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Game Preview #4: New Jersey Devils vs. Buffalo Sabres

The Devils look to bounce back from their first loss of the 2021-22 season as they host the surprising Sabres at The Rock

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at New Jersey Devils
Ty Smith is expected to make his season debut Saturday night against the Sabres
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (2-1-0, 4 points) host the Buffalo Sabres (3-1-0, 6 points). SBN Blog: Die By The Blade

The Time: 7:00 PM

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+, ESPN+. RADIO - Devils Hockey Network

The last Devils game

The Devils lost to the Washington Capitals Thursday night by a score of 4-1. Lindy Ruff was noticeably poignant with his critiques and criticism of the Devils effort postgame, saying “We’re not going to win if half our group doesn’t show up.”

The last Sabres game

The Sabres hosted the Bruins Friday night in the first half of a back-to-back and lost 4-1, but the score doesn’t really tell the whole story. Buffalo went into the game undefeated on the young season, and while you could point to a relatively soft Buffalo schedule over the first week and a half of the season, they were 2nd in the league in CF% and HDCF% going into Friday’s contest. Even in their loss to the Bruins, they outshot and out-attempted a good Boston team, and lost because of a few defensive miscues by an opportunistic Bruins squad.

The Devils would be making a mistake if they look past the Sabres just because most prognosticators expect them to be one of the worst teams in the league. Buffalo isn’t particularly deep or talented, but they’re well coached, they play hard, and with no expectations, they’re playing with house money. Buffalo has played good hockey over the first four games of the season. Those types of teams are dangerous and can be a pain in the neck to play against. The Devils will have to play a smart game and finish they want to get two points.

The last Devils-Sabres game

This will be the first meeting of the season between the Devils and the Sabres. The last time these teams met was April 8th of last season, as the Devils defeated the Sabres 6-3. Pavel Zacha scored twice in the first period, and the Devils top line of Yegor Sharangovich-Jack Hughes-Janne Kuokkanen combined for three goals (1 G, 2A each for the three forwards). Jesper Boqvist’s third period goal, his first of the season, would prove to be the game winner.

Any Line Movement?

It is tough to say whether we will see some different line combinations as the Devils held an optional practice on Friday that saw limited participation. The Devils coaches focused more on film study with the players and meeting with them individually. Ruff said they sat down with Yegor Sharangovich to compare clips of what he did well last year juxtaposed with what he has done this year. He also mentioned how “we need more” from the Zacha-Hischier-Bratt line with Jack Hughes sidelined. I would agree that we need to see more from that line, but I’d also point out that they have played well and we need to see a lot of players step up with Hughes out of the lineup, not just them.

The issue with the line combinations, as MartyBrodeur pointed out in the gamethread Thursday, is that by switching them up immediately after one bad period of hockey, its essentially an acknowledgement that you failed to put the team in the best position to win the game on that particular night. Running bad line combinations only compounds the problem on top of the fact that the team isn’t putting the puck in the net. I feel Ruff’s lineup decisions from Thursday is a legitimate complaint and it does bother me that there seems to be a lack of public acknowledgment and owning of those mistakes. I want to be clear, Lindy Ruff is not wrong when he says the Devils best players need to play better. That said, he is the coach of the team and he does bear some responsibility to put the team in a better position to win.

I would not be surprised to see some new line combinations during the morning skate on Saturday with the team having had some time to study the tape. I suspect Lindy Ruff’s ideas will be vastly different from mine.....

What would Jared do?

It’s very easy to criticize Lindy Ruff for his lineup decisions, but I know what you’re thinking. If you’re so smart, I’d like to see you do better.

Ok, I will.

Let’s be frank. The Devils can not replace Jack Hughes and what he brings to the lineup. No name or idea we brainstorm together will change that. What the Devils can do, however, is take what is working or has worked in the past and build off of that.

I would keep the top line of Zacha-Hischier-Bratt intact. We all know that Zacha and Bratt in particular can be streaky players but they’ve shown enough chemistry in the past where I wouldn’t bail on that after three games. They have a 57.89% CF%, an xGF% of 74.35%, and a 9-2 edge in HDCF so far in 2021-22. They are generating scoring chances and I believe its only a matter of time before the bounces go their way and the puck winds up in the back of the net. I do believe that Nico Hischier, as the captain and highest paid forward on the team, needs to do more in terms of counting stats on the scoresheet, but I do not think he has played poorly.

I would elevate the Johnsson-Mercer-Tatar line to the second line as they have an even better CF% of 65.91%. Johnsson has looked like a completely different player in his second season with the Devils, and Mercer has not looked overwhelmed in his first few games in the NHL. The Devils have sheltered Mercer so far with an average ice time of 12:09 . It’s time to take the training wheels off.

Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen weren’t really clicking before the Jack Hughes injury, and losing Hughes doesn’t help. That said, they primarily played together last season with different centers. They played and produced when Travis Zajac centered their line, and they did the same with Hughes. I would keep them together and call up Jesper Boqvist to center them on the third line. We do not have a significant body of work with Boqvist and those players in the past to suggest that this combination would work, but I would prefer to keep the 4th line intact rather than elevate Mike McLeod, who struggled in an expanded role vs. Washington, and I’d rather take my chances with Boqvist over Freddy Gauthier or any other AHL option.

(I told you there were no good options. This is the best of a bunch of bad options)

I would reunite Marian Studenic with Mike McLeod and Jimmy Vesey on the fourth line. Studenic played well in the preseason and played well in the season opener against Chicago on that line and I don’t think he deserved to lose his spot because they wanted to get Mason Geertsen in the lineup to be “tougher to play against”. Ruff was quick to praise Vesey for his play in the postgame press conference on Thursday and I agree with him, as he continues to impress and show that the Devils made the right decision to sign him off of his PTO. We know McLeod can be effective in his 4th line center role. There’s no need to try to fit a round peg into a square hole and screw up multiple lines by elevating McLeod and asking him to do more than he is capable of.

After thinking about it more, the one move I would not make is calling up Alex Holtz....yet. Holtz doesn’t solve the center issue and I don’t see the team shifting Zacha or Sharangovich to center just to get Holtz in the lineup. If the Devils are averaging two goals per game three weeks from now, I think that’s a conversation worth having, but for now, I would let Holtz continue to simmer in Utica. He’ll get his opportunity soon enough.

I would preach patience that our players will make the requisite adjustments, play their game, and finish their opportunities. Whether it works or not, its a much better idea than trying to be something you’re not and mudslinging because you’re not good enough to hang otherwise. It didn’t work for Seattle against the Devils earlier this week, and it didn’t work for the Devils against Washington.

Return of the Mac?

Mackenzie Blackwood skated on his own prior to Thursday’s game and there was some speculation from Steve Cangialosi and Ken Daneyko on the TV broadcast that Blackwood might be able to practice as soon as Friday. However, Blackwood did not participate in the Devils optional practice. Neither did Jonathan Bernier, who missed Thursday’s game with a lower body injury.

It goes without saying that the Devils really need Blackwood (and Bernier too, for that matter) back in the lineup as soon as possible. Scott Wedgewood is too inconsistent at this level to be relied upon for any extended period of time, and Nico Daws has one game of pro experience under his belt. We should get some clarity on where the Devils goaltending stands during the Saturday morning skate, but I would not be surprised if Wedgewood drew another start because Blackwood and Bernier were simply unable to go.

Welcome back, Ty Smith

The Devils did get some good news on Friday as Ty Smith has been cleared to play Saturday night against the Buffalo Sabres.

Getting Smith back in the fold is a huge addition for the Devils blueline, and for the first time this season, the Devils blueline should be whole. Smith should replace Jaros in the lineup and would presumably rejoin Damon Severson as a pairing. With the offseason acquisitions of Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves and now getting Smith back in the lineup, the Devils can properly slot the defensemen where they belong.

Judging from Ruff’s comments on Friday, I would expect Smith to be full systems go. I would like to see Smith-Severson as the second pairing and Smith replace Severson and/or Subban on the second power play unit.

Will Butcher returns to New Jersey

After the Devils signed Dougie Hamilton on Day 1 of unrestricted free agency, they made another move that day involving a defenseman, trading Will Butcher (and a 5th round pick) to the Sabres for “future considerations”. The deal did make sense from a Devils perspective, as they shed most of the $3.73M owed for the final year of Butcher’s deal (the Devils retained a small portion of his salary to facilitate the trade). More importantly, the transaction gave Butcher a fresh start with a new team, as he fell out of favor last season with the Devils and often found himself to be a healthy scratch. When Butcher did play last season, he struggled to keep up defensively, and he was passed on the “puck moving defensemen” internal depth chart.

I would hope that Butcher gets a nice hand by the Devils fans at Prudential Center in his first game back as a visiting player. It wasn’t too long ago that he was the coveted college free agent who could pick any team to go to and he picked New Jersey at a time when very few players with options would pick New Jersey. Butcher was a key member of the 2017-18 Devils team that made the playoffs, making first-team All-Rookie and finishing 9th in Calder voting. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a great fit in Lindy Ruff’s system, he got injured, and he was never quite able to duplicate the highs of his rookie season, but Butcher had his moments when he was a member of the Devils, and that should be acknowledged.

Your Thoughts

Everyone expected the Sabres to be terrible this season. Through four games, they have not been. Do I expect this good start to last? No, I don’t. But I do think the Devils would be making a mistake if they looked past this team. Dustin Tokarski will likely start in net for the Sabres and while I don’t think he’s good, he wouldn’t be the first random goaltender to stifle the Devils in an ugly effort.

If the Devils focus more on playing their game, and less on trying to have a response for a heavier brand of hockey, they should put a better effort out there and give the Devils a chance to beat the Sabres. Yes, the Devils need more from their top guys. They need more from everyone. We know Pavel Zacha, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Yegor Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen, Tomas Tatar, etc. are capable of doing more. I expect to see a better effort from the Devils after Ruff and his coaching staff presumably read them the riot act on Friday. I also expect Lindy Ruff to put the Devils in a position to succeed, rather than repeat the mistakes he made on Thursday night against the Capitals and set the Devils up for failure. Buffalo is traveling to New Jersey after their loss at home and will be on the second half of a back-to-back. If the Devils want to be relevant later in the season, these are the types of games they need to win.

What do you think about tonight’s game? Is it time to call up a certain prospect or two from Utica? Are you excited about the return of Ty Smith to the Devils lineup? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts on tonight’s game and thank you for reading!