Some new faces ready to compete and others in need of a jump-start. Lindy Ruff will have plenty of time to tinker over the course of training camp, but getting started will be tough for everyone with such a long layoff. I took a deeper look at the forward group and came up with a few lines.
So here’s the deal. I decided to make a sort-of hybrid depth chart/scrimmage lines. The same way you see first team offense and defense go against the second team in football. It’s a mix of who I think needs to S!%# or get off the pot and some who deserve a look based on what they’ve done. Basically, a jumping off point before their play dictates what the next moves would be.
Line 1A – Nikita Gusev – Nico Hischier – Kyle Palmieri
As far as i’m concerned, Nico Hischier is the no-questions-asked first-line center to start the season. Though we should all assume that over a longer period of time that Jack Hughes could possibly usurp Nico, that’s not the case right now. I went with Gusev and Palmieri here because Gusev’s second-half production was excellent and it certainly seemed like Palmieri and Hughes never really got on the same page last season. A two way center with a shooter and a distributor (both wingers in contract seasons by the way) seems like a good start. Plus, these are the two surest things at winger with the surest thing at center. If the Devils can get this line humming, which it should be, this opens up a lot in terms of how the Devils can implement the new system.
Line 2A – Andreas Johnsson – Jack Hughes – Jesper Bratt
Is this the year that Jesper Bratt takes a big step fowards towards being a 50+ point player? I’m giving him a chance here to get going towards that right away. Andreas Johnsson is a speedy player that has a little more caginess than some realize. Is this a great defensive line? No. But i’m not really worried about that at this stage. Three excellent skaters on this line should allow them to create some transition offense and both Bratt and Johnsson are better puck retrievers than they’re given credit for. As for the “Jack needs a shooter” trope, (Hi Alexander Holtz!) both Johnsson and Bratt can probably give more than we think in terms of shooting ability. If it works, this could be a speedy line with a lot of creativity.
Line 3A – Nick Merkley – Pavel Zacha – Janne Kuokkanen
Okay, I get it. This is where a lot of us will start to differ and rightfully so. There are so many players that seem on the cusp of breaking into the lineup in a third line type role, but not many that have actually shown they truly belong yet. I went with Merkley because he’s older, he looked decent in limited time in NJ last year and he’s coming in from a decent spell in Finland. Merkley has shown the ability to play a higher level offensive game than a lot of the other possible names for this spot and the goal needs to be to find a legitimate third line that can score. As for Zacha, this has to be it. No need to discuss his draft position from years ago, let’s live in the now. Zacha has shown some flashes of brilliance but also some moments that make you wonder if he’ll even be here beyond 2021-22 when his contract is up. Well, here’s his chance. Can’t fall back on the “coach hates me” mantra this time. He gets a chance and he’s gotta run with it. If not, expect Lindy to figure out other options. I like Kuokkanen here because his puck retrieval game is really strong and he’d feel like a good third guy for Merkley/Zacha in terms of complimentary play styles.
Line 4A – Miles Wood – Travis Zajac – Yegor Sharangovich
One of the things that I believe gets lost on a lot of people is the need for a fourth line that fills certain roles on your team. Especially as the Devils begin to (hopefully) transition to a team that has a scoring third line, the fourth line of this new look Devils team needs to feature guys who belong in fourth line roles. I can’t state that enough. I’m not putting Jesper Boqvist here. I’m not putting Nolan Foote here right away either. With the departure of Blake Coleman and Kevin Rooney who killed penalties for this team, I need to find at LEAST one other penalty killer. Yegor Sharangovich, he of unconscious shooting percentage in the KHL, not only fits the role because he can kill penalties, but he’s a 200-foot player that can perhaps add some offense now. If you’ve listened to enough episodes of Devils Daily, you know my feelings on Miles Wood. That being said, he also deserves a decent shot with a new coach. If it’s not there, he can easily be bumped down, but he deserves a shot with the “A Team” to start.
Line 1B – Jesper Boqist – Michael McLeod – Nathan Bastian
Ah yes, the “Take Someone’s Job” line. Somewhere, Jeff is seething internally, but I like this line as the next guys up in the sense that all three of these players have a shot to insert themselves into the top 4 lines, so why not give them a shot to work as a line together. That being said, if Boqvist is on the opening night roster, he’s got to be in the top-9. I don’t need young skilled forwards playing 11 minutes on a 4th line. McLeod is what he is at this point, but he’s certainly in the running for a 4C role at this point. Nathan Bastian certainly possesses the kind of big-bodied gritty goal ability that this team is lacking too. All 3 of these players could be ones that find themselves with a very good opportunity in camp.
Line 2B – Brett Seney- Mikhail Maltsev – Marian Studenic
Here we have another line of players that are trying to propel themselves into perhaps a fourth line role in Jersey this year. Saw a bit of hate for Brett Seney and i’m not sure why. He’s a hard worker that put up pretty good offensive numbers in Bingo. He also fits as a 4th liner, which isn’t the case for some of the others. I love Maltsev, but he’s gotta earn it after Tom Fitzgerald mentioned he would have been one of the call-ups pre-shutdown. The big Russian is someone who should be able to impose his will early on in camp being that he’s in game shape and plays a heavy style. Marian Studenic has had some moments that make you think it’s there, then others where he leaves you wanting more. A good camp from him could certainly push him somewhere into the top-12.
Line 3B – Nolan Foote – Ben Street – Fabian Zetterlund
Before you grill me for putting Nolan Foote pretty far down this chart, let me explain. Nolan Foote was hurt for much of last season before the shutdown. By the time the season gets going it will be more than a year since he played hockey. Couple that with this campaign being his first year as a pro (the only one of this group) I think we have to severely temper our expectations for Foote right off the hop. Not to say he can’t get there, even quickly, but put aside his draft position for a second and it’s a big ask for him to come into this year’s camp and stand out. Zetterlund is a player that has shown some flashes, but if we’re being honest he’s already been passed by a few other players. He needs to stay healthy and show that bull-doggedness (it’s a word now). Ben Street is a solid AHL performer who got a couple of games with the big club last season.
Line 4B – Brandon Gignac – Nate Schnarr – Ryan Schmelzer
There’s still hope for Gignac, but much like Zetterlund, there are players that are probably ahead of him and with others such as Holtz and Mercer perhaps entering the fray next year. This needs to be a positive campaign for him. Gignac is a good zone entry player and he has some offensive instincts, but it hasn’t quite been there in the volume that’s needed. As for Nate Schnarr, the forgotten man in the Kevin Bahl/ARZ 1st/Nick Merkley for Blake Speers and some guy trade, Schnarr is certainly down the depth chart at this point. Schmelzer was re-signed, but probably isn’t on the radar for a spot in NJ.
In summation, this is just a jumping off point. What is both exciting and perhaps daunting is that when you look at this forward group, there are open spots to be won. Training camp will be long and it will matter. There is certainly more depth here organizationally, but the hope needs to be that a few players finally turn the corner and not just fall into some of these open spots but actually wrestle them away.
It may take a month + at this point, but when we get actual hockey back every minute of training camp with a new system and some hungry players should be fun.
Stay safe, everyone and enjoy the upcoming holiday season.