New Jersey Devils Might Have A Fabian Zetterlund Problem

New Jersey Devils left wing Fabian Zetterlund (49) avoids a check from New York Islanders center Kyle Palmieri (21) during the second period at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
New Jersey Devils left wing Fabian Zetterlund (49) avoids a check from New York Islanders center Kyle Palmieri (21) during the second period at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports /

The New Jersey Devils made the team’s first cuts of the season on Friday night. They just came off their first preseason loss, giving up two third-period goals to the New York Rangers. Some notable names in the cuts include former first-round pick Chase Stillman, intriguing prospect Topias Vilen, and Filip Bratt, the brother of Devils’ star Jesper Bratt. None of these players were making the roster, but they were of interest to fans anyway.

Now, the Devils’ training camp roster is down to 45 players. There are 23 spots allowed on the opening night roster not counting any long-term injured reserve spots that are taken. We expect to see some more cuts coming soon since a lot of the players currently on the team have little to no shot to make the NHL roster.

Realistically, there are 19 forwards who have any chance to make the team on top of 11 defensemen. There are six starting defensemen spots and 12 forward spots on top of three spots for extras (if Jonathan Bernier is going on LTIR to start the year). That means the Devils have to cut at least nine more players barring injuries.

Some of the cuts will be easier than others. Two of the players are on PTOs, which means they don’t even have a guaranteed contract yet. Others are clearly not ready after we’ve seen them in some preseason games. Basically, we’re looking at five or six players fighting for the last three spots on the roster. Usually, teams can send the younger players down to the AHL to allow the team some time before they have to make a decision on a player. The issue here is very significant young players are now eligible for waivers.

The one player we’re keeping a close eye on is Fabian Zetterlund. He looked really good at the end of last season after a very successful stint with the Utica Comets. The former third-round pick is now in his fourth season playing hockey directly in the Devils organization. Last season was his first taste in the NHL. He played 14 games and scored three goals and added five assists. He played well and provided a size element to the lineup the Devils needed outside of Nathan Bastian.

The problem starts to raise its ugly head when it becomes clear that Alexander Holtz appears to be a lock to make the roster. If he is indeed playing on the first line with Jack Hughes and Ondrej Palat, then that takes one of those three roster spots away from the five others looking to make the roster.

The Devils have a decision to make. Zetterlund probably won’t make it through waivers with teams like Arizona, San Jose, and Chicago looking to load up on young talent for cheap. Zetterlund would do well in other organizations that could give him more leeway to prove himself. However, who could the Devils cut in Zetterlund’s favor?

Jesper Boqvist is in the same situation as Zetterlund. He also had a very good end to last season. He needs to go through waivers to get sent to the AHL. Another team would likely claim him. If the Devils don’t want to lose him for free, the Devils now have one spot left.

That’s one spot for Michael McLeod, Andreas Johnsson, Zetterlund, and Tyce Thompson. Luckily, Thompson is still waivers exempt. The Devils might start Johnsson in the AHL just because they don’t think anyone is claiming that contract. If someone did claim that contract, it might actually help the Devils with their cap problem this season. McLeod might get sent to the AHL because of the allegations tied to the Hockey Canada rape scandal. Who knows how involved he was, but the fact is he’s a distraction on the team right now and he’d be much less of a distraction in Utica.

Could the Devils really make the bold move of sending down McLeod and Johnsson to the AHL to make sure they didn’t lose Boqvist and Zetterlund? It makes the most sense if the Devils don’t suffer an injury. Nobody is touching those two players, and at the end of the day this is a business and both of those players didn’t step up to the plate.

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This is the best possible scenario for the Devils, but it would take Tom Fitzgerald making a bold step for two players who expected to make the NHL. That could put a bad taste in the mouths of other players, or it could breed competition amongst the rest of the roster. Johnsson and McLeod both have one assist in two games this preseason. McLeod and Johnsson are 11th and 12th in minutes played this preseason. That’s ahead of Boqvist, but Zetterlund is actually significantly ahead of both of them. He’s third on the team. The numbers show there’s a path that makes sense. Dropping McLeod and Johnsson, at least for now, could help the team in the long run.