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Which Defensemen Are On the New Jersey Devils on Opening Night?

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One of the biggest questions for the New Jersey Devils to answer in preseason is which defenders will make their opening night roster. This post speculates who among their many defensemen in the system may make the team after preseason ends.

Winnipeg Jets v New Jersey Devils
“What do you mean, ‘I may not make this year’s opening night roster?’”
Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images

In less than two weeks, the New Jersey Devils will open up training camp. Preseason will soon follow. One of the biggest issues the Devils will have to address before the 2017-18 regular season begins is the defense. It was bad last season. It does not figure to be all that good this season. But John Hynes and his staff needs to sort out who should be on the defense to at least start the season. They have plenty of bodies. Who makes the roster on opening night, October 7? Let’s discuss it.

The Guaranteed

Immediately, we can assume that Andy Greene will be on the opening night’s roster. He’s the team’s captain. He’s not going to miss any games unless he is injured. The team has invested in and utilized Ben Lovejoy and John Moore last season to a significant degree. When they were able to play, they played. I do not anticipate that changing either for at least the start of this season.

The only other name is Damon Severson, who also played regularly. He has yet to receive a new contract. As he was a qualified restricted free agent, he can only sign with New Jersey. I imagine he will get that new deal soon. Once he does, you can write his name in the lineup.

These four defensemen are locks to make the opening night’s roster barring any injury. That leaves two spots. Or three. Or four.

How Many Defensemen to Carry Matters

All NHL teams can have up to twenty-three players on a roster. A game roster has twenty. So teams can have up to three spare players at a given time. This is useful for swapping players in and out as needed, giving someone a break, and having someone already with the team if someone get hurt. The question of who makes the roster on defense will depend on how many extra players the Devils want to have up on their roster.

It could be seven on the active roster given the status of Dalton Prout. Prout is one of two third-pairing caliber defenseman on the team who would have to clear waivers to go to the minors. The Devils traded Kyle Quincey for him last season, Prout did nothing to dissuade Las Vegas from taking a NHL player (Jon Merrill), and so the Devils are kind of stuck with him. They could just trying to drop him to Binghamton and if someone claims him, then so be it. But if the team wants a “veteran” back there, then Prout may have to stick around.

It is not common for the Devils or any team to carry eight or nine defensemen as it will mean fewer forwards. Given that the Devils have recently added Drew Stafford and brought in Jimmy Hayes on a PTO, that could push someone like Joseph Blandisi down to a thirteenth or a fourteenth forward spot. That would lock out a potential defenseman.

If it were me, the Devils would carry no more than seven on their roster. They’ll play only six but seven will be available. Assuming the team does not risk Prout to waivers, that means there are two spots left. This is where the challenge lies.

The Defensemen Contending for a Roster Spot

The potential players: Will Butcher, Steve Santini, Mirco Mueller, Michael Kapla, Yaroslav Dyblenko. That’s right, there are five defenders that could have a shot at only two openings. Incidentally, Santini was the only one not acquired within this year. Kapla was signed out of college in the Spring, Dablenko was signed from Europe early in the offseason, Butcher was a free agent after not signing with Colorado after finishing college, and the Devils traded for Mueller. Knowing that, it is hard to get a read on who the Devils may or may not favor.

Let’s start with the newest Devil: Butcher. The Devils signed him to a pretty hefty entry level contract just over a week ago. Butcher chose New Jersey among other franchises that could use him right away. His agent told Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in July that Butcher was not opposed to starting in the minors. However, I would have to think part of New Jersey’s successful negotiation was that Butcher could contribute right away. He really could given his offensive skillset that he displayed at Denver. Plus, the team went ahead and announced his number already, #8, along with a conference call with the press. I don’t think those announcements are made for someone on a bubble or potentially going to Binghamton right away. Because of the bigger contract and potentially on what was promised, I would say that if anyone has the inside track on a roster spot, it’s Butcher. Short of an awful camp, I would expect Butcher and his #8 to be on the ice against Colorado on October 7.

While the Devils committed money to get Butcher, they arguably spent a bit more to get Mueller. The team acquired him in mid-June in a trade that sent a 2017 second round (Mario Ferraro) and fourth round (moved to Our Hated Rivals, who took Brandon Crawley) pick to San Jose. It wasn’t seen as a good trade then. It remains to be seen as a good one now. Mueller has not stuck with San Jose as he played 39 NHL games in 2014-15, 11 in 2015-16, and just 4 last season. His time in the AHL has not exactly been sterling either. The Devils scouts must think the 22-year old has something to contribute. Not only did the Devils trade for him, but they re-signed him to a two-year, one-way contract that will pay $850,000 per season. That’s an investment of sorts; I don’t think Shero wants to see him in Binghamton unless he truly belongs there. Doing that would be another issue too. Mueller is now eligible for waivers. That alone may keep him up in New Jersey unless it is demonstrated that he isn’t worth picking up off the wire. I hope he doesn’t since I don’t like seeing players fail.

Santini has the advantage of having played the most games under the current coaching regime. In his first pro season of hockey, Santini was called up from Albany and ended up playing in 38 games in 2016-17. There is hope in Santini that he can be contributor as a right-handed defenseman. While he will not be an offensive player, he does not handle pucks like they are grenades. While he may be focused on defense, he is far from being slow and can do more than just throw a hit. Before all of the transactions of the last four months or so, the 22-year old Santini would have been a shoe-in to make the 2017-18 roster. Prout staying up, Mueller being waiver-eligible, and the addition of Butcher means it is not a guarantee. I’d like to see him on the roster, but he could be the odd man out unless some other move happens.

Kapla was signed out of college during the end of last season and was able to get into five games with the Devils last season. The five games were not exactly impressive with limited play time and the fact the Devils were just playing out of the season. But he was right out of UMass-Lowell at that point. Kapla will get a good look in camp. The Devils also signed him to a maximum salary ELC per Cap Friendly and sought his services right when the college season ended. As with Mueller, it’s clear that their scouts saw something in him that they like. They’ll want to see how he stacks up. But with the additions the team made, especially Butcher, Kapla now seems destined to at least start in Binghamton for his full pro season of hockey. That may be the for the best if only for him to get acclimated to the pro game and for the team to see how his skills may develop.

The longest shot is Dyblenko. Dyblenko rose up the ranks with Atlanty and Atlant before spending the last two seasons with Spartak Moscow in the KHL. With a total of 39 points in 180 KHL games, Dyblenko does not figure to be an offensive force. Still, he played well enough for the Devils to offer him a contract. A two-year deal was made on April 20. Since then, the team traded for and signed Mueller and signed Butcher; any spot he may have been hopeful for may have been taken. Unless Dyblenko wows the coaching staff in camp, I think he will go to Binghamton like Vojtech Mozik before him. Should injuries arise and Dyblenko takes well to the North American game, we could see him in New Jersey at some point. But he’s on the outside looking in. Santini has proven he can be a defensive defenseman in the NHL. The team needs offensive skillsets that they are hoping Butcher will help with. The organization spent a bit more than just a contract to get Mueller. I don’t see a spot for Dyblenko just yet unless, again, he is absolutely impressive in camp.

How I See It

I think it will be interesting to have a legitimate position battle in camp. However, I see Butcher and Mueller as the favorites if only for what the Devils had to do to get them here. That Mueller is waiver-eligible and Santini is not really does give Mueller an edge. It is not exactly unheard of for a player in his second year of pro hockey to start it in the minors; but I do think it is unfair that Santini may have to start in the AHL after at least showing he has a NHL future last season. Kapla and Dyblenko will have to be further down the depth chart. Historically, the #8, #9, and #10 defenseman will get a chance in New Jersey. Starting in Binghamton is not a sign that they will remain there for the whole season. But the seven defenders on New Jersey’s roster on October 7 could very well be Greene, Severson, Lovejoy, Moore, Butcher, Mueller, and Prout.

Of course, this is all speculation before training camp and preseason even happens. A lot can change in a month from now. Some players may really impress and force John Hynes and maybe even Ray Shero to make some tough decisions. Some players may get hurt, which means someone else has to step up. Maybe there will be a move made, such as a trade or perhaps someone (Prout) does get sent down through waivers. Maybe the Devils will decide to carry more defensemen - or even just six - to start. Plenty can change.

How Do You See It?

Now that you know my speculation, I want to know yours. I assumed that the Devils will take seven defensemen on their active roster to start the season and that Prout will be one of them. Maybe you see it differently. Maybe you think the Devils would be willing to send Prout (or even Mueller) through waivers. Maybe you think Santini is more of a lock than Butcher, Mueller, or the others. Maybe you think the Devils will do something radical involving one of the four guaranteed defensemen. Please let me know what you think in the comments. Thank you for reading.