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How Vulnerable are the Devils to Injury Issues This Season?

The Devils are a team that has improved their depth situation over the past few seasons, but remains fairly thin in a number of positions. Can the Devils deal if the injury bug hits hard in 2018-19?

Detroit Red Wings v New Jersey Devils Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

As we near the regular season for the Devils, the main question surrounding the team and being asked about them around the league is can they make a return trip to the playoffs after a surprise 2017-18 season. As constructed, most would have to say the roster has at least a decent shot, particularly if some young players in significant roles can take a step forward this year. The team still has some lingering issues with depth though, and if the injury bug hits the team hard, it’s fair to wonder how well the team will be able to handle it.

The Devils are undeniably a much deeper and considerably better team than they were just a couple years ago, but that doesn’t automatically make them deep relative to the league at large. At some positions, the team has definite wiggle room to absorb a significant injury or two. At others, though, issues can quickly arise if players start missing games.

Center

Center is a position where the Devils have a lot of bodies who can play the position for sure, but are a little bit more limited in terms of who is a proven top-6 option at the position. Behind Nico Hischier, the Devils have at least five players who are capable of playing center and have done so at the NHL level in some capacity. Pavel Zacha, Travis Zajac, and Brian Boyle are likely to start the season as the centers for lines two through four, with Marcus Johansson and Blake Coleman both being potential injury replacement options on the roster. The Devils also have Michael McLeod waiting in the wings and whether he makes the team out of camp or ends up in the AHL, he serves as a bit of an extra insurance policy, should things get particularly dicey in the NHL at the position.

Ultimately, the Devils can probably endure some injuries at center, but they are already a bit light on talent behind Hischier and if he goes down, it obviously presents a big problem. With some questions as to whether the Devils even have a 2C, replacing a #1 center from within would present a problem even in short stretches in New Jersey. As long as 13 stays upright for the most part, though, the Devils should be able to deal with some bumps and bruises to the roster along the way.

Left Wing

Most people would acknowledge that this is probably the deepest position on the team, with up to five players (depending on if you include Jesper Bratt in the group) capable of taking on top-nine minutes. Taylor Hall is obviously the cornerstone on the left side (and the roster in general), but there are some solid options behind him on the left. Marcus Johansson, if he can stay healthy this year, provides a solid veteran #2 option. After him you have Miles Wood, the Devils’ third best even-strength scorer from a year ago, and Blake Coleman, an excellent forechecker and general pain for opponents to deal with. Left wing also happens to be Bratt’s natural wing, so he figures in as an option as well. Additionally among the ranks of natural left wingers is Brett Seney, a player who will do his best to force his way onto the roster in camp.

Ultimately, like center, the Devils should be fine along the left as long as their top guy can stay healthy. If Hall were to miss significant time, that would definitely fall into the category of things that could quickly doom the team’s chances at another postseason. Behind Hall, though, the Devils seem to have a number of good options for the middle six on the left and if a few people miss some time, they have enough guys who are capable of taking on significant minutes.

Right Wing

Right wing is probably the Devils thinnest forward position and is often described as such. The Devils have a legitimate top-6 talent in Kyle Palmieri, but beyond that, things thin out quickly. Bratt spent a lot of time on the right side of the top line last season, so he certainly has the potential to fill in should Palmieri miss time again. Stefan Noesen had a solid season, but really has never produced above a third-line level. Beyond those three, the Devils really don’t have another player with substantial NHL experience, so will be relying on new faces to serve as their right side depth.

It’s not that the Devils have no options on the right side, its that they are all relative unknown quantities who would consider a third-line level performance in the NHL a big year. Joey Anderson, Nick Lappin, John Quenneville, and Michael McLeod all figure to be in the mix for the final spot on the opening night roster and there is nothing saying they can’t be successful in the NHL this year. The Devils are potentially just a couple injuries away from two or three spots on the right being filled by that group. Things might be okay for New Jersey on the right this season, but there is also a fair chance of things going very poorly.

Defenseman

The situation on defense probably poses the biggest concern depth-wise for New Jersey. Yes, there seems to be a lot of bodies vying for 7 or 8 spots right now, but once the Devils cut things down to their opening night roster, options potentially get more limited, either with Ty Smith going back to juniors or another player leaving via waivers (or returning to Russia in Egor Yakovlev’s case). With the Devils also having little in the way of top-end defensive ability, any injuries to a significant contributor like Andy Greene or Sami Vatanen (or, God forbid, both) is going to necessitate a lot of people moving into a position where they might be over their heads. Trying to fill out a defensive unit without any two of Greene, Vatanen, Will Butcher, and Damon Severson leads to fairly unpleasant results.

If a couple defensemen do miss significant time, and the Devils are forced to dip into their minor league ranks, there won’t be much in the way of great lower-in-the-lineup options waiting there either. Eric Gryba does have lots of NHL experience as a 6th/7th D type, so he figures to be the team’s insurance callup, but beyond him it’s hard to say if players like Josh Jacobs, Colton White, or Michael Kapla are really equipped for NHL minutes. Some fans have some hopes for Colby Sissons, but with him fresh out of juniors, he is mostly an unknown and could easly struggle with the jump right to the NHL. The Devils are not without decent prospects in their system, but most of the players they will be hoping for significant contributions from someday will be in junior or college this season and unavailable for a callup.

Verdict

No team is going to be perfectly suited to deal with injuries, but for New Jersey, some positional situations have the potential to turn into a mess rather quickly (and that’s without even digging into the separate goaltending situation). The team was able to survive some significant injury troubles last season, with Johansson, Zajac, and Palmieri, arguably three of their six best forwards overall missing significant time. It seems like they will need some breaks to survive a rash of injuries again, though. Particularly in spots like right wing and defense the team will potentially have to rely on a lot of players without much of an NHL track record to fill in the gaps. Whether that goes as well for them this year as it did in 2017-18, will remain to be seen.