The Devils season began today with the first practices and press conferences of the year. We learned a lot, including about where the team hopes to be in April.
As I have already written about, the Devils had a rather busy, and in my opinion productive, offseason. Today they began the preseason with some on ice practices split into three groups and press conferences for the players, head coach and general manager. Let’s start with the captain, Nico Hischier.
One of the most important things I think the Devils added over the summer is experience. They added players like Ondrej Palat and Erik Haula, both of whom have played at least 500 regular season NHL games and at least 60 playoff games. That is going to be huge for one of the youngest teams in the league but I think it will be especially big for Hischier. Hischier is going into his third year as captain but still has only played 300 regular season NHL games and only 5 NHL playoff games. The additional experience in Haula and Palat will be a huge help to Nico in leading the team. That veteran presence gives me hope that the team will be able to avoid long losing streaks like they had in December of last season, where the wheels really came off the bus. The veteran presence being able to help calm the room and keep everyone focused on what’s ahead of them. The infusion of veterans into this young core does truly make this year feel a little different.
Speaking of that young core, Jesper Bratt is back on a one year deal. The 24 year old Bratt had 73 points in 76 games last year, shattering his previous career best of 35 points. Bratt showed flashes of greatness in his first five seasons but could never manage to consistently put it all together, until last year. That is why I believe last season was not a fluke or a one off in a contract year. Bratt showed elite level skill at points in each of his first five seasons and his highlight tapes will show you that. However he would also go near invisible for a few games at a time. Until last year. Last year Bratt was dominant for just about every game he stepped on the ice. I fully believe him when he says he can be even better and I believe that he will be even better this year. If he is, the Devils have a real shot at the playoffs, if he isn’t, well, the Devils will struggle to score goals and win games.
In a surprising twist, Devils goaltender Jonathan Bernier was an active participant in practice today. Bernier missed almost all of last season with a hip injury and all reporting leading up to camp was that he would not be ready to start the season. However, not only was he on the ice on the first day of camp, but he rarely left, taking the heavy majority of the shots for his group according to Amanda Stein. General manager Tom Fitzgerald said in his press conference today that even he was surprised by Bernier’s progress this summer and how good he looked today. Fitzgerald also said that Mackenzie Blackwood is fully healthy and the organization expects him to be able to return to the high level of played he showed in his first two seasons and not what we’ve seen in the last two years. Then let’s not forget that the Devils also added goalie Vitek Vanecek at the draft in a trade with Washington. Having three NHL caliber goalies ready to compete for the net is a refreshing change of pace from last season where the Devils used 7 goalies and none of them were healthy enough, developed enough, or talented enough, to help a team compete for a playoff spot. This three way goalie battle could become very interesting as camp progresses. Definitely something to keep an eye on.
Last but certainly not least, the expectations for this upcoming season. When asked about his expectations for the upcoming season, Tom Fitzgerald started with a pretty standard, boring, answer. He talked about how “It’s not about the end results, it’s about the process. We all have to do the right thing every day, not put the cart before the horse.” He also talked about the need for everyone in the organization to push each other and have high standards. Before he finished answering the expectations question, he ended with “Now is our time. Why wait?”. I love that quote and its a sentiment I’ve been expressing for a while. Hischier and Bratt are going into year 6, Hughes into year 4. Hamilton is 29 and Severson is 28. The time to start competing is now. The window should be opening for us this year. The future is bright and the future is here. Boston, Pittsburgh and the Islanders are old and declining. Why wait for them to just surrender? Why wait? The time is now. WOOO I love that. This is going to be an exciting year of Devils hockey and I can’t wait for October 13th. Follow me on Twitter at PatBoooooth.