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Devils Enter Training Camp In Unfamiliar Position Of Lineup Strength
What a difference a year makes.
No longer irrelevant, the Devils who will be reporting to training camp on Wednesday will be reaching for the highest honors this season. After a record-setting 2022-23 campaign that included their first playoff series victory in over a decade, simply qualifying for the postseason won’t be enough.
Not after General Manager Tom Fitzgerald went all in to retain highly-skilled forwards Timo Meier and Jesper Bratt in restricted free agency and then added 34-goal scorer Tyler Toffoli to an already loaded top-six forward mix in a shrewd trade with Calgary for underperforming wing Yegor Sharangovich and a third-round pick. Outside of adding Toffoli and losing veteran defensemen Damon Severson and Ryan Graves, the team that will take the Prudential Center ice for the Devils regular season opener on October 12 versus Detroit will be virtually intact from the one that learned some hard lessons in falling to Carolina in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games.
Before then, New Jersey will skate in seven exhibitions, starting on Monday with split squad affairs at Montreal and against visiting Philadelphia. For all but a handful of players, the results will be meaningless, as there might be at most two or three battles for spots in the opening night lineup.
Unlike during previous seasons of hell where player development was more of a priority, every position on this team will have to be earned. Keep an eye on the following folks who will need to step up this preseason or risk being shipped down to Utica or out on waivers:
1) Nolan Foote/Alexander Holtz (with Graeme Clarke sneaking up on the outside)
Foote is not waivers exempt, giving him a bit of an upper hand in a close call over a bottom-six left wing slot. However, if his skating hasn’t reached a level where he can help this team get over the top, the organization is no longer in a position where they can carry noncontributors they hope to develop. This will be the 22-year old’s fourth professional season, so the expectation is that he will be able to apply his size and shot on a more consistent basis.
Putting Hotz, New Jersey’s No. 7 overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, in this role might be a misallocation of talent given his reputation as a power play sniper, but if he impresses this preseason, he’ll deservedly get it. Unfortunately, he hasn’t made the most of previous opportunities, seemingly preferring to stay too far from the puck-battle frays and struggling to play at the higher pace. In 28 NHL contests, he has produced just three goals and three assists. Having him continue to succeed in the AHL to start the season does come with the side benefit of allowing the organization to maintain his trade value for a deadline boost. Another season of sporadic playing time in between weeks of healthy scratches won’t do anyone any good.
On the rising side of the Devils’ ledger, Clarke had a nice offseason, which culminated with a decent showing (two goals and an assist) in the three-game Prospects Challenge in Buffalo last weekend. The Devils’ 2019 third-rounder has improved every season in the minors, leading Utica in goals and assists in 2022-23. I’m only mentioning him because he’s the type that can get a hot stick this preseason and make things interesting for Fitzgerald and Head Coach Lindy Ruff. Otherwise, I’m not sure I’d put him behind the feistier but injury-plagued Tyce Thompson, who was selected a round earlier than Clarke and is out of demotions.
Not included here are a pair of hard-working veterans in free agent Tomas Nosek and 2023 deadline acquisition Curtis Lazar. Neither needs to suit up every night, though Nosek is likely to play more due to his defensive excellence on the penalty kill and in the faceoff circle. Lazar’s grit will be enough to keep him around as an extra fill-in forward when needed.
2) Simon Nemec/Brendan Smith
This may seem like an odd pairing, with the highly-skilled Nemec, a 19-year old defenseman, pitted against a grizzled vet like Smith. But it really boils down to how the Devils’ 2022 No. 2 overall pick performs at camp practices and in the exhibitions. When Fitzgerald traded for 30-year old Colin Miller, who, like Nemec, is a right-handed d-man, in exchange for a 2025 fifth round pick this summer, it eased the pressure to rush Nemec. The organization is not going to keep him around if he’s merely the team’s seventh-best defenseman and relegated to watching games from the press box when he could be getting quality ice time at Utica. Better to keep the somewhat polarizing Smith on the roster to use in an absolute pinch—Ruff absolutely LOVES his presence on the bench and in the locker room while many fans would rather see almost anyone else on the ice.
I’ll admit to not having seen all that much of Nemec this offseason, but from my limited perspective, he seems to be a little too raw at the North American game to be of consistent service for New Jersey this season. He’s not like Luke Hughes, another high (No. 4 overall, 2021) Devils draft pick, who stands out with his skating. Nemec is more subtle in his actions—only sometimes, the situation calls for burst.
While Hughes is a lock for a top-four pair in New Jersey. it wouldn’t be the worst thing if Nemec was sent down for more seasoning. Nor would it be too scary if his preseason play warranted immediate inclusion in the lineup. That’s the beauty of where this team has grown to in a single year.
Photo by: Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff