Throughout an 82-game season, it is a near-guarantee that players will get injured, players will have poor enough performances to see the press box or a demotion, and players who have earned an opportunity will force their way to get a look at the NHL. Before considering any transactions that can remove and/or add players, teams are forced to go beyond their initial roster. Last season, the New Jersey Devils were forced to do so to a severe degree. The Devils had nearly all of Binghamton’s forward corps play in New Jersey at some point in 2018-19. The blueline saw cameos from B-Devils in addition to the acquired Connor Carrick. Three goaltenders featured for the team. The Devils had to go much deeper into the depths of their organization than most teams last season. Does this mean they should plan for as much in 2019-20? Let’s explore the question.
The active roster in the NHL is limited to 23 players, and in a game teams can play up to 20 players. Typically 12 forwards, 6 defensemen, and 2 goaltenders. But because of the aforementioned possibilities, NHL teams will often have much more than 23 players suit up and play over the course of a season. Therefore, these teams need to establish their depth charts by position to prepare for those situations. How deep do they go? To answer this, I looked through the player stats for each team at NHL.com and counted up how many forwards, defensemen, and goaltenders suited up for the team.
I counted the total number of players at each position who played in at least one game as well as the amount of players who played in at least ten games. Ten games is roughly 12% of the regular season; it is a more significant run than just a short call-up or a game given to a player to show off what he can do. The full list by team is below and, yes, the Devils were indeed one of the more unfortunate teams last season in this regard:
It is telling that the best teams on this list tended to have fewer players to have suited up for them throughout the season compared to most other teams. Tampa Bay had a remarkably low number of forwards used at all. Carolina and the Islanders had a lot of consistency on their blueline as only 7 defensemen played over 10 games for each. As teams have incorporated a third (or more) goaltender, most have been reliant on two goalies. This is not to say that players on these teams and others - like Washington, San Jose, or Toronto - had no issues with injuries or poor play. They were fortunate that they could use the same call-ups or that they did not happen so frequently that they needed not in waves that forced mass call-ups or they were able to call up the same players as needed. Likewise, because they were doing so well, they did not feel they needed to call someone up to just to give them a chance like a bad team might when they feel their season was effectively over.
There are some exceptions to this. There were some teams that managed to have a higher number of players used than most teams and still be successful. Boston, Nashville, and Dallas both had used more than 35 players last season. All three were able to make the playoffs. Boston, in particular, went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals after finishing third in the league with 107 points. I can agree that teams forced to use lot of players tend to be on the poorer end, but Boston showed that it is possible provided that needing to dress a lot of different players does not mean the season is doomed.
Still, there is a larger point: even the teams who did not have to go deep into their roster still had to go beyond 23 total players last season. By at least five, to be more precise. Most teams had to use at least ten more players to at least make one appearance last season. In fact, the average NHL team in 2018-19 had to use roughly 35 players (21 forwards, 11 defensemen, 3 goalies) total and 29 (18 forwards, 9 defensemen, 2 goalies) for over 10 games. That is a good baseline as any as far as what a team should want to plan for next season from a depth perspective.
That also means the Devils were a special case last season. The Devils were definitely impacted by needing to use 41 players and have 35 of those players play at least 10 games last season. They had to use players that would otherwise be playing entirely in the AHL and that was a partial reason why they had relatively good odds in the 2019 Draft Lottery. (Do note that they were near the bottom before it all went down.) Only Vancouver, Ottawa, and Anaheim used more players in total. Those three teams were also in the 2019 Draft Lottery (well, Ottawa’s pick was there). And only Anaheim had one more player than the Devils to play in at least 10 games in 2018-19. The Devils went exceptionally deep into their system and it showed.
The good news is that the number of players used was so high that I doubt it will happen again. It would take another awfully unlucky run of injuries occurring around the same time with varying levels of severity. I doubt that will happen in two straight seasons. I do think the Devils should try to prepare for a number closer to the league average. While the main goal in training camp is to identify who will make the New Jersey roster for opening night, the Devils will also use camp to look beyond their 23-man roster and figure out who would be in line for call-ups later in the season. Camp battles will not just be for figuring out who the fourth line will be but who can be on the fourth line if/when injuries strike as the season goes on. We will discuss who the 10th - 13th forwards will be, but the coaches will have to identify #14 through #18 at forward. We will consider whether the Devils should carry seven or eight defensemen, but the coaching staff should have in mind who a ninth or tenth option could be. And determining a #3 goalie will also be of use.
This season is especially critical for that given how young the Binghamton roster looks on paper. With common call-ups in recent memory like Nick Lappin and Blake Pietila having moved on, there are opportunities available for players to be used more often. Those who are likely to start in Binghamton would be wise to impress the coaches and the staff anyway in camp. A good preseason game or series of practices may make a big difference as to where one is on the proverbial ladder. And it almost goes without writing that playing well in Binghamton will only serve to help your cause. While plenty of B-Devils got to taste the NHL last season, with a stronger line up in New Jersey and hopefully higher expectations, they will need to keep proving their worth.
To that end, the many decisions the Devils will have to make by October will include the back end of the roster. Will Kevin Rooney and the recently-acquired John Hayden start in New Jersey or will they be primary call-up players? Does Brett Seney, Michael McLeod, and/or Nathan Bastian battle their way to the roster - and if not, would they be first in line for a call-up? Do newly arriving Fabian Zetterlund and Mikhail Maltsev establish themselves early? Who among Colton White, Colby Sissons, and Josh Jacobs will be eighth or ninth on the depth chart on defense? Marian Studenic was one of the few B-Devils who did not play in New Jersey last season, can he force the issue this season and be considered by the New Jersey staff? How do the veteran AHL signings of defenseman Dakota Mermis, defenseman Matt Tennyson, and forward Ben Sweat factor into this discussion? And who is the #3 goalie between Evan Cormier and Gilles Senn? There are many more, but this is what immediately comes to my mind. But the main point is that several of the players mentioned - like Rooney and Hayden) are very likely to play for New Jersey at some point even if they do not make it in camp.
This is admittedly not as exciting as wondering who is going to play with Jesper Boqvist or whether Ty Smith receives big minutes at some point in 2018-19. It does matter, though. Every NHL team had to go beyond their initial 23-man roster and most had to use many more players whether it was for just a few games or a more substantial part of the season. Even if these players are able to be kept to limited minutes and match-ups, they do play a role in how the team can perform. Given how challenging the division looks to be on paper and the general grinding nature of an 82-game season, every game is likely going to matter to the Devils if they want to play meaningful games in March and playoff games in April. This will require being comfortable with whoever is designated among forwards #13 through #18, defensemen #7 through #10, and whoever the third goalie could be. As we saw last season with the Devils and throughout the league, most of those players will get minutes at some point 2019-20 and they will to contribute even if it only means playing the way the coaches wanted and not getting dominated for 6-8 minutes. Based on what happened last season, I think the Devils should plan for 30 players to start (18 forwards, 9 defensemen, 3 goalies) and re-adjust their thinking on players as the seasons in New Jersey and Binghamton progresses.
To this end, I would like to know your opinion about this. How deep should the Devils plan to go for their roster in 2019-20? Who do you think should be among the first call-ups from Binghamton when they are required? Do you think the team needs another veteran or two in their system, or should they stick to the players already in their system? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils’ depth in the comments. Thank you for reading.