While the Devils’ top nine forwards are pretty much set at the moment, there are various other skaters looking to nail down a spot on the roster come opening night. These include a handful of forwards and defensemen, young and old, who should be involved in an intense position battle when camp begins. The coaching staff should have some tough decisions to make in the next two months, and preseason games will be much more inportant to a good number of players this year. Today we will focus on the forwards, who seem to be battling, at the moment, for a spot on the team’s fourth line.
Like I stated above, the top three lines, while certainly not decided upon, seem to have the nine players they will consist of set in stone. My best guess at these lines would be:
My predictions could easily change in the near future, however, as we have not yet watched how any combinations would fare in practices/scrimmages/preseason games. At the moment, this would be my best guess; however, a David Clarkson trade might still be possible, and something that would alter these lines significantly.
But now, to the roster battle. Of the remaining forwards, the player I would most expect to be in the lineup come opening night is David Steckel. The former Capitals’ center, who came to New Jersey in the Jason Arnott trade last season, truthfully did not look too great during his brief season as a Devil. Steckel, however, has two key abilities that should be enough for him to land the fourth line center position. One of these is his outstanding faceoff ability; at the time he came to the Devils last season, Steckel was leading the NHL in faceoff percentage, certainly an impressive feat. The other reason the 29-year-old should make the team is his ability to play on the penalty-kill, which could be extremely valuable for the Devils next season.
The next two forwards battling for a roster spot are enforcers: Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen. Both of these wingers have shown that they are capable of playing at the NHL level for a number of years now; and that, on many teams, their presence is highly valuable, as their ability to drop the gloves and get in the faces of their opponents is important for a squad to have. However, what may hurt Boulton and Janssen is that they both signed with New Jersey; already having David Clarkson, the Devils shouldn’t need too much more enforcing ability. While I would be surprised if at least one of Boulton and Janssen weren’t in the lineup on opening night, I do not expect both of them to play together in the lineup too much. Instead, in the majority of games, there is a very strong chance that they may rotate in and out of the lineup, with the other a healthy scratch, as the Devils could carry 13 or 14 forwards this year.
Another winger who will look to crack the lineup is speedster Vladimir Zharkov. The 23-year-old right wing played in 38 games last year, and did emerge with a +3 rating. What significantly helps Zharkov is that the team knows his game; he can generate a scoring chance with his speed, and can be a good compliment to a rather physical fourth line. What may hurt the Russian forward, however, is his lack of production at the NHL level. I remember watching two seasons ago how nothing would go his way, as Zharkov could not light the lamp in his rookie year (40 games). This season, he did so twice; however, two goals in 78 games shouldn’t be too appealing to the Devils’ brass. Despite this, Zharkov has a very strong chance of making the team, largely based on his quickness and his ability to compliment a potentially large unit.
Perhaps the most interesting scenario involving these last three position openings is what to do with center Rod Pelley. The 26-year-old center (he’ll be 27 on the first day of September) played in 74 games last season, in which he was a servicable fourth liner. In an even better way than Zharkov, the Devils know Rod Pelley. The problem for Pelley, however, is that Steckel seems to be nearly a lock for what was his position a year ago. This should give the Devils a decision to make; they could see how Pelley would fare at left wing, which would give him a much improved chance at making the lineup. However, no matter the case, Pelley will have to fight much harder than he had to last year if he wants to play come opening night.
Finally, two more forwards should be involved in this battle. Adam Henrique, who made his NHL debut in the final game of the 2010-2011 season, should have a better shot than he did last year of winning a spot on the roster. However, his chances are still limited based on the fact that he, quite simply, hasn’t had any opportunity to prove that he is NHL-ready (as the forwards above have). It is most likely that the Devils would like to see another year of Henrique in Albany, where the 21-year-old could continue to develop. The last forward fighting for a spot is Tim Sestito, who Devils fans have become familiar with in the last two seasons. Sestito played in 36 games last year, only netting two assists to go along with a -5 rating. While the team does know he is servicable on their latter lines, his chance is an outside one at best.
In the next two months, these seven forwards will battle for three available spots. While most of them have at least a decent chance, some have the advantage of being more notorious amongst the Devils organization. With all this being said, my prediction at the opening night fourth line would be:
Now, let me explain. Steckel should be the more obvious of these three, as he clearly has shown good ability at this level and provides a large boost to the penalty-killing department. Boulton gives the Devils an enforcer on the fourth line, and I do feel that the former Thrasher is a slightly better forward than Cam Janssen. However, like I said, I expect the two to rotate in and out of the lineup; I would prefer Boulton, however, to get the bulk of the playing time. Zharkov provides this line with the speed it needs, and hopefully an improved scoring touch to go along with it.
In this scenario, I would expect the Devils to be more than happy with the organizational depth Pelley and Sestito provide; I would expect both to play in Albany and, at some point, probably be called up to the NHL (especially Pelley, who was a regular last year). Henrique would be given at least another year to develop, and should be a top-six forward in the minors.
Of course, there can be much debate as to which of these players should make the lineup. Be sure to voice your opinion in the comments, as I would love to hear what others have to think. The next two months can obviously change things, and this issue will surely be readdressed in that time. Regardless of who makes the roster, however, I am sure that the Devils are happy to have this positional battle, as roster depth could be of much help during the season.