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The East Is Going To Be A Brawl

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - FEBRUARY 16: of the San Jose Sharks against the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena on February 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)
Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

The Devils really didn't have to do this. Even before the events of Sunday, New Jersey had a contending hockey team whose future looked brighter than the sunrise over the Hudson River. With an average age of just 26-and-a-half, a goal differential better than anyone but Boston, and a record superior to all but those Bruins and the Hurricanes, the Devs could have honestly stamped Mission Accomplished on this season already. They'll be making the playoffs for the first time since 2018, they'll likely be winning more games in the postseason than they had combined since 2012 (one), and with their delightful group of young forwards they'll be a hot Cup pick for next year and beyond.

But they did, they did do this! A day after pulverizing the Flyers 7-0 at home, Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald stormed into his office and shouted, "Why didn't we win 8-0!?" To remedy this issue, he got on the phone with his buddy in San Jose, Mike Grier, and they stitched together a gigantic deal for the expiring contract of the Sharks' top scorer, Timo Meier.

There were like 12 other pieces to this trade—no exaggeration—as the Sharks picked up a lot of untested assets from New Jersey. But Meier is The One. A 30-goal scorer in back-to-back seasons, including this one already, the 26-year-old winger adds beef to the growing boys of the Devils' forward lines (he's 6-foot-1, 220 pounds) while also providing what should be a totally unfair advantage on the power play. He's got an aggressive mindset that fits perfectly with a group that loves to swarm the net after turnovers, and if he's out there in 5-on-4 with, say, Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, you're going to see loose limbs on the ice as teams stretch themselves trying to pay attention to every threat at once.

This Meier deal is huge, and it's generally nice that he'll get to make his case for a mega contract on a team that's trying its hardest to win. (New Jersey retains control after this season but is still beholden to the salary cap and his $10 million qualifying offer.) To a point, however, all this does is let the Devils keep pace with their top rivals in the Eastern Conference. This half of the league has been notably better than the left side, possessing the five best records in the NHL while the West is saddled with five of the six best lottery bets.

Getting out of the East is going to take a Swiss army knife that runs on jet fuel, and as Friday's trade deadline closes in, a bunch of teams are trying to stuff every weapon they can into their locker rooms. The Islanders, in their chase for one of the wild card slots, acquired Bo Horvat from the Canucks. The Devils' most likely first-round foe, the Rangers, already got Vlad Tarasenko and are keeping a seat warm for Patrick Kane. The Leafs, desperate to finally get at least a first-round victory, added another brand-name forward in Ryan O'Reilly. The imperial Bruins got even stronger with a deal for Dmitry Orlov and Garnet Hathaway. The Lightning, doing their best to keep their window from closing, snagged Tanner Jeannot, a 24-goal scorer with Nashville in his second season last year.

When you look at all their rivals getting not just more skilled but tougher, too, the Meier deal starts to feel more like a necessity than a luxury. Sure, New Jersey could have coasted on what they've already accomplished, safe in the knowledge that their massive improvement and their overall youth will shield them from most criticism if the playoffs don't go according to plan. But the Devils firmly believe that this is their time, and they're not going to sit there and let those jagoffs across the Hudson muscle in on what they've earned. Greed's a sin, after all, and that's kind of their thing.

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