Welcome back to hockey. New Jersey Devils hockey, that is.
No, seriously, there will be New Jersey Devils hockey by the end of this week. The Devils are returning to Buffalo, New York in the 2018 Prospect Challenge. They will play three games; one each against Buffalo, Boston, and Pittsburgh. The New Jersey Devils announced a 26-man roster for the Challenge earlier today. Therefore, this is your preview for the series.
The Location: The Harborcenter in Buffalo, NY.
The Games: From the official website of the Buffalo Sabres, where you can also buy tickets for the event:
Friday, September 7: Pittsburgh vs. Boston at 3:30 PM ET; Buffalo vs. Devils at 7 PM ET
Saturday, September 8: Devils vs. Pittsburgh at 3:30 PM ET; Boston vs. Buffalo at 7 PM ET
Monday, September 10: Boston vs. Devils at 9:30 AM ET; Buffalo vs. Pittsburgh at 12:30 PM ET
9:30 AM? Yes, that’s a real time. I hope someone is able to see it beyond whoever is there at the Harborcenter? Sigh. It’s an exhibition.
The Stakes, or Please Don’t Ask Who This Year’s Bratt Will Be: They are three exhibition games featuring prospective players. The stakes are low for each team other than bragging rights.
The stakes are not so low for the players, though. No, being a star here will not get someone a NHL shot or a regular role on their team. A good performance here will likely help their situation in training camp. Maybe it gets them a few more looks in scrimmages. Maybe an earlier or an additional shot in preseason. The work has to be put in a couple of weeks from now to turn it into a job. Still, any time a player steps on the ice at this part of the campaign is an opportunity to prove themselves.
Yes, Jesper Bratt burst out on the scene with strong performances in last year’s challenge. Bratt, who was drafted as a pro player with AIK, still had to perform very well in drills, scrimmages, sessions, and preseason games before he received the opportunity to play at the NHL level. And when he did, he made an impact - which garnered him more opportunities for months to come. These games may be the first steps for someone on this Devils roster. But that’s all they are for now. Therefore, please do not see someone you may not have expected to have performed really well and immediately declare them to be the New Bratt.
The Broadcast?: This is not known yet. Last year, the Devils did stream their games on their website. Maybe they will do that again?
The Devils Roster, or Who Will & Won’t Be There: The Devils are taking 26 men to upstate NY for three exhibition games. Let’s break it down.
Goalies (3): Mackenzie Blackwood, Cam Johnson, and Akira Schmid
Defensemen (8): Josh Jacobs, Ty Smith, Xavier Bernard, Tariq Hammond*, Colton White, Jeremy Groleau*, Colby Sissons, Jocktan Chainey
Forwards (15): Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastian, Brett Seney, Blake Speers, John Quenneville, Joey Anderson, Brandon Gignac, Brandon Baddock, Yegor Sharangovich, Mitchell Hoelscher, Fabian Zetterlund, Marian Studenic, John Edwardh*, Ryan Schmelzer*, Dylan Seitz*
Players with asterisks are not on contracts with the New Jersey Devils. Hammond, Schmelzer, and Edwardh have AHL deals with Binghamton. Groleau and Seitz are junior players who were invited to make up the roster. Groleau was also invited to the Devils’ development camp back in July; good on him for getting another invite.
The lineup is very Binghamton-heavy with a couple of junior players here and there. With 26 players, I anticipate almost everyone getting into at least one game. The Devils could start three different goalies and try out all sorts of combinations ahead of camp and preseason.
The Finnish Liiga will be wrapping up preseason this week and the KHL (and I think the MHL) already started their regular season. This explains why you will not see Eetu Pakkila, Nikita Popugaev, Mikhail Maltsev, or Yegor Zaitsev. Curiously, Zetterlund is here but not Jesper Boqvist. The Swedish Elite League will start on September 15, so these games will not be interrupting that. Maybe Brynas needs Boqvist right away and Farjestad is OK with Zetterlund joining the team later? I don’t know.
I am not sure if playing in these games would violate NCAA eligibility. I know for development camp, the player pretty much has to fund their own trip; the team cannot help. I suspect something similar here as there are no college-based players on this roster. It would have been cool to see Jeremy Davies, Aarne Talvitie, Matthew Hellickson, and Reilly Walsh among others to get some minutes. That will not be the case.
The Opposition Rosters: As of this writing, Boston has not released theirs. They will be busy as much of their NHL roster is going to China for a preseason exhibition. I would suspect several names on their domestic roster will be in the Harborcenter this weekend.
Pittsburgh announced their 24-man roster at their site though an inconvenient PDF file. The post does highlight their main players to look for: defenseman Calen Addison and forward Justin Almeida. Two of their junior free agent signings are also coming off big scoring years in major juniors; they may have something to prove so look for Jordy Bellerive and Sam Miletic if you’re catching the Pens.
The biggest roster will likely be the host’s. Buffalo’s roster of 27 players (also in a PDF file, come on, team sites, you can just list them out like the Devils!) features stud prospects Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittlestadt, and Alexander Nylander. Those three alone will be expected to be stand-out players and they likely will be given their talents. Don’t sleep on forward Rasmus Asplund and defensemen Brendan Guhle and Nicholas Welsh either. The most experienced man in likely the whole series will be Tage Thompson, who actually played in 41 games with St. Louis last season.
On paper, even without knowing Boston’s roster, the Sabres will be the team to beat. It’s an exhibition series so it’s whatever.
Who to Watch For on the Team That Matters: Obviously, you would want to see good performances out John Quenneville, Michael McLeod, and Ty Smith. In the case of Smith, it’s to show off what he can do as an 18-year old against his peer-plus group. This is his Devils debut against other competition. I think we’ll see him in preseason at some point; but doing well here will only serve to generate (and deserve) a little more hype. In the cases of McLeod and Quenneville, it’s to further justify their reputations as being among the better prospects on the Devils. Quenneville is not getting any younger and this 2018-19 campaign may be a “show up or sit down” situation for him. McLeod did not have such a strong season in the OHL; so some good games here could help show that he still has it.
Redemption will also likely be a motivating factor for some of the other Devils prospects. Maybe enough to drive some good performances that can only help their cause in training camp. Brandon Gignac had his rookie pro season cut short by a torn ACL injury. These games will be among his first since his injury; he did not perform fully at development camp. Mackenzie Blackwood is also returning to game-action after getting a knee injury with Adirondack in the ECHL playoffs - this after a really poor season the AHL. Even if he only gets one start, it’ll be his first since the injury and a first step to show that he’s still a goalie prospect that should be taken seriously. Blake Speers and Nathan Bastian had their struggles in their first minor pro season with Binghamton. These games will be a good chance to show that they can/will improve in their second season in the AHL - that they should not be written off just yet.
From the perspective just wanting to see what they can do, then look no further than Zetterlund, Joey Anderson, and Brett Seney. As noted earlier, Zetterlund is the only one from Europe who is here. I find that to be interesting. He’s still under contract with Farjestad, which ends after this coming season. Maybe the Devils have bigger plans for him? Perhaps if he does well here and in camp, a New Jersey contract will be in his near future? Maybe. As for Anderson, he’s already signed after a successful three seasons in college. I just want to see how well he stacks up against others; I want to see his shot, his speed, and his style of play. It would not totally surprise me if he gets a longer look than some of the other B-Devils in camp. That’s contingent on doing well here. Seney is likely to receive many Bratt comparisons if he does well. After all, Seney is also a small forward with speed, energy, and enough grit to offset the size thing. Seney was Merrimack’s scorer in college and produced well in 12 games with Binghamton after the college career ended. He still has some ways to go (and as written earlier in this post, it was not Challenge -> NHL for Bratt), but I think he could prove to be both entertaining and effective in these games.
An Attempted Guess at an X Factor: Colby Sissons is my choice as someone who has an opportunity to make a difference. You could argue he already did as he earned an ELC on October 2016 after appearing the Prospects Challenge and earning one preseason game appearance. These games will be the first chance to show in a game-situation that he’s ready to take that next step into professional hockey. His production jumped up huge in 2017-18 with Swift Current and even made the second WHL East All-Star team. Are these signs of real improvement? We will see and these games could start to give us an answer. Given his #17 ranking on this year’s Top 25 Devils Under 25 List, I think many people would agree he’s a legitimate prospect. If he does really well in these three games, then there may be more reason to get hyped for this player.
What Else to Hope For: Safety is always a priority. Injuries do happen, but they would especially hurt right before training camp and preseason games. Even a minor injury can keep someone off the ice and that’s at least one fewer opportunity to show the coaches and the staff what you can do. So above all else, I hope nobody on any of the four teams gets hurt.
Second, I hope the Devils who were given instructions, advice, and guidance on what to work on from development camp are able to show that they have heeded the words and can demonstrate their improvement. Many of these players were at the development camp. Many of them were already in the system. Short of getting skated off the ice, if they can show that they’ve worked on their physical, mental, and/or technical aspects of their game, then I’d say that is as important as going out there and bodying the opposition. Doing both would not hurt. Would we know of this? Maybe, maybe not. But if someone is playing well and/or getting additional ice time and shifts, then this could be part of the reason why.
Gamethreads?: Yeah, we’ll have gamethreads for each game.
Recaps?: For the first two games, yes. For that 9:30 AM game on a Monday, maybe not until way later in the day.
Your Take: The Devils have three prospect games coming up. Are you excited? Who in particular do you want to see perform well? Who has the most to gain? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the 2018 Prospect Challenge in the comments. Thank you for reading.