After the New Jersey Devils achieved preseason greatness by going undefeated, it’s time to finally do this thing for real.
The amount of hype around this Devils team is real. However, the Carolina Hurricanes are still the predicted favorite in the Metropolitan Division from many circles. This leaves the Devils as underdogs (sorta). So, what are the main reasons this team can compete for a Stanley Cup outside the top 6?
The 3rd Line:
Erik Haula is cemented as our 3rd line center. We know that Palat is an automatic pair this year for Haula, but we don’t know who will be playing on his right side (at the time this is being written). Some important numbers on Haula from 2022:
27 assists (career high)
41 points (3rd highest in career)
92 hits (2nd highest in career)
As we all know, Haula was traded for Pavel Zacha. That trade goes down as one of the many great moves Tom Fitzgerald made during his tenure here as a GM. Haula provides more of a physical style of play, which will probably be the biggest change of pace you’ll find vs the first two lines. It’s a pace that can take advantage of opponents when they’re absolutely gassed chasing around the first two lines.
One of the biggest question marks is who will start on the right side of Haula. On one hand, Alexander Holtz would fit in better skating-wise since the top two lines are much faster. Holtz is also a guy that you expect to do one thing and one thing only: score. Ondrej Palat and Haula would make up for his defensive liabilities and other subpar areas, allowing Holtz to focus on the best part of his game.
The 2nd option is Dawson Mercer. We saw the emergence of Mercer in year two with 27 goals/29 assists and a +22. Mercer will be with the top line. Whether it be Holtz or Mercer, Palat and Haula would free up a lot of space for either 2020 NHL Draft pick. The question remains: would you rather a guy who can do more than just shoot or get a guy looking to get fed the puck once the boys cross that blue line into the attacking zone?
Finally, when speaking of physicality with the 3rd line, a fully healthy season from Ondrej Palat would elevate the Devils more than one would expect. Palat played 49 games last year, but his average is around 65 games. If the Devils can get that, they’ll have around 65 games of a plus player adding over 100 hits and can net anywhere between 15-20 goals.
Fully healthy, the Devils 3rd line could be the best in hockey, which would propel this team over the top!
With the losses of Damon Severson and Ryan Graves, the defense isn’t exactly settled going into the season. We know what we have in John Marino. He led the team with 192 minutes and 17 seconds on the penalty kill. He is a guy you want on the ice when you need to protect a lead, and he will only continue to grow.
That leaves us with the other three D-Men. As of right now, we know that Simon Nemec is starting the season in Utica, so we will have to see how much Lindy Ruff can actually get out of Brendan Smith and Colin Miller to begin the season. While Miller had a career year coming in Dallas last season, it seemed like he reverted to what he has been over the course of his career this preseason. That would make him a seventh defender. It’s only preseason, and he is in a new scheme, but he just has not looked the part at all, unfortunately.
With younger guys such as Bahl and Luke Hughes, it’s hard to have a liability next to them. The game is already coming at the young kids fast, so having to worry about the guy next to them constantly is an extremely rough position to be in. If we’re going to have someone struggle on the 3rd pairing, it would be better to see Nemec get that ice time and watch him adjust and continue to grow. In preseason, we also saw Smith look lost and get beat on the ice by opponents. Then how do you make your pairings?
Luke Hughes has the least amount of ice time in the pros, so pair him with Marino so he can focus on playing his game and creating a lane for himself. Luke Hughes is also the better shooter between him and Bahl, so having two pairings where both guys are good on defense, but one can provide more firepower on offense is important here. As for the 3rd line, it will probably be Bahl and a rotating line of Smith and Miller until Ruff feels change is needed and Nemec makes his way up.
Last season, while Mackenzie Blackwood was hurt, we saw Vitek Vanacek step into the starting role and cement himself as the starter with a .911 save percentage and a 2.45 GAA. Unfortunately, in the playoffs, Vanecek seemed just to be absolutely gassed and leaving the Devils in a bad place.
In came Akira Schmid, who put up a .922 save percentage in limited time with an amazing 2.13 GAA. Schmid became an instant legend in New Jersey with his playoff performance vs the Rangers, including a Game 7 shutout.
This year, the Devils will actually have a very solid 1A/1B tandem, and with the defense full of young players and a different look, they will be very much needed to be able to hold the back end up.
After the Devils shocked all of us with their play last year, there’s only one way to go: up!