It's been a big offseason for the New Jersey Devils. After winning the draft lottery, the Devils were able to select Jack Hughes first overall at the 2019 NHL Draft. Just about twelve hours later, the team acquired star defenseman PK Subban for a package headlined by prospect Jeremy Davies. The two additions fundamentally changed the outlook of the team heading into the 2019-20 season.
But while those two adds (and to a considerably lesser extent, the Wayne Simmonds signing) instantly put this team back in the playoff conversation, the Devils will still head into the season with some significant uncertainty. The roster with of course have established talent leading the way, with names like Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmieri, and the aforementioned Subban in place, but they will also likely have a group of new (or new-ish) faces on the NHL roster who they will be relying on to make a difference and move the needle in the right direction. Yes, the Devils, given where the roster stands here on July 12th, will be looking toward a group of rookies to help lift this team back towards contention.
Those rookies? Obviously, the first overall pick Jack Hughes is projected to be a crucial part of the roster. But he will also be potentially joined by two other rookie skaters in the opening night roster. The first is 2018 first round pick Ty Smith, who is fresh off winning the WHL’s Defenseman of the Year award in 2018-19. The other is forward Jesper Boqvist, who is looking to jump to New Jersey from the SHL, where he finished top-20 in scoring and tied for second among U-21 players. Not to mention the Devils will still have a rookie technically between the pipes as part of their starting tandem, since Mackenzie Blackwood did not make the 25-game threshold last season, meaning he remains a rookie by NHL rules.
So in these four rookies, the Devils will be looking for performance in some substantial roles for the 2019-20 team. They have the potential to all power the team forward as new difference-makers for a Devils squad that badly needed them last year. But given the makeup of the roster and the relatively quiet free agency thus far for New Jersey, the team will be putting a fair amount of eggs in the basket of a group of players who have no NHL time (or in Blackwood’s case, not very much) heading into the season.
Making a judgement of the roster (which I think Gerard took a good stab at approximating yesterday), the positions that the Devils will be looking to their rookies to make an impact in are as follows:
- Second-line center (Jack Hughes)
- Middle-six winger (Jesper Boqvist)
- Everyday third-pair defenseman (Ty Smith)
- 1A/1B goalie (Mackenzie Blackwood)
If this is how the roster shapes up, rookies could be populating 20% of the opening night lineup. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The Devils leaned pretty heavily on contributions from rookies two seasons ago, and that ended up working out pretty well. In 2017-18, the rookies were first overall pick Nico Hischier, surprise breakout Jesper Bratt, college FA acquisition Will Butcher, and long-marinating (pickling?) prospect Blake Coleman.
Reviewing that group, it actually doesn’t take much to connect some dots between that group and this year’s potential rookie class. Like Hischier, the Devils will likely look to Hughes to play substantial minutes at center. Jesper Boqvist is a Swedish winger named Jesper who could jump right into a scoring role... pretty easy to spot the similarities there with Bratt. Ty Smith is a highly touted and talented defenseman coming off an individual-trophy winning season who the Devils will likely look to to make hay in relatively sheltered minutes... yeah.
So, while leaning on rookies is perhaps a somewhat risky way to head into a season, it’s not as if the Devils have never seen success with young players in prominent roles. You could even argue that this year’s crop of potential rookies is better positioned for success than that 2017-18 group. Hischier ended up being pushed into a top-line role early on and, while he thrived, it was a lot to ask of a teenager. Hughes will likely see top-six minutes before long this season, but he also won't be thrust into the undisputed 1C position the way Hischier was, meaning he'll have a bit more room for error. Boqvist comes in with higher expectations than Bratt, who earned his roster spot in 2017 mostly by surprise, but he should still have ample opportunity to succeed somewhere in the middle six. Smith arrives into a defensive unit in considerably better shape than the one Butcher arrived in two years ago. The big wild card is of course that the fourth rookie, instead of being in a bottom-six grinder role like Coleman, is Blackwood, who will hold much of the Devils' fate in his hands as one half of the goalie tandem with Cory Schneider (you can read about some potential comparables for his upcoming season here from CJ).
Overall, I think that while I would prefer to see Ray Shero make another move or two to really solidify this roster, they are already in a position to be substantially better and deeper than last season. Much of this improvement will hinge on faces that are not just new to the team, but to the league as a whole. This carries with it some risk, but if the Devils can get performances that approximate those of the 2017-18 rookie class, the team looks very much like one that could return to the postseason in the spring.