A bold prediction for the New Jersey Devils in 2022-23 might have been that they would finish the season with 100-plus points. Another bold prediction might have been that they’d finish as a top-three team in the NHL.
Well, both of those things came true, and there’s plenty more where that came from. The Devils had their best season in franchise history. As a result, the expectations in New Jersey are even greater despite a significant amount of changes to the Devils’ supporting cast.
Due to the work of General Manager Tom Fitzgerald, the core of the Devils remains intact long-term. Everyone expects said core to continue to produce at the elite rate they did in 2022-23. In fact, the belief is that the young core will get even better.
However, in order to take a step forward, the supporting cast is going to need to step up.
Here are three bold predictions for the Devils in 2023-24.
Vitek Vanecek will Enter the Vezina Trophy Conversation
When the Devils acquired Vitek Vanecek two summers ago, the idea was to stabilize a crease that had seen so much inconsistency for a long time. His sample size was small while in Washington, but in two seasons he posted identical statistics by the end of 2021 and 2022.
His third NHL season, this time in New Jersey, proved to be his best. However, it was the largest workload Vanecek faced in his career.
“Look, it was [Vanecek’s] first year playing a lot of games (NHL career-high 52),” Head Coach Lindy Ruff told NHL dot com. “Undoubtedly the physical strain and maybe more the mental strain of going through a year like that, caught up to him. I think there’s a point to be made about almost every team needing two good goalies. I don’t know if you can tag a guy at No. 1 or you can you say you have a 1A and a 1B. By the end of the year, they might have to be within 10 games of each other, but I thought we got a good year out of ‘Vee.'”
Vanecek finished the 2022-23 season with 33 wins, a 2.45 GAA, and .911 SV%, all career highs for the Czech goaltender. Those aren’t exactly Vezina-caliber numbers. However, they were good enough to help New Jersey win and win a lot.
Zooming the lens in a little bit closer, Vanecek was brilliant for a couple of different stretches of games. After New Jersey lost their first two games of the season, Vanecek helped the Devils win their next 10 straight games. From Oct. 25th to Nov. 21st, Vanecek accrued a 9-0-0 record including a shutout, a 1.81 GAA, and a .933 SV%. About a month later, Vanecek started another 10-game winning streak that lasted through February, collecting a 10-0-0 record, 2.24 GAA, and a .925 SV%.
Vanecek put together some brilliant stretches. He did so with the assumption that he’d be working in tandem with Mackenzie Blackwood. However, Blackwood didn’t stay healthy and the Devils leaned on Vanecek. With a season of 52 starts under his belt, Vanecek can come into 2023-24 more physically and mentally prepared for a heavy workload. Just maybe that can put him in the Vezina conversation.
Nolan Foote Blossoms Into an Every-Day NHLer
Nolan Foote has gotten his feet wet at the NHL level but hasn’t quite been able to stick. Even before the 2022-23 season, when New Jersey had room on the roster. However, last season there was something different about his third abbreviated stint.
Foote only skated in six games for New Jersey in 2022-23. In those six games, Foote looked like a player that belonged rather than a player fighting to stick around.
“I think (Foote) is the example of proper player development,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a kid who scored goals from the outside in junior. He does have a hell of a shot. I think with our guidance and help through our development team, our coaches down (in Utica), Dan MacKinnon, educating him on what type of player we felt he would be. What he would look like at the NHL level and how he would be successful? (We tried) to help him reinvent himself. He scored 20 goals this year at the American Hockey League level, and he played center. That’s just incredible for a kid who’s really never played center. He’s got good size, his skating is improved. He showed well when he was called up here. He’s a real good kid, but he was committed to it.”
Foote would have normally participated in a prospect challenge at this point in September. Instead, he was absent. Foote is preparing to attend the Devils’ main training camp that opens on Thursday. He’ll be competing with fellow prospects Alexander Holtz and Graeme Clarke for a roster spot. Following his impressive short sample in 2022-23, Foote may have a leg up. Especially since he’s made a significant impression on the Devils’ GM.
“When I look at player development, I looked at where he started, where he was, and where he’s going,” Fitzgerald continued. “I give all our credit to our coaching staff (in Utica). But most importantly, Nolan should get a lot of credit as well. He accepted it and he’s thriving. We have we have big plans for Nolan.”
If he could put it all together this season, Foote can be a 20-goal scorer in the NHL.
The Devils will Win the Stanley Cup
In order for this to happen, we’re not saying the first two things need to happen. One of them might, but not both.
Look, winning teams go through a lot of growing pains. The reigning Stanley Cup Champions have been chasing Lord Stanley since their inaugural season in 2017-18. The Colorado Avalanche suffered plenty of first and second-round exit disappointment. Before the Tampa Bay Lightning became back-to-back champions, they went through six years of playoff disappointment. You get the idea.
The thought of the Devils having one successful season and then predicting them to win the Cup is… bold. But hey, that’s the point of this.
And look, New Jersey has all the pieces they need to win.
A franchise player? ✔️
A No.1 defenseman? ✔️
A Selke-caliber forward? ✔️
Playoff experience? ✔️
Strong supporting cast? ✔️
The Devils are loaded to go on a run. Yes, there are concerns with the goaltending. However, look who manned the net of championship teams in the last five years. Aiden Hill, Alexander Georgiev, Andrei Vasilevskiy (x2), and Jordan Binnington. Both Vanecek and Akira Schmid are more similar to the four goaltenders not named Vasilevskiy. So why can’t the Devils be next?
It won’t be easy. However, the core of the Devils has been learning about work ethic even before 2022-23. Now this year there are expectations.
“Last year was crazy because we exploded and no one saw it coming,” Jack Hughes said on the 32 Thoughts Podcast. “This year we have expectations. Last year we set the wins and points record for the Devils. Can we do that every year for the next 10 years? No that’s impossible. We just have to work on our games. One through 10, 10 to 20, and try to get better and better. Then get to the playoffs. By the time we get to the playoffs, hopefully, we’ll be full-fledged and kicking well.”