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Five Devils Players to Focus On in 2018 Training Camp

Training camp begins this week for the New Jersey Devils and the rest of the NHL. With camp comes hopes and expectations, and so this post highlight five (technically, six) players to focus on in camp as they have something to prove or a role to earn on the 2018-19 lineup.

Calgary Flames v New Jersey Devils
John Quenneville - it’s now or never
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Training camp will begin for all 31 National Hockey League franchises this week. This is an exciting time to be a fan. It is a clear sign that real, meaningful hockey is on the horizon. It is a time to be hopeful about what a team could do in the upcoming regular season. It is an event where actual news, information, and analysis can take place about things that happened today as opposed to previous seasons. It is also an area of intrigue as all 31 teams will use the next few weeks to establish who will make up their 23-man active roster to at least start the regular season.

To that end, there are players with something to prove. Some are looking to take a larger role on their team. Others are looking for any role at all. To me, this is always the interesting part of training camp. We all know that Superstar and 2017-18 NHL MVP Taylor Hall will be a first-line player. We all know that captain Andy Greene will play significant minutes on defense - despite his decline as a player. But who will put up good performances in practices and in preseason games to persuade the decision-making people to give them a chance? Who is someone we should focus on that isn’t an impact player? Today, I want to highlight five Devils in the organization who has every reason to impress in camp this year - and for that reason, you should pay attention.

#1. John Quenneville

When Miles Wood signs, the New Jersey Devils will have exactly ten forwards who primarily played in the NHL last season on the books. There are opportunities available for a forward in a third or a fourth line role. The time is now for John Quenneville to determine whether he is a NHL player in this organization or not.

Since being drafted 30th overall in 2014, Quenneville has not exactly impressed as a prospect. He only produced above a point-per-game rate in the WHL in his final season in major juniors, two seasons after he was drafted. While selected for international duty, he did not put up much. With Albany and Binghamton, while he had a good looking rate of production and he was graded well by Jeff and his crew back in April for 2017-18. However, he was not always available to play due to injuries. He has received 14 games in the NHL over the last two seasons, so John Hynes is aware of who he is. Whether he was available or not, he was not the most commonly called up player in that same time frame.

Quenneville is on the final year of his entry-level contract and he will become waiver eligible after this season. While I can see the Devils keeping him around for AHL and call-up purposes like Lappin and Blake Pietila, this is a turning point for the 22-year old forward’s career. There is a spot theoretically available among the forwards in New Jersey. The questions remain: Is he good enough to take it? Can he show he is good enough to hang at the NHL level? What can he bring to the proverbial table? If he cannot provide some answers in this month, he’ll have to provide them from Binghamton, New York in 2018-19. After then, fewer and fewer people may be willing to listen as more prospects are turning pro for this coming season. The arrivals of Michael McLeod, Brett Seney, Joey Anderson, Yegor Sharangovich, and Marian Studenic will only make it harder for Quenneville to command attention of New Jersey’s coaches and management. I cannot stress enough that this is the time for Quenneville to make his case for a NHL job.

#2. Steve Santini

Steve Santini not only made the New Jersey roster last season, but he played the first few months of 2017-18 alongside Andy Greene. This was both an achievement and a big reason why he did not last in New Jersey. It is an achievement as he was given top pairing minutes alongside the team captain. That is always a big sign of confidence from the coaches. It also did not work well. Check out the 5-on-5 teammate stats at Natural Stat Trick for Santini. With Greene, Santini’s Corsi For% was around 40% - which reflects on how much time he spent in his own end trying to keep up. Regardless of whether Brian Gibbons or Taylor Hall was in front of him, opposing players significantly out-attempted, out-shot, and out-chanced the Devils when Greene-Santini was on the ice. That Greene’s and other’s numbers improved away from Santini - often with Sami Vatanen - speaks to how overwhelmed the young defender was.

Santini was given a bit of a raw deal. His ice time was cut and ended up as a healthy scratch for several games instead of being given a chance in a more favorable and limited role like a third-pairing spot. Granted, the Will Butcher and Ben Lovejoy combination was working well - but Santini effectively went from the penthouse to Binghamton in weeks. His last game in New Jersey was on January 7, 2018. His next one will have to be in this coming season.

The Devils are in a bit of a spot with Santini. The young defender is now waiver-eligible and is entering the first season of a three-year contract signed last August. Given that he is 23, he can skate pretty well, and he has a NHL-level physical and defensive game, I think a team would pick him up if he is available on waivers. To that end, I think he’ll be in New Jersey. What Santini has to prove is that he deserves minutes. That he deserves a role on the blueline, preferably one that he can manage. As a right-handed defenseman, he is part of a group of Vatanen, Damon Severson, and the next man on this list. To get minutes, he will either need a chance to open up or, better for his sake, force the coaches to give him a chance.

#3. Ben Lovejoy

This is a bit off the board, but the position of Ben Lovejoy is not as safe as it once was.

Recall from the beginning of last season that he was a healthy scratch at points. He didn’t play in the home opener; he only appeared in five out eight games in October; and didn’t play in more than three-straight games until November 16. Lovejoy did not suffer any injuries last season, so only playing in 57 games means he was scratched 25 times.

Plus, when he did play, it was often in a more limited situation compared to the nightmarish Greene-Lovejoy pairing of the 2016-17 season. In 2017-18, Lovejoy only averaged 13:33 in even strength ice time per game and 16:35 in total ice time per game - seventh most among Devils defensemen in both categories per NHL.com. He was often paired with rookie Will Butcher on a third-pairing. It was a good pairing based on 5-on-5 stats at Natural Stat Trick. However with Butcher having a chance to move up in the lineup with the departure of John Moore, I have my doubts that John Hynes will want to keep them together.

Lovejoy’s style runs counter to how the Devils have tried to play. Lovejoy is not fast. He is not mobile. He brings little offense to the table. He does not handle pucks or forecheckers well. This is all not a big deal on a penalty kill; less so in even strength situations. Even so, Lovejoy does not really add to the concept of “fast, attacking, supportive” despite playing well last season.

Put all of that together with the fact that he’s 34 and on the last year of his contract. If Santini plays well in training camp, Lovejoy does not, and all others are healthy, then why would we see Lovejoy in the lineup? It is imperative for Lovejoy to do well this month to keep his spot somewhat secure.

#4. Marcus Johansson

The trade to acquire Marcus Johansson was praised last July. Johansson has been a good player with Washington. He was in a good age. He could play any forward position, which would give the Devils some always-useful flexibility at forward. However, we never got to see the full extent of his talents. His 2017-18 season was severely undercut by injuries: a concussion that kept him off the ice from November 1 to December 1, an ankle injury that lasted from December 9 to December 21, and a another concussion that took him out from January 23 all the way to April 16. Johansson played in 29 games and a set role was never really established given how he was in and out of the lineup. He did receive time at both left and right wing; he did get some power play time plus second-line minutes; but he never really got going.

The hope for this upcoming 2018-19 season is that he is not hurt as much. This comes at a crucial time for Johansson. The 27-year old forward has to show whether he has recovered (for a given definition of recovered) from the concussions enough to play at the level he had with Washington. Not just for the benefit of the Devils but also his career as he is set to become an unrestricted free agent after this season. I’m sure everyone would be concerned about his health in future discussions. So Johansson has a lot to show in this coming season. It starts in training camp. Where and how he should be used on the ice is a going to be a tough question as it is for Hynes and his staff. His performances can make it easier or harder. (And if the decision is to use him as a center, then Pavel Zacha should really pay attention.)

Honorable Mention: Drew Stafford

This one is really obvious. Stafford will be in camp on a Professional Tryout (PTO) agreement. By the nature of a PTO, Stafford will do whatever it takes to earn a contract. Stafford was signed to a standard player contract late last summer and appeared in 59 games. He was good in shootouts and chipped some points here and there and that was the extent of his contributions.

It feels a bit cheap since anyone on a PTO is going to command attention. So let’s end this list with a player who isn’t literally playing for a job to focus on to see how they do in camp:

#5. Keith Kinkaid

It is not so much that Keith Kinkaid’s spot is in trouble. It isn’t. He’s going to be a New Jersey Devil. He’s on this list more for the fact that he is arguably the most important player on the team not named Taylor Hall for the first few weeks of the season. As reported here by Chris Ryan at NJ.com, Cory Schneider had surgery in May to repair torn cartilage in his hip and the recovery has an estimate five months. It is unknown whether he will make it to training camp and preseason. It is likely that Kinkaid will have to be the team’s main goaltender at least at the start of the season.

For those who remember some of how last season went, Kinkaid played really, really well from February 2018 through the first week of April 2018. Per NHL.com, Kinkaid posted a 92.6% save percentage in even strength situations in 25 games, which was far superior to Schneider’s crummy 85% in that same time frame. He effectively took the #1 spot from Schneider and started in the playoffs. He also lost said spot when Schneider sparkled in Game 3 against Tampa Bay and those who remember all of 2017-18 knows that Kinkaid was quite bad from October to January 31, 2018; he posted a 88.9% save percentage at evens whilst Schneider had a far-better 92.2% as per NHL.com. The two ended up to be not worth that much by other statistical measures over the whole season (e.g. GSAA, WAR at Corsica). It is fair for outsiders and Devils fans to conclude that the team really could have used better, more consistent goaltending throughout the season. They will need it to contend for another playoff spot or even just to be competitive in 2018-19.

Since Schneider’s status is out, it is on Kinkaid to have a good start to this coming season. That begins with performing well in camp and in preseason games. Not that preseason games necessarily guarantee regular season performances, but there will be a lot more confidence in net if Kinkaid plays like he did in the final two-ish months of the last season. I have no reason to think Eddie Lack will take his spot unless he gets hurt or is utterly abysmal. And this could be moot if Schneider is ahead of schedule in terms of his recovery. But the 29-year old goalie can ease some concerns and help his team stay in games in October by doing well right from the get-go.

Your Take

These are five players (technically, six since I did mention Stafford) who have something to prove, something to strive for, and something that should command attention as Devils training camp begins this week. Who do you think will succeed? Who is likely to falter? Who else do you think should want to have a great camp and preseason? Please leave your answers and thoughts about training camp in the comments. Thank you for reading.