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New Jersey Devils 2022-23 Season Preview Part 1: The Forwards

Welcome to the 2022-23 season preview! Have you forgotten everything in the offseason? Do you just want to get hyped for Devils hockey? Either way, come check out the preview of the forwards today.

New Jersey Devils v Washington Capitals
The backbone of the forward corps.
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Welcome to another season of New Jersey Devils hockey! I am excited to kick off the season preview today here at All About the Jersey. While the preseason is not done yet, we are nonetheless starting today so that each day we can give you another in depth look at a different part of the team and organization as a whole. At the end, you will see the season predictions from each of us as well as what should be a more optimistic outlook than we have shown over the last bunch of seasons. Today, I will be diving into what should turn out to be the strongest part of the team this season: the Forwards.

It is interesting to note that when we’re discussing the Devils, the forward group is the deepest and star-studded when compared to the defense and goaltending. That has rarely been the case, especially since this organization has taken to its losing ways after 2012. We are often discussing how the Devils need to score more, how there is not enough offensive production, and how they are regularly near the bottom of the league in Goals For. This season, barring unforeseen developments, this is instead going to be the group that this team leans on to win games and move up the standings. Without a strong offensive showing from the forward corps, there will be no postseason, not even close.

For this preview, I will start by reviewing what happened last season with the forwards before taking a look at this year’s squad and finally going into some expectations for this year. I definitely encourage you to augment my preview by adding in your own thoughts about the forwards in the comments below. Tell me why my expectations as a whole are way off base, or tell me why Alexander Holtz is going to be way worse than I posit. And finally, if you are so interested, you can hark back to last season’s forward preview that Brian wrote up.

What Happened Last Year?

Before going into individual performances, take a quick look at how the offense did as a whole last season versus years prior, with information coming from Natural Stat Trick:

So I added the five years prior to last year to paint a bigger picture. Apart from the season they made the playoffs, 2017-18, last season saw the offense perform the best it has for quite some time. The team actually did not end in the 20s or worse in Goals For, although they were admittedly quite close coming in at 19th in the league. Nonetheless, that is an improvement. They were extremely close to reaching an average of 3 goals per game, coming in just 0.01 short. Again, progress. It was an overall jump in the right direction, and as some of the key guys continue to improve and gain experience, it should hopefully continue to improve even more.

Of course, these numbers as a whole are not 100% indicative of the forward group, which is what this preview is looking into. Defensemen score goals and help to produce goals as well, and that is definitely noted. However, the forward group is mostly responsible for this task on the ice, and without a good group of forwards, there will not be many goals scored, even with some good offensive defensemen.

Now, to filter out that defensive impact, let’s get into individual performances. Here is a chart of a bunch of different stats I accumulated, mostly from Natural Stat Trick, but some from Hockey-Reference. Players needed to have played at least 200 minutes in all situations to be included. Finally, all stats are for all situations except for OZFO%, CF%, GF%, xGF%, HDCF% and HDGF%, which are all at 5v5.

Obviously, the names at the top are the ones you want to see, and they are the ones that will need to be on top of the chart next year as well if they are going to perform well as a group. Jesper Bratt is at the top with his breakout season of 73 points in 76 games. He was also tops or near tops in most of the other major categories, including shots per games played, average time on ice, and all of the analytical stats including CF, GF, xGF, and high danger. The scary thing is that there is still some possibility for growth and improvement at 24 years old, and he could crack 80 points or more this year if things go well.

Beyond him, and if he was not at the top, you are often looking at Jack Hughes. If Jack had played a full season, or at least 70+ games, he probably would have been better than even Bratt in most categories. He had the best point percentage among forwards last year and was the only one to average over 1 point per game. There is no doubt in my mind that he could have maintained that pace for another 20-25 games if he were healthy enough to have played in them. Nico was also his usual awesome self, and he has drastically improved in faceoffs as well, giving this team a second option for important draws outside of Michael McLeod, who is one of the best in the business at this point. Nico also managed his quality season with a sub-50% offensive zone faceoff percentage, which makes things a little more impressive.

Outside of those most important three, I think Dawson Mercer’s stats are interesting and good to look at. He was the only forward to have played in all 82 games, and this was despite the fact that he was a legit rookie, having never played an NHL game before the season started. And he had a fairly good year overall, even better when you take into account the fact that he was 19 years old. However, when you dig into some of the analytics, you can see that improvement will be needed this year. He was fairly low in CF%, xGF% and HDGF%, at least in comparison to many of his peers in the forward group. Those will need to rise, or else he will be in danger of being a forward that needs to be carried in order to find success. The Devils, however, will need him to be a carrier moving forward, not the other way around.

This Year’s Squad

First, let’s look at departures from that chart above, as there obviously are some holes that will need to be filled. Pavel Zacha had some decent stats with over 0.5 points per game and positive numbers in CF%, xGF%, and HDCF%. He was also one of only three forwards that had a positive faceoff percentage, and that was over nearly 400 attempts. That will need to be replaced as he is now with Boston. Beyond him, Janne Kuokkanen is also gone thanks to being bought out in the offseason. He obviously had a very disappointing year given the expectations that were had for him at the start of last season and before that. His departure should clear room for someone to hopefully improve at that position, someone like Alexander Holtz. Finally, Jimmy Vesey is gone, and he is on a PTO in New York. He did not produce too much on the stat sheet with only 15 points in 68 games, but he was a defensive forward for this team, with an offensive zone faceoff percentage at only 37.86%. Only Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian had a lower percentage. He was asked to defend often from the forward position and did his job well enough. However, that is another position that will look to be upgraded going forward.

Now, who is here to replace these guys? Well, Zacha was traded straight up for Erik Haula back in July, so that is the first replacement right there. Here is Haula’s player card from JFresh:

As you can see, he is really projected as a third liner type, and he was someone who had a much better season last year than he had in the years prior. His WAR jumped significantly versus the year before it. He was fairly consistent in terms of offense versus defense but produced more of his points off of primary assists as opposed to goals. He had 44 points in 78 games last year, more than Zacha, with 18 goals and 26 total assists. If he can produce that on the third line this year alongside Dawson Mercer, it will be a boost overall for this Devils offense when compared to Zacha. He is older, however, at 31 versus Zacha at 24, so I wouldn’t expect much in terms of growth, but if he can act as a mentor-type for Mercer when on the ice, and keep him grounded and in the game, it will be even more of a bonus.

Beyond him, the biggest acquisition by Tom Fitzgerald was the signing of former Tampa winger Ondrej Palat. After failing to sign superstar Johnny Gaudreau, Fitzgerald scrambled and, overnight after Free Agent Frenzy, inked Palat to a 5-year, $30 million deal. This deal makes him the third highest paid forward on the team currently, behind Jack and Nico. The general take on this is that it will be an overpayment over the course of the deal, but in the first 2-3 years of it, assuming he continues to play as he was in Tampa, it should be worthwhile. The last year or two could be brutal if he tails off later in his 30s. Palat currently is 31, so if he can remain at a peak level through age 36, it would certainly make the contract worth it. Not impossible, but not terribly likely that he will be worth $6 million a year when he is 35-36.

But for now, and especially for this year, the Devils are getting in Palat a legit top 6 winger who can help make this team’s star centers even better. In training camp, he has been playing heavily on a line with Jack Hughes and Alexander Holtz, and if he becomes tied at the hip to Hughes for the next several years, it could be a beneficial relationship for all parties involved. Here is Palat’s card from JFresh:

This is the card of someone you want right now in a top 6 situation alongside Hughes. Excellent even strength offense, better at assists but knows how to score goals, and great at finishing. He also isn’t a liability defensively, which is great since he will be playing against tougher competition and thus needs to be able to handle his own in the defensive zone. Would Johnny Hockey have been better? Absolutely. But he also would have cost more, been for longer term, and been more of a risk. Again, who knows how this contract ends up and how Palat will be able to play when he is in his mid-30s, but for now, he should provide a tangible boost to the top 6 offense.

Beyond those two, who are locks for the lineup, the other new name that deserves mention at the moment is Zach Senyshyn, who is in training camp as a PTO. Zach was selected in the first round by Boston back in 2015 but has not had much success, playing in only 16 total NHL games. He is fighting for a very small chance at a roster spot, and it isn’t too likely that he makes the team, but since camp is not over yet, I felt the need to mention him.

With that all coming together, it already is a pretty solid collection of forwards. Without a doubt NHLers at this point have to include: Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, Mercer, Palat, Sharangovitch, Tatar, Johnsson, McLeod, Bastian, Wood, Haula, and Boqvist. That’s 13 skaters for 12 starting positions, so it isn’t like there is a ton of room for more. However, there is space for someone who is a breakout candidate and who can make a name for himself. It isn’t like someone like Boqvist of Johnsson is locked into an NHL role long term if someone comes along who is playing better. Those guys need to play well enough to keep their spots as well.

That being said, the player I think everyone wants to see cement himself in this lineup is Alexander Holtz. And when I mean everyone, I mean the coaching staff as well. They’re giving him every chance to succeed and show himself as NHL-ready, putting him on a line almost exclusively with Hughes and Palat. As an up-and-coming winger, you almost cannot ask for better linemates. He has also had some preseason game time with Mercer and Tatar as well, and that would be a quality line for him all things considered, but if he can make it work with Hughes and Palat, he will absolutely find himself in the starting 12 each night, pushing someone from that list above onto the trade block or down to Utica.

Looking at early WOWY numbers from the preseason (3 games for Holtz), he and Hughes have a 56.82 CF% when together, so in terms of possession, the line is working. They also have a 61.87 xGF%, meaning they should be dominating the competition. He also has a goal and an assist in that time as well, and a 0.67 point per game pace in the regular season will lock him there. However, his biggest job is going to be scoring goals, not producing assists, so much of where he ends up will be tied to how consistently he can produce goals here. If he ends this preseason with only 1 goal, even with strong possession and other analytical numbers alongside Hughes and Palat, that could be problematic.

For now, however, you have to think he makes the opening night roster simply because the Devils have 9 games to decide what to do with him. If he dresses in 10 NHL games, the first year of his ELC will be burned, and at that point, they would be stupid to not keep him in New Jersey and play him for the season. But after 9, they can send him down to Utica and not burn a year of the deal. So he will have an early tryout in the regular season as well, meaning it is almost assured he is on the roster for game 1.

Given that, what could the lineup look like come opening night? Here is one potential setup:





This would leave out Boqvist and Johnsson, plus other names from camp like Fabian Zetterlund, but it is a reasonable guess. That fourth line should be locked in all season in that format if you ask me. There is no reason to play Wood any higher than that, and I have written articles about the effectiveness of McLeod and Bastian together on the fourth line, so that works exceptionally well in my opinion. However, you could make arguments for others to make it there instead, especially with a poor camp from McLeod. The top 6 there is scary good if you ask me, especially if Sharangovitch can continue to prove that he is second line worthy as a winger. Playing alongside Nico and Bratt will certainly give him every chance to do just that. And it also gives Mercer strong veteran presences all around him to help him improve even more in year two, and you have to like the scoring potential of that third line overall.

To me, that opening night roster there is very strong, perhaps the strongest this team has had in some time. It is deep, it has playmakers on every line, and despite it all, it is still incredibly young, with plenty of room for growth and development. You cannot ask for more, especially for a team that is looking to grow, improve, and finally begin to make a statement that hey, this new corps of Devils is here to stay and here to make noise.

Finally, just make a quick note that training camp is not officially over yet, so changes can still happen in the next couple of days. Players could be cut, moved, unexpectedly make the roster, or even trades could happen before opening night. There is a plethora of talent here, someone could be moved sooner than later, and other names I have not listed could make this roster. One prime example would be Fabian Zetterlund, who has had a strong preseason and training camp so far. Same with Graeme Clarke, who was probably the only Devil who played well last night. I would not really expect to see Clarke make it, despite his strong camp, but it wouldn’t surprise at all me to see Zetterlund make it on the fourth line. I think the Wood-McLeod-Bastian line is solid for a checking line, and I think people can sometimes underestimate what the McLeod-Bastian pairing brings to the table in that role, but if the coaching staff opts for Zetterlund over McLeod or whoever, it wouldn’t be a total shock there. We can only hope that someone like Zetterlund can become the next Sharangovitch, what a boon that would be. And even if he doesn’t make it opening night, I would strongly expect to see Zetterlund play some games with New Jersey when injuries do inevitably occur.

Expectations for This Season

To me, expectations for this season should be all about improvement. Last year, they actually made it out of the bottom third of the league in Goals For, and they should continue to improve upon that. If they move into the top half of the league in Goals For this season, that would be a quality improvement. If they make the top 10 in that department, it would be the ideal scenario where everything goes right. I don’t know if we should expect top 10 in this department, but if they end in the 12-16 range in the NHL, that could create a lot of opportunities for wins and movement up the standings.

Where is this improvement coming from? Well, it could be from almost anywhere given what you see in that lineup. The obvious answers are: Holtz becoming a legit NHL goal scorer, Hughes staying healthy and playing a full season, Tatar having a bounce-back year, Bratt getting even better, and Mercer continuing to develop. You could even hope for some growth from someone like Jesper Boqvist, who is still only 23 years old and you know is going to fight hard to keep a roster spot for himself. I don’t have him there for opening night if Holtz gets that spot, but if he plays well, you know there will be a spot for him somewhere in the long run, and growth from him would only be a good problem for Lindy Ruff and Co. to have.

Most importantly, I think that it would only be in the absolute worst-case scenario where you could expect negative regression for this group. If injuries plague this squad, especially down the middle, and if young guys like Holtz fail to make an impression, it is definitely possible that this team once again finds itself in the bottom 10 in the league in Goals For. However, that would be a nightmare scenario, and it would spell doom for this team’s chances to do anything other than finish in the bottom 5 in the league once again. Thankfully, the odds look to be against that, and with the amount of potential and talent in this group, growth is a very strong possibility.


There you have it! Hopefully, you now have a good idea of the forward group for the New Jersey Devils heading into this season. It is the area of the team which should excel the most, and it is the one that needs to perform the best if this team is going to go anywhere. Yes, this team is going nowhere if they don’t get even league-average goaltending, and they need someone on defense to deflect pucks in the defensive zone, but the offense is what is going to drive this team to success if it indeed finds any. There is a ton of promise in this group, and if things go well, it could be one of the more electric and exciting forward groups in the NHL. If things go sideways, however, it will be another year of disappointment, even more so now that the corps is getting older and it feels like we would be wasting years of their prime.

However, I am definitely optimistic about where this group is headed and what we will be able to see this year. I want to see a monster year from Bratt, potentially an MVP-type year from Hughes, more under-the-radar dominance from Hischier, a breakout second year from Mercer, a quality year from rookie Holtz, and maybe even something like 20 goals from Sharangovitch or Tatar. Is all of this going to happen? Probably not. Can some of it happen? Absolutely, and if it does, this group could be sneaky good.

That’s what I think, however. How do you feel about this forward group this year? What are you expecting from them this season? Are you as optimistic as me, or are you a little more hesitant given the disappointment we have seen for most of the last decade? Who do you think could be a breakout candidate this year, and what are your thoughts about the opening night lineup? Much different than mine? Please leave your comments below, and I hope you’re getting excited for another year of Devils hockey!