Coming into the 2023-24 regular season, the New Jersey Devils are a trendy favorite. They’re picked to win the Metropolitan Division and make a deep playoff run by many in the know. That comes off the back of their success in the 2022-23 regular season, one in which they recorded the best regular season in franchise history. If you can believe it, before training camp even started the belief is that New Jersey got even better over the summer. At least, that is what it looked like on paper. However, now the preseason has come to a conclusion and the Devils went 7-0-0. So, what does the Devils sweeping the preseason mean?
Since 2005, there have been just four teams that swept the preseason. Said teams include the San Jose Sharks in the 2005-06 season, the Ottawa Senators in 2007-08, the Calgary Flames in 2010-11, and the 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche. Well, now you can add the 2023-24 Devils to that list.
Thanks to our pal, Ryan Novozinsky of NJ.com, we’re reminded that following Colorado’s 7-0-0 sweep in the 2016 preseason, they finished an NHL-worst 22–56–4 that year. Fear not, that’s not where this is going.
From the very first day of training camp this fall, there was a completely different vibe around the RWJBarnabas Arena and Prudential Center. Just ask Jack Hughes about his frame of mind in season’s past.
“It’s exciting,” Hughes said about his mentality coming into training camp on 32 Thoughts the Podcast. “In previous years, you’re walking into camp thinking ‘What’s gonna happen this year? Who are we dishing at the deadline?’ Even last year, we thought ‘Alright, it’s time to take a step.’ We’re no longer the young team that can use that as an excuse every year. Let’s go, it’s time to make playoffs. We gotta start winning some hockey games now.”
That didn’t quite happen in the 2021-22 season. Goaltending issues and an injury that held Hughes out for a while derailed the positive momentum you could see amongst the skaters. However, in 2022-23, all those issues went away and suddenly the Devils are a 112-point team.
He continued: “Last year was crazy, we exploded and no one saw it coming. Now this year, we have expectations.”
“Expectations.” That’s probably the most used word in New Jersey since the beginning of June in regard to the Devils. It’s easy for a young team that has an average age of about 25 years old to become distracted by their historic run last season. Instead, the Devils came into training camp and preseason this year all business, whether they were New Jersey or Utica-bound.
Perhaps no one on the Devils roster has more wisdom than Ondrej Palat. The former Tampa Bay Lightning forward has two Stanley Cups under his belt and knows what it takes to win. That hunger still burns inside Palat. The 32-year-old forward recognized the competitive level of the Devils’ training camp and added his status as a veteran doesn’t change his mindset.
“We have a competitive team and younger skaters,” Palat explained. “If you’re a young guy, you have to play 100%. I remember my days when I was fighting really hard for a spot and it doesn’t change now. Every training camp is the same for me, just work hard and do the best I can.”
From drills to scrimmages, and then the preseason, New Jersey’s structure hasn’t changed. The message is constant puck pressure. If you have the puck, move it, if you don’t, go get it. You could see that mentality flowing through the Devils’ system between players of all levels. Within practices, it didn’t matter if the drills were against teammates. 1on1’s, 3on3’s, or 5on5’s were competition. Each and every player was battling for something.
That mentality trickled into the preseason. The Devils won their first two exhibition games on the same day. A win at home against the Philadelphia Flyers and a win on the road against the Montreal Canadiens. The split-squad wins set the preseason standard. New Jersey went on to win their third game, then their fourth, until they eventually swept the entire preseason winning all seven games.
In their final preseason tilt against the Islanders, the Devils gave most of their expected regular-season roster the night off while the Isles dressed an NHL-heavy lineup. Regardless, Akira Schmid and the Devils routed the Islanders in a 3-0 victory, displaying the organization’s depth that’s been put together by General Manager Tom Fitzgerald.
“It just shows how deep our lineup is from the AHL to the NHL,” Schmid said following Friday’s victory. “The next guy comes in and things are still the same.”
As the kiddies would say, the vibe around the Devils is different this year. They know they’re a top NHL team, they know they have something to play for, and they know the expectations have been turned up to 11. So what does sweeping the preseason mean for New Jersey? It means that the organization, in its entirety, is in the right place heading into the regular season. It’s all business, and the Devils are ready to answer the call.
“They’re excited for the season to start,” said Elliotte Friedman on the latest 32 Thoughts the Podcast. “They have something to play for. To their credit, the Devils showed up in a business frame of mind. I’ve heard players talk about this before. It’s the first time you realize you have a chance to be good. Everything is exciting. In the summer, you can’t wait to come back. Training over the summer is exciting. Training camp is exciting, seeing everyone for the first time again is exciting. Even for a change, exhibition hockey is exciting. They’re in the glow right now. For the first time (in a while), they can say ‘We’re good.’ There’s something to be excited about here. We can win.”