With an OT loss in Sunrise last night to the Florida Panthers, the Devils’ season has officially opened. With that opening of the season, the final roster was established and a lot of new faces came along with it. Whether all of the young players stick is uncertain, but at least to start the season, the Devils trotted out their youngest roster in quite a while. For a fanbase that has been looking for the next generation of talent for years now, it was a welcome sight, even if it’s not necessarily the permanent setup.
New Jersey has been known as an old team for quite a while now. Years of free-agent band-aids led to the team always being among the oldest in the league. According to NHL Numbers, the Devils were one of the top-5 oldest teams in the league in every single season from 2008-09 to 2014-15. They finally dropped below that threshold in 2015-16 and now, to start this season, the Devils have their youngest roster in at least a decade, if not longer. The Devils still have their share of veterans keeping their average age in the middle of the pack, but its clear that the shift is happening and that the youth movement that fans have been clamoring for a while is beginning to really arrive.
The Devils had five rookies — Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, Blake Speers, Yohann Auvitu, and Steven Santini — on its opening night roster which is almost certainly the most in a long time. And while Auvitu is isn’t a traditional rookie at 27 and Santini was a scratch, it’s still refreshing to see so many new names and faces on a team that is still working on reinventing itself. With so many brand new NHLers on this roster, some growing pains should probably be expected, but for now, a bunch of rookies forcing their way into the roster feels very much like a good thing.
In addition to the amount of rookies, the Devils just have a lot of young skaters in general heading into this season. Twelve out of 21 skaters who were on the opening night roster are currently 25 or younger and it feels like the team really is steering toward the future at this point. Two players who were in last night’s lineup, Zacha and Speers, aren’t yet 20 years of age, which according to the Devils’ broadcast last night, hasn’t happened in New Jersey since the mid-80’s. There is still a contingent of veterans, for sure, with seven skaters over 30 also being on the roster, but only four of those players are signed beyond this season. Rumblings of it have been talked about for years, and it’s definitely a cliche at this point, but the youth movement does seem to have arrived in New Jersey.
The impact that the rookies and youth forcing their way into the roster has certainly makes a difference. With Miles Wood and Blake Speers surprising by earning starts on opening night, the Devils scratch suite was filled with capable (or projected to be, in Santini’s case) starting NHLers. Reid Boucher, Beau Bennett, and Santini are all players who are expected to have some impact for New Jersey this season, and with them being crowded out on opening night, the Devils now have at least a facsimile of something called depth. Depth has been a constant struggle for the Devils over the past several seasons, so with actual NHL talent sitting in the scratch suite, the team finally seems to have some of it.
Now, it’s unclear whether all of these new faces are here for the long haul. John Hynes had some particularly positive things to say about Speers’ camp performance, but it’s possible he could only be around for a 9-game tryout before heading back to the OHL. And Wood could end up bouncing a bit between Albany and New Jersey based on his waiver status. Santini could end up in Albany for stretches as well, but the Devils will likely need him on defense, where depth is a bigger concern right now. Auvitu seems to be adjusting well to North America thus far and assisted on the Devils’ lone goal last night. Pavel Zacha (who also had an assist last night) also figures to stick around, with the Devils needing him to solidify the roster down the middle.
Overall, the influx of youth should be celebrated for the Devils. And while keeping an eye on the present and the future, hopefully John Hynes and Ray Shero see fit to keep many of these new faces around. With some legitimate competition for roster spots going on, hopefully that can help do things like drive the Devils’ bottom six to contribute more than in seasons past. Players like Zacha and Boucher, along with some surprises like Auvitu, could be the key to the Devils taking a step forward in 2016-17. Some growing pains may be necessary to get there, but if there is any time to endure some of those youth-related struggles, this season, in year two of a full-on rebuild, seems like an ideal one to get through them.