We are still very early in the season. There are variables that have gone in favor and out of favor for the New Jersey Devils. Let’s take a look at what has gone right, wrong, and what needs to be fine-tuned. Also, we’ll look at what could possibly make sense to help bolster this Devils roster. It is easy to forget that the Devils’ young core has gained a lot of experience in the past few seasons and acquired veteran leadership. Young guns like Alexander Holtz, Luke Hughes, Kevin Bahl, and Akira Schmid will help take this team to the promised land.
Youthful Players Learning Curves
From a scouting perspective, guys like Kevin Bahl are not your typical young defensemen. He can be held to a higher standard similar to a veteran defenseman, despite playing just 75 regular season games. Bahl to his credit has been very physical and really disciplined for his size not surrendering many penalty minutes and has been nothing short of phenomenal as he is growing in his second season. Bahl doesn’t need to work on a whole lot other than just staying consistent on the blueline. There is no need to change his game, but he must adapt to playing big in the playoffs.
Swedish winger Alex Holtz found his stride in the level of confidence and is already one goal and one point away from tying last season’s numbers. Holtz has been known to be a lethal shooter, but at a faster-paced level, he has learned to get some dirty high-danger goals. Holtz has been playing above-average defensive zone coverage and has shown progression with his forechecking.
It is only a matter of when Holtz starts shooting pucks on net that turn into in goals. His skating has improved a lot versus last season and will do just fine as he improves his overall game. He’s played under 40 games, so he has an idea of what to do; it’s just a matter of putting it together and having players like Jesper Bratt and Tyler Toffoli to learn from.
The youngest brother of the Hughes family, Luke Hughes has under 15 games played to his name at the NHL level. We know what he is capable of offensively, but he’s not immune from the high-risk, high-reward passes or the occasional hiccup because he’s just a superhuman at the highest level of hockey.
When Luke Hughes makes a mistake, he can make up for it in future plays. It can be an assist on the power play or even scoring a clutch goal. The youngest Hughes is still inexperienced, but he has coach Ryan McGill, who is very experienced in leading the Golden Knights and the New Jersey Devils to defensive success in recent years. It is only a matter of not being too jumpy and pinch less and being able to shut down opponents on the rush.
Akira Schmid is a complex player because he is a young goaltender. Goalies are very hard to project when they are developing in non-traditional leagues. The Swiss goaltender has under 30 career games played in the NHL, but he’s spent time in the USHL and NAHL before becoming pro. He has the ability to be a really phenomenal goalie like he was in late last season and in the playoffs.
The biggest conundrum for Akira Schmid is his ability to stay focused on his game, cutting down on the angles, and being able to get back to having superstar composure. It is a blend of mechanics in closing off the post and being able to make better reads to fight off the puck in heavy traffic.
Areas for Improvement
All eyes are on Dave Rogalski, the Devils goalie coach, to get the most out of Vitek Vanecek and Schmid. The Devils are fifth worst in goals allowed, and it is time for a new strategic and philosophical approach. Yes, some of it does come from young, inexperienced defensemen while improving the approach in net, but new techniques need to be implemented.
Defensively, the Devils just need to let the young guys play in more games and gain more experience. Luke Hughes is going to be 21 years old next season. Meanwhile, Kevin Bahl is a June birthday and has 3.2 years of experience more than Luke Hughes, so by next season Bahl will become a true veteran defenseman, and Luke will be in his second year in the NHL and going through a similar but maybe shorter learning curve next season.
Time to add more physicality but on the blue line. As a firm believer in a well-layered regular and postseason hybrid of hockey, the Devils need to adapt more with a defender or forward that can be the “thumper” on the ice. Teams like Carolina will be looking to think that they can take liberties with our best-scoring skaters. However, if a team like Anaheim falters before the NHL Trade Deadline it is time to add a sasquatch like Radko Gudas on defense or Sammy Blais from the St. Louis Blues if both teams were to fail and make the playoffs.
You can’t expect Timo Meier, Kevin Bahl, Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastian, and Curtis Lazar to do all the banging when the playoffs strike. Guys like Jonas Siegenthaler and Kevin Bahl will need to focus on being scary good defensively as this team becomes a perennial playoff team and eventually hoists the Stanley Cup for a fourth time in New Jersey Devils history.