It’s been a long time coming, but NHL training camp is right around the corner. The New Jersey Devils will begin camp on Thursday, along with the six other teams who were not part of the NHL’s playoff bubble this summer. For those seven teams, it means taking the ice for the first time in about 10 months since COVID-19 brought the NHL to a halt in March.
The Devils have made improvements from last season, especially in net after signing Corey Crawford in free agency. But he’s not the only addition to the roster, as they’ve brought in help on offense and defense. Where all those pieces fit remains to be seen, and they won’t have a lot of time to figure it out with no preseason games before the regular season starts.
The Devils also have a new coach in Lindy Ruff, so there’s a new system to learn as well. Here’s what to watch for in training camp in the weeks leading up to their regular-season opener on Jan. 14.
Figuring Out the Devils’ Top Six
The Devils return all their main top-six pieces from last season while adding winger Andreas Johnsson through a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
We’ll begin with a look at center. The top two positions down the middle should undoubtedly belong to Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. Hughes struggled as a rookie, but he’s had almost 10 months to add much-needed strength to his frame. So he should be better equipped to handle the physical play of the NHL. It’ll be hard to see how much improvement he’s made just through training camp, but it is something worth keeping an eye on. As for Hischier, he’s the team’s no. 1 center without much debate.
We have a pretty good idea of which wingers will play in the top six. It’s just a matter of finding the right fits around Hischier and Hughes. Hischier and Jesper Bratt, who still needs to sign a new contract, have had plenty of success as linemates since entering the league in 2017. They seem like a logical pairing with Nikita Gusev, who’s a high-end playmaker, alongside them at right-wing.
If Bratt and Gusev are playing with Hischier, that leaves Johnsson and Kyle Palmieri to play with Hughes. Palmieri is the Devils’ best shooting talent, while Johnsson brings some shooting ability himself. That could make for a formidable second line with a playmaker like Hughes.
Of course, there are plenty of other line combinations Ruff can put together. For example, Johnsson could play with Hischier and Palmieri while Bratt and Gusev play with Hughes. I could go on and on creating different lines. But the point is Ruff has options to form a capable top six. And it’s a good bet he’ll be tinkering with different combinations throughout camp.
Devils’ Bottom Six Has Plenty of Uncertainty
When camp opens on Thursday, there could be anywhere from 3-4 spots open in the Devils’ bottom six. And there’ll be a lot more than 3-4 forwards competing for those spots. The locks are Pavel Zacha, Travis Zajac, and Miles Wood. Among the candidates who could be their linemates are Michael McLeod, Jesper Boqvist, Nolan Foote, Yegor Sharangovich, Nick Merkley, Janne Kuokkanen, Brett Seney, Nathan Bastian and Mikhail Maltsev.
We’ll start with Sharangovich, who’s the Devils’ hottest prospect at the moment. He just returned from a loan with Dinamo Minsk in the KHL, where he totaled 17 goals and 25 points in 34 games. He’s a natural center, but I wouldn’t rule out him playing on the wing. If he secures a spot there, he could play alongside Zacha or Zajac.
Next up is Merkley, who was the Devils’ best prospect on loan in Europe after Sharangovich. He finished his stint with Ässät in the Liiga (Finland) with 13 points in 19 games. Merkley had a brief call-up with the Devils in 2019-20 and did not look out of place. At 23 years old, this could be his time to become an NHL regular as a bottom-six right-winger.
After those two, there’s Boqvist, who’s one of the team’s top prospects. He played well on loan with Timrå IK in the HockeyAllsvenskan and has the most offensive upside of the players mentioned in this section. If he shows that he’s made progress after a rough 2019-20, he could land as a third-line winger. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if he found his way up the lineup if Bratt continues to miss time until he signs a new deal.
Kuokkanen was the centerpiece of the trade that sent Sami Vatanen to the Carolina Hurricanes. He has three seasons of AHL experience and finished with 48 points in 56 games last season between the Binghamton Devils and Charlotte Checkers. He went on loan to start the 2020-21 season and finished with seven points in 16 games for Kärpät (Liiga). He projects as a third-line winger in the NHL, and the opportunity is there for him to earn that role.
Foote may be the wild card here. He barely played competitive hockey in the last calendar year due to injuries and leagues pausing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’ll have to blow the competition away to earn an immediate NHL spot, but that’s not impossible. McLeod, Seney, Bastian and Maltsev have work to do to earn NHL roster spots, but a good camp would do wonders for them. Given all the names in contention, this should be a fascinating storyline.
Configuring the Defense
There isn’t much question as to who will play on the Devils’ blue line. Instead, it’s a matter of figuring out what the defense pairs will look like to start the regular season.
Ryan Murray was the Devils’ biggest defensive acquisition of the offseason. They also signed Dmitry Kulikov to a cheap one-year deal to give them some depth. Both will be crucial parts of the defensive unit, but Ruff will likely task them with much different roles.
Despite missing plenty of games due to lower-back problems, Murray is a very reliable top-four defenseman when healthy. His point totals may not indicate as much, but he can move the puck effectively and is well above average in transition. He’s going to play top-pair minutes. It’s just a matter of who plays alongside him.
Damon Severson was the Devils’ best defenseman in 2019-20, so I’d expect him to get a shot with Murray. If that pairing doesn’t work, the next best option is to give P.K. Subban a chance with Murray. Subban had the worst season of his career in 2019-20, so if he doesn’t show signs of a bounce-back, he’ll need to play further down the lineup.
Assuming Murray and Severson stick together, that leaves Subban to play with Will Butcher as the second unit. Butcher and Subban have good numbers together in limited minutes and could benefit from playing a less intensive role than Murray and Severson will on the top pair.
Rounding out the defense should be Kulikov and top prospect Ty Smith. Smith won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2020 World Junior Championship and was the WHL Defenseman of the Year in 2019-20. Kulikov is an experienced defenseman and would benefit from playing softer third-pair minutes with Smith rather than the tough defensive assignments the Winnipeg Jets gave him.
How the Devils round out their defensive depth will be something to watch. Connor Carrick is a lock to be the seventh defenseman and will see time on the third pair alongside Smith or Kulikov. Because the league’s allowing taxi squads of 4-6 players for each team, there’ll be a couple more defensemen who’ll be part of the Devils’ roster.
Names to watch for the taxi squad are prospects Colton White and Josh Jacobs, as well as veteran Matt Tennyson. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Devils bring in someone on a PTO who ends up signing a league-minimum deal to be a blueliner on their taxi squad.
Goaltending a Source of Stability
Goaltending is the most straight forward position group the Devils have. It’s Mackenzie Blackwood and Crawford’s net to command. Blackwood finished last season with a 22-14-8 record and .915 save percentage (SV%). The Chicago Blackhawks had one of the worst defenses in the league last season, but Crawford still finished with a .917 SV%.
If the Devils are competitive in the shortened 56-game season, it’ll be because of Blackwood and Crawford. The team’s roster has its flaws, but their goaltending should be able to cover it up on some nights. As long as these two stay healthy, there shouldn’t be much to see here during camp.
By rule, teams must carry a goalie on their taxi squad. But this shouldn’t be much of a debate either, as Scott Wedgewood is highly likely to be the Devils’ third goalie.
Training camp for the 2020-21 season will be unlike any other. There’ll be no exhibition games to fine-tune everything, so what happens in practice will matter most. That’s especially true for a team like the Devils with a new head coach who’s installing a new system. All of this will unfold quickly, so that should make for some notable headlines before games begin.