devils stick salute

The Devils finished the 2023-24 regular season with a 4-1 loss against the New York Islanders at Prudential Center Monday night.

There’s no doubt it was the end to a disappointing year for New Jersey. The club was coming off a record-setting season in 2022-23 with 52 wins and 112 points, highlighted by a 13-game winning streak and a seven-game First Round victory against the hated New York Rangers.

While the Devils weren’t expecting another year of record-breaking feats, the club did expect to earn a postseason berth and compete again in the Stanley Cup playoffs. A combination of injuries – particularly to key players – and other factors led to the Devils finishing the season at 38-39-5.

And while the season may be looked at as a step backwards, there were a lot of hard lessons learned during the year that the team can use moving forward. And there is a historical component to that bump-in-the-road perspective.

Other franchises have faced similar such setbacks before rebounding to win a championship. The Vegas Golden Knights missed the playoffs in 2022, only to win the Stanley Cup in 2023. The Tampa Bay Lightning lost in the Stanley Cup Final (2015), Eastern Conference Final (2016) and then missed the playoffs in 2017. Three years later, the Lightning would go on to win back-to-back Cups in 2020 and ’21 (just ask Ondrej Palat). The St. Louis Blues missed the playoffs in 2018 and won the Cup in 2019.

The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009 (with Devils current general manager Tom Fitzgerald on the bench acting as interim assistant coach) in what was expected to be the start of a prolific run. It took six underachieving and disappointing seasons until the Penguins would win another title, and they would do so as champions in back-to-back seasons in 2016 and ’17.

None of that will squelch the sting felt by those in the Devils organization after this season, or the fanbase for that matter. And that historical context also doesn’t guarantee the Devils the same type of success.

But what it does do, is serve as a reminder of the bigger picture. Which is, the Devils still have a lot to feel good about as an organization and its current state.

The team is still young and loaded with talent. The window for competing for championships is still opening up. The potential is inside the locker room. Changes will be made in the summer, as occurs every summer. Fitzgerald and his staff will look for avenues to improve his club and put them in the best position to compete. The core from that record-setting year is still in place, and improved upon.

The Devils’ 2023-24 roster that missed the playoffs wasn’t much different from the 2022-23 version that set those franchise records. Which shows how fine the line is in the NHL between success and missed opportunities. And while the Devils may feel so far, they are still also so close.

The team will now move into the off-season with a lot to digest and process. That will take some time for reflection. But looking back following the final shift of the season, here are some of the key takeaways from 2023-24 campaign.

Banged Up

Injuries are never an excuse – they happen to every team – but they were certainly an issue this season for the Devils. Just think back to last year’s record-setting season. Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt and Dougie Hamilton missed a combined five games: four for Jack and one for Hischier.

This season, Hischier, Hughes, Bratt and Hamilton missed a combined 93 games. Hamilton missed 62 contests alone with a torn pectoral muscle and was out since late November, while Hughes (20) and Hischier (11) also missed time.

On top of that, forward Timo Meier was hobbled in November by a knee injury that limited his ability for most of the season. He missed 13 contests on the year and tallied just 11 goals in his first 46 games while dealing with the issue. Meier finished the year, after finally healing, with 17 goalies in 23 games.

And that doesn’t discount the losses of extended time for Ondrej Palat (11 games), Curtis Lazar (11), Nathan Bastian (28), Jonas Siegenthaler (25) and Tomas Nosek (46).

So, yes, injuries are no excuse. But to ignore the injuries is to ignore the tough reality that faced the team this season.


The Devils had to feel good about their goaltending coming into this season. Vitek Vanecek had a superb 2022-23, going 33-11-4 with a 2.45 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. And the youngster Akira Schmid performed remarkably in a First Round victory against arch rival New York Rangers. For once, the team looked solid between the pipes.

But Fitzgerald wasn’t satisfied with the status quo. He tried over the summer and into the season to bolster the position. He even attempted to acquire goalie Jake Allen early on in the season (Allen opted at the time to not waive his no-trade clause). Despite his efforts, Fitzgerald couldn’t land a deal prior to the trade deadline – after all, it takes two teams to make a trade and Fitzgerald wasn’t going to sell off a bunch of high value assets unless the return made sense.

Eventually Fitzgerald was able to land Allen, who will be with the team next season. And he was able to unload Vanecek’s contract (San Jose), opening up some cap space for the Devils to pursue a top-shelf goaltender in the summer. Which will be the team’s top priority.

Core Strength

If there is a bright side to this season, it’s that the core is strong. Jack Hughes had another remarkable season with 27 goals and 74 points despite missing 20 games with an injury. He continues his pace of play with well over a point-per-game ratio. He underwent shoulder surgery last week and is expected to make a full and healthy recovery by next season’s training camp.

Bratt enjoyed yet another career year by setting new marks with 56 assists and 83 points. He also scored 27 goals, his third-straight 20-goal campaign. He accomplished this coming off a 2022-23 season that saw him post 32 goals and 73 points. Bratt has improved every year in the league and still has room to grow.

Hischier also enjoyed a successful season. He posted 27 goals – his third-straight 20-goal campaign (fourth overall) – while hitting the 60-point mark for three straight seasons with 67 this year. The captain already garnered a solid reputation as a legitimate defensive center, finishing as the runner-up last year for the Selke Trophy as best two-way forward. He has only built on his strong defensive play this season. And Hischier even won a career-high 56.8 percent of his faceoffs, ranking seventh in the NHL (minimum 1,000 draws).

Meier, who may also be considered one of the core, had a strong finish to the season (as noted above). It wasn’t just his goal scoring, but his physical play and effort that really stood out down the stretch. A full summer to heal should payoff come next training camp.

Blue Chip Blueliners

While discussing the core of the team, Hischier, Hughes, Bratt and Meier will always be the foundation. However, that core has expanded now to included youthful defensemen Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec.

Luke, the fourth-overall pick in 2021, had a rookie season for the ages. Literally. He set a Devils’ record for points by a rookie defenseman with 47 on nine goals and 38 assists. The 20-year-old also ran point on the No. 1 power play unit all season long. While there were times when the demands of an 82-game schedule and the fatigue it induces had an effect, as it does on all rookies but especially for defensemen, Hughes fought through it to appear in all 82 games of the year.

Nemec, the second-overall pick in 2022, was perhaps the most impressive player on the team this season. Nemec was supposed to marinate and develop his game in the American Hockey League. But injuries thrust the 19-year-old blueliner into the NHL well ahead of time. And instead of getting overwhelmed and having his confidence crushed, Nemec responded by growing into one of the most reliable players on the backend. He obviously still has a lot to learn as a young defenseman in the league, but it’s hard not to be excited about his potential after his opening season in The Show.

Honorable mention goes to Kevin Bahl. The 23-year-old defenseman played his first full season of action this year. He appeared in all 82 games and averaged over 17 minutes per game. And again, like all young defensemen, he had his ups and downs. But the development that comes with this experience is invaluable as a teaching tool for years to come.

Injuries hit the blue line hard this year. But with the improvement of these three youngsters, a healthy Dougie Hamilton and having John Marino and Jonas Siegenthaler in the fold, the Devils blue line looks strong heading into next season.

Moving Forward

It will be a busy off-season for the Devils. For starters, the club will need to hire a new head coach. The Devils will do a full-scale search, which will include Travis Green, who served as interim head coach in the final 21 games of the season, among the candidates.

The Devils will also look to go “big game hunting” for a goaltender, per Fitzgerald. The team has maneuvered to open up cap space and a roster spot for such an acquisition.

As far as the rest of the roster, the team will have seven unrestricted NHL free agents (forwards Nosek, Chris Tierney, Max Willman and Kurtis MacDermid, defensemen Brendan Smith and Nick DeSimone and goalie Kaapo Kahkonen) and eight restricted NHL free agents (forwards Mercer, Nolan Foote, Graeme Clarke, Brian Halonen and Shane Bowers, defensemen Santeri Hatakka and goalies Nico Daws and Akira Schmid).

They also have Samuel Laberge, Kyle Criscuolo, Tyler Wotherspoon, Erik Kallgren and Keith Kinkaid as UFAs, and Nathan Legare and Michael Vukojevic as RFAs.

So as always, roster turnover is to be expected and the club will have lots of decisions to make.

Fitzgerald and his team will look to improve the Devils over the summer, as they do every year. And with the right moves, there’s good reason to think that this season – as disappointing as it was – will just be a speed bump in the road.