Welcome to 2021, everyone! On this side of the New Year, we have Devils players skating on the ice in Devils uniforms playing a sport you may recall from the Before Times called hockey. With Devils players now in training camp and possibly skating at the very moment you read this (!) lets run through some of the biggest storylines that need to be resolved before the season gets going on January 14th.
The Nico Hischier Injury
On the eve of the opening of training camp, the Devils got some troublesome news on the injury front when it was reported by Elliotte Friedman that Nico Hischier had recently picked up an injury training while he was still in Switzerland in early December (as with all major Devils news these days, the first reporting of this injury actually came from a random fan on Twitter a few weeks ago). The indications from the Devils have been that the injury is not too serious, including reports from the opening day of training camp yesterday. At the same time, the injury seems non-trivial and Hischier being able to suit up for opening night on January 14th is in some doubt at this point.
For those of us who can recall all the way back to the 2018-19 season, Taylor Hall had an injury that was initially described as day-to-day, but then became week-to-week and eventually ended his entire season. Given that fact, pronouncements of injuries being not-too-serious by the team are (fairly) treated with a degree of skepticism these days. Since we do not know the exact severity of the injury, it’s hard to say how long it could drag on but it was/is at least serious enough to keep him completely off the ice close to a month after the event actually occurred.
If it is serious enough that the Devils have to start the season without Nico, it is less than optimal as that would force one of Jack Hughes, Travis Zajac, and Pavel Zacha into that role of top line center until he returns. Each of those options are uniquely unattractive for Hischier’s role at this point, but if Nico cannot go, the team will have to improvise in the top six to the best of their ability. Given that fact, we’ll be crossing our fingers in the hopes that Nico can start skating in training camp before the season arrives.
The Jesper Bratt Contract
While the Devils got a deal squared away with MacKenzie Blackwood earlier this month, their other big RFA from this off-season remains unsigned with little news of late on that front. Jesper Bratt is likely between the third and fifth-best forward on this roster entering the season, meaning his absence, similarly to Hischier’s, would be a major blow to the Devils if he is not signed ahead of opening night. There have been no indications that he and the team are at a major impasse, but there has also been a conspicuous lack up updates recently.
Now, the current iteration of the Devils beat doesn’t have a sterling reputation for breaking a lot of otherwise unknown or unexpected news (see: the above-mentioned Hischier injury) and the team seems to run a fairly tight ship, leak-wise, right now, so it’s possible the lack of Bratt news is nothing to get too worked up about. Still, training camp is not open and we know for a fact that no contract has been signed, which is a concerning fact on its own. Given how important Bratt is to the team and its future, the situation will be one of the most pressing questions in camp until it is resolved.
John did a deep dive on the Bratt contract and what to expect all the way back in July and concluded that he was likely to end up with a bridge deal of two to three years in the $3M-$3.5M AAV range. Given how things have dragged along, I think that feels like the most probable outcome at this point. I would like to see the team lock him up long term, but if they ultimately have to punt with a bridge deal, that is preferable to having him miss the start of the season.
The Last Defensive Roster Spot
The Devil's have several defensive prospects advancing to the pro ranks this season, and they will be vying for what, barring injury, looks like it'll be one final roster spot on the team's blue line. The players under contract who played all their hockey in the NHL last season are Damon Severson, PK Subban, Ryan Murray, Will Butcher, Dimitry Kulikov, and Connor Carrick. Five of those players are effectively locks for the opening night lineup, barring injury. The sixth, Carrick, will likely compete with the pack of up-and-comers for that last spot on defense.
The players who will be gunning for that final spot mainly include incoming prospects Ty Smith, Kevin Bahl, Reilly Walsh, and Nikita Okhotyuk. Guys like Josh Jacobs, Colton White, and Matt Tennyson could be in the mix as well, though as older prospects (using the term somewhat loosely), they probably have a steeper hill to climb. As of now, Smith has to be the odds-on favorite to make the roster out of this bunch, but its not out of the realm of possibility that someone else wows the coaching staff during camp.
The Bottom Six
The forwards group has a bit more fluidity than the defense heading into camp, especially considering the possibility of Hischier and/or Bratt not being ready for opening night. Including those two in the mix, I’d say the Devils are probably only at nine locks for the opening night roster at forward: Hischier, Bratt, Hughes, Zacha, Zajac, Nikita Gusev, Kyle Palmieri, Andreas Johnsson, and Miles Wood. That leaves at least three opening night lineup spots very much up for grabs at the moment with a litany of prospects between age 20 and 24 trying to grab those last few slots.
The training camp roster has 19 forwards on it at the moment (which doesn’t include Bratt), meaning there are theoretically 11 players vying for three lineup spots (and probably five roster spots). Those players are currently (alphabetically) Nathan Bastian, Jesper Boqvist, Nolan Foote, Brandon Gignac, Janne Kuokkanen, Mikhail Maltsev, Michael McLeod, Nick Merkley, Nate Schnarr, Brett Seney, and Yegor Sharangovich. It seems maybe possible, although not especially likely, that Alexander Holtz and Dawson Mercer could join post-WJC as well (not sure of the quarantine implications, given that they are already in a bubble for that tournament). The bottom of the roster could clearly play out in a lot of different ways, though if I had to tag some of the favorites, I’d go with Boqvist, Merkley, Sharangovich, Kuokkanen, and Bastian as some of the more likely ones to fill out the roster. This could be the most interesting thing to watch (and toughest to predict) as camp gets going, though, particularly without any pre-season games during this camp.
The Taxi Squad
As a pandemic-specific contingency, the NHL is having teams field a so-called “taxi squad” this season to be ready to jump into the lineup in case of COVID-19 exposures or positives on the roster that require fill-ins on short notice. Here’s a brief explanation of the taxi squad via Yahoo Sports:
Players on the taxi squad will be eligible to travel, practice and take part in NHL team activities, but are ineligible to practice with any minor league squads. All players, except for goalies, must be recalled by 2 p.m. PT to be eligible to play that day. A taxi squad goalie must be made available for all teams that don’t have three goalies on their NHL roster.
This will have some ripple effects on the AHL squad once the season gets going, as players who would likely otherwise be playing big minutes in Binghamton will be getting towed around with the NHL squad. Given that the taxi squad will effectively be four-to-six extra healthy scratches that the team is carrying with them, I would expect most teams to put players who have been in the pros a while in that category instead of new prospects. That means guys like Brett Seney, Janne Kuokkanen, Josh Jacobs, and others in that 22-25-year-old range and perhaps trending more towards “tweener” than “NHL impact guy” seem like the highest likelihood to fill out that roster.
So those are five things to watch as we head into camp and we can finally start to actually see things play out now instead of endlessly speculating like we have the past nine months. Get excited, folks, hockey is back.