Finally, finally, FINALLY we are at that wonderful point in the calendar year where NHL teams start to bring their players back together to see who will make the main team for the upcoming season! Happy New Jersey Devils Training Camp Opening Day people; hockey it almost back, it’s so close we can taste it, though I’m not sure we would want to!
With the opening of training camp, and the official roster release from our Devils, there’s a number of questions and narratives to look at as we head through camp towards October 7th. We’ve spent time discussing some of the issues in surrounding the team, and today we look at some previously covered and some new topics as the Devils report back to the Prudential Center:
Who Plays on the Top Line or How do you Replace Travis Zajac?
The Devils really only had one piece of bad news that came out over the summer, but it was a back breaker as Travis Zajac was announced to miss 4-6 months due to a pectoral injury. Zajac already ate some of the biggest minutes on the team, and he was looking to be an even more important cog this year as the centerman to insulate the kids coming into the lineup.
Without Trav, Ray Shero, John Hynes and company will have some decisions to make based on training camp; do they go back to Adam Henrique as a de facto 1C even though he was pretty terrible with Taylor Hall last year? Does Pavel Zacha break out and earn himself a shot alongside Hall and Kyle Palmieri? Will Nico Hischier impress to the point that the staff would look foolish not to have him center Hall? Will Hall and Palmieri even be kept together without Zajac? There’s a lot more questions than answers right now. Hopefully, as the preseason goes on and more games pass, we will get a better idea of who will be playing in those top line spots.
What Does the Defense Shape Up to Look Like?
I almost didn’t include this category because we’re all expecting the defense to be one long gong show this year, but there are some bright spots. Damon Severson’s brand new contract keeps New Jersey’s best defenseman (I don’t care what his plus/minus says and neither does CJ) under control for another 6 years; if he continues to grow as he has the past few seasons, the Devils will have one less worry on the back end. Besides, what other defender on our current roster can do what Sevs does here at the 2:10 mark?
Prized college free agent Will Butcher chose to sign with the Devils this summer, and while he may not be a perfect product, he could still be better than some of the flotsam and jetsam that the Devils still have in the organization. He looked good in the prospects challenge (better than many of his contemporaries) and should push to make the opening night roster. His defense partner in that tournament, Steven Santini, is another player who can be a bright spot for NJ if he continues his trajectory from last season. If all three above defenders play at or above expectations, and Andy Greene somehow finds a way to channel 2011-12 Andy Greene, then the defense might not be the black hole that we all expect it to be.
Does Cory Schneider Bounce Back?
Let’s hope he does or this is a sunk season! In all seriousness, this could be a sunk season even if Schneider plays out of his mind simply because of all of the other question marks surrounding this team. Cory bouncing back is more for our peace of mind as fans that when the team becomes competitive again (hopefully by next season), he will still be performing at a high level.
If he does rebound, hey no worries; chalk up 2016-17 as an anomaly and move on. If he doesn’t, then we have cause for concern, because there’s no goalie in the system who is ready to be an NHL starter. Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood are back-ups and nothing more; Mackenzie Blackwood is a couple of years and some polishing away at the very least. Ken Appleby is a fine AHL goaltender and could maybe be an NHL back-up one day himself, but I don’t see starter potential there.
The long-term hope aside from Cory seems to lie with Blackwood, but he is far from a certainty. Should Cory’s play not return to form, the Devils could be in a lot of trouble.
Which of the Youngsters Makes the Team?
The Devils have a number of young forwards in the system who are close to making a full-time jump to the NHL either from juniors or the minor league system. While Nico Hischier should essentially be a given, (especially after looking to be 2 steps ahead of all of the other Devils players at the prospects challenge) the Devils do have room for a couple of kids to prove themselves and earn full-time spots. John Quenneville and Joseph Blandisi had a taste of being Devils last season (and the one prior for Blender) and will need more memorable moments like the ones below to secure full-time jobs in Jersey.
Blake Speers had a short NHL preview last year before going back to juniors; he and Michael McLeod will be looking to try and make the jump from juniors to NHL players, but may have some difficult competition in front of them. Miles Wood can secure his “speedy pest” job by being more consistent on his scoring chances this season.
The back end of the ice has already been covered for the most part, but don’t sleep on Yaroslav Dyblenko either. He could be a dark horse heading into camp, and again I would rather a younger player than the above mentioned flotsam and jetsam.
While I always get excited for training camp due to what it represents, I think I’m even more excited than usual due to the young potential that will be on display. It will also be a very different Devils roster than what we saw last year, as the Devils parted with a whole line’s worth of stalwarts (Michael Cammalleri, Jacob Josefson, and to some extent Devante Smith-Pelly) from the past few seasons, along with a number of underachieving depth players.
So now I want to know what you think; are you excited for this upcoming season? Which players are you most looking forward to seeing in action? Who replaces Zajac? What do the lines and pairs look like in your mind? Leave any and all comments below and, as always, thank you for reading!