The 2022-23 season was an incredible success story for the New Jersey Devils. General manager Tom Fitzgerald has not waivered too far from his master plan and has finally begun showing results. The Devils plus-47 point differential from 2021-22 to 2022-23 matched a previously recorded milestone by the 2017-18 Avalanche and the 2007-08 Penguins for largest 82-game season turnaround in NHL history. However, although last season was one for Devils fans to rejoice about, New Jersey will still need some on the roster to improve. Let’s take a look at four Devils with the most to prove in 2023-24.
Following a ten-year stint with the Tampa Bay Lightning in which he claimed two Stanley Cups, Ondrej Palat departed in free agency last summer to join the Devils. New Jersey signed the Czechoslovakian forward to a five-year, $30 million contract with full trade protection and a 10-team no-trade clause that kicks in in 2025-26. The expectation was for Palat to come in and be a veteran leader on and off the ice to a young Devils core. Off the ice, Palat offered plenty of value to New Jersey that they hadn’t had before. On the ice, however, it wasn’t exactly a smooth transition.
Palat got off to a good start with his new team scoring three goals in six games. However, in that sixth game, the veteran forward suffered an injury that required groin surgery. As a result, Palat missed the next 10-plus weeks of game action. Palat finally returned to the lineup on January 5th to play out the remainder of the season. For the remaining 43 games, Palat scored five goals and 20 points to bring his season total to eight goals and 15 assists for 23 points. That translates to a 38-point pace over an 82-game span. That would have been Palat’s lowest point total in a single season for his career.
Palat was never much of a regular-season star anyway. His time to shine typically came in the postseason as an integral piece to the Lightning’s puzzle in claiming two championships. By the time the postseason rolled around, Palat felt closer to his regular self.
"This is why you go out and get Ondrej Palat… He's a monster in the playoffs, he's a monster in Game 7s…"@BriBrows22 | @JamieHersch | @shelleyhawk45 | @NJDevils | #NHLTonight pic.twitter.com/yoI59Lettx
— NHL Network (@NHLNetwork) May 2, 2023
“I don’t think everybody anybody was 100% in the playoffs, but yeah, it was my first surgery like that,” Palat explained. “And the groin is such a weird area or important area for skating. So it took me a little bit of time to get to 100% but in the playoffs, I felt okay.”
Palat appeared to feel a lot better in the postseason. In 12 playoff games, he tallied three goals and seven points.
According to CapFriendly, Palat’s contract most compares to Seattle Kraken forward Jaden Schwartz. Schwartz ended last season with 21 goals and 40 points in 71 games, a 46-point pace in 82 games. That’s a little closer to what New Jersey signed up for last summer, especially from a goals perspective. Fortunately, Palat’s 54.10 CF% and 58.66 xGF% last season suggest he was a bit more unlucky than he was good. Heading into his age-32 season, it’s easy to see Palat rebounding if his health persists.
Boy oh boy does Kevin Bahl have some big shoes to fill. As you already know, Damon Severson is now a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ryan Graves is with the Pittsburgh Penguins. New Jersey is banking on the evolution of Bahl and the promise that Luke Hughes showed in his small sample at the end of last season.
The Devils’ top D-pair is likely to stay the same with Jonas Siegenthaler and Dougie Hamilton. John Marino slots in on the right side of the second pair and as for the rest of the blueline, that remains to be seen. In a size-for-size replacement, it seems most likely that Bahl will move up to the second pair and play alongside Marino. Marino is typically tasked with the tough assignments, but he’s an excellent puck retriever and shutdown defenseman. Bahl’s size and poise he showed in the second half of the season feels like a natural fit for the second pair.
Analytically, Bahl appears to help the Devils create more scoring chances accruing a 54.77 CF% and 58.21 xGF%. However, Bahl played 36 fewer games than Graves did last season. Perhaps there’s a regression in those numbers in a bigger role, but the Devils are betting on it not dipping below Graves’ 51.86 CF% and 53.56 xGF%.
Interesting choice. It looks like that Kevin Bahl has became a legit NHLer. Good for New Jersey. By the way, be aware of small sample size in transition stats. https://t.co/EJYoCdwjwa pic.twitter.com/31jpAbNlkL
— Andy & Rono (@ARHockeyStats) April 3, 2023
Bahl’s biggest task in 2023-24 is proving that he can hack it over a full season. The 6-foot-6 defender logged 548:27 of time on ice last season whereas Graves more than doubled that ice time with 1326:52. The good news is that Bahl spent the majority of his time playing alongside Severson last year. He should fair well alongside a more defensively responsible Marino.
Making the jump from a sixth or seventh defenseman to being one-half of a top-four pairing will be no easy challenge. Bahl will have to rise to the occasion if New Jersey hopes to at least maintain the success they had in 2022-23.
The weight of the Devils’ goaltending crease does not fall on Akira Schmid. Not yet, anyway. Schmid didn’t ask for any of this. He simply played his game and he played it well. Yes, he was rewarded for his excellent play with more time in the net. However, Schmid’s sample size in the NHL is still incredibly small. At just 23 years old, the fate of New Jersey doesn’t rest on his shoulders. Instead, it’s Vitek Vanecek who needs to prove himself in 2023-24.
Vanecek had the best year of his career last season posting 33 wins, a .911 SV%, and a 2.45 GAA, all career highs. At times, he was the backbone of New Jersey. There were stretches of games when Vanecek was a brick wall. Then there were games where he appeared to have some holes in him he wasn’t showing before. Despite cooling off after a hot start to the season, Vanecek went on to finish strong with four wins in New Jersey’s last five games. Those four wins earned Vanecek the starter crease in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there.
VI-TEK VI-TEK 🗣
— NHL (@NHL) March 13, 2023
Vanecek lost the crease to Schmid after the Devils lost games one and two of their first-round matchup against the New York Rangers. He allowed four or more goals in four of seven starts in the postseason. When Lindy Ruff needed a goaltender to lean on in the postseason, he leaned on Schmid instead.
Somewhere inside Vanecek, there appears to be a legitimate starting NHL goaltender. It’s a matter of finding more consistency. However, that task might prove to be too difficult to surmount with a less experienced blueline in front of him.
Timo Meier took some heat for not coming over to New Jersey and scoring at the same torrid pace he did in San Jose. However, it’s not easy to move across the country to play in a new system. In a new city. With new linemates. In a different arena. Living out of a suitcase. You get the idea.
Still, Meier ended the 2o22-23 campaign scoring 40 goals and 66 points. In New Jersey, the Swiss forward had nine goals and 14 points in 21 games. Meier scored his first goal in his first game with the Red and Black, however, another six games would come and go before he scored again. The power forward slowly became more acclimated and, as a result, he began to find the scoresheet a little more often.
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) June 28, 2023
Regardless, Meier’s regular season in New Jersey left more to be desired. The good news is that the numbers suggest that Meier was more unlucky than anything. Although he didn’t feel completely acclimated, Meier recorded a 56.02 CF% and 59.96 xGF% in his 21-game span. Those rank among the Devils’ top performers.
In the postseason, Meier established himself as a dominant physical presence. Yet, he didn’t provide the offensive flair New Jersey bought at the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline as he only scored two goals and four points in 11 games. Regardless, he was a dominant physical presence and was an important part of the Devils advancing to the second round of the playoffs.
The excuses are done now, however. Meier will need to provide the offense the Devils invested in. New Jersey extended Meier to an eight-year, $70.4 million contract and expect the results to follow from their power forward. As the highest-paid forward on the team, the pressure is on for Meier to ascend from his 40-goal, 66-point self. He’ll have every opportunity to do that in New Jersey’s high-octane offense.