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NHL: New Jersey Devils season preview

The New Jersey Devils have been one of the busier teams in the NHL off-season adding depth, size and experience in an attempt to end their four-year playoff drought.

Aggressive upgrade

Going back further the Devils have only made the playoffs once (2017/18) since they made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012.

Fed up of being on the outside, the Devils have used the off-season to trade for goalie Vitek Vanecek (from Washington Capitals), defenceman John Marino (from Pittsburgh Penguins) and forward Erik Haula (from Boston Bruins).

Defenceman Brendan Smith was signed from free agency, as was the headliner of their acquisitions forward Ondrej Palat who has played a crucial role in Tampa Bay Lightning making the Stanley Cup Final three times in a row, winning twice.

The 31-year-old signed a five-year, $30-million contract with the Devils and brings to the organisation a history of delivering when it matters most.

In Tampa's recent run to the Cup final, Palat set a record for most game-winning goals in Lightning's post-season history (12).

He had 49 points (18 goals, 31 assists) in 77 regular season games last season and 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists) in 23 playoff games. He also adds a physical element to the Devils, ranking third among Lightning forwards with 124 hits.

Improving offence

The Devils finished seventh in the Metropolitan Division last season (27-46-9) and their points tally of 63 was 28th of the NHL's 32 teams.

However, there were signs of improvement as their offence rose from 26th in the NHL two seasons ago to 19th last year.

Averaging just below three goals per-game, it was their best offensive effort since 1995/96.

The 24-year-old Jepser Bratt led the way scoring 26 goals, 47 assists for 73 points in 76 games and Captain Nico Hischier, 23, also enjoyed a career-best season with 21 goals, 39 assists for 60 points in 70 games.

Another first overall selection, Jack Hughes, also made a big impression at 21-years-old scoring 26 goals, 30 assists for 56 points in just 49 games before a knee injury ended his season.

Yegor Sharangovich scored 24 goals in his second NHL season and Dawson Mercer bagged 17 in what was his rookie year.

With each looking to develop further in 2022/23, the Devils will have little concern over where their goals will come from, it's keeping them out where the trouble may continue to be.

Goaltending must get better

The Devils allowed the fourth-most goals in the NHL last season (average 3.68 goals per-game) which on the face of it points to a defensive deficiency, but they actually ranked in the top half of the league in expected goals against per 60 minutes.

They also had a respectable penalty-kill at 80.2% which ranked 14th overall suggesting the leakiness was caused further back in net.

New Jersey used seven goalies last season who combined for a poor .881 team percentage, second worst in the NHL behind only the Seattle Kraken.

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Newly-acquired Vanecek will likely begin the season as number-one with Mackenzie Blackwood his partner.

Vanecek, 26, was 20-12-6 with a .908 save percentage and 2.67 GAA in 42 games for the Capitals last season, and 1-1 with a .863 save percentage and 4.21 GAA in two playoff starts.

Blackwood, 25 was drafted by the Devils in 2015 and, after a strong start to his NHL career, appeared to be their future in the position. But injury has hampered him and his workload and numbers have dwindled since he signed a three-year, $8.4-million deal in 2020.

With Blackwood seeking a bounce back season and Vanecek motivated to prove himself an NHL starter, the Devils should be in better shape in net. After all, it couldn't get much worse.

'Ruff' start may prove costly

The 62-year-old Lindy Ruff enters his third season behind the New Jersey bench and will be under pressure to get his new-look team off to a good start.

The Devils have hired Andrew Brunette to be Ruff's assistant and he's likely their next coach in waiting.

Brunette, 49, led the Florida Panthers to the Presidents' Trophy last season in an interim position and was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.

That was his first NHL coaching job, however, and he will no doubt benefit from working with one of the most experienced coaches in NHL history in Ruff who is tied with Al Arbour for fifth on the all-time wins list at 782.

Ruff has been given the benefit of the doubt due to injuries and poor goaltending last season, and he deserves that. But he's backed heavily this off-season and with no more excuses he must return the Devils to playoff contention or a turn to Brunette may be in New Jersey's near future.

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