The Washington Capitals have been eliminated from playoff contention, so there goes that. At least we don’t have to use the word berth this year. I hate that word. It feels wet and sticky.
An early summer for the Caps puts me in a tough situation. It’s my job to write about hockey, and I was hoping to cover a Caps playoff run for at least a week. Now I need something to do, so I’ve decided I’m going to cover the New Jersey Devils in the playoffs. I don’t know if this is a good idea, but I’m doing it.
The New Jersey Devils (DEH·vlz) are an NHL franchise based in Newark, New Jersey. During the Clinton and Bush II administrations, they won three Stanley Cups. They’re suddenly pushing for a fourth.
In 2021-22, the Devils earned 63 standings points, ranking 28th in the league. This season they’re on pace for 111 points. I don’t know what the biggest season-to-season improvement in NHL history is, but this one might be in the running.
The Devils’ turnaround is the result of one big move made during free agency, plus a bumper crop of young talent. Their big offseason addition was the under-appreciated veteran defender Dougie Hamilton, who instantly became the centerpiece of their blue line. But I’d say the sudden, dramatic maturation of young players has been even more important, especially:
Those are just the guys under the age of 25. New Jersey is the fourth youngest team in the league; Buffalo is the only team that is younger and any good.
In my mind, this is the ideal way to build a team that is both fun and good. Here, I made a diagram:
The Devils have become home to two former Washington Capitals. Jonas Siegenthaler, 25, was acquired by trade in 2021 in exchange for a third-round pick. Siegenthaler requested a trade after he had lost his spot in the lineup to veteran defender Zdeno Chara.
“It hurts a little not to be with a title contender anymore,” Siegenthaler said at the time. “But the Devils are a young team and maybe a little immature. In two or three years, we will be a top team that can fight for the Cup.”
According to Evolving Hockey’s goals above replacement (GAR) metric, Siegethaler has been the league’s 13th best defender in 2022-23. HockeyViz’s model is a big fan of Siegenthaler’s defense, where he reduces opponent offense by nine percentage points.
Goalie Vitek Vanecek was not going to receive an offer for an extension after the 2021-22 season, so the Capitals traded him to the Devils for two draft picks. His new team gave Vanecek a big raise, paying him $3.4 million a season, a deal that appears to have worked out well for both parties. Vanecek is sporting a 31-11-4 record, a major improvement in wins-and-losses despite saving almost exactly as many shots as he has in the past:
vitek vanecek and .908 wtf pic.twitter.com/OZdRpynraa
— good tweet pete 🌮 (@peterhassett) March 16, 2023
According to MoneyPuck, Vanecek has saved 2.6 goals more than expected over the whole season, ranking him 25th among all goalies who have played at least 20 games. It’s clear he’s been the beneficiary of the Devils’ system, which allows the lowest rate of high-danger chances in the league.
In his media availabilities, Vanecek has begun a habit of referring to himself in the third person. “I was just trying to stay me, stay Vitek,” Vanecek told the Devils’ excellent beat writer, Amanda Stein. “Vitek has to be always same. Just play hockey and not thinking about anything else.”
The Devils have four games left in their regular-season schedule, all but one against non-playoff teams. Their final game of the season comes on the road against the Washington Capitals. (That is New Jersey’s road, not Washington’s, in case the perspective shift is confusing.) After that, the Devils are almost certain to play the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. That’s where I’ll be, figuratively, for as long as the Devils are in the chase.
I don’t expect everyone to be on board with my decision to follow and cover another team this postseason, especially a team in the same division as the Capitals. I don’t see it as a betrayal. I just like hockey, and I like how this one team plays hockey. Plus I like some of their players. Though my preferred team is out, I still want to have some fun, and I invite you to come along.
Headline photo: Pacmanghostx (CC BY-SA 3.0)
RMNB is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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