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Game Preview #1: New Jersey Devils vs. Chicago Blackhawks

It’s the first game of the season! Let’s get it going.

NHL: Preseason-Washington Capitals at New Jersey Devils
I would expect the regular season Devils debuts of Dougie Hamilton and Jonathan Bernier tonight.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

It has been awhile since I have been this excited to watch the New Jersey Devils play. While I thought the 2018-19 Devils would be much more competitive, this is a younger team. This is a faster, more skilled team. And most importantly, our greatest talents on the roster are healthy coming into the start of the season. Hopefully the Devils can start this season of with a resounding win.

It is also hard to believe that this marks the beginning of the fourth year that I am doing this. Let this be the second playoff appearance that I get to cover.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils versus the Chicago Blackhawks. SBN Blog: Second City Hockey

The Time: 7:00 PM

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+

The Current Injury Situation and Yesterday’s Practice Lines

Over the past couple weeks, the Devils have been dealing with injuries to Damon Severson, Ty Smith, Miles Wood, Mackenzie Blackwood, and Tyce Thompson. Of those five, only Tyce Thompson has returned to practice. Interestingly enough, as you can see below, he has been practicing as a defenseman on a pairing with Mason Geertsen. They will almost certainly not be playing tonight, but they have been the fourth pairing in practice.

While we expected Smith, Severson, and Wood to be out for the opener, I do not think many expected Mackenzie Blackwood to be unable to play due to his heel rehab. I think it is possible that he re-aggravated the injury (or spoiled his rehab) during the preseason, and I hope it does not keep him out too long. The implication for tonight is that Jonathan Bernier should make his regular season debut for the New Jersey Devils.

As for the rest of the lineup, there is a lot to like from the Devils’ top nine forwards. I would expect Nico Hischier to get the bulk of the matchups against Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks’ more defensive line of the top six. As long as Jack Hughes is allowed to face a less defensively capable opponent, I think this situation will prove fruitful for Hughes and provide a huge test to the Zacha-Hischier-Bratt unit to start off this season.

I think it would behoove the Devils to match the Hughes line up against the smaller DeBrincat-Johnson-Kane line, and Nico Hischier against Toews. With how small the top Blackhawks line is, Jack Hughes would actually have a size advantage. Imagine that.

And while Andreas Johnsson is kind of the odd-man in Dawson Mercer’s line, it is not like he has never played on highly-possessive lines with the Devils. He was able to mesh rather well with Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt last season, even if the goals never really came his way. Similar to how Jack Hughes will only look better not facing top lines, perhaps Andreas Johnsson can find his scoring touch again playing on a very good third line. The only downside of this line is that I hope the coaches find enough playing time for Dawson Mercer and Tomas Tatar. I think Tatar especially can do a lot more if he gets the minutes, so it is up to Lindy Ruff to make sure Tatar gets as much special teams time as he can. And as a line, we will see how they match up against Kirby Dach, who is a very capable center (who I think should be playing with Patrick Kane, and not be leading the third line).

And while I was not hoping to see P.K. Subban on the second pairing to start the year, I know this is not permanent. Hopefully him and Jonas Siegenthaler hold their own tonight – but I would not be surprised if Dougie Hamilton played well in excess of 25 minutes tonight. This may only happen to keep Colton White and Christian Jaros off the ice as much as possible. Still, you have to feel confident that the Devils have the advantage on the defensive side - Chicago looks like a mess on that end. Perhaps Marc-Andre Fleury can bail them out, though.

I’ll Take Hamilton Over Jones Any Day

Over the past few seasons, every time the Devils played the Blue Jackets, I noticed Seth Jones doing fewer and fewer good things for his team. While he was an offensive threat just a few years ago, and Jones was never particularly good defensively - his offensive touch has slipped dramatically. I do not think we will see Jones touch double-digit goals counts again anytime soon, let alone match the high of 16 he set in 2017-18. He has played tough minutes ever since being traded from Nashville to Columbus, averaging 24:47 per game with his former squad.

Now, Seth Jones is the face of yet another retooling by the Chicago Blackhawks. Following this season, he will have an eight year contract with Chicago with an annual average value of $9.5 million and a no-move clause. Personally, I would not be a fan of the deal if I were covering the Blackhawks.

Evolving-Hockey

These teams have similar new tools for this season in terms of reputation - but Hamilton is the real deal. I do not have high hopes for a return on the Jones investment. These are the questionable roster-building decisions that will keep Chicago middling while the Devils reap the rewards of their full-on rebuild.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of tonight’s game? Are you hyped?!? What do you expect in terms of deployment from Lindy Ruff’s lines? Do you think Jonathan Bernier will fare well? How about Nico Hischier in his fully-healthy start to the season? Who are you most excited to see play tonight? What tweaks to the lineup do you think might happen after the game? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Addendum

The New Jersey Devils posted at 11:00 AM that they will have helmet decals honoring the late Jimmy Hayes. Corey Masisak of the Athletic also reports that there may be a few things planned tonight to honor the former Devil and Blackhawk.

We ought to keep the Hayes family in our thoughts and continue to honor Jimmy’s life, so it is good to see the Devils and Blackhawks put this together.