This week, the New Jersey Devils will play games. Granted, they played three games at the 2022 Prospects Challenge. However, that was I like to call pre-preseason. They were exhibition games meant for prospects and minor league players to build up some sharpness and try to make a good impression before the veterans and try-outs show up to camp. The actual preseason is now here. They are exhibition games but with a little more at stake. With seven games over the next two weeks and 56 players in camp, here is a guide for you, one of the People Who Matter, to get the most out of this year’s preseason.
Know the Preseason structure: The Devils will play two sets of back-to-back games this week, have next weekend off, and then play on the following Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. How the games are set up lend themselves to determine when cuts are going to be made. The first four games should be a mix of NHL veterans (a minimum of eight as defined by the CBA, which is why Thomas Hickey is with the Devils on a PTO), NHL hopefuls, and Utica Comets. If a group plays on Monday in Montreal, then expect a different group on Tuesday at the Rock against the Islanders. Likewise in the home-and-home with Our Hated Rivals. For the vets, most of them will be there just to work off any rink rust. For the players with a legitimate chance to make the New Jersey roster and even the Comets, it will be more to impress. Should they stay on the roster after that fourth game on Friday, then you could see further refinement of the lineup in the following three games.
Do not worry much about the results: It would be great if the Devils just stomped all over their competition in these seven games coming up. It would be very concerning if they were rolled over in their seven games. However, it does not mean much. If you’re attending one, then feel free to cheer. Just know that preseason games are still exhibition games and the results do not count for much. Case in point: Do you remember how the Devils did in preseason last year? I do not. I had to look it up. They went 4-1-0. They beat the Caps 5-4, Our Hated Rivals 7-1 (!), the Islanders 2-1 in overtime, the Capitals again 4-1, and lost to Our Hated Rivals 2-6 (sigh). This was a good set of results for preseason. It did not matter when the real season began and the Devils floundered to a 27-46-9 record.
Do pay attention to who’s in and how they do: Performances are more valuable in these games, especially for those who are not set for the NHL roster. If it is a forward like Alexander Holtz, Fabian Zetterlund, Tyce Thompson, or Nolan Foote, then you would want to see how they are moving out there, how they are handling the puck, how they are shooting it, and how they contributing without the puck. If it is a defenseman like Simon Nemec, Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotiuk, or Reilly Walsh, then look to see how they make stops on defense, how they win possession, how they support the offense in transition and in the opposition’s end, and how they handle business away from the play. If it is a goaltender, then look to see that they are making saves and whether they are doing so intentionally or if they are just flinging a body part into space hoping to make a stop.
You can also simply look to see who is making the fewest mistakes. That could mean an ill-advised penalty. That could mean a costly turnover. That could mean executing a pass or shot so badly that it can make you wonder what they were thinking. While the idea is to see players contribute, simply not costing the team will at least show they may be able to handle a NHL game situation. Mistakes are going to happen. It is hockey and mostly played by people who have played just a handful of times in months. The idea is to look for the fewest and/or least damaging mistakes.
Even more simply, pay attention who is in the lineup. Sure, it is a foregone conclusion that players like Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier will make the New Jersey Devils. The point of these games for them are to just get ready for October 13’s opener in Philly. For Holtz, Zetterlund, Thompson, Nemec, Bahl, Okhotiuk, Walsh, and others, a roster selection may be a clue as to how the coaches regard them going into this season. Especially if they survive the first wave of cuts and beyond expected to be made next week.
Related to this, pay attention to how the Devils are playing. Is it a dump-and-chase game if Miles Wood is out there? Is the defense over-loading? Is the power play setting up in a Recchi-esque 1-3-1? How the players are being used will contribute to how they perform. For those on the bubble, that could play a role as to whether they make New Jersey right away or have to wait.
Do not worry too much about lines and pairings until the last game: The last preseason game on October 8 in Boston will be the team’s last appearance until their first regular season game on October 13. The last preseason game are akin to “dress rehearsals” for the first game. Anyone still fighting for a spot may still be there, but those lineups may reveal how the coaches may start the season.
Until that game, I would not worry too much about where a player is lineup or who they are paired with. Especially with the Devils’ first four games this week, the rosters are going to be a mixture of New Jersey and Utica players with differing aims and roles. Just because you see, say, Holtz lined up with Jack Hughes at some point this week does not mean that Holtz is absolutely making the Devils and will totally line up with Hughes. That might happen. Especially if the connection of the two is fruitful in preseason games - again, performances matter. But it may just as easily be something for one game and the coaches have other plans in other games.
Furthermore, lines and pairings can and do change during games as well as between them in the regular season. This is the one time where a team can experiment without it costing them valuable points in the standings. Expect to see the Devils and 31 other NHL teams do some of that over this coming week and next week. To that end, do not get worked up if you see Zetterlund playing on the left side or Bahl on a third pairing or something else. It is not a guarantee of any decision to be made by October 13. If that’s the case on October 8, then there’s a little more to it as it could very well be the starting lineup. Even that could change in the five days between.
Depth is a goal and it goes beyond 18 skaters: The Devils have 56 players in this year’s camp. Two are currently unsigned prospects (Josh Filmon, Tyler Brennan) and seven are on AHL-only contracts. This means there are 47 players - 45 signed, two on PTOs - in camp that will conclude with, at most, 23 roster spots filled for the season. When you consider who’s already on the team and signed with New Jersey, there are not very many roster spots to actually fill.
However, depth goes beyond whether someone is the thirteenth forward or the seventh defenseman. I wrote this ahead of rookie camp, but it still applies. The 2022-23 New Jersey Devils will likely use at least 20 different forwards and 9 different defensemen at some point during the season. These preseason games are important to determine what the order of the depth chart will be ahead of the season. This will change as needed due to injuries and performances in Utica, but how it is set up will be determined in these games.
What this means is that if someone gets cut that you had higher hopes for, then do not despair. If, say, Nikita Okhotiuk does not make New Jersey out of camp, then there is still a real possibility he plays with the Devils at some point in 2022-23. It may be in a few weeks. It may be months. It may be to replace someone for whatever reason. It may be just to fill in for a couple of games. The point is that there is still reason for these players to keep grinding even if the preseason games do not go as well as expected for a player. And, of course, if they do well, then maybe their reward is to be the first call-up instead of making the roster right away. Depth goes beyond the 23-man active roster for October 13. This can and will change over the 82-game season to follow, and how these seven games go will help shape the depth chart’s order.
No injuries, please: If nothing else, the last thing anyone should want to see in these seven games coming up are injuries. Whether it is an established player or someone with a long shot of making the roster, everyone in camp has an objective of sorts. Injuries will undercut that. As tempting as it would be to just wrap up all of the crucial players in bubble wrap until October 13, it just pushes the problem back and leaves players to be even rustier when the real games begin. Players may be in The Best Shape in Their Life(TM) in physicals but they will need to actually play games to get physically and mentally prepared for games in the near future. This way they are not struggling to get up to NHL speed against competition that may already be there. This carries the risk of getting hurt. So even if the Devils lose all seven games coming up, if they come away from those games at or close to 100% in terms of health, then it is a successful preseason.
Lastly, enjoy it: As ever, enjoy the hockey! Yes, the games does not count. Yes, the purpose of these games is more for evaluation than anything else. Yes, you and I are not making the decisions, although we will continue to make opinions. It’s still the game with the reduced tension of it mattering for the season. The games are cheap. The atmosphere is more relaxed. It is still the sport where a lot can happen in a short amount of time. It is still the game where success comes out of chaos or an attempt to organize chaos. It is still hockey. That is always worth appreciating.
Again, the preseason games start tomorrow. First, in Montreal. Then at the Rock against the Isles. Then a back-to-back with Our Hated Rivals. The following week has the Devils host Boston on Monday, October 3; visit Long Island on Thursday, October 6; and end the exhibitions in Boston on Saturday, October 8. Next week will also begin our multi-part season preview in the run up to the season opener in Philadelphia on Thursday, October 13. The season is becoming closer and closer by the day. Appreciate what is happening now as the games that count are imminent.
Did this guide help you out ahead of preseason? What would you add to this guide for any Devils fans? Are you going to attend any preseason games and/or follow the broadcasts? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the upcoming preseason. Thank you for reading.