The New Jersey Devils kicked off their preseason last night with split-squad matchups against the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers. They came away with wins in both, defeating the Canadiens 4-2 and the Flyers 6-0. With the Flyers game being the only one available for broadcast in the States last night, let’s go over some key takeaways and individual performances from that 6-0 victory.
Holtz Gets Off to a Solid Start
It’s an important preseason for Alexander Holtz, a former top-10 pick in the 2020 draft. It’s not make-or-break time, but he needs to have a strong preseason. He got off to a solid start last night, putting home a goal in the first period to extend the Devils’ lead to 4-0.
Holtz showed great awareness on that tally, as he drove to the open space in the slot after Timo Meier forced a turnover behind the net. Meier fed him the puck, and Holtz made no mistake about it. Sure, it’s just preseason, but we didn’t see much of that from him in his NHL appearances last season.
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More importantly, Holtz looked much quicker than he did in 2022-23. He wasn’t having any trouble keeping up with his linemates, Meier and Nico Hischier, and that quickness helped in other areas of his game. A couple of shifts before scoring his goal, he set up Hischier for a quality scoring opportunity by showing patience on a zone entry and then feeding Hischier in the slot.
Holtz finished yesterday’s game with a Game Score of 2.19 and an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 55.54 percent, so the numbers mostly back up the eyes. He certainly didn’t blow anyone out of the water, but it was the start he needed this preseason.
Bahl Ready to Build Off Strong Close to 2022-23
With Ryan Graves now in Pittsburgh, there’ll be more on Kevin Bahl’s plate to step up and fill some of the defensive minutes lost by Graves signing with the Penguins. He got the preseason started alongside Dougie Hamilton, a duo that has gotten minutes together in previous seasons, and the results were quite good.
Bahl has always been a solid skater for someone 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, but he looked smooth yesterday. Perhaps it’s because it had been a while since seeing him in live action, but his mobility is a plus and looks to be even better than it was previously.
More importantly, he played quite well defensively. He made good decisions with the puck and used his frame to seal off defenders. One play that stood out was early in the third period when he canceled out Joel Farabee and prevented the puck from ever reaching the net.
Bahl finished the game with a 62.58 xG%, and it’s not like he played against Flyers players slated for the AHL. His most common opponents were Sean Couturier and Farabee. Granted, Couturier was playing in his first game in nearly two years, but he’s far from a slouch.
Though it’s just a preseason game, I like the fit with Bahl alongside Hamilton. He’s mobile enough to be Hamilton’s defense partner, and his steady defensive game should complement an offensive-minded blueliner like Hamilton well. Hopefully, head coach Lindy Ruff will give them an extended look during exhibition games.
Vanecek Showed No Lingering Effects From Playoffs
Vitek Vanecek is the Devils’ starter heading into the regular season, but it’s not like he doesn’t have competition, given Akira Schmid’s strong play a season ago. Perhaps that serves as extra motivation for Vanecek to perform at a high level during the preseason, because he was excellent last night.
The Flyers didn’t test Vanecek much, firing just 11 shots on goal in the 40 minutes he played, but they never came close to scoring on him. Obviously by the score, he saved all 11 shots he faced, but it’s how Vanecek made the saves that suggest there may be a bit of a change in how he plays.
Devils fans who watched most games last season know Vanecek has a bit of an unorthodox style to tending his net. But last night, he looked much more controlled, with there being little movement to his game. And when he did get tested, he stayed calm and collected; a pad save on a Flyers partial breakaway in the second period stood out.
Even with Schmid beginning to emerge as a viable 1B, Vanecek will still be the Devils’ go-to netminder. I’m not sure his ceiling is much higher than becoming a .915 goaltender. But if he can keep a calmer and more controlled game in net, it may help him later in the season when the games matter most.
Bratt Already in Midseason Form
Jesper Bratt did not waste any time making an impact against the Flyers. He helped open the scoring by making a great pass across the slot to Ondrej Palát, who had an open net for the easy tap-in. Just a little while later, he had a dime of a pass to Erik Haula to make it 3-0.
Bratt finished the game with three assists and used his speed to create plenty of scoring chances. He was on a line with Haula and Palát yesterday, but chances are he will end up with Jack Hughes and perhaps Tyler Toffoli once the regular season begins. It may be one preseason game, but that was the exact kind of start you were looking for from the $63 million man.
Devils Quick Hits
- From Michael McLeod up front to Cal Foote on the back end, Devils skaters who should be key depth players this season showed well in their preseason debuts. McLeod scored a goalscorer’s goal on a breakaway and finished with a 57.9 xG%. Meanwhile, Foote led Devils defensemen with a 68.51 xG%. He figures to be the team’s No. 8 defenseman after signing a one-year deal in the summer, so it was an encouraging start to his Devils tenure.
- The Devils didn’t have a ton of rookies dressed against the Flyers; most were in Montreal. But for those who skated against Philly, they played well. Santeri Hatakka and Daniil Misyul were solid in the Prospects Challenge 10 days ago and carried it over into their first preseason games with the Devils. Misyul, in particular, looks like a promising prospect with an NHL future. He’s a similar player to Bahl (good size, sound defensively, mobility, etc.), so it’ll be worth monitoring his development.
The Devils return to the ice for their second preseason game on Thursday against the New York Rangers. Stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest coverage as the 2023-24 season gets underway.
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