With training camp now underway in New Jersey, we are creeping ever closer to meaningful Devils hockey. Yesterday, Gerard took a look at some of the potential storylines heading into camp this year and one of them was the question of if there are even any spots available to be won on the big club’s roster. The spots available are certainly limited in New Jersey after a busy summer for Ray Shero and the openings that are there have clear front-runners in the form of Jesper Boqvist at forward and Ty Smith on the blue line. One has to wonder, does anyone else even have a realistic shot of challenging for those open spots this September? Lets explore the players who, while unlikely to make the roster, could represent potential sleepers in camp.
Lets first quickly go through the openings theoretically available in camp. At forward, the Devils have Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmieri, Nikita Gusev, Jack Hughes, Wayne Simmonds, Travis Zajac, Jesper Bratt, Blake Coleman, Pavel Zacha, and Miles Wood essentially locked into the opening day roster (barring an injury or trade), a total of 11 players. That leaves one lineup spot and one to two spots in the scratch suite for the rest. The players most likely to be battling for those final two to three roster spots are Boqvist, John Hayden, and Kevin Rooney, with Brett Seney, Michael McLeod, and Joey Anderson presumably in the mix as well as players who spent a significant chunk of last season with the big club.
On defense, things are even tighter, with PK Subban, Damon Severson, Andy Greene, Sami Vatanen, Will Butcher, Connor Carrick, and Mirco Mueller representing seven players presumably locked in on the roster. The primary challenger to displace one of those seven or force the Devils to carry eight defenders is Ty Smith, with few other obvious candidates. That means there are really a max of three roster spots that can realistically be captured by previously non-NHL players. Two of those spots have a top prospect penciled into them and the third has a litany of forwards with NHL experience who will presumably be battling for the spot. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for sleepers, but if they were expected to make the roster or challenge for a spot, well, they wouldn’t be sleepers.
Again there aren’t a huge ton of realistic candidates to break through to the roster, but I think we can also include players who might be able to give the staff second thoughts and earn themselves a “be ready to be called up and play” speech when they get cut toward the end of camp. As for who qualifies to be a sleeper, I’m basically considering all of the players with less than 20 NHL games who aren’t named Hughes, Boqvist, or Smith.
Nathan Bastian — I think of all the players not mentioned above, Bastian probably has the best shot to break through. He’s also the least sleeper-y sleeper, given he had a handful of relatively successful NHL games at the end of last season, but I would still consider it a pretty significant surprise if he made the roster. Bastian has a few things going for him outside of his NHL cup of coffee, though.
For one, he is a natural right winger, which is a position of relative weakness for the Devils at forward. There are plenty of left shots the Devils are willing to turn around that will fill the RW depth chart, but the Devils are better equipped to fill in holes at LW than RW with their makeup. Bastian also does the kinds of things coaches like from their depth guys, he shoots the puck well and he is willing to get physical. If the Devils are serious about wanting what a guy like John Hayden brings to a roster in physical presence, Bastian potentially represents an upgrade on that package if he has a good camp (both had 3 NHL goals last year and Bastian did it in 47 fewer games).
Fabian Zetterlund — Zetterlund is coming off an injury-truncated season and didn’t necessarily dominate his healthy time in the SHL last season, so his chances are relatively slim. The odds were pretty long for another Swede a couple years back, though, and that one (Bratt) managed to force his way onto the roster directly from Sweden’s second tier league, Allsvenskan. The injury complication likely makes Zetterlund’s task an even taller order, but given the tenacious, physical game he’s known for, it seems like he has a chance to turn some heads if he’s fully recovered. I think the team would be reluctant to start him in the NHL even with a big camp, but a leap up the depth chart to “injury standby” certainly seems possible.
Mikhail Maltsev — Maltsev is an interesting case, because he’s had limited opportunity in the KHL, but has a lot of people out there who like his game. His jump over the North America means he will most likely be spending his time in Binghamton, where the Devils will get a much better idea of what he can bring. He has an opportunity in camp to make an immediate impression though. He is touted as a strong two-way player and he has been fairly productive in his time in Russia’s second tier, the VHL. Combined, he has over 120 games in Russian mens’ leagues (KHL and VHL) over the past three years, giving him a leg up in experience on a lot of the guys coming up out of junior. Given that Maltsev’s game is generally regarded more for being a steady contributor than a unique talent, I think it would be tough to break through to the NHL roster right away, but he can start to position himself as one of the top forwards outside the NHL with a solid camp.
Colton White — White took a big step forward in Binghamton last season to position himself at the top of the AHL depth chart. Outside of Smith and perhaps Reilly Walsh next season, he Devils don’t have a ton of defensemen outside of the NHL who are well-positioned to contribute soon. With this state of affairs in place, this probably represents White’s best opportunity to get serious consideration for an NHL job, either now or in the near future. As mentioned above, the NHL depth chart is pretty set, but injuries are always lurking and White has a big opportunity to vault himself into the NHL conversation if he can build on a season where he stepped up his game on both offense and defense in the AHL. If he has a meh camp and/or takes a step back in the AHL this season, he could become an NHL afterthought. We’ll see if that motivates him to make some noise in this year’s camp.
Others — Beyond the group mentioned above, I think its hard to expect many players among the rest to seriously challenge for roster spots or even necessarily make it particularly far in camp. I think Marian Studenic and Brandon Gignac each perhaps will have some opportunities to impress and former second-rounder Josh Jacobs is entering desperation time if he ever wants serious NHL consideration, even as a regular injury callup. A few of the Devils draft picks from this summer will be at camp, but I think the expectation for most of them is that it will be a few years before they are making NHL noise. Even the guys I’ve highlighted are all relative longshots to make the initial roster, but I think they have the best opportunity among the rest.
Do you have any players that you think will surprise in camp this year? If not to actually make the roster then to at least grab some attention and get to the late rounds of cuts? Anyone you think I might be overlooking? Chime in with your thoughts below and thanks for reading.