While the New Jersey Devils weren’t the busiest team when free agency opened this year, they weren’t completely quiet either. As John summarized yesterday evening, the team had already acquired Vitek Vanacek prior, then added Brendan Smith, traded Pavel Zacha for Erik Haula, and made a few additions to the Utica Comets as well. They did miss out on This Year’s Big Fish in Johnny Gaudreau (side note: who had Columbus as even a possible destination?) but pivoted and added Ondrej Palat very late last night. Shoutout to former Devil Kevin Weekes for being the first one to break the initial news:
**Breaking News**— Kevin Weekes (@KevinWeekes) July 14, 2022
I’m told @TBLightning 2X Stanley Cup Champ UFA and F Ondrej Palat is closing in on a 5 Yr contract with @NJDevils here in The Garden State.@NJDevil00 @NHL @espn @TSNHockey #HockeyTwitter pic.twitter.com/o94w3KC7l5
John also said it best in his article that the New Jersey Devils are better right now than they were ending off last season. But where does everything stand right now? Missing out on Gaudreau ruined a lot of potential lineup projections for the team, but there’s certainly a lot of potential for combinations new and old. Now it might seem ENTIRELY too soon to be trying to come up with exact lines and pairings for the Devils this season (especially as they may not be done), but hey free agency season is crazy season, so why not have one more article just with a different style of crazy? At the very least, we can start to forecast and predict what we could see if the Devils choose not to sign any more free agents aside from their own RFAs.
The First of I’m Sure Many All-Too Early 2022-23 New Jersey Devils Opening Night Roster Predictions
Restricted free agents who I (and most others) expect to sign and be on the opening night roster are denoted by a * next to their name.
Top 6 Forwards:
Jesper Bratt* - Jack Hughes - Dawson Mercer
Ondrej Palat - Nico Hischier - Yegor Sharangovich
Okay, so there may be some swapping of which sides the wingers play on here, but I fully expect these six players to comprise the top two lines on opening night barring either A) a summer signing or trade that has yet to happen or B) Alex Holtz (whose name you will be seeing later) plays his way into the Top 6 in training camp.
Ondrej Palat, signed 5x$6M by NJ, is a complementary 2nd line winger who is pretty good at just about everything but is more of a "fill in the blanks" kind of player. #NJDevils pic.twitter.com/Fi8LLt7Esz— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 14, 2022
I will say I’m not happy with the money the Devils handed Palat, but if he can complement the skillsets of his linemates, and not have his play fall off a cliff, I can live with it in the long run. If Holtz does outplay others to deserve a Top 6 spot, I could see him and Palat swapping lines.
The Devils may not have the flashiest, or most intimidating Top 6, but I do think there is a ton of potential here for this season. A full year of Jack Hughes could see him hit one of the highest (if not the highest) single season point total in Devils team history; Bratt could put forth another excellent, high-scoring season as could Hischier. Mercer hopefully takes another step forward, and Sharangovich and Palat will be expected to contribute on a nightly, or almost nightly basis. Scoring wasn’t a problem for the Devils last season, but this season could see them move from 19th in league scoring last season to Top 10.
And for those who think I’m being ridiculous or overly optimistic, the Devils scored 248 times last season, while the 10th best team, Washington, scored 275 times. Jack Hughes and Dawson Mercer could possibly add those 27 goals between them if everything goes well.
Bottom 6 Forwards
Jesper Boqvist* - Erik Haula - Alex Holtz
Miles Wood* - Michael McLeod - Nathan Bastian
The bottom line from two years ago finally reunites with Miles Wood healthy; I think this is a line that Lindy Ruff likes and depends on a bit too much, but they did produce results. If they aren’t overplayed or used in situations they shouldn’t be, I think keeping guys that know each other well and can bring some physicality together isn’t a bad idea.
The third line has some question marks, namely Holtz, but I think trying to ease him in with easier matchups is still the right move for him. I don’t think there’s much left for either him or Boqvist to prove in the AHL (additionally, Boqvist is no longer eligible for waivers) so the time to keep them in the NHL to prove their worth is now. Holtz is reported to have bulked up in preparation for the NHL, while Boqvist looked good in the latter half of last season, so I see this pair slotting alongside the newly signed Haula to form the team’s third line.
Lastly, from the currently signed roster, we have Andreas Johnsson and Tomas Tatar, two guys who tend to disappear for long stretches that I think will find themselves outplayed in training camp. Outside of a hot start last season, Johnsson has disappointed in Jersey for two straight seasons now and Tatar looks to be in decline. I could see the Devils attempting to move one of these players to free up a spot in the NHL for Fabian Zetterlund, who unfortunately like Boqvist loses his exemption to waivers this season. Zetterlund looked good and even got some time with top players last season as the Devils played out their remaining games. Based on what I’ve seen, he’s worth keeping, rather than attempting to squeeze him through waivers.
If I’m the Devils, and the players listed here perform similar in training camp to how they have in their time so far in New Jersey, I keep Tatar and Zetterlund on the roster, and either waive or trade Johnsson.
Also note that this scenario keeps Mason Geertsen nowhere near the NHL roster, which I think most if not all of us see as a win.
Pair 1: Jonas Siegenthaler - Dougie Hamilton
Pair 2: Ryan Graves - Damon Severson
Mix and match these four on their correct side in whichever set of pairings you prefer, I don’t think anyone will be surprised here, nor do I think anyone expects anything different from the Top 4. While there were some rough moments last season, all four of these players (when healthy) honestly looked pretty good on a consistent basis, particularly Severson, who I want to see the Devils extend this summer if possible. I know that ties up a lot of money on the right side, but with more LHD in the system than right, I’m not sure the Devils can afford to lose a righty.
Pair 3: Nikita Okhotiuk - Simon Nemec
Okay, now I’ve gone off the rails/gone bold. Out of all the left defenders not listed above, Okhotiuk looked the most composed out of anyone to play the position last season, and I think with a strong camp, he could find himself playing in New Jersey on opening night. Ditto that for Nemec, who has already been playing against men in Slovakia. With the right side beyond the top pairs being so barren, I have a gut feeling that Nemec starts the season with Jersey’s Team and doesn’t look back.
Extra: Brendan Smith
Traditionally a left D, Smith is versatile enough that he can play both sides. I honestly feel the Devils signed him to be a cheap veteran depth defender who can spot in as needed, so he drops into the extra slot.
But What About Ty Smith?
We all know that Ty had an awful sophomore season, and he will have all the chances in the world to shake that off during training camp and the preseason. With him still being waiver eligible however, I could see the Devils sending him to Utica to rediscover his game. Not saying he stays there all season, even if the defense stays healthy, but I think if the Devils want him to be with the team long-term, it might be best to have him take a step back to start 2022-23.
While I don’t see it as realistic, the Devils alternatively could jettison both Tatar and Johnsson and start the season with 8D. I’m hopeful for Ty to rediscover the magic of his rookie season, but based on end of season play, I’m giving a slight edge to Okhotiuk over Ty and also over Kevin Bahl right now.
Mackenzie Blackwood - Vitek Vanacek*
Okay, so we’re all inn agreement that this isn’t changing and is also the scariest part of the roster, right? Right, okay, end of article.
In seriousness, this pair could be the players who most directly affect whether the Devils sink or swim this season. Vanacek is a gamble, but a calculated one, while Blackwood, amidst reports of a rift between him and the team, is looking to firmly establish himself as an NHL starter. If they can split starts and do so well, or if one surges successfully into the starter’s role, the Devils could see their fortunes improve greatly from what they’ve been the past few seasons. If they don’t...well let’s just hope they do.
Your Build and Your Take
Okay, once again it is July 14th and ENTIRELY too early to be doing this, but I figure it’s never too early to have some fun projecting what the roster could look like. Do you agree with my projections? Any picks I made that you specifically like or dislike? Have I gone completely insane with my third pairing choices? Leave any and all thoughts, comments, or your own lineup projections below and thanks as always for reading!