Welcome to the final week of training camp for the New Jersey Devils, if not the National Hockey League. We are less than two weeks away from the start of the regular season. Waivers are now active; players who are eligible have to be placed on them to be demoted. The Utica Comets’ own training camp starts tomorrow. This is the week of tough decisions for management to make as they must have get to (or close to) a maximum of 23 players for the active roster.
Last week, the Devils began preseason with 57 players. The first two cuts were for Cole Brown and Cam Squires, who were returned to their major junior teams as their seasons were beginning. After the split-squad game and a preseason win Manhattan, the Devils made many more cuts on Friday. 13 players were cut, which included Tyler Wotherspoon being on (and eventually clearing) waivers and Josh Filmon being sent back to Swift Current in the WHL:
Forwards (7): Filip Engaras, T.J. Friedmann, Joe Gambardella, Timur Ibragimov, Xavier Parent, Ryan Schmelzer
Defensemen (5): Colin Felix, Will MacKinnon, Robbie Russo, Topias Vilén, Tyler Wotherspoon
Goaltender (1): Tyler Brennan
There were no real surprises out of this group. Most were on AHL contracts, Wotherspoon played badly in Manhattan on Thursday night, and Vilen has not done much to warrant more of a look. The group was knocked down to 42 players prior to their game in Philadelphia. The actual group is already much smaller just by the goalies alone:
Goaltenders (7): Vitek Vanecek, Akira Schmid, Keith Kinkaid, Erik Källgren, Nico Daws, Jeremy Brodeur, Isaac Poulter.
Daws is hurt and Brodeur and Poulter are on AHL contracts. Already, that brings the group number to be technically 39. With Vanecek and Schmid splitting the starts for the remainder of preseason, it is safe to assume Keith Kinkaid and Erik Källgren are bound for waivers at some point to be demoted. To me, there are 37 players left because those five are definitely not making it short of injury.
Who is then left to cut? Here are the 35 skaters remaining:
Defensemen (12): Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, John Marino, Kevin Bahl, Luke Hughes, Colin Miller, Brendan Smith, Simon Nemec, Cal Foote, Santeri Hatakka, Daniil Misyul, Michael Vukojevic
Forwards (23): Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Timo Meier, Dawson Mercer, Tyler Toffoli, Ondrej Palat, Tomes Nosek, Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastian, Erik Haula, Curtis Lazar, Max Willman (PTO), Alexander Holtz, Nolan Foote, Graeme Clarke, Chase Stillman, Tyce Thompson, Chris Tierney, Kyle Criscuolo, Justin Dowling, Shane Bowers, Brian Halonen
I am certain that for some of these players, their time in New Jersey camp may end soon. I am writing this during the Devils preseason game in Philadelphia. It is worth noting that Daniil Misyul has been kept to one game as he was out of the Philly game. The third pairing against the Flyers was Michael Vukojevic and Cal Foote, both signs that they may not see too much more time. Unless I missed it, Chase Stillman has yet to debut in preseason action and Brian Halonen was hurt early on the split-squad night and has yet to appear since. I would not be shocked if those five were among the next set of cuts. Combined with the goalies, that brings down the group to 32. Nine more would need to be cut.
Beyond them, it does go down to performance and roster construction. Whether Lindy Ruff and Tom Fitzgerald wants to A) carry a full 23 man roster and B) whether it is 14 forwards and 7 defensemen or 13 forwards and 8 defensemen will make a big difference. Based on what I have seen in the first week of preseason games, I do not think there is much reason for the Devils to keep working with Chris Tierney, Kyle Criscuolo, Justin Dowling, and Shane Bowers. Neither has shown much of being anything but roster depth. I do not think any of them has challenged Michael McLeod or Tomas Nosek for minutes as a center. Or Curtis Lazar as a fourth liner or a spare. Keep in mind that Nathan Bastian has been held out of preseason games so far, but I highly doubt Bastian does not make this team. If my thinking is right, that means five more players would need to be cut in this coming week.
That is the hard part. At least to a degree. I think Santeri Hatakka and Simon Nemec have made positive impressions. I also think Hatakka is a victim of the numbers game as Brendan Smith and Colin Miller seem to do what he does and arguably a bit better. Nemec has been impressive on the puck and less so off the puck. I can agree that some further seasoning may be in his best interest. I also think we will see him called up in 2023-24 at some point. That takes care of two more cuts and brings the defense down to seven players. Which is what I would want to do given the forward decisions.
The easiest among those is Max Willman. He is in camp on a try-out and he has been, well, in camp. He has not been a problem but he has not been a factor. I do not see what he has done that would warrant a contract. Releasing him from his PTO would take care of another cut to make. The remaining two, well, that is tougher.
At forward, the one player who has done the most in my eyes in the first week of preseason to help solidify his spot is Alexander Holtz. He has scored. He has put himself in positions to shoot. He has lined up with top-six forwards like Nico Hischier and Timo Meier. He has been praised for his off the puck play even. The signs are all good so far. I think he’s in and the question will be more about who he plays with instead of whether he plays at all.
The team has given Tyce Thompson chances not only on the bottom six but also on special teams. He has received call ups before and I will say that he has been active in his appearances. He is at least in the mix and could end up as one of the last decisions to make out of camp. His issue is that the bottom six is loaded with guys who will definitely make this team. Tomas Nosek was not signed to go to Utica, Curtis Lazar has demonstrated he is capable as a winger, and Nathan Bastian is not going to be a victim of the numbers game given his experience so far. Thompson may not be playing out of his mind, but he is making the decision harder. How he does in this week’s games will be critical as to whether he starts in New Jersey or is the first or second call up from Utica.
Another player who has been given chances regularly and on special teams is Nolan Foote. Fitzgerald has talked him up earlier. I am not quite as impressed with how he has done. His lack of, well, foot speed remains apparent. Whereas some players have clearly improved that respect - Kevin Bahl, Holtz - Nolan Foote is still plodding about. That would not be such a bad thing if he was doing a lot in attack. But he has not. He does not even have a shot in 5-on-5 play yet. Outside of some nice tip plays in man advantage situations, Foote has just been “there.” Maybe management is more jazzed about him but I would like to see more from him in the next three games or so.
The last remaining player in this mix is Graeme Clarke. Clarke led the Comets in scoring last season and spoke quite a bit about wanting to make the team. He’s 22, entering the final season of his contract, and this is a turning point in his career. Does he finally reach the show after grinding in the ‘A’ for three seasons? Does he get his shot to, well, take shots? With zero points but eight shots on net in two games, Clarke has been trying. I am pulling for him. But I think he really needs to shine in the coming week if he wants to beat out Foote and perhaps even Thompson. Of course, even if Clarke does make the team, how much value could he provide on a fourth line or as an extra? Thompson at least plays that way and has done in spots before.
Basically, the remaining forward cuts for me would be Willman, Foote, and Clarke based on the first week of camp. This means Thompson survives and at least starts with New Jersey this season. While this year’s Devils camp mostly has a set NHL roster, the last few cuts were not easy decisions. I can be swayed by what they do in the games against the New York teams this week. I would like to think that the coaching staff and Devils management will be as well. More importantly, it is an 82-game season. There will be opportunities for others throughout the season to take a NHL spot even if they did not take one by or in early October.
Either way, the next three games are going to be crucial for the remaining players in camp that are not exactly secure as being NHL players. For all I know, more cuts are about to be made after this post goes live. Whoever survives will not necessarily be safe for making the roster. The team could make multiple cuts up until and just after the final preseason game. Plenty can still change between today and next Sunday. As ever, hope for good performances and, more importantly, no injuries.
Who do you think will be next to be cut? When do you think those cuts will happen? Who do you think ultimately makes the team outside of the obvious? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the remaining players in camp in the comments. Thank you for reading.