The Time: 7:00 PM
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+
It’s Been A Long Time
The last time a game preview was posted was March 12, 2020 - just over 10 months ago. Of course, that game was never played, as the league was shut down that morning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, we Devils fans have waited for our team to return to play, watching an expanded playoffs without them and only having the respite of the Draft and World Juniors. Hopefully, the Devils will be a better team this year than they finished last season.
The Lines, As of Yesterday
These might not be the lines tonight, as Lindy Ruff stated he would not reveal his lineup for opening night. Still, I do not know why Ruff would mix up the lines from the final practice - so this is likely what we will be watching on the ice. I have a few things to say about the choices here, if these remain the lines. First, it would be a mistake to play both Kulikov and Tennyson, but not Butcher. I understand that Smith creates a bit of a redundancy for Butcher’s skillset, but Severson was defensively sound enough last year - why not play him with Smith, and Butcher with Kulikov? Second, I think Ruff would be doing almost perfect with the forward lines, except I would swap Janne Kuokkanen with Miles Wood. Wood would make for a fun line with Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian - as they could create some real trouble crashing the net. I think that Kuokkanen would be a better fit with the more finesse and skill-centric play of Travis Zajac and Jesper Boqvist.
Reasons to Be Excited to Watch the Devils Tonight
The Devils might be without Nico Hischier due to injury, and are awaiting the arrivals of Jesper Bratt and Sami Vatanen so that they may quarantine - but there is still plenty to be excited about to start the year. If you were to take a look at the lineup from the final game preview of last season, you might notice:
- Andreas Johnsson, Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Boqvist, and Nathan Bastian are all in the lineup. The team might be hurting from the lack of Hischier and Bratt, but the Devils will likely have better forward depth than last season, considering they are replacing Kevin Rooney and Joey Anderson. Additionally, John Hayden’s play is no longer a concern. While we’ve seen Boqvist and Bastian with the team before, Bastian has never gotten a real chance before now and Boqvist should be ready to play after his loan overseas.
- Mirco Mueller, Dakota Mermis, and Connor Carrick were the left pairing defensemen at the last Devils practice last year. They have been replaced by Ryan Murray, Dmitry Kulikov, and Ty Smith, with Will Butcher being an apparent extra. The right side as of yesterday’s practice remains P.K. Subban, Damon Severson, and Matt Tennyson - just like the end of last season. The defense should be vastly improved - especially when Vatanen eventually replaces Tennyson. For now, we will have to settle for the immediate left-side improvements.
I am most excited to see how Yegor Sharangovich fares tonight, assuming he stays on the top line. Considering he was playing as a top-line center in the KHL - and was looking pretty impressive in the Devils’ scrimmages - I wonder if he can maintain his hot shooting next to Jack Hughes. Hughes is certainly an impressive passer, and he has two solid options with Sharangovich and Palmieri. You can see Sharangovich crashing the net on a slick pass from Janne Kuokkanen here:
In general, the young-European line of Sharangovich-Boqvist-Kuokkanen worked very well together during camp, as Sharangovich created a goal for Boqvist at the 1:00 mark of this highlight video:
You might believe that there is no way these Devils can pull off a good run this year (even if it doesn’t lead to the playoffs, but a non-last finish). Well, I said in our season predictions that Jack Hughes can be a huge difference maker this year - but these European prospects could also turn the tide for the Devils after a long offseason and the retirement of Corey Crawford. If either of McLeod or Bastian become contributing mainstays (I have higher hopes for Bastian than McLeod), then that would also be a boon for this team.
And just as these relative unknowns could turn the thin Devils forward group into something fun to watch, Ty Smith could help turn the Devils defense into a much more cohesive bunch.
I believe Smith is ready for the NHL. He has been given plenty of time to develop, and now he can showcase his offensive ability in red and black. I expect to see him get involved a lot in transition - and hopefully he can show off some creativity there.
Personally, I will be feeling weird knowing that Zdeno Chara is on a team that is not the Boston Bruins as the Devils take the ice against them tonight. We won’t have the opportunity to miss seeing him - as he will continue to cause headaches with the Capitals - but something doesn’t sit right with me as I look at these lines, regardless:
Prax lines:— Fluto Shinzawa (@FlutoShinzawa) January 13, 2021
In addition to the lack of Chara, the Devils will not have to deal with David Pastrnak when playing the Bruins tonight. Taking his place on the top line is Jack Studnicka, who had 49 points with the Providence Bruins in 60 AHL games last year. I would not take Studnicka lightly, though - as he projects as a pretty good goal scorer around the net and is only 21 years old. He could be a problem for years to come. The second line of Debrusk-Krejci-Kase will be a test for Pavel Zacha and the Devils’ second line, but I don’t think they will be too outclassed. Fortunately, I think he Devils’ bottom six matches pretty well to the Bruins’ group, and I hope to see Kuokkanen or Boqvist show their skill against a more brawny opposition.
The Devils should try to go right at Jeremy Lauzon on the first pairing. Compared to Charlie McAvoy, Lauzon is an unproven defenseman and hasn’t impressed in 35 career NHL games so far. The Bruins defense will likely suffer as a result of their lack of Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara, as their most experienced left-side defenseman is Matt Grzelcyk. Him and Brandon Carlo make a respectable defensive pairing - but they sometimes leave a lot to be desired offensively. The Bruins could go for a Grzelcyk-McAvoy pairing, which could work extremely well, but leave the rest of their defense thin. Unless Lauzon does surprisingly well, these Bruins seem much weaker defensively than they have been in recent years.
What do you think about tonight’s game? Are you excited to see Devils hockey again? Do you think they can win? How do you think MacKenzie Blackwood will perform as the number one goalie? Will Sharangovich continue his great run of play? Will any of the other young Devils make an impact? Will Jack Hughes take a step forward? How does this defense compare to the last few years? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.