The New Jersey Devils are set to play their final preseason game in Boston tomorrow. The Utica Comets’ preseason begins tonight as their camp has started earlier this week. More importantly, all NHL teams need to be cap and roster compliant by 5 PM ET on Monday, October 10. With waivers requiring a player to be available for 24-hour window before passing through, this means a lot of teams need to make their final cuts on Sunday. The New Jersey Devils went into this preseason with 56 players. Here is how they have whittled down their roster prior to today.
The Cuts Made Until Today
First, after losing 1-2 to Our Hated Rivals on September 30, the Devils cut their AHL-signed players and returned four junior players. Seven players were moved to Utica: Samuel Laberge, Xavier Parent, Nolan Stevens, Garrett Van Wyhe, Fillip Bratt, Jarrod Gourley, and Isaac Poulter. Those players could not play for New Jersey anyway, so this was expected. Likewise for Tyler Brennan and Josh Filmon, who were returned to Prince George and Swift Current, respectively, of the Western Hockey League. They are not even signed to ELCs. Topias Vilen and Chase Stillman are signed to ELCs but short of an astounding camp, they were not expected to make the team. Stillman was returned to Peterborough of the Ontario Hockey League. Vilen was loaned to Pelicans of the Finnish Liiga. Those 11 cuts brought the total camp participants down to 45.
Second, on Monday, the Utica Comets announced that they signed Zach Senyshyn to a one-season AHL contract. Senyshyn was with the Devils on a PTO deal. The 25-year old winger will be in Utica all season. Later that afternoon, it was announced that defenseman Thomas Hickey was released from his PTO. While he played in preseason with the Devils, his performances did not warrant a NHL deal. These two decisions cut the camp roster down to 43.
Third, after Monday’s 1-0 win over Boston, the Devils made some more cuts on Tuesday. The team sent Jack Dugan (who did not play in preseason games) and Michael Vukojevic (who played on Monday) straight down to Utica. They did not need to go through waivers. The team also announced Senyshyn’s demotion, which was expected given his AHL-only status. Robbie Russo, Joseph Gambardella, Jeremy Groleau, and Tyler Wotherspoon were all placed on waivers with the intention to be sent down to Utica. All four cleared the next day and joined the Comets’ camp. Those six moves (not counting Senyshyn) brought the Devils’ camp roster down to 37 players.
Johnsson & Pinho Placed on Waivers
This brings us to today. At a minimum, 14 players have to be re-assigned. At 2 PM ET, the waiver wire news was released. Andreas Johnsson was on the list. A surprise of sorts given that Johnsson is a NHL veteran and has played 246 NHL games, 121 with the Devils. Not so surprising if you have seen Johnsson in preseason games this year. In short, he has been real bad. He has mishandled passes, misread plays, and been out of position well more often than a veteran of his experience should be. His underlying numbers - his one saving grace in his two seasons in New Jersey - for preseason have not been positive. I had high hopes for him solidifying the top-six at wing in the past. He has not provided the production or the performances to justify a solid spot on the New Jersey roster. As much as I want to believe he can be better than he has shown in this preseason, management has decided that he can prove that away from New Jersey. I cannot really fault them for the demotion.
The decision to put Johnsson on waivers does make financial sense. He is on a one-way contract, so he will be paid what he is owed regardless where he is. However, he was set to just make $2.5 million this season and he already received $1.75 million in a signing bonus. He is making the NHL minimum for base salary this season. If Johnsson clears, then his cap hit will be reduced by $1.125 million - which will provide a little savings for a Devils team up against the cap prior to any LTIR moves. (Aside: This is called the Wade Redden rule.) If Johnsson is claimed, then he’s not the Devils’ problem anymore. If someone wants Johnsson without losing their spot in waiver claims and he is not on Johnsson’s no-trade list, then the Devils can ship him out for likely a minimum return. It may be harsh from a player perspective, but from a cap and money perspective, this is not a bad decision at all. Will he clear? Maybe? The cap hit would be a lot to take in on someone the Devils are dumping on waivers. Then again, the move to demote him is more meaningful than whether he is claimed or not.
There was one other Devil placed on waivers today: Brian Pinho. Pinho is a center who has been an AHL for much of his pro career. The 2013 sixth round draft pick of Washington played all of 2 NHL games in his career and that was back in 2021.; Pinho has otherwise played solely for Hershey. He signed a NHL deal with the Devils with the intent of playing in Utica with a potential for a call up. Given his preseason performances, I doubt we will see a call up anytime soon. However, good work with Utica will change that. I expect Pinho to clear and join the Comets tomorrow.
The placement of Johnsson and Pinho on waivers brings the total count down to 35 players. This was cut down further with eight non-waiver demotions announced today by the team.
Eight Other Cuts
The Devils cut eight other players from New Jersey’s camp today. Whereas Johnsson and Pinho need to go through waivers to be demoted, these eight are still waiver ineligible and do not. The eight will not necessarily surprise you. Per the Devils, Graeme Clarke, Nolan Foote, Brian Halonen, Aarne Talvitie, Reilly Walsh, Nikita Okhotiuk, Nico Daws, and Akria Schmid are all assigned to Utica as of right now.
I do not think anyone expected either goaltender to take minutes from Mackenzie Blackwood or Vitek Vanecek. And so they have not. Vanecek and Blackwood have started and played the entirety of the last four preseason games. Daws and Schmid will look to continue their progress after a successful 2021-22 with the Comets last season.
On defense, I understand that there were some hopes for Walsh and Okhotiuk. However, their preseason games have exposed their limitations at this level. Walsh and Okhotiuk have made far too many mistakes on and off the puck in their games. The underlying numbers in 5-on-5 reflect this. Okhotiuk in particular was picked on in last night’s game against the Islanders. Walsh certainly did not provide enough offense to justify further minutes. Both will have to contend for working their way up from Utica if and when spots open up.
At forward, I do not think anyone should be shocked at these four demotions. Clarke did play well against the Islanders last night. He even scored a rare power play goal for the Devils in this preseason. I think he helped his cause among the many forwards in the system, but I do not think he did enough to challenge, say, Fabian Zetterlund or Alexander Holtz for NHL minutes. The other three had their chances and left something to be desired. Halonen is someone to watch to see how he handles pro hockey; this is his first season after college. Talvitie and Foote did little to help themselves out. Foote’s still slow and Talvitie was overwhelmed in his two preseason games. All four should continue to work on their games in Utica and hope to shine if and when they get a call up.
With the demotion of two goalies, two defensemen, and four forwards, there are 27 players left in camp. The Devils have to make a minimum of 4 more cuts and a maximum of 7 more cuts prior to the deadline on October 10.
The Roster Before the Final Cuts
Here is how the camp roster looks after today’s cuts:
Goaltenders (3): Mackenzie Blackwood, Vitek Vanecek, Jonathan Bernier
The tandem for New Jersey this season is Blackwood and Vanecek. Or Vanecek and Blackwood. That is the only real question: Who is the #1/1A and who is the #2/1B goalie? We will probably get that answer during the season itself. What about Bernier? While he practiced initially and even took part in a scrimmage, he has not been seen at all in preseason games. I am going to presume he will be placed on long term injured reserve. This would not only cut him from the camp roster, but also add further room for the Devils to meet the salary cap ceiling.
Defensemen (8): Kevin Bahl, Ryan Graves, Dougie Hamilton, John Marino, Simon Nemec, Damon Severson, Jonas Siegenthaler, Brendan Smith
Of these eight defensemen, six are mortal locks to make the team: Hamilton, Marino, Graves, Severson, Siegenthaler, and Smith. The Devils could go into opening night with those six and be done with it. Bahl and Nemec are waiver ineligible; their demotion would mean the Devils only have to cut one forward. However, I do not think that will be the case. Teams tend to carry a defenseman as an extra. I can see the Devils wanting to keep Nemec around for a game or two just to see what he does in a NHL setting before moving him down. Yet, Nemec’s performances in preseason have not been good. Bahl’s performances in preseason have been very good. His defending has been tidy, he has not taken many penalties, and his positioning has been quite good. The Devils have wanted to see a lot of Bahl in this preseason given his 66 minutes so far; which is a lot as only a handful of players have had more 5-on-5 ice time than Bahl in this preseason. His underlying numbers have been very good. I think if there is a time to give Bahl a real NHL shot, then this is the time. His preseason performances have certainly earned him NHL minutes. At a minimum, he has placed himself ahead of Okhotiuk and Walsh in the depth chart.
If it were up to me, I would demote Nemec and have him start out in Utica. This means that I would have Bahl make the New Jersey roster out of camp.
Forwards (16): Nathan Bastian, Jesper Boqvist, Jesper Bratt, Mason Geertsen, Erik Haula, Nico Hischier, Alexander Holtz, Jack Hughes, Michael McLeod, Dawson Mercer, Ondrej Palat, Yegor Sharangovich, Tomas Tatar, Tyce Thompson, Miles Wood, Fabian Zetterlund
From 31 forwards to 16. Similar to the defensemen, most of these players are going to be on the team barring any decision by GM Tom Fitzgerald or the league. Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, Palat, Sharangovich, and so forth are definitely in. Tatar has had a preseason the opposite of Johnsson and he will be in. Miles Wood showed he was fully recovered from the hip surgery and so he will be in. Haula was acquired in a trade and Palat was a free agent signing; both are in for sure.
The decision on who to cut in my mind is fairly easy. Tyce Thompson, while hurt, is waiver ineligible for this season. He can recover and re-start 2022-23 with Utica. Mason Geertsen is terrible and the Devils have never should have re-signed him. He can be placed on waivers and if he clears or not, so be it. He does not help team win games; he should not be with the NHL team. Those two moves plus demoting Nemec and placing Bernier on LTIR would bring the Devils down to 23 players for opening night. Done and dusted. Bahl, Boqvist, Holtz, and Zetterlund would make the team with my preferred cuts.
This would allow the Devils to keep both Fabian Zetterlund and Alexander Holtz. Both have received plenty of looks and minutes in camp. Zetterlund impressed in April of last season and he has at least shown he can hang in NHL games then. In this preseason, while not as much of a stand out, he has shown his pace of play and enough respectable results to warrant bottom-six appearances. Holtz has been tried out next to Hughes and Mercer. While he has not scored much, he has been winning pucks, getting his shot off, and at least helping on defense. The underlying numbers show that he has been fairly good even without the production. The progress has been visible. I think it is fair for the Devils to start him in New Jersey provided they continue to give him prime minutes with offensive players.
Of course, this does not solve all of the questions at forward. Should Zetterlund play ahead of Nathan Bastian or someone else? Should Holtz go right to play next to Hughes and Palat, or should other combinations be tried out first? How does Jesper Boqvist - who has had an inconsistent preseason - get into games; does it need to be at the cost of McLeod sitting? What is Michael McLeod’s status and will the NHL or the PA advise on that? These will still have to be sorted out. And this presumes my preferred cuts even happen. How naïve am I to think the Devils will cut a truly terrible player in Mason Geertsen?
All the same, the Devils have one more preseason game and a little over 48 hours to figure out the final three cuts. Do not be shocked if you see some “paper moves” on Sunday or even Monday. The goal is to meet the cap and roster limits by Monday evening and then get a roster ready for Thursday night in Philadelphia. Much could happen by those dates.
Today’s news is that the Devils placed Johnsson and Pinho on waivers and demoted 8 other players to Utica. This brings the Devils’ camp roster down to 27. They need to make four to seven more cuts by Monday. Are you surprised the Devils went ahead and placed Johnsson on waivers? Who would you cut that’s remaining on the roster? Who do you think has one last chance tomorrow to make the team? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils’ cuts made today and the ones yet to come. Thank you for reading.