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MCKEEN’S 2023-24 NHL YEARBOOK – NEW JERSEY DEVILS – Team Preview – Player Profiles

SAINT PAUL, MN - FEBRUARY 11: New Jersey Devils defenseman Dougie Hamilton (7) skates with the puck during the NHL game between the New Jersey Devils and the Minnesota Wild, on February 11th, 2023, at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, MN. (Photo by Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire)

Review: After years of hardship, the Devils’ ship has been righted. New Jersey grew from the draft with home grown forwards Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Dawson Mercer combining for 133 markers to help the Devils tie for fourth in the league with 3.52 goals per game. The successful rebuild wasn’t just about developing prospects though. They’ve been proactive, snagging defenseman Dougie Hamilton as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2021, who then came up big for the Devils last season with 22 goals and 74 points in 82 outings. New Jersey also acquired Timo Meier from San Jose on Feb. 26, adding to an already stacked offense. The one big potential issue the Devils still have is goaltending. Mackenzie Blackwood struggled while Vitek Vanecek started hot but slowed as the campaign dragged on. Rookie Akira Schmid emerged as the potential solution though. After the Devils earned a 52-22-8 record in the regular season, Schmid outplayed Vanecek in the playoffs, though neither goalie could stop Carolina from ousting New Jersey in five games in the second round.

What’s Changed? New Jersey lost some scoring depth when Tomas Tatar walked as a free agent, but having Meier for a full campaign should more than make up for that. The Devils further enhanced their already strong offense by acquiring Tyler Toffoli, coming off his career-high 73-point performance, from Calgary in exchange for Yegor Sharangovich.

What would success look like? The good news for the Devils is last year’s success was largely thanks to a young core that’s not only talented, but deep. Even if one or two key forwards struggle or are hurt for stretches, there are enough alternative scoring threats on the team to power through it. New Jersey didn’t tweak its goaltending, but Vanek has shown he can be solid at times, and if Schmid, who is still just 23, is able to build off his strong 2022-23 campaign, then the Devils will be set for a deep playoff run.

What could go wrong? With so much promise though, it’s a little concerning how heavily their fate is tied to two relatively unproven goaltenders. Schmid still has just 33 games worth of NHL experience, even after including the playoffs. Vanecek at least has 141 regular season and playoff contests under his belt, but he hasn’t shown he can be a sustained presence, and worryingly, he’s fallen apart in the postseason with a career 4.52 GAA and .834 save percentage.

Top Breakout Candidate: The promise of the Devils’ forward group has been realized, but New Jersey has a lot of untapped potential remaining on the blue line, especially with regards to Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec. Hughes in particular seems primed for a breakout campaign. This will be his first full NHL season after getting a taste last year, recording a goal and an assist in two regular-season games followed by two helpers in three playoff outings. He was also amazing with the University of Michigan, contributing 10 goals and 48 points in 39 outings. Although Hughes is still just 20 years old, he has the potential to serve in a top-four capacity this year while also receiving some power-play ice time.


Jack Hughes

After erupting for 99 points in 78 games in his fourth NHL season, the 22-year-old playmaking center is ready to join the ranks of the elite. Hughes has great awareness of where everyone else is on the ice and has the confidence to create chances even when it looks like there is nothing available. Hughes scored a career high 43 goals even though his shooting percentage dropped from 15.8% the previous season to 12.8% last season, but he generated nearly an extra shot per game, going from 3.37 shots per game to 4.31 shots per game. That ability to generate shots and scoring chances at an elite level is why Hughes should be expected to keep scoring at such a high level. In his first 50 games of the season, Hughes recorded 67 points (35 G, 32 A), with 229 shots on goal, but then he suffered an upper-body injury which kept him out less than two weeks, but his production was not the same after that, as he put up 32 points (8 G, 24 A) in 28 games to finish the regular season. For all of his wonderful attributes, Hughes is laughably poor on faceoffs, winning 35.4% for his career, and he has shown no improvement, winning 35.3% of his draws last season. Maybe the biggest challenge when it comes to projecting Hughes’ scoring this season is related to his durability, or lack thereof. He has played an average of 61 games in four NHL seasons. While some of those seasons were shortened by the league, Hughes has still missed significant playing time. Healthy for a full season, Hughes has the upside to be a 120-point player, and there are not many of those, but taking injuries into account, it might be more reasonable to count on something closer to 90 points.

Nico Hischier

With Patrice Bergeron retiring, there may be an opening for someone new to take home the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward and Hischier is right at the top of the list of contenders after he finished as runner-up in 2022-2023. He also produced career highs of 31 goals and 80 points, increasing his shot output from 2.19 per game to 3.16 per game year over year. He started the season with 22 points (9 G, 13 A) in his first 18 games and finished the season with 19 points (3 G, 16 A) in his last 16 games. Hischier’s ability to take on more defensive responsibility helps free up Hughes to unleash his offensive game, so they really work well as a tandem down the middle of the ice for New Jersey. Hischier’s emergence offensively should only be enhanced by New Jersey keeping Meier and adding Tyler Toffoli because it gives the Devils more weapons up front. Considering his increased shot rate and significant role in the Devils lineup, Hischier should be in line for at least 75 points, with a chance to challenge or even exceed last season’s career-best output.

Timo Meier

A shot generating monster in San Jose, Meier was not as productive in New Jersey, with his shot rate dropping by more than one per game, and even though Meier struggled in the postseason, the Devils committed to signing him to a long-term contract extension. That seems more of a show of faith based on Meier’s previous performance in San Jose rather than what he did for New Jersey, when he contributed 14 points (9 G, 5 A) in 21 games, but he is a play-driving winger who is not afraid to use his size to create room in the offensive zone. Starting last season in San Jose, Meier did not score a goal in his first nine games, then tallied 27 goals in his next 38 games. Such is the power of shot generation – keep getting those shots and, eventually, they start to go in the net. Over the past two seasons, Meier has generated 1.20 expected goals per 60 minutes of five-on-five play, ranking second behind only Toronto’s Auston Matthews. When trying to project Meier’s production, consider that he will probably play less for a strong New Jersey team than he did in San Jose, and his teammates should still allow him to generate a high rate of shots. That would make 35 goals and 65 points a reasonable target for Meier, but he has a higher ceiling, too. If everything goes well, a point per game is not out of the question.

Jesper Bratt

The 25-year-old winger scored a career high 32 goals and tied his career high with 73 points last season and he is one of 27 forwards league-wide to have recorded at least 70 points in each of the past two seasons. Bratt has explosive speed and excellent puck protection skills. He has become increasingly comfortable as a finisher, which makes him a more serious threat overall. His defensive impact has been slipping in recent seasons. Not enough to be a major problem, because Bratt led the Devils with a Corsi percentage of 58.4%, but if his defensive play gets tidied up, he would be an even stronger all-around player. Bratt opened last season with 24 points (8 G, 16 A) in 19 games and it’s not like he collapsed after that, but it was tough to maintain that level. Even so, after back-to-back 73-point seasons, that remains a reasonable ballpark for this season, too.

Tyler Toffoli

A veteran who has excelled at every stop, Toffoli was a brilliant addition by the Devils. The 31-year-old right winger tallied career highs of 34 goals and 73 points for the Flames last season, with Calgary dominating play when Toffoli was on the ice, outscoring, out-shooting, and out-chancing the opposition. He is not the most graceful skater but has learned enough positional play over the years that he does not have to rely on speed to be in the right place to make things happen. Controlling play has been routine for Toffoli throughout his career, and moving to a Devils team that tends to push the puck in the right direction should allow him to thrive on a Stanley Cup contender. With the Flames striving, unsuccessfully, to reach the postseason, Toffoli finished the year with 17 points (8 G, 9 A) and 54 shots on goal in the last 14 games. Joining a Devils squad that controls play will not be an adjustment for Toffoli, who almost always has the puck moving in the right direction, but it should give him plenty of chances to score. He may not match his career-best numbers, set in Calgary last season, but it would not be a surprise to see 65 points from Toffoli. Last season’s 73 points was easily his career high, but as recently as 2020-2021, he tallied 28 goals and 44 points in just 52 games for Montreal. With high-end centers in New Jersey, Toffoli is again in position to be a very productive scoring winger.

Dawson Mercer

After starting his NHL career as a center who could not win faceoffs, Mercer spent most of his second season on the wing and turned into a strong finisher. There is some risk that his goal scoring will not be sustainable, because his shooting percentage jumped to 16.8% last season, but he had a phenomenal run starting in mid-February when he scored 11 goals and 20 points with 43 shots on goal in a 12-game span. Suddenly, he was a game-breaking offensive threat and while that was not going to last, it helped secure Mercer a spot in a scoring role with the Devils. Since he is still just 21, that offensive development offers a glimpse of what Mercer might be able to accomplish in the future. When it comes to projections, then, Mercer ought to keep making progress, but with last season’s goal-scoring surge lifting his shooting percentage to 16.8%, it’s fair to expect some regression. A 25-goal, 50-point season is well within Mercer’s grasp, with room to climb higher if, for example, he ended up on Hughes’ wing on a regular basis.

Ondrej Palat

Although his first season in New Jersey was marred by injury, missing 33 games due to groin surgery, Palat remained an excellent defensive presence. While he is well compensated relative to his limited offensive output, Palat also brings 150 games of playoff experience, including having played an integral role on two Stanley Cup winners in Tampa Bay. In the past four seasons, Palat has skated in 83 playoff games to lead the National Hockey League. His 30 playoff goals in that time ranks third, behind Nathan MacKinnon and Brayden Point. For a Devils team that has rising young stars in the middle of the ice, bringing in veterans like Toffoli and Palat in recent seasons adds a measure of stability that can help this team reach the next level. Palat’s only 20-goal season was as a rookie, in 2013-2014, and he probably won’t get there in 2023-2024, but he could score 15 goals and 45 points in a full season.

Erik Haula

Acquired in a trade for Pavel Zacha, Haula had bounced around quite a bit before landing in New Jersey with his seventh NHL team. Following a strong season, in which he surpassed 40 points for the third time in his career, Haula earned a three-year contract with the Devils, which might offer a dose of stability. The 32-year-old has versatility in that he plays mostly at center but can shift to the wing as well and he can be used in a checking role or can contribute secondary scoring. He is not a star, but a quality complementary piece for a contending team. Haula started last season with one goal in the first 30 games, which was not sustainable, given the chances he was getting. He finished the season on a high, however. In 20 games after the trade deadline, Haula contributed nine goals and 14 points. That early-season slump contributed to Haula finishing with an 8.5% shooting percentage, notably below his career mark of 11.8%, which should limit any potential regression, so a 15-goal, 40-point season should still be within Haula’s range in 2023-2024.

Michael McLeod

While he is offensively limited for a player who was drafted 12th overall in 2016, McLeod is establishing himself as a fast and physical checking center. He has scored just 10 goals in 157 games over the past two seasons but has delivered 272 hits while winning 58.9% of his faceoffs. If he could finish at a higher rate, then maybe he would have a chance to climb in the lineup but until then the 25-year-old is a reliable depth option. Although McLeod did score a couple of goals and had six points in the playoffs, his last regular season goal was on January 4th, and after the trade deadline, he had no goals and three assists in 20 games. Given his spot in the lineup, expectations are modest, but surely McLeod can give the Devils more than that. It would be hard for him to score on just 4.4% of his shots again, so some positive regression could be coming in McLeod’s direction. A few more goals and a point total in the 25-30 range is a fair expectation.

Nathan Bastian

A 25-year-old depth winger who has never had 20 points in an NHL season, Bastian could possibly offer more than what he has provided to this point in his career. He has the size of a legitimate power forward and plays a sound defensive game while also showing some capability in the offensive zone. He has played more than 50 games once in his career and has mostly been used in a limited fourth-line role, but there are some intriguing signs related to goal-scoring and physical play. With his physical presence, Bastian could carve out a more significant role. If he does that, maybe double-digit goals and 200-plus hits could be part of his contribution.


Dougie Hamilton

A rare talent on the blueline, Hamilton has finished in the top seven in Norris Trophy voting in three of the past four seasons, and he burst through for career highs of 22 goals and 74 points last season. A smooth skater at 6’ 6”, Hamilton covers so much space on the ice that he frequently jumps into the attack to give his team an advantage. His play away from the puck has slipped in recent seasons but not to the degree that it overshadows his significant offensive contributions. Since 2015-2016, Hamilton has scored 115 goals, ranking third among defensemen, behind Brent Burns and Roman Josi. While Hamilton was fine early in the season, in his last 57 games, he tallied 58 points (16 G, 42 A) with 188 shots on goal. He can be a difference maker, and even though Hamilton had never scored more than 50 points in a season prior to 2022-2023, he should have a reasonable shot at exceeding 60 points this season. The Devils have a lot of talent and Hamilton has found his groove in terms of style, being able to attack and take advantage of his considerable offensive gifts.

John Marino

Even though he managed a modest 18 points (4 G, 14 A) in 64 games during his first season with the Devils, after being acquired from Pittsburgh, Marino established himself as an excellent top-four right-shot defender. A graceful skater, Marino might have more offensive upside, but is not likely to get significant offensive opportunities on a Devils blueline that boasts Hamilton and top prospects Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec. As excellent as Marino was defensively last season, he was a liability offensively, which is fine. Not everybody has to be a scorer. But that means that Marino might contribute 20-25 points in a full season and that is not going to move the needle very much.

Jonas Siegenthaler

The Devils invested in Siegenthaler when they acquired him from Washington, and he has rewarded them by filling a top-four role on defense. He produced a career high 21 points last season, logging more than 20 minutes per game while recording more than 100 hits and 100 blocked shots. While Marino is more about finesse, Siegenthaler brings a sturdy presence, and his no-frills game has value even if it can get overlooked in the presence of flashier teammates. Like Marino, Siegenthaler’s value is more tied to his defensive contributions. Not only did Siegenthaler have an expected goals percentage of 55.2%, but the Devils outscored opponents by 20 goals (78-58) with Siegenthaler on the ice during five-on-five play. With his track record showing minimal offensive output and a relatively high on-ice shooting percentage (10.0 OiSH%) last season, it would be a little surprising if Siegenthaler even matched last season’s total of 21 points.


Vitek Vanecek

The New Jersey Devils have finally parted ways with MacKenzie Blackwood, with the relationship between Blackwood’s rookie performances and the remainder of his time between the pipes never quite lining up. But while Devils fans have become a bit gun-shy about jumping headfirst into their enthusiasm for goaltenders, Blackwood’s departure leaves the team with a goaltender in Vitek Vanecek that should soothe at least some skittish supporters for the coming year.

Vanecek had arrived in New Jersey as one-half of the prospect pairing that the Washington Capitals moved on from wholesale last summer, heading in-division following two years of inconsistent performances and battles for the number one gig with fellow prospect Ilya Samsonov. Vanecek, who had been the ‘spare’ to Samsonov’s heir apparent role in Washington, proved almost immediately that Devils fans are in good hands moving forward – so he’ll kick off the upcoming season as the consensus starter, likely shouldering the majority of the workload with Akira Schmid serving as his number two. Vanecek’s game had previously been characterized by concerns over his game reads and depth management, but he adopted a more conservative approach for the Devils that helped the Metro Division club make their triumphant return to the postseason. The incremental positioning errors he seemed to make in Washington looked to be all cleaned up last year – and if he can prove that wasn’t a fluke, he’ll be a valuable piece for the Devils in the coming years as they attempt to hold their championship window open.

Projected starts: 55-60