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NHL Burning Questions: New Jersey Devils

Adam Proteau looks at some of the biggest topics surrounding the New Jersey Devils this season, including goaltending, coaching and more.
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You’re reading the latest file in THN.com’s continuing “Three Burning Questions” series. In this feature, we ask three major questions for every NHL team before the start of the 2022-23 regular season. We’re posing Three Burning Questions about the New Jersey Devils in this file.

THREE BURNING QUESTIONS FOR THE DEVILS IN 2022-23:

1. Who’s the starting goaltender for this Devils team? For years, Mackenzie Blackwood has been positioned by the Devils as their goalie of the future. But he’s 25 now – seven years older than he was when New Jersey drafted him 42nd overall – and the road to success has not been linear. After a career-high 47 games played in 2019-20, injuries and the COVID-19 virus have bit into Blackwood’s NHL time more and more in each of the two subsequent seasons, to the point he appeared in only 25 games in 2021-22.

Consequently, Devils GM went out this summer and acquired a new goaltender – former Washington Capitals netminder Vitek Vanicek – who will challenge Blackwood for playing time this season. Veteran journeyman Jonathan Bernier is also still around, so the competition for minutes could be fierce. If it’s not, and Devils head coach Lindy Ruff just keeps a goalie carousel going, New Jersey’s playoff chances in the highly competitive Metropolitan Division are going to slim significantly. It doesn’t matter who gives them a chance to win, it just has to be one of the three.

2. Did Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald spend New Jersey’s salary cap space wisely? The Devils had a good deal of cap flexibility heading into the off-season, but Fitzgerald moved quickly to spend virtually all of it on an infusion of experience, including Vanicek (signed at $3.4 million for the next three seasons), defenseman John Marino (under contract for the next five years at $4.4 million), and forwards Ondrej Palat (signed for five years at $6 million per season) and Erik Haula (signed for one year at $2.375 million). That has drastically improved New Jersey’s depth, but is it enough to propel the Devils into the playoffs?

Remember, it isn’t just that you have to improve as a team to get to the post-season, your divisional opponents also have to fall off to a notable degree. In the Metro, that means one of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Capitals has to crumble under the pressure, and also that division rivals on Long Island and in Columbus have to take smaller steps forward. Many things have to go virtually perfectly for the Devils to grab one of the wild card berths in the Eastern Conference, let alone a top spot in the Metro. But ownership and their long-suffering fan base are aching to see playoff hockey once again. It may well come down to the final couple weeks of the regular season for New Jersey to make that final push, but they do have the horses to challenge many Metro teams now, and if they’re not competing for one of those final playoff spots, something serious has gone awry in the Garden State.

3. How long will Devils coach Lindy Ruff survive if things go off the rails? Not long, we’d suggest. Ruff is entering his third season behind New Jersey’s bench. Still, there’s a reason why Fitzgerald hired former Florida interim head coach Andrew Brunette to serve as an assistant to Ruff this year. If the Devils stumble out of the gate, or go through any extended slump as a group, Brunette is right there to take over for Ruff.

He’s a demanding head coach who has earned the respect of most league observers, but Ruff also doesn’t have a Stanley Cup win under his belt to give him the cachet he’d need to survive a bad stretch with the Devils. As we saw this summer, the NHL head coaching industry has a higher turnover rate than ever, and Ruff may be the first victim of the coaching carousel once the season is underway. If he wins, he sticks around. If not, enter Brunette, and a new era for Devils coaching.

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