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The Path to the Devils’ Opening Night Roster Runs Through Special Teams

There are a few roster spots still to be earned. The final roster will need to ice two units of PP and PK and players ability to contribute in those areas will give them a leg up on the competition. Who’s shown chops on special teams so far?

Nashville Predators v New Jersey Devils Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Devils have a lot of opening night spots determined already. This is unsurprising for a team that is bringing back virtually their entire roster from 2017-18. I’d say there’s 10-11 forward spots and 4-5 defender spots locked in already. That leaves a 1-2 of each position up for grabs in the active roster and around 6 total spots up for grabs. With most of our 5v5 time accounted for already at this point, a player will need to distinguish themselves by proving the can contribute in multiple ways.

Powerplay

A lot of the most important players are returning and will likely be involved again. Butcher, Hall, and Palmieri are obvious PP1s and Hischier is expected to make the jump. We also mixed in Zacha, Zajac, Boyle, Johansson, Bratt and Stafford to varying degrees. Stafford scored 4 PP goals with the team last year and Bratt got time on both PP and PK — each a good example of a player whose special team contributions helped them make the roster last year.

This preseason, Nick Lapping and John Quenneville have both recorded powerplay goals. John Quenneville has also taken 6 shot attempts (Lappin had just the one), although none were high-danger. Drew Stafford doubled JQ’s scoring chances (2 vs. 1) in roughly half the minutes (9 vs 5). In on-ice results, JQ runs away with the Corsi crown, recording a CF60 of 148.45 (Kyle Palmieri led the Devils last year with 114.81). He also leads all players with 5+ PP minutes in on-ice SCF60 and HDCF60.

Bratt has played well on the PP too, but I never considered his roster spot in doubt. So I would say that the people fighting for a roster spot that have helped their case sare Quenneville, Lappin, and Stafford. Lappin was just placed on waivers, though so was Gibbons last year and he ended up making the opening night roster. Many expect Quenneville to make the roster this year, because if not now then when? If they don’t consider him ready, don’t be shocked to see a little more Drew Stafford this year.

BONUS: Ty Smith led defenders in on-ice SF60. He looked good, but I’m sure the team is fine with Butcher and Vatanen handling things with Severson as the #3.

Penalty Kill

This is the big one, in my opinion. Forwards, in particular, on the PK have a high degree of turnover and is often a way on to the roster. Take this past year for example. First of all, in 2016-17 and 2017-18 6 forwards in each year logged 50 minutes. Only Henrique (gone) and Zajac were in both lists. In 2017 Rico and Zajac led the way, and last year, roster-fringers Blake Coleman and Brian Gibbons (gone) topped the team.

In this preseason Kevin Rooney led all forwards in PK TOI (7.9 minutes) and is a feisty skater, a bit reminiscent of Gibbons. Joey Anderson was 3rd among forwards in ice time (6.6 minutes). Now, whether they did well enough in that time to earn a roster spot is debatable. The on-ice numbers for returning killers Zajac, Bratt, Coleman, and Zacha all had better shot rate numbers. And Noesen was used on PKs as well — an area I think his skills would work out well.

With regards to defense, the coaching staff is clearly experimenting a lot. Gryba, Butcher, Yakovlev, and Severson all have 5+ minutes shorthanded in the preseason. In 6:42 of ice time, Eric Gryba did not surrender a goal. In roughly the same amount of time, Andy Greene gave up 3. I think Gryba has planted his flag firmly in the area he contributes. He’s physical, clogs up the line, fights, and kill penalties. However, with Santini leading the way with 10 minutes, I think it’s clear the coaching staff trusts him more with the role and so I’d say his spot was the one most impacted by preseason so far.

So Who’s In?

On forwards, I think the consensus top 9 is Hall-Hischier-Palms / Mojo-Zacha-Bratt / Coleman-Zajac-Noesen in some order. Boyle and Wood probably make the team too IMO. There’s one more forward spot on the active roster and 1-2 more that we can carry. I’m with Chris Ryan who thinks that Kevin Rooney might have a shot at one of those spots due to PK use. If they’ve seen enough from Anderson, he might get that spot instead. I’d guess the other two to Quenneville and Stafford. I know people will be disappointed in Stafford, but he’s a veteran who contributes on the PP and who we can sit for stretches and not worry about his development.

For defense, The consensus is that Greene-Vatanen / Butcher-Severson will make it easy. I think Mueller is a fairly safe bet as well but it’s not etched in stone. Unless Butcher really impressed the staff with his PK play, the last guy likely has to be righty who kills penalties. Unfortunately that describes all 3 of Gryba, Lovejoy, and Santini. Lovejoy has the history, but Santini’s been used the most in the pre-season, and Gryba has done the best in that role. My guess is that, based on the usage, Santini gets that last spot, Lovejoy is the 7D, Smith is in the WHL because of reasons, and Gryba gets waived.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of what you’ve seen from these players on special teams in the preseason? Have any of them proven they are ready to contribute heavily at the NHL level in either situation? Did I leave anyone out that you noticed? Who do you think makes the opening night roster? How will the PP and PK units shake out if those players make it?

Thanks as always for reading and leave your thoughts below!

* Note: Some combination of Natural Stat Trick, Corsica, and Evolving-Hockey were used for the stats in this piece.