wholly intact. Fitzgerald locked down his top-nine forward group by signing valuable forward Erik Haula to a three-year contract, then re-signed prize midseason acquisition Timo Meier to an eight-year contract Wednesday.

“After the season, when I had the time to reflect …that’s the time I realized [New Jersey is] the place I want to be,” Meier said. “That’s the place I want to go and win the Stanley Cup.”

With his own house in order, Fitzgerald also decided to add goal scoring and veteran leadership. The Devils acquired both in forward Tyler Toffoli, who was acquired in a trade with the Calgary Flames for forward Yegor Sharangovich and a third-round pick.

Then, they added experience and depth by landing defenseman Colin Miller from Dallas for a fifth-round pick.

“Just a ton of skill,” Toffoli said when asked about what he saw while playing against the Devils twice last season. “They have dynamic players everywhere on the ice. There’s times during the games, both times, where we didn’t have a whole lot of puck possession.”

That the Devils were among the big offseason winners isn’t virgin territory to them. They’ve landed off-season big fish like Taylor Hall in 2016, P.K. Subban in 2019, Dougie Hamilton in 2021, and Ondrej Palat in 2022.

What’s different this year is the leap to the playoffs has already been made, and now Fitzgerald can craft a roster aimed at winning the Cup. Aside from finishing with the NHL’s third-most points, New Jersey’s youth-filled squad also gained valuable postseason experience it can use to adjust accordingly when the second season arrives.

“[Fitzgerald] said that he’s excited to have me and for me to bring my leadership, and having won a Stanley Cup, and that’s what he’s trying to bring in the locker room,” Toffoli said. “That’s something that I’m going to take pride in and help try to lead the guys and obviously not step on anybody’s toes, but go in there and play my best, and if there’s something that needs to be said, I’m not going to have a problem stepping up and doing that.”

Plus, thanks to Fitzgerald’s shrewd ability to weaponize leverage and cap space, New Jersey still has room to add. The haul that landed Toffoli was Sharangovich, a restricted free agent who hardly played in the postseason, and a third-round pick New Jersey got from Columbus for the rights to outgoing defenseman Damon Severson.

Unlike rival executives, Fitzgerald has wisely dedicated cheap, short-term deals to role players and saved the long-term, high-price contracts to core members like Meier, Hamilton, Palat, Jack Hughes, Selke Trophy runner-up Nico Hischier, and wing Jesper Bratt.

That means while Eastern Conference rivals Toronto, Boston, Tampa Bay, and the Rangers are hamstrung by cap limitations, the Devils still have roughly $5 million in space. They can use that space either to add later or target a goalie like Connor Hellebuyck in a trade.

Plus, there’s more talent in the pipeline, especially on defense. Jack’s 19-year-old brother Luke Hughes, who made his NHL debut in April, expects to be a game-changing defenseman. Plus, Šimon Nemec, the second pick of the 2022 draft who is also only 19, is about to join New Jersey’s roster.

So the Devils’ ride is only just beginning. But the way it has gone so far, it looks like New Jersey is going to enjoy a long and successful journey.

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Devils’ Playoff Exit Shows New Jersey Still Has Room to Grow

May 12, 2023

The New Jersey Devils’ sprint from also-ran to NHL elite was so fast, they almost made everyone forget how far they needed to go.

After wandering the NHL desert for basically a decade, New Jersey took a hyper-speed ride to the top of the league in 2022-23. It set team records for single-season wins (52) and points (112), Jack Hughes became one of the NHL’s budding superstars, and the Devils even won a playoff round for the first time since 2012.

Yet, New Jersey’s five-game series loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, in which the Devils were blitzed three times before falling 3-2 in overtime in Game 5 in Raleigh, shows how far they still have to go to become a Stanley Cup contender.

After a season where they were fast, aggressive, and intentional, the Devils looked indecisive in their series against the Hurricanes. Instead of possessing the puck, they treated it like a hot potato. They repeatedly failed to clear their defensive zone, struggled to navigate the swamp-like neutral-zone conditions, and didn’t get enough timely saves.

Part of that was Carolina’s relentless forecheck that took away New Jersey’s time and space, but it also was New Jersey’s inability to rise to the more pressure-packed stage.

“They made it tough on us to create chances,” Devils captain Nico Hischier said. “They were always on top of us. Nothing cute, but just hard and simple. That’s something we can take out of this series.”

Fans will lament the missed open net from forward Timo Meier in the second period of Game 5 or the unforced errors made by both Tomáš Tatar and Jonas Siegenthaler in overtime that led to Jesper Fast’s game-winning goal. Tatar curiously moved the puck from his own end to Siegenthaler in the defensive zone before the befuddled defenseman shot the puck out of play for a delay-of-game penalty. Fast scored on the ensuing power play.

But the Devils made plays like Tatar’s all night, and it only burned them when Fast redirected linemate Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s shot past goalie Akira Schmid for the series-clinching goal.

“How hard it is,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said when asked what he hopes the team will take away from the series. “They got a real good taste of what playoff hockey is like, the ups and downs.”

Fortunately for the Devils, this is all part of the process, and they’re only at the beginning. Most of their core is aged 26 and under, including Hischier, Meier, and both Jack and his brother Luke Hughes, a 19-year-old defenseman who was playing college hockey a month ago yet logged 25:02 of ice time in Game 5.

New Jersey has more elite prospects coming, like defenseman and 2022 No. 2 overall pick Šimon Nemec, as a consequence of drafting in the top 10 six of the past eight years. Plus, according to Cap Friendly, the Devils have roughly $35 million in cap space to lock in restricted free agents like Meier or 73-point producer Jesper Bratt.

Plus, every great NHL dynasty was born out of playoff failure. Wayne Gretzky didn’t win the Stanley Cup until his sixth season of pro hockey. The Tampa Bay Lightning core needed seven full seasons to finally win the first of their back-to-back Cups. Steve Yzerman didn’t lift the trophy until his age-31 season.

Success isn’t guaranteed, and it isn’t necessarily linear either. Just ask the Hurricanes, who had an upstart run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2019 then took four seasons to get back to the final four. Or the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were expecting multiple Stanley Cup parades by now, but have only won a single postseason round with the core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, and William Nylander.

There’s no doubt the Devils’ future is bright. And as hard as it is for fans and players to see this joyride of a season end the way it did, the hard lessons should only benefit this group.


Pat Pickens

Pat Pickens is a seasoned sportswriter who has covered the NHL since 2013 for various websites, including The New York Times, NHL.com, Sportsnet.ca, USA Today, the Associated Press and many others. His debut book, titled "The Whalers" about the history of the NHL's Hartford Whalers, was released in October 2021.

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