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Looking Ahead to a Competitive Battle for the Final Roster Spots at Forward

The Devils will have a bunch of options to fill out the roster at forward this season, let’s start looking at the best candidates.

Nolan Foote skating; New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders
Nolan Foote will be among those battling for one of the final roster spots at forward.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As the offseason heads into the quiet zone and we approach camp, now is the time to start sorting out what the final Devils roster might look like when they open the season. At forward in particular, there are a growing number of prospects who seem to be approaching the level where they can contribute in the NHL, but there is enough uncertainty around all of them that who could potentially make the roster out of camp is a tough question to answer. Only a few spots on the roster are up for grabs and the Devils have at least a half dozen realistic options to fill in those spots. Let’s run down the returning NHLers first and then look at who the team could tag to fill in the rest.

The Locks

  • Jack Hughes
  • Nico Hischier
  • Jesper Bratt
  • Pavel Zacha
  • Tomas Tatar
  • Yegor Sharangovich
  • Janne Kuokkanen
  • Miles Wood

There is a group of players who under pretty much any circumstances outside of injury or a trade will find themselves on the roster on opening night. This includes the cornerstone pieces like Jack Hughes and Nico Hischer as well as much of the main supporting group from last year’s roster, which includes multi-year team presences Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, and Miles Wood. Breakout years as staples of the top six put Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen in this group as well. The big new addition at forward, Tomas Tatar will certainly figure in, making much of the top nine pretty set heading into the season.

Likely On the Roster

  • Andreas Johnsson
  • Michael McLeod
  • Jesper Boqvist

In this group, I’m including the players who are very solid bets to end up on the roster, but have at least a little bit of uncertainty. Andreas Johnsson, considering he has a salary of $3.4M, is very unlikely to not find himself on the roster on opening night, though I’d say it’s not out of the question that he is a scratch if he doesn’t get some traction in the preseason. It’s a longshot that he ends up not on the roster at all, but the Devils have enough interesting options on the wing that Johnsson has to at least do a little bit to make the team.

At center, Mike McLeod is probably pretty close to a lock, especially considering he is no longer waiver-exempt, but he only has one year as a moderately effective 4C under his belt, so it’s hard to say there’s no scenario where he ends up at least a scratch on opening night. The fact that there really isn’t a ton at center behind him probably makes his spot pretty safe, though. Boqvist is similarly a beneficiary of the lack of additional C’s coming up in the organization, though his waiver-exempt status makes him much more of a possibility of starting in the AHL if camp doesn’t go great for him. Dawson Mercer is probably the only player who I think could battle his way into that bottom six C conversation and put one of McLeod and Boqvist at risk of being out of the lineup. I think those three are the extent of this tier:

The Contenders

Now we get to the interesting part: sorting through all of the potential options the Devils have at forward. Given the above two categories, we’re looking at as many as 11 of the forward slots on the team being already spoken for. That leaves maybe one or two There are a few others who in theory could make a run at a spot but I think the list probably has as many as eight names on it (though one or two of those might be longshots). Let’s go through the group one-by-one and discuss where and how they might be able to fit themselves into the roster in New Jersey.

  • Alexander Holtz - Holtz had a bit of a bumpy year in his draft+1 campaign in the SHL, with his production and ice time fluctuating from the beginning of the season to the end. Brian did a good deep dive on his season last week and he still came out looking pretty good in most metrics, even without an ideal year. Given his pedigree and his shot, Holtz is going to be very much in the conversation to make the team out of camp. That he didn’t light things up when he came over to play in Binghamton at the end of last season makes me think he could be destined for some more time in the AHL, but I think a spot is his for the taking if he performs well in camp.
  • Dawson Mercer - Mercer is the other big forward pick from the 2020 draft and, unlike his counterpart Holtz, he had an unambiguously strong post-draft season in the QMJHL last year. Mercer led the Q in U20 per-game scoring and looked like an all around force for Chicoutimi. The jump from junior is a considerably bigger one than the SHL but Mercer looked good enough that you have to think he’ll at least get a long look in camp as a potential center for a team with a bit of uncertainty in the bottom six at the position.
  • Nolan Foote - After some injury woes and the pandemic, Nolan Foote had played very little hockey for the first year he was with the Devils org, but in his first year as a pro in 2021, Foote had himself a pretty strong season, even getting some time with the big club where he scored his first NHL goal and didn’t look totally out of place. He was a big presence on the AHL team with 17 points in 24 games and showed well on the ice despite the rust from the preceding year. Foote is another strong shooter as the Devils have been doing a good job building that part of their organization up and with Holtz maybe needing a year to get his legs under him in North America, Foote could end up sliding into the NHL squad as a trigger man instead.
  • Graeme Clarke - Clarke is a bit of a dark horse because he doesn’t have the draft pedigree of Holtz or Foote, but the 2019 third rounder showed very well in his first pro season after missing most of 2019-20 with an injury. Another up and coming Devil with a solid track record as a goal-scorer, Clarke also looked the part in a lot of other ways based on last year’s dispatches from Binghamton. While the group may not be quite ready overall, the Devils look like they have the potential for some real depth on the wings going forward.
  • Tyce Thompson - Thompson wrapped up his college career last year and signed on with the Devils after his junior season at Providence, which was strong though not quite as productive as his sophomore season. He got some time in the NHL but didn’t really make much impact and only had an 11 game run in Binghamton to try to get things going. I think he’s certainly in the mix for a spot but I could see the team wanting him to get a bit more time in the AHL. Thompson is a little bit older than the four previous candidates at 22, so it’s possible the team feels like he could be more ready.
  • Marian Studenic - Studenic is an interesting candidate because while he is unlikely to be as productive on the scoresheet as many of his counterparts, he also profiles as more of a fit in a 4th line role as a speedy disruptor. While he’s not quite the banger that Nate Bastian is, I could definitely see him slotting in next to McLeod and Wood on a fourth line energy unit. With Studenic turning 23 in October and being eligible for waivers, the clock is ticking for him to make the kind of impact that keeps him in the organization. He did show some flashes of effectiveness in his short NHL stint last season so we’ll see if he can carve out a role.
  • Fabian Zetterlund - Zetterlund had something of a breakout season for himself last year, leading the AHL squad in total scoring on the season (though a bit further down the list in per-game rate). It’s hard to say if he’s ready for the NHL at this point, but he does seem to be progressing now and with a reputation for a high motor and a bit of feistiness, maybe there’s a bottom six role there for him but it could be another year or two away for Zetterlund. A strong camp probably gets him in the mix.
  • Aarne Talvitie - It’s been tough sledding for Talvitie ever since his knee injury a few seasons back and his first pro season in Binghamton left a bit to be desired. I include him in the mix here, though, if only because he’s one of the few realistic center candidates nearing the NHL level. A knockout camp could get him in the mix, but I do suspect he will have to show more in the AHL to get major consideration for an NHL spot.

Running through the candidates, if nothing else, makes me feel like the Devils have some legitimate depth as they head into the next few years. Not all of these prospects will pan out but even two or three becoming NHL regulars will be a big boost around the core that’s being built. If I had to make some predictions on who grabs a spot out of camp, I think Clarke has a real shot to be the guy who gets a look, as he was strong in the AHL last season and would be a right shot in a lineup with very few of those right now. I’m betting the team doesn’t want to rush Holtz with the draft capital that was spent on him but he is another righty and could definitely change their mind if he looks good in camp. Foote probably represents a “next man up” on the left side, given who’s already there.

Mercer is a wild card to me as he is the best candidate to challenge for a center spot but he hasn’t played a pro game yet, so the team might be reluctant to do that right out of the gate. Based on my understanding of the AHL-CHL agreement, I think he is eligible to play in Utica this year, so that seems like the most likely destination, at least to start the year. He could get a quick call if the team runs into some injury issues, though. If the Devils look to grab more than one player from the above outlined group I think the other option I can see them going with is Studenic, who might fit in well in a fourth line role and is a little bit older than his counterparts.

Overall though, I just have to say that I’m pretty excited to see a full training camp with the talent the Devils seem to be building up. That they no longer just have to rely on one or two guys to surprise them out of camp but have four or five legitimate options with upside to pick from is a far cry from where they were a few years ago.