Last week we looked at which forward prospects and young players will compete for roster spots come the Devils training camp. Today, we turn our attention to the back-end and look at which blue-liners have a shot to make the Devils opening night roster.
Unlike with the forward group, the Devils defense doesn’t have a lot of room for young fringe players to make the cut. The New Jersey defense is instead, much heavier on NHL veterans. The youngest players are Jonas Siegenthaler and John Marino, both of whom are 25. I think it’s safe to say that they are both highly likely to be regulars in the Devils top-6. Add to this a stacked right-side that features Dougie Hamilton, Damon Severson, and now John Marino, and there’s a decent chance it takes an injury or trade for any prospect to see NHL action. Since Siegenthaler and Graves are near locks for the first and second pairing on the left side of the defense, I see just two potential line-up spots up for grabs, the 3rd pairing left defense spot, and a spot in the press box as an extra. Really, it’s just one spot since Brendan Smith, the Devils other free agency signing back in July, isn’t likely to be waived a couple months after signing a 2-year contract just so a prospect can sit in the press box.
Even though I think the most likely outcome in this scenario is that the Devils end up starting the year with the aforementioned 6 defensemen in their opening night line-up, with perhaps a player on a PTO being signed as the 7th defenseman, there are a few players in the system that could challenge for a roster spot.
I ended up breaking down the forward prospects into a few different tiers based on how likely I thought they were to actually make the team. With the defensemen, I don’t really think this is necessary. None of these players have more than a handful of NHL games under their belt and the list isn’t long enough to make this necessary. Also, while positional need is definitely a factor with forwards, NHL coaches are much more likely to try playing a RW on the left side, or move a center to the wing, than to play a right-shot defenseman on the left side, or vis versa. That means the lefties on this list have a leg up on the competition.
Let’s start with the right-side of the defense, with the candidate with the brightest future of the bunch: 2nd overall selection from the 2022 NHL draft, Simon Nemec. In addition to clearly being the most talented player on this list, the 18-year-old right shot defenseman already has pro experience. More importantly, he excelled at the pro level this past season, putting putting up 26 points in 39 regular season games for HK Nitra of the Slovakian League. He followed that up with 17 points in 19 playoff games. The Slovakian League is a few steps below the AHL in terms of quality of competition, but it’s still a professional league with grown men, so success there as an 18 year-old defenseman is worth writing home about. My point here is that Nemec wasn’t drafted just for his talent and what he could be in 5 years, he’s shown he can handle big minutes against men and still be a productive offensive player right now, in September he’ll have the opportunity to show that he can do the same at the highest level. I suspected that part of what led to Nemec being the Devils selection is that they’re hoping he is closer to being NHL ready than some of the other top prospects from this past NHL draft. GM Tom Fitzgerald is very invested in Nemec, seeing as he passed over consensus top prospect Shane Wright and another highly talented offensive player in Logan Cooley in order to select Nemec. I believe that Nemec will be given every opportunity to show he is ready for the NHL, and even though I don’t think he’ll make the roster on opening night given the strength of the Devils right-side, I suspect we’ll see him play games at some point this season.
Sticking on the right side, we have 23-year old offensive defenseman, Reilly Walsh. Walsh made his NHL debut last season, appearing in just one game. Walsh has been productive in his time in the AHL, hovering around 0.5 pts/gm the last two seasons with the Devils AHL affiliate. He appears to be very gifted offensively, but his off-puck play and skating that have likely held him back from an NHL job. Walsh is similar to Holtz in the sense that he is a more one-dimensional player. Unlike Holtz, Walsh doesn’t have a high draft pedigree and now has the aforementioned Nemec potentially jumping over him on the depth chart. I would like to see Walsh get a chance at some point this season, but I think he will need to show he can come in and contribute right away for him to get a shot before Nemec. Even then, it is hard to see a long-term future in the Devils organization for Walsh with Nemec and Luke Hughes on the way and Dougie Hamilton under contract forever. I could see Walsh being traded or the Devils letting his rights lapse at the end of the year short of a major breakout from the former Harvard standout.
On the left side of the Devils blue-line, there are three players I can see competing for a roster spot. Two of which have already made their NHL debuts, and a third who is much more of a dark horse.
First, the big prospect who came back from Arizona in the Taylor Hall trade, 22 year-old Kevin Bahl. Bahl has appeared in NHL games each of the last two seasons and managed to get in 17 games last season. This may give him a big leg up on the competition, since the 6’8” blue-liner has some familiarity with Devils head coach Lindy Ruff. On the other hand, Bahl’s appearances haven’t exactly gone spectacularly. He has been a black-hole in terms of driving play, posting a 45.3% CF% for his career. He looks slightly better via Evolving Hockey’s xGAR model, he is still a net negative overall in terms of xGAR, but his xDef from last year, which you would expect to be his bread-and-butter, is positive (0.3). I don’t think Bahl has top-4 minutes in his future any time soon, but there’s still a chance he turns into a solid 3rd pairing pk specialist. I could see him making the roster with a strong camp. If for no other reason than the Devils seem to value Bahl much more than I do.
The second of the two left-handed defenseman prospects that made an appearance in Newark last season is 21 year-old Nikita Okhotyuk. Okhotyuk profiles similar to Bahl in that he’s a defensively-minded blue-liner who garnered praise for his play in Utica last season. He doesn’t have Bahl’s size (he’s only 6’) but by all accounts he’s still capable of playing a physically intimidating game. I think Okhotyuk is Bahl’s main competition for a roster spot this September. Bahl has more experience, but they play a similar role and it should come down to whether or not either of them can show they are ready for the NHL level. Like Bahl, I see Okhotyuk’s ceiling as that of a 3rd pairing pk specialist.
The last player I will touch on today is a true dark-horse. Michael Vukojevic. Like Bahl and Okhotyuk, Vukojevic has two years of experience in the AHL. Unlike, the other two, Vukojevic did not make his debut for New Jersey last season. In fact, he actually went the other direction and spent 4 games in the ECHL. The reason he is even on here is that his production has hovered right around that of Bahl and Okhotyuk. While I cannot claim to know much about him as a prospect besides what’s on his elite prospects page, it’s not like the former two players have done anything to cement their spots in the depth chart, so I am comfortable putting him in a similar tier as them.
Note that Luke Hughes is returning to Michigan for another season. So he won’t be in training camp and won’t play any professional hockey until his NCAA career is over. If you were wondering why he didn’t make the cut, that is the reason.
The future of the Devils blue-line will arrive, potentially as soon as this spring, but prior to then, I think it is more likely than not that we already know what the Devils back-end will look like come October. Do you agree that no prospect will make the opening night roster? If not, who do you think wins a spot? Will the Devils make a trade to fit someone in if they look ready? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading.