The one good thing about sucking for the better part of a decade is that you (hopefully) start to accumulate a sizable number of prospects. Ideally, at least some of these prospects end up as future stars that can lead the team back down the road to Stanley Cup contention. Unfortunately, odds are against that happening for the vast majority of draft picks. That means, assuming the GM in charge of the whole thing is somewhat competent, a team nearing the end of a rebuild will have a lot of draft picks that have/will completely miss, a handful that end up making a sizable impact for the NHL team, and a couple handfuls of players who are somewhere in-between. These are the players who will be successful pros, but whether that’s in the NHL, AHL, or somewhere over in Europe is yet to be determined.
The Devils, as it happens, have had quite a few of these bubble players the last couple years. And since, despite what their position in the standings would have you believe, they’ve actually been attempting to ice a competitive roster these last few seasons, the Devils have had good competition for roster spots among their prospects. This trend should continue next month when training camp opens, and assuming there aren’t any major injuries, someone who has a strong camp and deserves to make the team on merit is probably getting screwed over. So today let’s look at some of the forwards who will be fighting for an NHL job come September.
With regards to the this group, I don’t think even the top-6 can be more than penciled in. I have Hischier centering Palat and Bratt on line one, while Hughes centers Sharangovich and Mercer on the second line. I suspect these 6 make up the top 2 lines in some combination. There’s more uncertainty when we look at the bottom-6 however, and this is where I expect some of the major camp battles to take place. If we assume that there are 13-14 roster spots available for forwards, and that Tatar, Johnsson, Wood, and Haula are safe, along with the aforementioned top-6, that leaves 3-4 roster spots for an additional 8 forwards I believe make up the bubble.
- Michael McLeod
- Nathan Bastian
- Jesper Boqvist
- Fabian Zetterlund
- Alex Holtz
- Tyce Thompson
- Nolan Foote
- Graeme Clarke
I debated whether McLeod and Bastian should be on this list since they have a couple season of NHL experience under their belt already and they’ve been constants on the Devils 4th line during Lindy Ruff’s tenure. However, given the latter only ended up back in New Jersey via waivers, and the former (potential off-ice issues aside) has yet to show he’s more than a replacement level player, I think it’s fair to put them on this list. That leads me to Jesper Boqvist, who has the most NHL experience on this list aside from Bastian and McLeod. The 23 year-old Swede also has experience playing all 3 forward positions in his time in the NHL and is coming off what is by far his most successful professional season to-date. He hit double digit goals and ended up with 23 points in 56 games. While he isn’t exactly a play-driver (48.9% CF% via hockey reference), he finished 12th on the team in xGAR based on Evolving Hockey’s model, mostly due to his strong offensive play. The hope is that what we saw from Boqvist last season is a taste of what’s to come and that he will continue to develop into a solid middle-6 forward. But even if simply maintains his level of play from last year and doesn’t improve at all, I think it would take a particularly poor camp for Boqvist to start the year anywhere besides on the Devils roster.
The next two forwards on this list, Fabian Zetterlund and Alex Holtz will be looking to make the Devils roster for the first time in their young professional careers. Both are skilled right-shot RWs with powerful shots.
Zetterlund has been waiting in the wings for a few years and is coming off of a breakout season in Utica, potting 24 goals and 52 points in 58 games. In his second of two call-ups to New Jersey, he was able to carry over this success and finished the year with 8 points in 14 NHL games. In a such a short sample, perhaps especially when it comes at a time when the team is no longer really competing for a playoff spot, you have to take things with a pinch of salt. However, it is hard to imagine Zetterlund’s NHL stint going much better than it did. In addition to being productive, he drove play at a high level, finishing with a 56.5% CF%, was a solid even strength player via xGAR. He was also trigger happy, finishing with 36 shots in his 14 games. I’ve heard the complaint from fans that the Devils have too many play makers and not enough shooters. And while I am not sure I agree with that complaint, Zetterlund is certainly a shooter. He’s also someone I could see playing up and down the line-up. If he left anywhere near the positive impression on management as he did with us fans, I suspect Zetterlund will rightly be given every chance to make the Devils roster out of camp.
Holtz, like Zetterlund, had a very strong year for Utica, finishing just a point shy of being a pt/gm player with 51 points in 52 games. Being the 7th overall pick in the 2020 NHL draft means he carries the weight of expectations with him. Unlike Zetterlund, he didn’t exactly impress in his 9 games in New Jersey. That’s not a concern long-term. Holtz is just 20, and at this age an offseason of development and time in the weight-room can do wonders. You could also make a strong argument that Holtz should’ve made the team out of camp last year, so between his success in the AHL, and his strong camp last year, I don’t have any concerns about his development. On the other hand, Holtz, unlike Zetterlund, likely needs a little more insulation at this stage of his career. By all accounts he is a hard worker and will forecheck for you. But he’s not the strongest player off of the puck and he’s not going to be someone you rely on in all-situations. That makes him more specialized, which is fine, but it also means that if a spot in the top-9 isn’t available, he’s probably better suited playing in Utica again. My prediction is that both players start the year in New Jersey, but Holtz is sent down at some point prior to December 1st because Ruff can’t find a way to get him into enough games.
Now we move on to the players I consider long-shots to make the roster.
Tyce Thompson, the oldest of the three at 23 years-old, is coming off of a season derailed by injuries. After a strong start in Utica where he was a point-per-game player, he suffered a torn labrum and missed the majority of the season recovering from this injury. He seemed to finish the year fairly strong, ending with 15 points in 16 games for Utica, and I see him as someone who could push for an NHL job this season. If it weren’t for Zetterlund’s NHL success, I would put Thompson on equal footing with the Swede, but with the injury wiping out much of Thompson’s season last year, he will need to really shine in camp to push past the players mentioned above. Thompson will get in some games next year, but I think it will take an injury or poor performance by a roster player to make it happen.
Nolan Foote, who makes up half of the Blake Coleman trade return, is another player who got in a handful of games for New Jersey last season. He was productive in his NHL time, finishing with 4 points in 7 games. Like Thompson, Zetterlund, and Holtz, Foote is known for having a strong shot. Unlike these other 3 forwards, he is a left shot, which isn’t as important for wingers as defensemen, but I thought it worth a mention. Foote didn’t have as strong of a season for Utica as Holtz, Zetterlund, or Thompson, but I wouldn’t call 32 points in 55 games disappointing. From what I observed though, Foote needs to work on his feet. Every time I’ve watched him, he seems slow, and while this isn’t an insurmountable obstacle, I do think it puts him literally and figuratively a step behind the players mentioned so far.
The final player I will touch on today is Graeme Clarke. His is very much the dark horse of this group. You’d be forgiven for asking why I even have him listed here. Partly, it’s because every competition needs an underdog. But it’s also because I think he’s due for a strong season, even if it’ll likely be mostly or entirely spent with Utica. Clarke is another right-shot RW with a strong shot. While his first couple seasons in Utica haven’t been anything to write home about, with at least one RW from last seasons AHL team likely making the NHL this year, and perhaps more, he should be in line for an expanded role with the Comets. And if things go poorly for the Devils this season, a decent enough showing by the 21 year-old Canadian in the minors could lead to a late season cup of coffee in New Jersey.
Today I looked at some of the young forwards I think are on the bubble of the Devils roster. From incumbents McLeod, Bastian, and Boqvist, to the dark-horse Graeme Clarke. Next week, I will look at the young blue-liners on the fringe of the Devils roster who could make a name for themselves this season. For now though, do you think I missed anyone who should be on today’s list? Which young forwards do you think will start the season with the Devils? Is there anyone you feel I am missing the mark on? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading.