Today is the first full day of training camp for everyone on the roster. Rookies - which does includes players who are definitely not rookies but weren't roster players at the end of last season - have already taken to the ice. It's a short period for everyone to get some practice in before the first preseason game on Monday against Our Hated Rivals. It's short for us fans too. We just get our tickets less than a week before the first game, meaningless as it will be. A reminder that hockey is imminent.
After a very busy summer, the New Jersey Devils pretty much have a full roster. They didn't invite any players on tryout deals that will actually make the team. They didn't make any last-minute UFA signings. They nearly filled their reserve list and have left themselves some space to be used later under the cap. There aren't any glaring holes in the roster that are up for grabs. The team has enough pieces in terms of quantity. The purpose of this fall's preseason is going to be figuring out where those pieces should go. Questions include but are not limited to the following. How should Peter DeBoer construct the forward lines and the pairings of defensemen? Who is utilized on the power play and how should each unit attack? What adjustments are made on the penalty kill? What's the backup plan if/when a forward or a defenseman gets hurt? I'm interested in that question since last week, I've touched on the defenseman portion of that last question. Let's discuss the forwards today.
There's no question that at least seven forwards will be in the lineup on Opening Night unless there is an injury. They are Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, Dainius Zubrus, Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder, and Ryane Clowe. The latter three were signed this summer and not to be a spare part. The former four are veterans of the team and have been top-six forwards for the better part of the last two seasons. They are definitely on this team.
Following them is a group of six forwards that may not be guaranteed spots but I would figure they're safe bets to be in New Jersey in 2013-14. Andrei Loktionov was thrown into a top-six role right away after the Devils got him. His minutes were limited to a degree, but it's important to note that he's still a young player. Similarly, I think the Devils see Jacob Josefson as a New Jersey player, though as a two-way forward. He didn't get wrecked by injuries last season but poor play at times has sent him down a bit. He was brought back so provided he does well, I don't see the Devils making him the odd man out. Of course, there's the CBGB Line. With all due respect to Ryan Carter andr Steve Bernier, but the fourth line usually isn't a place for fully secure players. Should someone need to be rotated in and they are a marginal player, then that's the line where player goes. That could mean one of them gets moved up or moved out for a bit. Nevertheless, both are clearly good enough wingers to stick around for a full season. Stephen Gionta may be the weak link but I think he could get the benefit of the doubt for being in that spot for over a season now. If the Devils wanted to dump him, then they probably would have done so by now. Lastly, the Devils like to have a goon on the active roster. Krystofer Barch proved he was way better than Eric Boulton or Cam Janssen. He may be in a suite more often than the ice, but he'll be around for whatever "toughness" is worth these days.
That's thirteen forwards between both groups. The Devils will likely keep seven defensemen so that leaves one extra spot for the Devils to carry a player. Given that the heir apparent at defense are still young enough such that playing in Albany would be more beneficial than sitting in Newark, I would think that extra spot would go to a forward if they use it. With a lot of back-to-backs this season with a relatively old roster, it wouldn't be the worst idea to have an extra body around just for spot duty.
In my opinion, that extra spot could already beowned by Rostislav Olesz. Or possibly the player he may replace in the active lineup. Remember, he's not here on a professional try out deal. The Devils signed the 27-year old winger on July 5 to a one-way, one-year deal. I doubt they would have done that - regardless of the fact that it's a short and cheap deal - if the organization didn't think he could still play at this level. After missing most of 2012-13 with recovering from an ACL injury and playing entirely in the AHL, Olesz should have every motivation to want to return to the NHL. He's got 355 games of experience so he's had the talent to stick around; he'll want to show the league that he still has it after recovering from surgery. Peter DeBoer, who coached Olesz for several seasons, must think he still has something left in the tank. Lou must think he can do it since, again, he signed him on the first day he possibly could have signed him. Therefore, short of a poor preseason, I think he's got the edge on that extra forward spot if not a spot elsewhere in the lineup. Since Olesz can play center, wing, and at both ends of the rink, I could see him displace someone like Gionta. That wouldn't mean Gionta would go to Albany; he would just be a scratch.
Even if Olesz is the other spare forward or makes someone else into a spare forward, the Devils coaches have to make some decisions as far as depth among players they mostly know about already. After all, the majority of the past fifteen Devils seasons have had the organization have 17 or more forwards active for at least ten games each season. There's no shortage of people in camp who want that spot that Olesz may have, and they may be perfectly happy to be the one behind him.
As I noted in yesterday's Devils in the Details, Mattias Tedenby (as per Fire & Ice), Rod Pelley (according to Fire & Ice), and Reid Boucher (article at, you guessed it, Fire & Ice) all want to make the roster. Boucher is not new but word is that he needs further improvement beyond his shot. Tedenby and Pelley are what they are and that's not much. They may have to settle for options later on as injuries come up. Add Stefan Matteau to that list of guys who want to make the team based on this article by Tom Gulitti. While I think it's best he spend a full season in Albany, I can see him coming up to New Jersey for a bit. They already burned his ELC, so the appearance count doesn't matter much. Cam Janssen wants his reputation back as per NJ.com; he would presumably want to do that at the NHL level. I don't think he lost it for what it's worth; alas, the organization likes him for some reason I can't fathom. There's also Tim Sestito, who's been a call-up favorite much to most people's disappointment. Beyond that group, there's Joe Whitney, Darcy Zajac, and some other Albany guys who would very much like to make a mark in the outside chance they get a chance to do so. Even a good impression may get them in a discussion for a consideration later in the season. Again, past history suggests the Devils do use more than 13 forwards in a season. Who exactly and how many are unknown, but I think it's fair to say that some of these players will be in the deviled NJ at some point this season.
As I stated earlier this summer, those minor signings matter. It's also why I'm not so pleased with the re-acquisitions of guys like Pelley, Sestito, and Janssen since the Devils know what they bring to the table and if they're honest with themselves, they know it's not worth much at all. It's not a heralded part of the process of putting a roster together. Yet, it's as much a part of training camp and preseason as it is developing a new look on special teams or putting lines together. We can't predict injuries or severity; we just assume that they will happen at some point. And almost every team, even the deep ones, can suffer deeply if a top player is out for a while. Nevertheless, getting good depth can provide an advantage of sorts. Not just in lessening the drop off in talent in putting your thirteenth, fourteenth, or even fifteenth forward; but also help develop players for the future whether they're drafted prospects or veterans that would normally be on the roster for one reason or another. It's not much to look forward to in the coming six exhibition games, but it's something the coaches will take plenty of time to decide.
I think Olesz will get that extra forward spot and I think he could very well push Gionta off the fourth line. And beyond him and Barch, I don't know who exactly will be behind them on the depth chart. Who do you think it will be? Would you agree that Olesz will take the extra forward spot or force someone else to take that spot? Do you think the Devils will scratch two forwards if they could going into the beginning of the season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this part of the preseason in the comments. Thank you for reading.