Colin Miller, New Jersey Devils, Santeri Hatakka, Simon Nemec, Tyce Thompson

Devils Roster Taking Shape as Final Cuts Loom

The New Jersey Devils are heading into their final preseason game against the New York Islanders with less than a week until the puck drops on the regular season. In that time the team will need to cut the active roster down to 23 with the likely group consisting of 14 forwards, seven defensemen, and two goaltenders. With 21 slots likely filled, here is a look at six players fighting for the final two stalls in the locker room.

Forwards

The Devils have the deepest and most versatile forward group in the NHL. The biggest question mark heading into training camp was whether Alexander Holtz would arrive ready to contribute and he has answered that question in the affirmative. Despite some inconsistent play from the 21-year-old, head coach Lindy Ruff has elected to play Holtz in his top six on a line with Timo Meier and Nico Hischier. With Holtz a lock to make the roster, that makes 13 forwards solidly in place. That includes the three already mentioned, Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Tyler Toffoli, Erik Haula, Ondrej Palat, Dawson Mercer, Tomas Nosek, Michael McLeod, Curtis Lazar, and Nathan Bastian. If correct, that would leave three players vying for that final spot.

Tyce Thompson

Heading into camp, few expected Tyce Thompson to be in the running for the final roster spot. He has been a fringe NHL player for the last few seasons after leaving Providence College at the conclusion of the 2020-21 season. Since then he has played in 11 NHL contests and spent most of his time in the American Hockey League (AHL). He has shined in a supporting role this preseason, often on the fourth line. He has two points in three games and has been a strong penalty-killer. Being a late bloomer apparently runs in the family as his brother Tage has taken a star turn in Buffalo after taking some time to develop. Tyce will see the ice in the final preseason game against the Islanders and likely get special teams time to make his case for why he belongs in the lineup.

Tyce Thompson New Jersey Devils
Tyce Thompson, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In four games, entering the finale, he is second on the team with nine hits and has impressed the coaching staff with his play. He has two points, his expected goals-for percentage (xGF%) is slightly over 51 and he has only been on the ice for one goal against in nearly 45 minutes of 5v5 play. It is easy to see how this final preseason game likely means more for his future, either with the Devils or elsewhere, than any other player on the roster.

Chris Tierney

The Devils took a flyer earlier this summer in signing Chris Tierney to a one-year, two-way contract to serve as experienced depth for their forward corps. He was signed prior to the Devils inking Tomas Nosek and was seen as likely to begin the season in the AHL as long as McLeod and Bastian were available. Unlike Thompson, Tierney has a decade of experience in the NHL including 40 playoff games; in 597 career NHL games, he has accounted for 236 points.

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He has gotten fewer opportunities than Thompson during the exhibition season, logging only 29 minutes at 5v5 over three games, but his statistics have still been impressive. The sample size is obviously minuscule and the Corsi and Fenwick rates of Thompson and Tierney are nearly identical. The veteran stands apart from Thompson in xGF% where he is 10 full percentage points higher at 61. Whether that will be enough to land him on the opening night roster is uncertain, but he has been given a long look and will have the opportunity to make a final impression against the Islanders.

Nolan Foote

Nolan Foote enters into the last few days of preseason shrouded in mystery. He is not in the game group for the final contest on Long Island and has only played in two games and had a total of 17 minutes of 5v5 ice time. Not ideal for a player the Devils’ general manager called the epitome of player development earlier this spring. Foote was expected to compete with Holtz for a third- or fourth-line role but instead has been missing from the ice the past week. When reached for comment, the Devils indicated that Ruff would address Foote’s status after the game vs. the Islanders. With the forward needing to clear waivers before being sent down to the AHL, perhaps the team will instead place him on injured reserve to begin the season or they may be seeking to trade him to a team where he will have more of an opportunity to play. Either way, it does not appear that Foote will capture the final roster spot.

Defensemen

Coming into camp with the assumption that the Devils would head into opening night with a roster featuring seven defensemen, it did not appear that there were many spots, if any, truly up for grabs. As camp progressed, conventional wisdom has changed and there appears to be fierce competition for the final defenseman position. Locks for the roster are Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, Kevin Bahl, John Marino, Brendan Smith, and Luke Hughes. This leaves three candidates for the final spot with one clear favorite who may actually not be in the clear.

Colin Miller

The Devils acquired Colin Miller via trade from the Dallas Stars this offseason viewing him as a potential veteran replacement for Damon Severson’s third-pair minutes and a placeholder until Simon Nemec was ready to become a full-time NHL player. Miller fell out of favor in Dallas having played much of the season in the top four as he was relegated to a healthy scratch during the playoffs due to concerns about his puck management and defense. He entered camp this year as the clear frontrunner for the right-shot, third-pair role and has so far disappointed, opening the door for other players to make the roster.

Colin Miller Dallas Stars
Colin Miller with the Dallas Stars (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On a team that has coasted through the preseason undefeated and scoring goals in bunches, Miller’s advanced stats are borderline alarming. He has an xGF% of 28 over the three games he has played. He has struggled to acclimate to the defensive system the Devils play and has turned the puck over leading to odd-man rushes and high-danger chances. His turnovers at the offensive blue line against the Islanders earlier this week directly resulted in goals for the other side. Ruff and company will have to consider whether Miller is the right player to pair with a rookie defenseman like Hughes who is also still learning puck management.

Santeri Hatakka

Another former San Jose Shark, Santeri Hatakka was acquired in the Meier trade last season and has consistently impressed the Devils. So much so that Ruff brought up Hatakka unprompted in a recent post-game press conference when discussing the final defenseman roster spot. Hatakka turned heads during the team’s development camp in July and has been equally impressive in his brief appearances in the preseason.

In nearly the same amount of ice time as Miller, his comparable statistics are better. His xGF% is still below par at 41 but it is still 16 points higher than Miller. He has only been on the ice for one goal against in just over 30 minutes of 5v5 play. Of all the defensemen on the ice against the Islanders, he may have the most on the line.

Simon Nemec

When the Devils drafted Simon Nemec second overall in 2022, many thought he may become a mainstay on the blue line by the end of the 2022-23 season. The Devils have said that was never the plan and that they have been impressed with the growth of Nemec in his time a a pro in North America. Last season it took almost four months for him to fully acclimate to the smaller ice and more physical playing style of the AHL, but by the end of the year he was emerging as the star the Devils hope he becomes. He entered camp this year without a guaranteed slot and needing to turn heads to break camp with the NHL team. Thus far, his play has been what you would expect from a 19-year-old defenseman—inconsistent.

“If we want to talk about Nemec, I think there’s a lot of his game that you like and a lot of his game that need to continue to grow, but I can tell you that his game is better this year than it was last year. And, you know this, I’m a big believer that it takes time.”

Lindy Ruff, Oct. 4, 2023

It only takes one shift of watching Nemec to realize that he has talent in abundance. His skating, puck movement, and hockey IQ are all already above average. He still needs to work on his decision-making, puck management, and coverages, none unusual for a second-year player, especially at his position. Ruff gave fans a glimpse into the future by deploying Nemec and Hughes as a pair for much of the game against the Islanders on Monday, Oct. 2. The pair struggled to defend and get pucks out of harm’s way playing to a xGF% of 35 in just under 10 minutes at 5v5. Nemec needed to come in, outplay his competition, and force his way onto the roster. He has not done that and will likely be sent down to the AHL, but it is not likely to be a full-season stay like last year.

With the first regular-season game looming on Oct. 12, the Devils will need to solidify their final 23. There are likely 21 names that are written on the roster in ink with six players fighting tonight for the final two slots. There may be additional room should Foote or Bastian begin the year on injured reserve. The final complicating matter is that everyone except Hatakka and Nemec would have to pass through waivers unclaimed to be sent to Utica.


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