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Devils hope they have the right mix of young and old

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NEWARK, NJ — The New Jersey Devils have been one of the youngest teams the past four seasons and have missed the playoffs each time.

The year of the COVID-19 pandemic was the only one in which they came close to making the playoffs, only because the league increased the number of playoff teams from 16 to 24 to compensate for a shortened season.

The story is getting old, but so are the kids, and the Devils’ Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt want to do something about it.

There’s no doubt that Lindy’s Ruff team has some talent with those three and the addition of free agent Ondrej Palat up front. There’s also the continued development of forwards Yegor Sharangovich and Dawson Mercer. To shore up the league’s fourth-worst defense, the Devils signed free agent defenseman Brendan Smith and traded goaltender Vitek Vanecek from Washington and defenseman John Marino from Pittsburgh.

“I could just sit here and lie to you…but I really don’t know,” Hughes said of his expectations for the season. “I think we just want to be competitive and take it one game at a time, one month at a time and stay in the mix. We want to be in the race all year round.

The Devils went 27-46-9 last season and finished with 63 points, the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference. While their goal tally has increased to 248 goals – 19th in the league – they have lost 307 against seven different goalies in a year marred by illness and injury. The number was surpassed only by Montreal (319), Arizona (313) and Detroit (312).

“You’d like to think we keep going up, Father Time has got to help the top teams that have been the top teams for a while start to decline because it’s only natural,” said general manager Tom Fitzgerald. “So that’s kind of your hope.” But you can’t control that.

In recent years, the Devils have added defensemen Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler and Ryan Graves as well as forward Tomas Tatar, all experienced players.

They’re hoping having Vanecek, who went 20-12-6 last season with a 2.67 goals-against average for the Caps, will move the team forward.

Here are five things (or people) to watch this season:

First overall pick in 2019, Hughes had a blistering year last season with 26 goals and 30 assists. The career highs came despite being limited to 49 games due to an early shoulder dislocation and late knee injury.

When he was on the ice, Hughes dominated the game with his puck control, passing and skating.

“I think everyone saw a glimpse of that with Jack last year,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s just fun to watch.”

New Jersey gave Palat, 31, a five-year, $30 million deal to bring his championship experience from Tampa, Florida to New Jersey.

Palat is not a flashy top scorer. He does the heavy lifting and was responsible for both sides of the ice so players like Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point could do their thing – like win two Stanley Cups.

Palat had 18 goals and 31 assists in the regular season last year, and added 11 goals and 12 assists in the playoffs, where the Lightning failed to win a third consecutive Cup.

The Devils traded a few familiar faces, sending Pavel Zacha to Boston for Erik Haula and Ty Smith to the Penguins for Marino. Defenseman PK Subban, one of the faces of the franchise in recent seasons, retired at 33 after 13 seasons and a Norris Trophy.

Top draft pick Simon Nemec, 18, may struggle to make it into the defensive lineup, but Alexander Holtz (20) and Fabian Zetterlund (22) are close after solid seasons in the AHL.

New Jersey ranked 28th in the league last season, converting 15.6%. Ruff replaced assistant coach Mark Recchi with Andrew Brunette to lead the unit.

It didn’t help last season that Hamilton, one of the best power-play defensemen, missed 20 games with a broken jaw.

Lindy Ruff, 62, enters his third season as a former behind the bench. The players respect and appreciate his approach to the game, which combines offensive transition with defensive responsibility. However, if the Devils are struggling early, Brunette is a proven commodity behind the bench — Fitzgerald didn’t bring him here just to lead the power play.

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