New Jersey Devils Show Forward Thinking Decision Making

Jesper Boqvist #90 of the New Jersey Devils (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Jesper Boqvist #90 of the New Jersey Devils (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

New Jersey Devils interim Head Coach Alain Nasreddine came out Monday and said he’s looking to give starting goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood a more balanced workload moving forward. This is a good sign moving forward.

The New Jersey Devils came out of the break showing a commitment to keeping their young guys in the right position. First, we learned that Jesper Boqvist will start the second half of the season in the AHL with the Binghamton Devils.  Many fans may be upset with both moves initially, but the reality is that these were clearly both tough decisions for the Interim General Manager and Interim Head Coach to make.

Tom Fitzgerald is essentially auditioning for his job just like Alain Nasreddine.

Then, we learned this:

Let’s get into why these decisions are the correct long-term move, and then address a few other moves the team can and should make.

At this point, Mackenzie Blackwood has played in 35 games for the Devils, 31 of those games he started. Continuing at his current pace, we’d be looking at the 23 year old playing right around 60 games. Not a crazy workload if we’re being honest, but probably not ideal in what’s essentially a lost year.

With 34 games to go it makes sense to balance the workload a bit since the Devils have already met the conditions that send a 2021 7th-round pick to Tampa for backup Louis Domingue. We expect about 20 more starts for Blackwood the rest of the way, giving him 55 total games played.  That leaves a higher end backup workload for Domingue which may not be fun for anyone but should help prepare Blackwood for the Devils will likely do going forward.

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We’ve seen a few teams start trending to a 1A-1B situation in net. Last year we saw both the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues utilize it along with Arizona and Dallas.  The key to being able to split starts like that is having the a good backup.  Fortunately for the Devils there’s no shortage of options this offseason to split the workload with Blackwood.

Thomas Greiss, Jaroslav Halak, Anton Khudobin, Robin Lehner, and Pavel Francouz highlight a relatively deep UFA class for secondary goaltending. Lehner probably wants more term than the first three listed, but there’s no reason the Devils can’t find Blackwod’s 1B on a cheaper two-year deal this offseason.  Targeting a 55-game workload for Blackwood leaves 27 games for a backup. That’s probably a little less than any of these goalies would like, but shows if there are injuries in a 1A-1B situation he can handle the workload.

Jesper Boqvist

As we saw in Nikita Gusev’s first 10 games this year, it’s certainly not easy adjusting to the NHL when you’re getting less than 10 minutes a night on the 4th line. Boqvist has a ton of potential, but has struggled to meet that potential with his limited workload. Letting him start the second half in Binghamton means he’s finally in a role that actually suits him.  Playing on the first line with Mikhail Maltsev and Joey Anderson and getting substantial minutes should do wonders for his development.

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It’s important to put things like this into perspective. Lets take a look at a fellow Swede that didn’t immediately jump into the NHL when he came over despite being the 6th-overall pick, Mika Zibanejad.  Zibanejad was drafted in 2011 and immediately came over to North America. He got his nine-game audition in Ottawa and was then loaned back to Sweden. In his draft+2 year, he came back to North America where he played 42 games with Ottawa and 23 with the Binghamton Senators.  It wasn’t until his third year post draft that he was a consistent NHLer. Boqvist is currently in his third year post draft, but it’s important to remember he was a 2nd-round pick, not 6th overall. Spending the rest of the year in Binghamton where he can get the minutes he needs to properly develop is a good thing for both Boqvist and the Devils long term.

Even still, don’t expect him to spend the rest of the year down in the AHL. It seems very likely the Devils will end up shipping out one or two forwards closer to the trade deadline, opening up space in the lineup for Boqvist and Joey Anderson.

Now let’s talk about another move the Devils can make that’s forward thinking.

Play Jack Hughes with Blake Coleman and Nikita Gusev

It makes sense that Alain Nasreddine doesn’t want to break up his best line, but it makes sense for the Devils long term. Travis Zajac has said no to being traded recently, and its within his rights as he has a full no-trade clause. He also certainly deserves a ton of credit for immediately meshing with Gusev and anchoring that line defensively.

With that said, despite their early season struggles, it’s time to reunite Jack Hughes and Nikita Gusev. Blake Coleman should be the defensive presence the duo need to keep them from getting hemmed in their own zone. It lets them develop chemistry throughout the remainder of a season with little to no shot at the playoffs. No pressure, nothing to lose.

Even still, there’s nothing that says when the Devils are leading they can’t swap Hughes and Zajac to try and defend a lead. The Devils have shown they’re committed to protecting and developing both Blackwood and Boqvist, and now is the time to do the same with Hughes. Playing with Zacha and Simmonds isn’t doing him any favors.