There is an old proverb goes something like “even the best-laid plans of mice and men go astray.” Regardless of how well-laid you think the Devils’ plans were for the 2021-22 season, it is safe to say that with Jack Hughes likely being out for a substantial stretch of time with a dislocated shoulder, they have almost immediately gone astray. The Devils first game without their sidelined budding star went about as poorly as many feared it might, as the Devils were thoroughly snuffed out by their current most daunting nemesis, the Washington Capitals. Yesterday, Gerard dug into the potential troubles the Devils are looking at without Hughes in the lineup. Those worries bore out promptly, with much of the Devils’ roster looking out of sorts on Thursday.
At the risk of this being a knee-jerk reaction, today I want to dig into the question of whether or not the Devils should consider dipping into the Utica ranks to bolster the amount of skill in their lineup and expand the scoring options for a team that just lost likely their biggest one. The first name that comes to mind is one Alexander Holtz, who wowed in his first game in Uitca with two very nice goals and seven shots on goal. Removing Hughes from the lineup has knock-on effects for the effectiveness of the whole lineup, but his skill and game-breaking ability might be what’s most missed. As far as the options the Devils have available to them, Holtz is likely the most skilled of all and, even with minimal experience, his upside outsizes just about anyone else the Devils could bring to New Jersey right now.
Holtz is young, but as we’ve seen in a small sample from Dawson Mercer so far, that doesn’t mean he can’t have an impact. Holtz put up four points (2g, 2a) in the three preseason games he appeared in and had a positive xGF% at 5v5. Preseason results aren’t always indicative of regular season effectiveness, but Holtz has done just about everything you could ask in the four total professional games (including his one AHL contest) he’s played in so far this season. The Devils are going to be at a disadvantage in terms of high-end skill with Hughes out no matter what they do, but adding Holtz to the mix could bring another scoring threat and maybe create some space for teammates.
One issue with just calling up Holtz is position-related. Obviously, Jack Hughes is a center and Holtz is not, so replacing Hughes isn’t exactly as simple as calling up Holtz to fill a spot, but the Devils do have a few players who have played center in the past and could be shuffled around to make room for Holtz. I’m not crazy about moving either Pavel Zacha or Yegor Sharangovigh to the middle, but it does represent an option for New Jersey to slot Holtz in and pad their center depth with players already in the NHL. They can also maintain the centers as-is and just push another wing down the lineup to get Holtz’s potential scoring punch into the middle- or top-six. Ultimately, with the top of this lineup hindered by the absence of Hughes, the Devils need to figure out a way to make their third and fourth lines a matchup problem for other teams’ lower lines and pushing good players down the lineup is an effective way to achieve that.
If the Devils are looking to bolster the center position specifically, they could go with the oft-considered option of bringing up Jesper Boqvist to jump into a center role in the NHL. Frederik Gauthier had a perfectly respectable debut on the fourth line, so maybe the team won’t see it as necessary, but Mike McLeod did look slightly out of his depth entrusted with a top/middle-six role (as did Mercer at times). Whether Jesper Boqvist can do any better than the alternatives is certainly a fair question, but he did look most comfortable last season as a center and Hughes being injured presents as good an opportunity as any to see if Boqvist can hack it in a legitimate NHL role. It’s possible a true “top-six” is somewhat off the table until Hughes returns for the Devils, meaning the team will have to figure out a bottom-nine behind the Nico Hischier line that can share the workload and have enough skill spread around to generate some favorable matchups and scoring opportunities.
As far as other options for the Devils to call upon from the AHL, I think there are a few to consider, including wingers Graeme Clarke and Nolan Foote. There are also a few different center options like Aarne Talvitie and the more veteran Chase De Leo, but I think all of these are more secondary options behind Holtz and, to a lesser extent, Boqvist. The Devils have been put into a very difficult position with losing Hughes so early in the season, before a guy like Mercer, for instance, has even really had an opportunity to get his legs fully under him to be thrust into a bigger role. Holtz is obviously just a rookie too, so it’s not necessarily fair to hope that he cures the Devils’ ills, but with Hughes out, they have a big skill deficit to compensate for and Holtz may be their best opportunity to offset it to some extent. On the center front, I’m far from convinced that Jesper Boqvist is a long-term solution of any kind, but I think he potentially gives the Devils more lineup flexibility than a guy like Gauthier.
Outside of callups, the Devils do have the returns of Ty Smith (imminent, apparently) and Miles Wood to look forward to and also will not be playing the bane of their existence, the Capitals, every night. Even so, they should be exploring all of their options to compensate for the extended absence of Hughes and I think exploring some promotions from Utica should be part of that.