New Jersey Devils: Can Kevin Bahl Be A Significant Contributor Long Term?

Kevin Bahl #88 of New Jersey Devils skates against the Philadelphia Flyers at a preseason game at the Prudential Center on September 25, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Kevin Bahl #88 of New Jersey Devils skates against the Philadelphia Flyers at a preseason game at the Prudential Center on September 25, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

One of the more significant stories so far in the early part of the NHL preseason is the noticeably improved skating and overall play from 23-year-old defenseman Kevin Bahl. He looks like a new player on the ice, being able to tap into formerly unseen offensive talent for Jesper Bratt’s goal against the Rangers and newfound confidence in his edges to maneuver past forecheckers in the New Jersey Devils‘ 6-0 win against Philadelphia. With all this improvement, what is Bahl’s actual ceiling?

Bahl came to New Jersey, along with Nick Merkley, Nate Schnarr, a 1st-round pick that became Dawson Mercer, and a 3rd-round pick that eventually resulted in the Jonas Siegenthaler in a trade that sent Taylor Hall to Arizona. While being a former 2nd-round pick, expectations on Bahl’s future role were low initially, with many disregarding him as a throw-in and a future bottom-pairing defenseman.

These feelings were further corroborated in Bahl’s short run in the NHL in the 2021-2022 season. His first game against Toronto stands out as a particularly poor performance. This was also probably why he did not make the opening roster last year as a full-time player.  Alternatively, he was seen as the extra defenseman, with Brendan Smith assuming the sixth defenseman role on most nights. As the year went on, Bahl’s role increased, and he eventually became the 6D in the playoffs. A memorable shift where he had a hit and a fight against Barclay Goodrow symbolized his new role with the team. His efforts granted him a two-year extension.

When camp finally came last week, there were a few rumblings about how impressive Bahl looked, particularly with his skating. These rumors were found to be true when the Devils opened the preseason against the Flyers, where Bahl posted 63% CF and xGF and genuinely looked like a Top-4 defenseman. He followed that up with a 38% CF and a 46% xGF performance against the Rangers. And while those are admittedly poor numbers, the eye test showed a bit more promise, with his perfectly waited pass to Jesper Bratt’s goal arguably the most important play of the game.

The next logical question is: is this a fluke? Is Bahl just beating up on poor opposition and still the same player as last year? And even if he is improved, is he good enough?

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To answer those questions, some things have to be put in context. This is a player who has great size, vastly improved edgework, seemingly found his offensive prowess and is just entering his second full-time NHL season. There is enough to work with here to suggest that Bahl is more than what was originally thought. There is a player in him, and he should be in the top four this year.

In many ways, Bahl finding and fulfilling his potential will be one of the most important factors in the Devils’ success this year. They really only have three established defensemen, with the other three roles filled by Bahl, Luke Hughes, and potentially Colin Miller, who has had a very poor start to his career in Jersey. Bahl providing stable play will be key in maintaining the Devils good defensive form from last year and giving Luke Hughes time and space to develop.

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Kevin Bahl is a player who seems to have taken a step in his development. With his budding talent, the Devils may have an answer for the Ryan Graves-sized hole in their defense.