It felt like not even a week ago the Devils had
their full arsenal of weapons all of their players available. Now, if everyone currently injured remains out of the lineup for Thursday, they don't have enough healthy players at the NHL level to ice a full team. If things remain as they are, the Devils will need to add both a forward and a defenseman to their roster before Thursday's game. In terms of organizational depth, this would be their #16th forward and their #10th defenseman, What happened to Jon Merrill in his NHL debut the other night is very unfortunate. Hopefully he will be ok and back on the ice soon.
Just last week I was discussing clearing room on defense, and now the question is who will be the 6th defenseman for the Devils on Thursday? As of right now, my guess is that either Peter Harrold or Anton Volchenkov will suit up Thursday night, but that remains to be seen. Albany had to recall Raman Hrabarenka from Elmira just to give them 6 defensemen, so this is why I am doubtful that the Devils will bring someone else up to New Jersey to play the back line. Still, if they need to go this route, I would guess that Brandon Burlon may get the call, since he got an extended look during pre-season.
With Rostislav Olesz clearing waivers today, the Devils are short one forward up front, unless either Patrik Elias or Travis Zajac can return from injury. Obviously, getting either one (or both) back in the lineup is far and away the best case scenario for the Devils. Travis and Patrik are specifically two guys the Devils must have in their lineup to have any level of success this season. John wrote last week about how important Travis Zajac is to the Devils lineup, even if he is not producing a lot of offense, and why he still yet may produce the offense everyone is looking for. I think anyone who questioned Zajac's importance to the Devils will not be doing so after the last two games. Ditto for the importance of Patrik Elias, although I don't think this was in doubt from anyone, ever.
Going back to Zajac for a moment, if you haven't already read John's post, please do. If you take a look at Travis' WOWY numbers (with or without you - showing how a player fares with or without a particular teammate), virtually every player on the Devils roster fares much better in possession when they are on the ice with Travis Zajac than in other situations. Also, Travis is one of the few Devils players who can win faceoffs with regularity. While Elias won't help as much in the faceoff department, there is no doubt the positive effect he has on his linemates. A quick look at Elias' WOWY numbers shows a similar wizardry in terms of possession.
No doubt that the Devils need one or both of these guys back in the lineup badly. If neither can go on Thursday, there will be a replacement player in New Jersey. Let's assume, for argument's sake, that the Devils will need to recall a forward. There are a lot of candidates to get a shot - semi familiar faces like Rod Pelley, Tim Sestito, Harri Pesonen, Stefan Matteau have all gotten a taste of the NHL in the past. I don't really think any of these players should make a return trip at this time.
I think there is one player that most fans are anxiously awaiting, and that is Reid Boucher. I don't believe it's the right time for Boucher to play at the NHL level. I will admit, I haven't watched any of Albanys's games this year, but from what I saw watching Boucher in the pre-season, he was not close to NHL ready. I'm very doubtful his game could have evolved enough in just 11 games to the point where he would be ready.
Karen spoke of the prolific top line in Albany, and how they are putting up the lion's share of the points for that club. Boucher is a member of this unit, along with Scott Timmins and Joe Whitney. In my opinion, there is one member of that line that deserves a shot, and that is Joe Whitney. Basically, Whitney has never been handed anything in his time with the organization, and has always worked hard enough to put himself in a position to succeed. In his first year of professional hockey, Whitney lead an offensively challenged Devils team in scoring, while putting up just under 2.5 shots per game. Last season, with all of the NHL forwards down in Albany, Whitney found himself near the bottom of the depth chart. At the start of the season, I didn't see a spot for him among all of the forwards, and apparently neither did the Albany staff. He was a healthy scratch for the first few games, as other 'prospects' such as Mike Hoeffel and David Wohlberg made very little of their chances. Finally, Whitney got a shot, and had an immediate impact. He impressed me right away with his tenacity, work ethic, and drive. Basically, he made things happen through his really high compete level. As a linemate, he made Adam Henrique better. He went from healthy scratch at the start of last season to, once again, Albany's leading scorer. His PPG ratio was up from .61 his rookie year to .77 in his sophomore campaign, and his shot rate eclipsed 3 shots per game.
It seems he has always succeeded at every level by working very hard. He is not the biggest guy in the world. In fact, if he did make his NHL debut, he would be one of the smallest. Whitney would be the second smallest player in the league, based on his listed height, after Nathan Gerbe. This is probably the most limiting factor in Whitney's viability as an NHL forward. It's certainly a tough obstacle to overcome, especially when the game and the players in it are that much bigger, faster, and stronger than their AHL counterparts. I would say Whitney's size has certainly factored into many hockey decisions at the professional level, from his undrafted status to his AHL only contracts. Well, after two years of impressing those in charge, he finally earned a two way NHL contract.
I'm not saying that Joe Whitney is going to dramatically change the fortunes of New Jersey. I'm not even sure if his skills would be usable at the NHL level. I know there are plenty of examples of very good AHL players who produced at a high rate in the minor league, but never made it at the top level. Too many to even begin naming. All I know is that Whitney competes incredibly hard and has shown progress in his first three years, increasing his PPG game rate every year while generating a lot of shots on goal. The Devils struggle to put shots and attempts on goal. Whitney shoots at over a 3 /per game clip.
So, how is Whitney faring so far this season? Quite well. He is once again Albany's leading scorer (tied). He is still putting up shots at over a 3 SPG rate. Whitney has basically taken every other opportunity afforded him and ran with it up to this point. He keeps on achieving, and at some point, that deserves to be rewarded in a 'next man up' sort of situation.
So, would you like to see Joe Whitney get a shot to play an NHL game if injuries continue to keep Elias and Zajac out of the lineup? Or would you prefer the Devils bring up one of the familiar faces from last year, or perhaps another player from the Albany roster to fill in? If the defense needs another patch, who would be your choice for that spot?