Devils preseason odyssey begins with many questions

For many hockey fans, the Devils’ training camp is one of the more intriguing to watch this month.  A surprise team last year who features the reigning Hart Trophy winner (Taylor Hall) and a top overall pick (Nico Hischier), New Jersey’s camp is in part interesting because of their preseason schedule itself, which began in earnest with a split-squad doubleheader on Tuesday – losing both at home to the Rangers 4-3 in OT and in Montreal 3-1.  The Devils continue through the tri-state area with road trips to Brooklyn and Manhattan tomorrow and next Monday before the real travel begins through Winnipeg and eventually to Europe where they’ll play an exhibition against SC Bern in Switzerland in a homecoming for Hischier, who played there not too long ago.  Finally the Devils will conclude camp overseas and open the regular season in Sweden against the Oilers on October 6 with a ‘home’ game.  Well, it will be an actual home game for Jesper Bratt and Marcus Johansson at least.

In a rare good decision from the NHL, the Sweden game is at 1 PM on a Saturday afternoon which beats the whole start a season at 3:30 AM in Japan that Major League Baseball used to pull.  Too bad the preseason game in Switzerland is on a weekday during work but hey it’s preseason, who cares if you have to watch it later?  Having 41 home games instead of 44 and only one preseason game should be a relief for season ticket holders, but it doesn’t exactly seem that way pricewise as like with just about every sports team, prices continue to creep up and up.  Don’t get me wrong, I still love my aisle seats, but $35 a game starts to makes me wince when I remember it was $22 a game just several years ago.  Of course it’s still first-world problems compared to pricing at MSG or the obstructed seats at Barclays.

Getting back to the Devils themselves, another interesting thing about the preseason is the all-access series that will be following the team in their camp trek around the world with four half-hour shows on NHL Network starting next Wednesday night, giving fans an inside peek behind the scenes during the preseason.  The premise seems like mini-Hard Knocks vignettes, or perhaps something closer to the 24/7 series that the NHL has been running as a Winter Classic lead-in in recent years.  Just the two minute clip above is enough for me to look forward to this show.  Of course getting an inside look at the team is something the Devils had woefully lagged behind in, until the last few years.

As nice as the bells and whistles are, and having a different type of preseason to break the mold when the puck drops for real and we get down to brass tacks everyone including me is only going to care about bottom-line results and whether the team takes a step back or can build off of last season.  MVP and team leader Hall is certainly mindful of that fact:

In general, it’s been quite some time since I remember a season preview show proper on MSG, SportsChannel, FSNY, etc.  Then again there’s been more excitement around the team over these last few months than there’s been at any point since the spring of 2012.  Deservedly so after the inspired run the underdog Devils made toward the playoffs last year.  Even if it ended with a bit of a whimper losing a quick five-game series to Tampa in the first round.  It’s still a bit early for a reason season preview but the early buzz in camp centered around a few younger players all looking to earn spots on the roster in the 2018-19 season.

Perhaps the most intriguing is 2018 first-round pick defenseman Ty Smith.  Just eighteen years old, might he be this year’s teen sensation to earn a spot in the lineup following in the footsteps of Hischier and Bratt last year?  Certainly the coaching staff and the broadcast team on Tuesday did their best to get the hype train rolling, and Smith followed with a solid game in front of the home fans.  Earning a spot on the roster, and hoping to stay beyond the nine-game cutoff before going back to juniors is another kettle of fish though.  With captain Andy Greene and sophomore Will Butcher cemented on the left side, Smith would have to beat out Mirco Mueller for the third LD spot.  I’m certainly not against pushing Mueller who I’m not a big believer in either, but in his defense he is still just 22 himself.  Still, Smith has the higher upside long-term and even as a scratch ‘expert’ on the draft I was thrilled he fell to us at 17 in June.  It’s debatable whether the future’s now for him though.

Other youngsters hoping to make the team are 2014 first-rounder John Quenneville who seemed to fall out of favor with the staff but has come to camp this year in much better shape and determined to earn a spot in the lineup.  Another ‘reclamation project’ is Nick Lappin who’s had chances with the big club before but never really stuck in a fourth-line role.  Still, he scored 31 goals in the AHL last year and reportedly improved his skating in the offseason, so who knows.  If Smith might be this year’s Hischier/Bratt, Lappin could be this year’s Blake Coleman going from overage afterthought to lineup contributor.  And smallish playmaking winger Brett Seney got the early buzz in camp during the prospects tournament in Buffalo a couple weeks ago.  Clearly there are spots in the lineup to be had after the departures of John Moore from the defense and Pat Maroon and Michael Grabner up front in the offseason, especially with the holdout of Miles Wood now adding another layer of intrigue to camp.

Ah, the Wood holdout.  It’s hard to address that elephant in the room because we have only a vague idea of why the sides are at loggerheads not even talking.  Allegedly the sides are close on term, so evidently money’s the issue, as it usually would be.  The simplistic approach is to complain that we have $20 million of cap space, why not just give him the extra million he wants and call it a day?  Of course GM Ray Shero has to think more long-term than that.  If Wood gets overpaid now then that sets a precedent for other, more important RFA’s down the road.  And sure Wood had a nice season last year with 19 goals in limited icetime but even with that his game tailed off down the stretch and he got fewer than ten minutes a night in each of the team’s last three playoff games.

It might not be popular to say this because Wood’s flashy with speed to burn and is popular with the fans because of that and the fact he can get a little feisty, but arguably Coleman was a more important overall contributor last year and he was re-signed in the offseason to a 3 year, $1.75 million per season deal.  It’s hard to justify Wood – who plays less and has less of a role – getting more than that, or getting more than a comparable player in Josh Anderson of the Blue Jackets who had his own protracted holdout last year and eventually signed for 3 years and under $2 million per.  Actually missing preseason games isn’t going to help Wood carve out a bigger role on the team, but if this got to a point where he actually starts missing paychecks it could get ugly.  At some point you would think player and agent would stop trying to play hardball with zero leverage as an RFA and just get what you can get and prove you’re worth more money on the next contract.

To end this on a more positive note, another thing to watch this preseason is how much goaltender Cory Schneider can progress towards playing after his offseason hip surgery.  While he’s skating and doing light work with the team, odds are he won’t play any preseason games so it’s likely his absence will extend into October, but hopefully his progress now shows he’s not going too miss too many regular season games.  For as much as I love Keith Kinkaid and appreciate how he was a big part of our making the playoffs last year, long-term Cory’s gotta be the guy to pick it up again to the form he had in his first couple years as a Devil.  Cory himself is mindful of that – again run the clip above – and certainly given the fact he’s signed for the next four years at $6 million per, the organization has a lot financially invested in him being the guy in net.

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