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What to Look for in a Preseason Hockey Game

Preseason is where the results do not matter but the games carry value. As the last New Jersey Devils preseason was in 2019, this post goes over general points to keep in mind as the six games take place over this and next week.

New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders
Lindy Ruff and his staff will be using these games to make some decisions over the next two weeks.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

This week, the New Jersey Devils and the majority of the National Hockey League teams will begin their preseason schedule. These are games meant to prepare players and staff for the season. They are used by coaches, managers, and other decision-makers to decide who makes or does not make the active roster for the start of the regular season. These are games that ultimately do not count, but they serve some purpose. As such, they should not be watched the same way you would for a regular season or playoff game. Since the last time the Devils had a preseason was in 2019, a reminder of some general points about preseason games to keep in mind for the next two weeks of games.

No, Seriously, the Games Don’t Count - Don’t Worry About the Result

The Devils will be playing six games in the next two weeks against three teams within their division. They are: the Washington Capitals, whom the Devils did not beat last season; the New York Islanders; and Our Hated Rivals. Would it be nice if the Devils took them to school and beat them down? Sure. Would it mean anything? Not necessarily. Whether the team wins or loses will not mean anything the moment the final game ends on the night of October 7.

Having a winning record in preseason certainly does not carry over to the regular season either. The last time there was a preseason, the Devils went 5-2-0 in seven games with the first win and loss coming during a split-squad session. They beat Our Hated Rivals twice and it ended with a 2-0 shutout win over Columbus. This was exciting to see and why not? They got results, they scored plenty of goals, and it seemed to justify the offseason Ray Shero had in 2019. And it meant absolutely nothing as 2019-20 Devils went on to face plant in October literally from the first game of the actual regular season.

I will concede that it would be concerning if the Devils were blown out of each of their six preseason games. And it would be a cause of great hope if the opposite happens and the Devils were the windshield of a supercar and their opponents ended up being bugs. Both are very unlikely to happen regardless as both the Devils and their opponents are getting prepared for the season. Winning is nice but it is not essential for the next two weeks.

Do Worry About Performances of Certain Areas of the Team

While the final score does not matter much, preseason games can provide a good sense of how the team will play in this season. With six games from September 29 to October 7, there is not a lot of time in between games for re-tooling or tinkering with tactics. There is an eight-day gap between the last preseason game and the first regular season game - a game that counts. However, it is unlikely the coaches are going to try to implement something completely new after multiple games of playing with certain strategies.

To that end, you can get a sense of how the Devils will approach various situations on the ice. You can see whether the Devils are going to stick with a 1-3-1 power play with four forwards or not. You can see whether the Devils will go back to an effective wedge plus one formation on their penalty kill or continue the passive diamond that other teams dominated last season. You can see which lines are looking to carry pucks in or going to dump and chase. You can see whether skaters will defend players by swarming puck carriers or playing more positionally in dangerous areas in their own end. These are the things that you can look for and get a sense of whether it is working or not for the Devils.

I would recommend looking more of the repeatable results of these areas rather than something not easily repeatable, like goals. If the power play is generating opportunities and shots constantly, then you can feel good about the power play set up ahead of the season even if the conversions are not there. If the PK is only getting beaten by flukes and other odd occurrences, we can have a bit more hope for the Devils’ PK being far better than last season’s horrid nightmare. If the Devils are able to control the neutral zone more often, then we can be optimistic about their transition game. And so forth. These are takeaways that can also show whether the team is on the right track under Lindy Ruff and his staff ahead of what could be an important season to show some kind of improvement.

The First Few Games are for Cuts

The Devils have 50 players in camp. 44 of them have NHL contracts (2 have AHL only deals and 4 are on try-outs). They have to cut that down to a 23-man active roster before the season. While we can easily name the majority of the players who will be on the active roster, the Devils still have to go through the evaluation process to fill it out. This work has already begun as practices, scrimmages, on-ice sessions, off-ice sessions, and other activities can play a role as to whether someone makes the Devils, someone is in line for a future call up, or someone is going directly to Utica (or in the case of the try-outs, get released).

Next week begins the American Hockey League’s preseason. Utica’s first game is on October 8; they will host Rochester. The Comets will certainly have a few days of their own training camp ahead of next Friday’s game. What that means is that the games this week will likely feature several players on the fringe of the roster, prospective players, or players already tabbed to be Comets for this season. At worst, they get some minutes on the ice and go into Utica’s camp in better shape. At best, they impress the coaches enough to stay on the roster past the first or second set of cuts. By rule, there will be some NHL veterans on the ice for September 29, October 1, and October 2. Those games will not essentially be the Comets vs. the Bears (Capitals’ affiliate), Bridgeport Islanders, and Wolf Pack. However, both teams will be keeping their AHL affiliates in mind as the majority of cut players will be reporting to them.

For the Devils, I would anticipate plenty of those cuts are made after October 2, which is an afternoon game against the Isles. With three games in four nights to close out preseason, I would expect most of the roster to be identified by the back-to-back set on October 6 and 7. Therefore, for players like Fabian Zetterlund, Kevin Bahl, Tyce Thompson, and Marian Studenic, they really need to show up well right away.

Pay Attention to Player Usage - Especially for Prospects / Depth Players

Every team in the league has to deal with roster turnover to some extent every season. This means there are gaps in the lineup. This can be at even strength, such as who is going to play center along with Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Michael McLeod. This can be on the power play, such as who is on each unit and where they will be. This can be on the penalty kill, such as who is ultimately replacing players who played a lot on last year’s units such as Travis Zajac, Sami Vatanen, and Dmitry Kulikov. This can even be for the shootout - which may happen even if the game ends in regulation as a win or a loss. Since these games do not count, teams can experiment with whomever they would like.

I would definitely keep an eye out on who is being used and where. Especially if they were not there last season. I think it is fair to assume that Dougie Hamilton and Jack Hughes would play large roles on the team. It would be more interesting if we see, say, Jesper Boqvist playing center with NHL players in a preseason game. Or Pavel Zacha used in all three main situations while lining up as center. Or if a prospect like Dawson Mercer is receiving more minutes than other Comets and prospects. They could be signs as to how the decision makers in New Jersey view the player. Some of the experimentation is to see whether the player performs well given an opportunity. It may help their case to start the season with the Devils or be a call up if/when injuries happen.

Similarly, please do not freak out if you see some odd line combinations in practices or even the first few preseason games. Again, players may not be available due to injury or other reasons, and so the coaches need to know who their options are. These games do not count so this is the time to do it. Better that than having to roll the dice on someone unfamiliar in a game that counts in the standings.

The Goal for the Veterans: Get the Rust Off and Don’t Get Hurt

Teams are not going to be carried by their prospects. Their big free agent signings, returning veterans, and other experienced players are going to determine whether the team is good or not. To that end, their goal for preseason is straight forward: getting ready for the season. That means re-adjusting to preparing off the ice for games, re-acclimating to the schedule, and removing the rustiness from not playing for several months. The only veterans on the Devils that played within the last two months were Yegor Sharangovich, Christian Jaros, and Marian Studenic for Olympic qualifying games - and even that was just three games back at the end of August against nations with few NHL players.

To that end, do not get bothered if Hughes or Hischier are not lighting it up immediately. Or if a defenseman like Damon Severson makes a mistake. Or if Miles Wood reverts to “I’m definitely not caring about defense” mode. The purpose of these games for themselves is just to get back into some kind of game-shape ahead of the 82-game season. It is more important that they get their minutes in, re-acclimate their bodies, and - most of all - do not get hurt. I know in football, there is an argument whether over near-lock starters should be in preseason games at all. In hockey, the players need the game action to be fully prepared for games that count. Still, if the main result of the six games is that no Devils got hurt, then that is a bigger victory than whatever the scores of the six games were.

The Most Important Game: October 7

October 7 is the final preseason game for the Devils. This is the game that will likely have a roster close to what the Devils will start out with when their regular season begins on October 15. There may be a few final cuts to be made afterwards. There could be some adjustments made in terms of tactics and line combinations between that night and the 15th. But a majority of what you see that night against the Islanders will likely be what you will see when they take to the ice against the Blackhawks eight days later.

Again, the result of the game does not matter, but the performances do. The veteran players will have a few games under their belt; they should be more “in shape” in this game. Any prospects or fringe/depth players still playing may be good bets to make the team - it would be their last chance to leave a lasting impression on the coaches and other deciders of the roster. Any results from special teams or in the run of play may indicate how well (or not) the Devils may perform in those areas when the season begins. And this is the Islanders’ next to last preseason game, so they may be in a similar mindset where they may approach it more like a regular game. If you watch one preseason game over the next two weeks, then you may want to make it this one because it will be the closest to a full on game.

What Else Will You Look For?

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. But these are the main points to keep in mind with the six games coming up over this week and next week. It is preseason. It is an exciting time with the regular season coming up. It will be the first looks at on the ice in a competitive game for Dougie Hamilton, Jonathan Bernier, and Tomas Tatar. It will be a time where we will see competitions for spots literally play out. Just hope no one gets hurt and remember: the game results do not matter. What else will you look for in this preseason? Please leave your thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.