Although it’s been a busy summer for GM Ray Shero and the Devils, it’s been a long one for us fans. Apart from the surprise Nikita Gusev trade a few weeks back, there hasn’t been much to comment on or dissect about the team from Newark. Last weekend’s prospect challenge involving us, the Penguins, Bruins and Sabres was good for the young players involved to get more game action than even just the seven-game presesason will allow. I can’t say that I watched a minute of any of the games though. Maybe I will at some point this week since the Devils graciously posted the streams online.
Sounded like our kids did okay for the most part other than the horrendous beginning to the first game that had them down 6-0 to the Sabres last Friday before a furious rally late where they came up short 6-4, then the kids lost the second game against the Penguins the next day despite outshooting them by a wide margin before concluding with a dramatic third-game OT win against the Bruins on Monday when winger Ludwig Larsson not only scored, but also won himself a camp invite after that game. That’s pretty much the extent of what I know about last weekend, but personally I’d rather see the kids play with and against the guys they’re going to have to compete with at the NHL level, and in an actual system as opposed to just a All-Star tournament type format.
In this blog I’m only going to look at camp and the young kids looking to make their mark as opposed to a full season preview, so no comments on Taylor Hall or the extension that looks like it’s going to be a regular season decision at this point. To start with, the Devils invited 56 players to camp – none of them vet PTO’s – and most should get an opportunity this week with five games in six nights (including a split squad outing on Monday to open up the exhibition slate).
Looking at the preseason schedule it’s actually somewhat interesting in that almost all the games this week (other than the split squad road trip to Montreal) are local before next week they conclude the preseason with games at Boston and Columbus in what seems like a mini-road trip to bond the team before the season – since by then the roster should be close to pared down to the final twenty-three players, most of whom are already locked in and will just be playing games to get in shape for the regular season.
It’s hard for me admittedly to even get into the preseason proper, although unlike the NFL at least the NHL games resemble real hockey with real players making appearances, especially in the second week after the young kids usually have the run of the first week when evaluations are made. Not to mention instead of being cut outright, most of the camp fodder who doesn’t make the roster will at least be in the minor leagues and in theory a callup away. This preseason should be more interesting than most, however.
Sure part of that reason is seeing the new vet acquisitions in a Devil jersey for the first time – P. K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds and Gusev chief among them, not to mention Hall playing his first minutes since last December – but that only goes so far and ultimately all you want of the vets is to stay healthy until October. Of course that’s true year round but particularly in games that don’t count, it’s always deflating to see guys get hurt then. Even with an improved roster there is still room for kids or role players to make an impact and that’s where this preseason has some actual meaning for the Devils.
Among the kids looking to make an impact you have to start obviously with the #1 overall pick in Jack Hughes. Though he did play two games in the prospects challenge last weekend, most of the crowd who goes to the preseason games he plays will likely be watching him for the first time in a Devils jersey. While he’s all but certain to make the team, it’ll still be interesting to see how he performs with and against pro players for the first time. There might even be a Hughes-Kakko preview with the two top picks in the draft meeting up at some point during one of the two Devil-Ranger preseason games next week. If not, we should get plenty of chances to see them match up during games that count in the years ahead.
While for many fans the preseason will be in large part about getting a first look at the golden boy, the staff and diehards will be looking as much toward other potential kids that can make an impact on the 2019-20 Devils. Technically, Mackenzie Blackwood still counts as a rookie with only 23 games played last year but realistically everyone knows after a promising beginning to his career last year that he’ll be on the big club full-time this year, the only question is whether he or star-crossed goalie Cory Schneider will get the bulk of the starts. Early camp speculation has it being anywhere from a 50-32 to a 55-27 split, but as of yet it’s too early to say who will head that split.
All the other goalies in camp are playing to see who’ll man the net for Binghamton with 2017 5th rounder Gilles Senn and 2016 4th rounder Evan Cormier probably dueling to be the main man in net for the baby Devils. Senn played the last few years in Switzerland while Cormier got his feet wet in the AHL with fifteen games last season. It’s probably too early for 2018 fifth rounder Akira Schmid to go pro but he had good numbers in the USHL last year so who knows.
While our defensive lineup seems set for the most part it’ll be interesting on a couple fronts, the main one being how much will 2018 1st rounder Ty Smith play? Big things are expected after he narrowly missed making the team straight out of the draft last fall, then lit it up in the WHL with 69 points in 57 games for Spokane. Our ideal lineup probably has him in it, but the teen wonder is competing for a spot with other still-young defensemen themselves in Mirco Mueller and Connor Carrick. Carrick will certainly make the team, being signed to a two-year deal this offseason after his late-season audition at the end of last year following a trade from Dallas, but his role is a bit of a question mark at this juncture. Mueller’s role is even murkier on a one-year deal after two seasons in New Jersey full of dissapointment and untimely injuries.
Given our top five seems to be set more or less, these three are jockeying for spots #6-8 on the roster, and with the composition of the roster and all the young forwards who can be sent down to play, it’s quite possible the team keeps eight defensemen. It’s also near likely all eight will be needed at some point. Although it’s unlikely anyone else makes the team on defense it’s slightly noteworthy that Colton White and Matt Tennyson got low camp numbers (2 and 7, respectively), which if you read between the lines mean they could be among Binghamton’s top defensemen and the first callups if ones are needed. While Tennyson is a vet who’s likely just AHL depth and roster filler at this point, White was a 4th round pick in 2015, just 22 himself and coming off a season where he played well for Binghamton and even debuted with the Devils late in the season.
Up front if you count Hughes, the Devils have eleven forwards that are sure to start the season on the NHL roster barring injury. I’m not going to list them all, anyone can look at the camp roster and do the math. Which, if my calculations are correct leave exactly two forward spots (maybe three) to earn out of camp among a group of guys including 2016 third rounder Joey Anderson who made the team last year and played thirty-four games, despite sandwiching them around a gruesome leg injury that kept him out the majority of the time. Also the forward hopefuls include physical, gritty John Hayden who was acquired this offseason in a trade for one time first-rounder John Quenneville. Center Kevin Rooney could be another late bloomer in the role of Blake Coleman but with the team’s depth at center he’s likely to be a fourth-liner at most. If you were to forecast leaders in the clubhouse for spots based on uniform numbers and/or previous time spent in the NHL, Anderson, Hayden and Rooney do have numbers 14, 15, and 16 in camp.
Not that the Devils are exclusively a low-number domain anymore. 2016 second rounder Nathan Bastian looked promising in his last-season callup with three goals in seven games, while skilled but drastically undersized Brett Seney got into 51 games last year as injuries hit in the second half. However, perhaps the most promising non-Hughes youngster up front is 20-year old Jesper Boqvist, a 2018 second round pick who did well last year playing in Sweden’s pro league as a teenager with 13 goals and 35 points in 51 games. If any one of the aformentioned kids can take a spot in the top nine it’s Boqvist. Others like 2016 first-rounder Michael McLeod are also fighting for a spot but he’s still probably on the outside looking in after an unimpressive pro debut last year both in the AHL and NHL. Playmaking Brandon Gignac debuted late last year and could also compete for a spot. I’m sure still other forwards will make their presence known throughout camp as well. We’ll see how it all shapes out starting Monday.