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The Jack Hughes-led Devils have taken the next step and are a serious contender for the Stanley Cup

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Patrik Elias has been a fixture with the New Jersey Devils for almost 30 years and it didn’t take him long to recall the last time there was this much excitement coming into a season.

“Turn of the century,” the franchise’s all-time leader in points, goals and assists said as he walked out of the Prudential Center after a recent training camp practice.

Y2K was a very memorable time in New Jersey. The Devils won their second Stanley Cup championship with Elias and his “A Line” joining Hall of Famers Martin Brodeur, Scotty Stevens and Scott Niedermayer in beating Dallas in the final. A year later, New Jersey lost in seven games to Colorado in the final and two years later it earned a third title beating Anaheim in seven games.

Add in the 1995 championship and the decade was zenith of the franchise.

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With the exception of a trip to the Cup Final in 2012 for a loss to Los Angeles, these have been dark times for the Devils. Between the 2012-13 season and 2021-22, they made the playoffs once, and they were one of the league’s worst team in ‘21-’22, collecting 63 points.

The Devils flipped the script last year. After a season-opening two-game skid at home had fans calling for the firing of coach Lindy Ruff, everything changed. Jack Hughes and company went 52-20-8 over the final 80 games and finished with a franchise-best 112 points, third-best in the league.

New Jersey beat the New York Rangers in the opening round before losing to Carolina in the second.

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“They made a big stride last year, you know, and we needed it,” said Elias, who played 20 seasons with the Devils. “It was right time for those guys who have been here for three or four years to take the next step and they did. Hopefully they can build on that because of the feeling they had, the potentials they have.”

Making the playoffs isn’t the goal this season. General manager Tom Fitzgerald, Ruff and Hughes want more, a lot more. They want the Cup.

“We like where we’re at,” Fitzgerald said. “The window is just opening up for this group. So it’s fun. It’s going to be hard to win, but it’s just a different feel this camp than it has been, for me anyway.”

Fitzgerald believes the Devils have the pieces needed after spending the past six years building a young team that is among the fastest in the NHL, both attacking and defending. They’ll also have defenseman Luke Hughes, Jack’s brother, for the whole season.

They drafted Nico Hischier (2017) and Hughes (’19) with No. 1 overall picks, took Dawson Mercer (’18) and Luke Hughes (’21) with first-round choices and found a gem in forward Jesper Bratt in a lower round. They acquired forwards Timo Meier and Erik Haula, defensemen Kevin Bahl and John Marino and goaltender Vitek Vanecek in trades, and signed Dougie Hamilton, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Toffoli as free agents.

“Winning a Stanley Cup is extremely hard,’ Fitzgerald said. ”Only one team can do it. So Cup or bust is something I don’t believe in. It’s just have a team that can challenge to be one of the better teams in the league from day one to training camp to whenever that last playoff game is.”

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Ruff has had his team flying during preseason practices. The workouts are intense and competitive with constant up-and-down-the-ice sessions.

“We really can’t look back on last year anymore,” Ruff said. “We know that we had a good year. We want to try to remain consistent and consistent means we want to be a good offensive team. We feel that’s our strength. We became a lot better defensive team. And I think we can we can get better in that area.”

The 22-year-old Jack Hughes laughs when he is reminded he is entering his fifth NHL season. He is coming off a career-best 43 goals and franchise-record 99-point season, breaking Ellias’ mark.

“I think it’s only me, Bratter and Nico left,” Hughes said of the turnover from his first season. “So for us to get where we have gotten to the second round I think we’ve done a great job. And, you know, we’re heading into the year probably with our best team yet, so I should be really exciting.”

The Devils have shown that in the preseason, outscoring their first six oopponents 27-13. Vanecek and Akira Schmid have provided consistency in goal, an ingredient that had been missing for a decade. They will share the load this season, instead of Vanecek (33-11-4) carrying the load until he ran out of gas in the postseason.

“The expectations are within the locker room to raise the standard,” said veteran forward Curtis Lazar, a late-season acquisition. “We know teams are gunning for us. What this team did last year was pretty special. That’s behind us. And I think the belief in this room has been here for a couple of years now. We want to build off last year.”

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