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Gregor: Devils Are Close, Not Stanley Cup Contenders Yet

Host of DFO Rundown Jason Gregor not quite ready to name New Jersey Stanley Cup contenders just yet



Devils Daily: Hughes Brothers Draw Attention, Pinto Suspended

The New Jersey Devils are a wagon. After the team broke out in the 2022-23 season, many have gained faith in them as one of the best teams in the NHL. So much so that many of the early preseason predictions for 2023-24 have New Jersey reaching the Stanley Cup Final, some even believe they can win it. However, they haven’t quite made a believer out of everyone just yet. Jason Gregor of DailyFaceoff’s DFO Rundown Podcast claimed the Devils are close, but not Stanley Cup contenders yet.

New Jersey snuck up on just about everyone last season. Not many predicted them to be a top-three team in the NHL, nor to compete for the top of the Metropolitan Division. Yet, they amassed a 112-point season and their core players such as Jack Hughes and Nico Hischer broke out for career seasons. That was enough for general manager Tom Fitzgerald to be convinced it was time to add to the core in an effort to catapult their legitimacy even further. Thus, New Jersey acquired Timo Meier from the San Jose Sharks.

Now, most of the Devils’ core is locked up long-term. However, following the departures of Damon Severson and Ryan Graves, some have questions about their defense. Luke Hughes appears set to slide into Severson’s former role and Kevin Bahl should assume Graves’ responsibilities. Yet, both defensemen have significantly less experience than their predecessors.

As for their goaltending, some inconsistencies for Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid also lacking a larger sample of experience leaves a lack of faith in New Jersey’s goaltending.

“The Devils, I think they’re close,” Gregor explained on the latest DFO Rundown Podcast. “If they went three rounds I wouldn’t be stunned. I think they have a lot of youth they’ve got to keep growing and developing. I have a little bit of question about their goaltending.”

Reservations about New Jersey’s youth, defense, and goaltending are fair. Hughes has two regular season and three playoff games under his belt. Admittedly, Hughes looked excellent for the most part last season, but the sample is so small. The 20-year-old defenseman is still to be considered a rookie in the upcoming season and has big shoes to fill assuming Severson’s responsibilities.

Similar to Hughes, Bahl has limited NHL experience, however, his sample is much bigger. Across the last three seasons, Bahl has skated in 66 NHL games. Yet, the 42 games he played during the 2022-23 season were convincing that he might be ready for an increased role. Contrary to Gregor’s opinion, Fitzgerald believes the two defensemen are ready for their full-time roles.

“Where we’re at now? We lose two veterans like Graves and Severson,” Fitzgerald explained on Murphy’s Hockey Law Podcast. “Sure, they’re hard to replace because of experience. But, we wholeheartedly believe, I mean I do, that Bahl can come in and give us really strong, hard defensive minutes Graves gave us. We think Hughes can give us the offense Severson gave us. (Bahl and Hughes) aren’t even near the top of their games. They’re not even scratching the surface and that’s what we like. Will they make mistakes? Yeah, for sure. But, I think we have enough veterans around those two players on the backend to really support them. I’m a big believer that the only way you’re going to get better is by making mistakes.”

Over the last few seasons, goaltending has been an interesting debate. There’s little doubt that it’s the most important position in hockey. As a result, teams like the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning have locked up their elite goaltenders long-term. However, with the exception of the Lightning, the latest Stanley Cup Champions have prevailed without the elite status’ in their crease.

Last season, the Vegas Golden Knights rolled out all of Logan Thompson, Laurent Brossoit, Aiden Hill, Jonathan Quick, and Jiří Patera. Despite the inconsistency during the regular season, it was Hill who caught lightning in a bottle and carried Vegas on their way to winning the Stanley Cup, in his first postseason no less.

The season prior? Darcy Kuemper manned the Colorado Avalanche crease. Although Kuemper is a good goaltender, he struggled in the postseason due to injury and the Avalanche still raised Lord Stanley despite his .902 SV% and 2.57 GAA. Suffice to say that there seems to be a trend in the ability to win championships despite the presence of elite goaltending.

Although the Devils were sniffing around Connor Hellebuyck and John Gibson this summer, it appears New Jersey will begin the 2023-24 season with Vanecek and Schmid as their tandem. Gregor’s reservations about the Devils goaltending and youth are valid. However, the Devils might only need average goaltending to be successful.

Vanecek’s .825 SV% and 4.64 GAA in the playoffs last year is a postseason to forget. Vanecek’s regular season form (.911 SV% and 2.45 GAA) was plenty good enough to win the Devils 33 games. As for Schmid, his first semi-full-time role in the NHL went quite well. If both goaltenders can carry consistency into the playoffs, the Devils are plenty equipped enough to go on a Stanley Cup run.

If New Jersey isn’t quite a “tier one” Stanley Cup contender, they’re not far off. Sure, some of their youth have big shoes to fill. Yes, the goaltending needs to be stronger. However, you could pinpoint a flaw or two in all 32 NHL teams. There’s little doubt that New Jersey is one of the NHL’s best, and they’re not even at their peak.

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