Hockey is back. It may not have been gone that long this year with the delayed start to last season, but still, there is nothing like the start of the NHL season as a hockey fan. There is the optimism and hope that a fresh start brings. The excitement of seeing the fruits of a hard offseason of training for the players. The intrigue of watching the roster come together, seeing who gels with whom, and what line combinations the coaches try out in the preseason. One of my favorite parts of this time of year, especially in recent seasons, is seeing the prospects in action against higher level competition. Which prospects could potentially breakout and make an impact on the team? Or even, which prospects look like they could be on the cusp, even if we won’t see them for another year? Well in the coming weeks we will get the answers to those questions, because today marks the official start of training camp for the Devils. At least for the rookies.
Rookies are often the players that have the most to gain from having a good camp, as that can either mean either a spot on the opening night roster in New Jersey, or an immediate future of a lot of long bus rides through upstate New York. For those players earlier in their development, it may impact their stock in the minds of the higher ups who might not see them play in-person again for months after they go back to their junior team. But while many of us, myself included, are often drawn to the highest profile players, depending on the roles available sometimes it is players further down the list who have the most to gain or lose from training camp. Today I will go through the rookies I feel have the best chance to win a roster spot in training camp (in no particular order).
Studenic is coming off his sophomore season as a pro hockey player, where he put up 7 points in 22 games. These aren’t exactly impressive counting stats, particularly after a solid, if unspectacular rookie season in Binghamton. But clearly the coaching staff and management saw enough to warrant a call-up, because he made his NHL debut last season, and saw 8 games of NHL action, putting up a goal and an assist. So we know he’s at least on the radar. There also happens to be a 4th line wing spot up for grabs with the departures of Maltsev and Bastian. Studenic brings lots of speed and some skill to the table and could carve out a role for himself in the bottom 6. This is especially true if he can contribute on the penalty kill. A job he did to at least some extent in Binghamton.
In his call-up to NJ he played ~4 min of pk time, which means he averaged one shift per game. This isn’t enough of a sample size for me to even bother with analyzing how he played in that role, and while 8 games isn’t really an adequate sample size either, I will say that Studenic did not exactly excel in his short stint in New Jersey. His shot-share percentages were in the mid-40’s , even with fairly favorable deployment, although his xGAR (via Evolving Hockey) was a little better and only slightly in the red at -0.3 expected goals above replacement.
Studenic is currently on a one year 2-way contract signed back in August. He is young enough and valued enough that I don’t think this is a make-it or break-it year for the Slovakian winger, but a strong camp puts him in the drivers seat for a spot on the 23 man roster. From there it would be about finding his niche and finding enough of a scoring touch to stick in the lineup. To add some extra stakes, the Olympics are this season (assuming the NHL actually goes) and Studenic is one of just 10 active Slovakian hockey players with NHL experience. I assume that makes him a likely bet to make the Olympic team, regardless of how he plays in camp, but making an NHL roster certainly won’t hurt his chances.
Zetterlund will join Studenic in the competition for a spot in the bottom-6 forward group, along with recent camp invites Vesey and Jankowski. Like Studenic, Zetterlund is also member of the Devils 2017 draft class, a third year pro with the
Binghamton Utica Devils, and is a RFA at the end of the season. Unlike Studenic, Zetterlund has not yet made his NHL debut and it’s fair to wonder what the future holds for him with the Devils organization if he fails to make his NHL debut this season. The 22 year-old right-shot winger stands at 5’11” 218 lbs (!), and addition to being jacked, is not without some skill. He is known for his work ethic, shot, and willingness to, sigh, go to the dirty areas or the ice. Perhaps most famous for his ability to move heavy things, Zetterlund also happened to lead the baby Devils in scoring this past season, with 19 points in 34 games, after finishing with the same point total in 46 games in his rookie year. Brian provided a little more context to these numbers in Zetterlund’s profile from the AATJ Top 25 Under 25 list.
According to Pick 224, of the 14 Binghamton forwards to play in 15 or more games, Zetterlund ranked 4th in EV primary points per game (0.29), 2nd in PP primary points per game (0.21), 2nd in primary points per game (0.50), and 2nd in primary points per estimated 60 minutes (1.87).
He drove a good bit of the offense for Binghamton, albeit, on a very bad team. It is also worth noting that Zetterlund was able to get some games in prior to the AHL start while on pandemic loan with AIK, so he may have had a slight advantage over some of the other Binghamton players.
In this video, Zetterlund tallies 3 primary assists, each in different ways. The first is a rebound goal created by a hard, low slapshot from well above the circles. For the second assist, he wins a puck battle using his strength and feeds his teammate, who was waiting right on the doorstep, from behind the net. Finally, he shows some vision and precision passing on the power play, feeding the puck right to the slot for an easy goal.
So what has held him back from a callup? Well, for one, a 0.56 pt/gm scoring rate doesn’t exactly scream future NHLer. We also know from the Studenic call up that scoring isn’t always what drives these decisions. Perhaps his defensive coverage needs some work. Maybe he doesn’t play on the penalty kill and NJ was looking for someone to fill that role at the time. One thing that does seem to be a weakness is his skating, or in the words of Corey Pronman, he “lacks ideal NHL skating” (via The Athletic). If he can improve his speed and quickness, and demonstrate the ability keep up with the NHL pace of play, as well as showing the capability to contribute defensively, he would make an ideal bottom-6 RW, in my opinion.
It might surprise you to find out that Thompson is a month older than Zetterlund. Thompson was drafted as a double over-ager in the 4th round. He is another right-shot RW, and along with Studenic and Zetterlund, will be battling for the vacancy left by Bastian’s departure. Thompson was signed to a two year ELC about a week after his college season ended, and two weeks later he made his NHL debut. The fact that the Devils felt comfortable enough (even in a lost season) to put Thompson in the lineup without any time in the AHL speaks to how highly the Devils management/coaching staff thinks of Thompson. He was coming off of a 3 year career at Providence College, the last two of which he produced at least a pt/gm. He would go on to play 7 games and score one point, an assist in his first game. He ended the season in the AHL, where he would put up 4 points in 11 games. But while his early pro results leave something to be desired, I am willing to cut Thompson a little slack. The transition from NCAA hockey to the NHL requires an adjustment period for most players, and some players will need more time than others. Anecdotally, I will say that I felt Thompson generally seemed a step behind the play. It seemed to me like less of a skating issue and more of a pace of play/reading the play issue. This isn’t entirely supported by his underlying numbers, because unlike Studenic, Thompson was able to drive play very well, albeit in very sheltered minutes. He also ended up just slightly in the black in terms of Evolving Hockey’s xGAR (0.3), mostly driven by strong defensive impact. This all comes with the caveat that it’s a 7 game sample and not enough data to really draw any serious conclusions.
Thompson fits into the mold of what the Devils have been looking for in their wingers lately, which seems to be size and a plus shot. Much like Mercer, Thompson has also been praised for his versatility. Coming into camp, Thompson will have to show the ability to anticipate the play better and use his shot more frequently to create offense. If he can do that I think he has a good shot at winning a spot on the Devils roster.
Mercer is the final forward I will touch on today and probably the one most Devil’s fans are most excited to see. The 18th overall selection in the 2020 draft is coming off of a great post-draft year with Chicoutimi where he scored at a 1.57 pts/gm pace and led his team in scoring. This in a season filled with chaos and uncertainty between quarantines and bubbles and the like. He even managed to improve on his regular season scoring rate in the playoffs, putting up 17 points in 9 games. But that isn’t the full picture. He also won a butt-load of QMJHL awards, including for best defensive player. Mercer is also a two-time member of team Canada’s world junior championship team (they lost to the US in the final) where he received praise for his versatility and attention to detail. All of this is to say that while generally a player drafted where Mercer was could expect at least one more year of seasoning either in junior (for which he’s ineligible due to age) or the AHL before having a realistic shot at a NHL roster spot, Mercer has generated some real hype thanks to his strong D+1 season. He also happens to be a center, which as you may have heard remains a spot of concern. It may also be worth pointing out that the Devils forward group has exactly one player who is a right-handed shot (McLeod) and Mercer happens to be a righty. All of this adds up to the perfect opportunity for Mercer to make his mark. He plays a position where the team lacks depth, he has shown versatility and a strong two way game at the highest level of competition available at the junior level, and he is coming off an excellent season. Now all he has to do is earn the spot.
The final player I will touch on today, and the only blueliner to make the list, is this 6’6” 230 lb behemoth. Acquired as part of the Taylor Hall trade after Shero (and Fitzgerald?) acquired an obsession with big, physical defensemen sometime in 2019, Bahl seems to actually be able to play to some extent. Never someone expected to contribute a ton offensively, Bahl put up the kind of junior numbers you expect for a more defensive minded back. As he entered his first pro season, the hope was that his size, strength, and solid skating (for his size) would allow him to jump right into the pro game without a hitch. This wasn’t the case however, and he seemed to struggle early on in the AHL, where he finished with 5 points in 27 games. Management felt he really improved throughout the course of the season, and this quote gathered by Corey Masisak of the Athletic by the Devils Assistant GM Dan MacKinnon seems to confirm as much: “I think he might have been one of the great success stories and a real tribute to the AHL coaching staff working with the D.” He at least did enough to earn himself a call-up. He ended up playing in 7 games for the Devils where he had a pair of assists. My impression of him at the time was that he had a solid first game, where he showed off his strength and reach, but after that he seemed to flounder a bit and this is supported by the data. He had the 3rd worst CF% on the team at just over 41% and a -0.7 xGAR by Evolving Hockey’s metrics.
Bahl is a tough player for me to evaluate. I generally don’t want to hear about physical characteristics when listing positive attributes of a player, particularly when it’s the first thing that comes up, which is usually the case with Bahl. I also worry that management and the coaching staff values those physical attributes more highly than they should. That being said, when watching him, I can see things to be excited over. At times he uses his size very effectively to end plays and from an entertainment perspective I enjoy a good hard hit as much as the next guy. I believe further time and reps in the AHL is what is needed in Bahl’s case to allow him to fully reach his potential. That said, a lot can change over a summer and as with every other player on this list, if he can be more consistent and put everything together he has an outside shot at earning a roster spot.
Out of the five players I touched on today I think Bahl is the least likely to make the roster. While Bahl’s ceiling is likely as a #4, and the more likely outcome is he ends up on a bottom pairing, the Devils already have their 6 regulars set, so barring injury, if Bahl made the roster it would likely be as the 7th defenseman (or 8th if we’re counting Jaros, which I don’t think we need to). The Devils seem to be very high on Bahl and see him as part of the future. To me that means he is best served by playing big minutes in Utica, but we will see if the Devil’s front office agrees with me.
I learned a lot more about each of these players from writing this post and as odd as it may sound, I do think the battle for a bottom-6 RW spot may be one of the most intriguing stories to follow at camp. I am hopeful that one of the players I touched on will replace Bastian’s spot and succeed in that role. I am less confident about Mercer grabbing the 3rd line center role, as my impression of him from seeing him at the WJC last year was he would likely need to get a good bit quicker and would require time to adjust to the pro pace of play. There are two big names that I intentionally left off of this list. Holtz is probably less glaring to you, because he is someone who’s game revolves around offense and I think most fans agree that if he isn’t producing at the AHL level he’s likely not ready for the NHL. Add to that the fact that he has to improve a lot of other areas of his game and there’s not really a top-6 spot available for him and I think it makes sense why I left him off. As for the other name, well Foote is younger, and a left shot LW on a team full of them. I wouldn’t be shocked if Foote made the team, but I do think it’s less likely than Studenic and Thompson for sure. I could see management not wanting to stick him in a 4th line role because I think he has more upside than any of the 3 RWs I mentioned above and they will want him to develop his offensive game more. You could argue he should be here over Zetterlund, and I wouldn’t push back too hard... but maybe I just wanted to talk about one of my favorite prospects. Regardless, hockey is back today and I could not be more excited for the start of season.
Do you agree with my choices for players most likely to make the roster? If not, who would you have chosen? Do you think I left anyone out? Who do you think replaces Bastian on the 4th (3rd?) line? Which rookies are you most excited to watch? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!