NHL playoffs: The Devils are in great shape for years to come
The New Jersey Devils season didn't end on the note they would've hoped, but the team is set up for sustainable success.
Cheering for the New Jersey Devils over the last week and a half since the second round began has not been a fun experience, but supporting this team in the years to come looks like it's going to be a blast.
New Jersey flamed out against the Carolina Hurricanes in a 4-1 series loss where they got outscored 24-13 and bested by just about any underlying statistic you could conjure. They were the worse team and they paid the ultimate price.
While it wasn't a satisfying conclusion to an excellent 112-point campaign, this team showed enough that it's safe to say it'll be one of the NHL's most dangerous squads in the years to come. Not only is this team loaded with young talent, it's found itself in a favorable cap situation to build on its foundation.
There will be decisions to make in New Jersey during the offseason, but there are few teams with a better future outlook in the short, medium and long term.
Devils' core is in incredible shape
Optimism about New Jersey's prospects come from a core of highly-drafted players the team appears to have hit on.
Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier were both first-overall picks who entered the season with promising resumes, but not enough production to be completely confident about their ultimate potential. Hughes had a career-high of 56 points entering 2022-23 and put up 99 to set a franchise record. Hischier had never topped 60 points before this season, then produced 80.
Those two centers are 21 and 24, respectively, and they have a combined cap hit of $15.25 million through 2026-27, with Hughes locked in at a bargain price of $8 million through 2029-30. New Jersey extended both players before they truly broke out and stands to reap the profits of those decisions for years.
That pair is productive, cost-effective and likely to improve. It will take an extremely poor team-building effort to create a lacklustre forward group with the two centers in place.
New Jersey also has two blueliners drafted in the top four picks — Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec — who project to be top-four defensemen in the near future. Hughes already got time on the first pair in a five-game NHL cameo this season and demonstrated superlative skill early.
Luke Hughes' first NHL goal was a thing of beauty! 😈
His first in the League completes the comeback for the @NJDevils in @Energizer overtime! pic.twitter.com/OR9AyBFpCB
— NHL (@NHL) April 14, 2023
Nemec more than held his own at the AHL level as a 19-year-old and he could be ready to help the team as early as next season. This duo was the primary reason The Athletic put New Jersey second on its ranking of NHL prospect pools in February.
Outside of the emerging talents, the Devils also have established veteran defenders on reasonable contracts as the trio of Dougie Hamilton, John Marino and Jonas Siegenthaler are all locked up through at least 2026-27 on a combined cap hit of $16.4 million.
Filling out the forward group will take some doing, but the Hughes-Hischier duo gives the Devils an enormous leg up in that area, and the team's defense corps projects to be excellent for years to come. Most of New Jersey's important players are either in their prime or entering it as Hamilton is the only core guy whose age (29) indicates that performance decline is a concern.
Lots of money to play with
Although the Devils have locked in a few key players, this roster remains highly flexible as New Jersey currently projects to have $34.28 million in cap space for 2023-24.
That number reflects the fact that this team has plenty of players hitting free agency, but many of those won't be a priority to retain.
Tomas Tatar and Erik Haula, for instance, are both 32 and coming off solid but unspectacular seasons. They combine to take $6.875 million of the books and bringing them back is unlikely to be a priority. Miles Wood is a fungible bottom-six winger who made $3.2 million this year. That money is probably best allocated elsewhere.
New Jersey's free agents on the blue line — Ryan Graves and Damon Severson — are valuable players, but Hughes' arrival and the possible elevation of Nemec makes it unlikely that both return. The Devils might pony up for one, but with all the talent they have on defense, bargain shopping could be a better route.
That $32.28 million is likely to be dented by contracts for restricted free agents Jesper Bratt (who's coming off two straight 73-point seasons) and trade deadline acquisition Timo Meier. Even if both are re-signed, the Devils will have some money to play with.
The goaltending issue
The only area of the team where there isn't an encouraging plan is in goal. Vitek Vanecek has been an approximately average goaltender during his brief NHL career, but he was nothing short of brutal in the playoffs with an .825 save percentage in seven games.
An ugly performance like that might not be enough for the Devils to give up on him, but they are probably contemplating alternatives. Mackenzie Blackwood is a restricted free agent, but after he produced a negative GSAA in three consecutive seasons, it would be hard to claim he's earned another contract.
Akira Schmid had his moments during the first round, but he's ultimately an unknown with just 33 NHL appearances under his belt.
The Devils may opt to go with a Vanecek-Schmid combination. It wouldn't be the worst tandem in the league by any stretch of the imagination, and they'd cost a reasonable $4.25 million. That said, it's still fair to say neither goalie is a proven starter and there's a case to be made for investing in the position in a splashier way.
Given the importance of the position, this question mark seems like a blemish on the Devils' pristine outlook, but New Jersey is not alone in opting to go cheap at the position due to its volatility. They just lost a playoff series to a Hurricanes team that has used multiple goaltenders during its playoff run, none of whom are stars.
If questions between the pipes are the biggest questions surrounding the Devils it's fair to say they're in good shape.