Photo by Dave Janosz

As Devils' roster decisions loom, competition intensifies on the ice

The New Jersey Devils are a week away from taking the ice in Philadelphia to begin the regular season. The roster is starting to take shape, but there is fierce competition for the final few spots. Performance over the last two preseason games may mean the difference between traveling to Philadelphia or Utica. NHL teams are permitted to carry 23 players before the trade deadline, and New Jersey is likely to carry 14 forwards, seven defensemen, and two goaltenders.

THE LOCKS

Forwards

The Devils came into camp with several questions at forward and many have been answered. Centers Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Erik Haula will open as the starters down the middle on the first three lines as long as Hischier is healthy enough to open the season. Wingers also assured to be on the bus to Philly next week are Jesper Bratt, Ondrej Palat, Yegor Sharangovich, Dawson Mercer, Miles Wood, Nathan Bastian, & Tomas Tatar. 

Tatar was likely on a bubble coming into camp, especially in the fans' minds after putting up a disappointing 30 points last season. There is room for optimism with Tatar that last season was an aberration and that he is poised for a bounce-back year. Tatar ran into a significant streak of tough luck to begin the season last year and finished with the lowest shooting percentage of his career (11.4%). Tatar conceded that he was not happy with the previous season's results. "I worked pretty hard during the summer to come here and prove a point. I was excited and had anger driving me through the summer." 

Thus far in the preseason games, Tatar has shown that the work is paying off. He has flashed speed, intensity, and better puck luck as he leads the team with three goals in the preseason.

Defensemen

This position group was a major focus in the last two offseasons and the Devils should reap the rewards this year. The top six seem set as Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, Damon Severson, Ryan Graves, John Marino, and Brendan Smith round out a formidable group with as much talent and depth as any in the division, perhaps the conference. 

The right-hand shot defense group of Hamilton, Severson, and Marino is as good as any top three in the entire league, and once you add in prospect Simon Nemec, it is clear the Devils are stacked here for years to come. Smith provides needed depth at both the right and left sides and may serve as a seventh defenseman with the sixth spot up for grabs, but he is clearly in the team.

Goaltenders

Last season the Devils had the worst 5-on-5 save percentage in the league and cycled through seven goaltenders without finding one that could provide stability and durability. Once again, General Manager Tom Fitzgerald made upgrading the goaltending a priority. The Devils traded a third-round pick and swapped second-round picks with the Capitals to obtain Vitek Vanecek. In his two years in the NHL, Vanecek has produced an above-average 5-on-5 save percentage (.915) and vindicated the trade this preseason. 

The bigger question entering camp was the status of Mackenzie Blackwood. Blackwood was shut down for much of last season due to heel and ankle injuries that limited his mobility in the net. Blackwood has professed to be healthy and in a better headspace this season and has demonstrated as much on the ice this preseason playing especially well in a home loss to the Rangers, where he earned the first star. In almost 90 minutes of ice time this preseason, he has posted a .943 save percentage. 

Despite playing well, goalies Akira Schmid and Nico Daws will soon be sent to Utica to continue their development. The biggest surprise of training camp was the return of veteran Jonathan Bernier to the ice. Bernier is still rehabbing a significant hip injury and is reportedly seeking a return to active status before the end of the calendar year. Once Bernier is ready to play, the Devils will need to decide whether to try to move him, keep three goaltenders, or assign him to the AHL.

ON THE BUBBLE

Forwards

By the calculations above, four roster spots should be in flux, with up to nine players vying for them. The players still in the hunt for spots are Alexander Holtz, Andreas Johnsson, Jesper Boqvist, Michael McLeod, Graeme Clark, Fabian Zetterlund, Mason Geertsen, Nolan Foote, and Tyce Thompson. 

Based on preseason performance, Holtz, who has been deployed consistently in the top six, appears to be in line to make the team. He has displayed the off the puck and skating skills that the team asked him to improve, along with the shot that merited a top-ten pick in the 2000 draft.

The preseason has not been as kind to Boqvist and Johnsson. Ruff has recently commented on the difficulties each has had this preseason, "[Johnsson] is battling hard to prove that he should have an opportunity to make this team. I think inside the games he's had some struggles." 

Ruff acknowledged Boqvist's frustration, especially after being successful in a late-season role scoring 23 points in 56 games, outpacing the contributions of veterans like Johnsson, who only netted 35 points in 15 more games. "Obviously, these games are big for a player like Bo[qvist]." Boqvist's ability to play center and wing and his speed and play-driving ability separate him from the rest of this group. Like his countrymen Johnsson and Boqvist, winger Fabian Zetterlund has had an inconsistent camp. Zetterlund took the AHL by storm last season, putting up 52 points in 58 regular season games and 8 points in the five post-season games for Utica. He also shined when given a late-season NHL audition, demonstrating a combination of speed, shot, and physicality that was lacking from last year's roster. 

Zetterlund's competitiveness and strength belie his stature and he squarely fits into the mantra of being tougher to play against. After showing up a few days late to camp due to immigration issues, Zetterlund has been used throughout the lineup from the first to fourth lines and is a +2 in three games. He has also been given opportunities on the power play and penalty kill, which likely bode well for his ability to make the team.

The biggest enigma on the roster thus far is center Michael McLeod. McLeod, a former first-round pick and anchor of last year's fourth line, brings speed and, until the arrival of Erik Haula, the best faceoff winning percentage on the team (57%). With the addition of Haula and improvement of Mercer and Hischier, there is a case to be made that his strength is no longer unique to the team. McLeod underwhelmed last year, putting up just 20 points in 77 games, and shooting a paltry 7.7% despite averaging over 13 minutes per game. With questions swirling about off-ice incidents when McLeod suited up for Hockey Canada in 2018, and the ire of the fanbase now shifting towards McLeod after the club jettisoned Pavel Zacha and Ty Smith, it may be time for the Devils to cut ties with the former first-rounder.

The remaining contenders are likely destined for Utica. Clark has received significant time playing in the top six and has failed to impact the score sheet. Nolan Foote has likewise been given ample opportunities in games to show that he has raised his game so that his above-average shot is matched by other skills that are worthy of him gaining an NHL roster spot. Last season, Foote shined in a brief stint with the Devils, showing off his scoring ability and toughness, but he has not displayed consistency over the long haul. 

Tyce Thompson was off to a great start in the preseason, beginning at the Rookie Development Camp and through the start of training camp. His versatility in being able to play both center and wing puts him in the category of Boqvist, Mercer, Sharangovich, and Bastian as valuable commodities for a team desperate for diversity and depth. His emergence was cut short by a lower-body injury suffered in a preseason game last week, and Thompson is likely to begin the year on the injured list.

Mason Geertsen remains a fan-favorite cult hero and a player many want nowhere near the opening night roster. Geertsen is a throwback to the eighties, an outsized enforcer willing to scrap and protect his teammates but a limited skater and puck mover. He signed a two-way contract earlier this year, so it seems unlikely that he does not start in Utica. His ability to play both wing and defense in a pinch may make him a valuable 23rd man on the roster and the coaching staff seems to like having him around as protection for the stars.

Ruff has stressed the need for versatility for the final roster spots. After a practice last week, he indicated that once the top six are set, the staff begins constructing a roster around its needs. Penalty killers, faceoff specialists, and players who can play multiple positions are all parts of the equation for Ruff and Fitzgerald. Fortunately, they are in a place now with more NHL-ready players than roster spots—an excellent place to be in and a reason for so much optimism.

Defenseman

There is one spot open with likely three players in competition with an outside shot that Geertsen would be retained as the seventh defenseman. As discussed above, the Devils' top six defensemen appear to be locked in. With one spot remaining and PTO Thomas Hickey released, it will likely be filled with a younger player. The top candidates are Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotiuk, and Reilly Walsh. 

Bahl, a 6'6", 230 lbs. behemoth, seems to have the inside track based on his solid play in the preseason and his improved skating and positioning away from the puck. Ruff indicated earlier in the preseason that he liked what he saw from Bahl and that the defenseman's size and reach make him tough to play against. Ruff has shown comfort with Bahl in playing him with veterans likely to make the team. He also brings versatility in that he has been able to play both right and left side defense. Bahl noted, "[L]ooking back, I'm happy I got to play the right side last year and got some experience there."

Okhotiuk is another fan-favorite with size, toughness, and a shooting knack. He made a deep impression on the team when called up last season and has shown he will not be pushed around and is not afraid to drop the gloves and fight. Okhotiuk, like Bahl, brings an edge to the team and will likely be on standby in case of an injury to any of the top six. Reilly Walsh is likely a victim of the new depth that the team has. He is a puck-moving, right-hand shot defenseman and would be a natural to replace Severson should he go down or be traded. Walsh likely has not shown enough on either side of the red line to justify making the team out of camp, but he has shown that, if needed, he can play at the NHL level.

Predictions

With two games left to play, much is still to be decided on the ice. The only factor that can't be predicted is injury. The below factors are that Hischier will be healthy and no other forwards will come down with an injury before the cut-down day. Often overlooked but equally important is the contract status of the players involved. Of the forwards in the mix, Zetterlund and Boqvist are no longer exempt from waivers which means that should they be cut from the team, they will have to be exposed on the waiver wire and will likely be picked up by another team. Fitzgerald will have to decide if the risk of losing either of the Swedes is worth keeping a player like Johnsson or McLeod.

Based on the current status, the players heading to Philly will be:

Palat-Hughes-Holtz

Sharangovich-Hischier-Bratt

Wood-Haula-Mercer

Tatar-Boqvist-Bastian

Zetterlund-Geertsen

Siegenthaler-Hamilton

Graves-Severson

Smith-Marino

Bahl

Blackwood

Vanecek

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