Welcome to preseason. The New Jersey Devils will play their first of seven preseason games tonight. Training camp began with physicals for the veteran players on Thursday and the first set of practices began on Friday. These games will go a long way in determining the roster to start the 2015-16 NHL season. With five games in the next seven days, starting tonight, there will be plenty of opportunities for John Hynes and his staff to figure out who is on his roster, who's next in line on that roster, and where people are on that roster.
If I've learned anything from preseasons past, it's that the results of the games do not matter. Especially in the first set of games. The last two, which will be played next week, will likely be dress rehearsals for opening night. Don't get wrapped up in the line combinations or wanting to see the Devils beat someone because those results and set-ups will change quite quickly. In light of that, here's what I think the key questions that will likely be answered, starting this week.
What are Hynes' Tactical Plans?
While it's certainly not his first year as a head coach, it is Hynes' first year in the NHL and with this organization. Throw out all of the tag lines about fast, attacking, and supportive, these are the games where we'll get to see what Hynes intends to do for the first time. Maybe they'll be true, maybe they won't. It's imperative in watching these games to pay attention to what the players do. Even if it's not a full NHL roster, tendencies such as how they forecheck, how they breakout on offense, and how they are set-up on special teams can give us at least clues to how 2015-16 Devils may play in real games. As the Devils are re-building and the preseason yielding mixed rosters of real NHLers, maybe NHLers, and never NHLers, the performances will be all over the place. But what they're instructed to do is likely to be more consistent if only because these are all games to get used to performing them ahead of games that count. Without giving too much away, we'll be looking at Hynes and his staff's ways throughout the season.
What will be the Depth on Defense?
With the signing of David Schlemko, it appears to be pretty obvious that the team will have seven NHL defensemen. They are: Andy Greene, Adam Larsson, Damon Severson, Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas, John Moore, and Schlemko. All are on one-way contracts. All no longer have waiver eligibility. All are NHL players. And the Devils will need to determine where others stand in the pecking order. I don't expect the Devils to carry eight defensemen on their active roster often. However, the Devils have used at least nine different defensemen in each of the last five seasons (Going back from last season: 11, 9, 10, 12, 13). Injuries do happen and someone will have to step in should someone on the blueline get traded. The #8 spot will up for grabs between Seth Helgeson, Raman Hrabarenka, Marc-Andre Gragnani, and Vojtech Mozik. The actual call-up, if and when it happens, may be driven by who's unavailable. Still, Mozik has to show off what he can do at all, Hrabarenka has to show his skills can move to the NHL, and Helgeson has to show that he can contribute in this league after not much in 22 games. I nearly forgot the team signed Gragnani. He has some NHL experience as well, so he could very well be in the mix. When these four play, I'd pay a little closer attention to them than the other seven defenders listed. They're jockeying for position.
Will These Try-Outs Get Contracts?
The Devils brought in two players on professional try-outs: Tyler Kennedy and Lee Stempniak. They also brought in three on amateur try-outs: Alexandre Goulet, Jacob Sweeney, and Ken Appleby. The three on ATO's had their chance to shine, so to speak, in the two prospect games that they played in. I don't think they'll necessarily get into these games, but how they do in training camp in general will help their cause in getting some kind of contract - even if it only with Albany.
The situations with Kennedy and Stempniak are more intriguing. Both are NHL veterans and would fit in on most team's bottom-six among their forwards. Both can play a position of need for the Devils and do so in the short term as the team is still re-building. As they are 29 and 32, respectively, they presumably still have game - they're not likely to suddenly decline due to age. The concern is that if one or both make it, then what of the potential of younger players on the roster. One could argue that would hinder the re-build, but I'm not so sure. I can see the Devils carrying thirteen or fourteen forwards, and these two may be rotating in and out as Hynes sees fit as those extra players. (There may be times where the younger players may be the extras because they can't perform up to the level of one or two guys who couldn't get signed all summer.) All the same, that question will come up if they get signed. To do that, they have to show that they not can perform at a decent level, but do so while fitting in Hynes' system. While I think they can do it, they have to show that on the ice, and with five games in seven days, they'll get their chances.
Who's in the Bottom Six?
Among all of the roster battles, this one is the most contentious for the Devils because there are several players involved. With five sort-of being top-six caliber (Travis Zajac, Mike Cammalleri, Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri, and Jiri Tlusty - and I'm stretching a bit on the last three) and a 39-year old Patrik Elias with a recent knee issue, this leaves plenty of players that could be plugged onto those third and fourth lines. Here's the list of potential candidates: Jacob Josefson, Stephen Gionta, Jordin Tootoo, Tuomo Ruutu, Stefan Matteau, Reid Boucher, Sergey Kalinin, Kennedy, Stempniak, Paul Thompson, Jim O'Brien, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, and Mike Sislo. That's a diverse list. Some sure-fire NHLers (Josefson, Gionta, Ruutu), some hopefuls (Matteau, Boucher, Kalinin), two try-outs, three AHLers with some NHL experience looking to crack a NHL roster (Thompson, O'Brien, Sislo), and a goon (Leblond). This doesn't even include prospects like Pavel Zacha, John Quenneville, Joseph Blandisi, Ryan Kujawinski, Blake Coleman, and others likely heading back to junior or Albany.
Now, with Elias out - and if you figure he's really declining as a player, then he's another name in that mix - and an assumption of the Devils carrying two extra forwards, there's more space than it appears. Personally, I think Josefson and Gionta are mortal locks to play in the bottom six regularly. If Ruutu can show that last season was an aberration, then he's in too. It gets murkier beyond that. There are a lot of questions within this question. Right off the top of my head, here's a few of them: Should Tootoo be a regular? Where does Matteau and Boucher fit in? Should Boucher even be in the bottom six? Like Mozik, Kalinin is an x-factor - and only has a one year deal. I don't think he was signed with the intention of staying in Albany, but what can Kalinin do, and can he do it well for 10-14 minutes per night? All told, imagine if Kennedy and Stempniak didn't accept try-out offers with the Devils. They may all make it but it could become a rough lesson, especially for the younger Devils. They can make this end of the lineup better, but that may mean someone who could develop with the minutes sits. The remainder will likely be potential call-ups: Sislo has been one for the Devils, Thompson could now join him along with O'Brien. But with a new coaching staff, they have to prove that. Should they do a very good job, it's a tougher decision. Also if Zacha, Quenneville, Blandisi, and others in that set really impress this week. I think across all five games, we may see the most changes in this part of the lineup.
I think those are the most important questions. I was going to specifically ask about Elias, about where he fits into the lineup. The recent news of a knee injury means it may not necessarily be answered in this preseason. What do you think the answers to those will be? What other important questions do you think this preseason will answer for the Devils? Please leave your, well, answers to these questions and other thoughts about the team's preseason in the comments. Thank you for reading.