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Game Preview #2: New Jersey Devils vs. Arizona Coyotes

Game 2 of the regular season. Yesterday, the Devils managed to pull of a 4-3 victory against Detroit. Tonight, they can begin their first winning streak by dispatching an Arizona Coyotes team still in the throes of a rebuild. 

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: Arizona Coyotes at New Jersey Devils

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSGSN, SCRIPPS

The Opposition: Five For Howling

Key Takeaways

How are the Arizona Coyotes?

Well, the Arizona Coyotes were bad last year. In a league of 32 teams, Arizona finished sixth-worst in 2022-2023, going 28-40-14 for 70 points on the year.

Clayton Keller was among the few bright spots on a rebuilding roster still amidst the tear-down stage: he scored 37 goals and 86 points last season. Nick Schmaltz and rookie Matias Maccelli rounded out the other top scorers with 58 and 49 points respectively. The Coyotes finally traded Jakob Chychrun at the trade deadline, sending the 25-year-old defenseman to Ottawa in exchange for three draft picks, one of which ended up as the 12th overall selection (Daniil But).

While they ended the season a step above the league’s bottom-feeders, nobody considered them even close to resembling a playoff team then. Not much has changed—at least in terms of expectations.

Nobody is expecting the Coyotes to make the playoffs this year. But that doesn’t mean they won’t win games off the backs of Keller and former third-overall pick Logan Cooley, who would potentially go first in a 2022 NHL Draft do-over.

Add Matt Dumba on a one-year deal, Sean Durzi, and Alex Kerfoot, the Coyotes are a team that could sneak away with a few wins against the NHL’s best this season.

Second Taste of Regular Season Hockey

The Devils faced a resurgent Detroit Red Wings squad yesterday, eking out a 4-3 victory on the backs of Jack Hughes (two goals) and Vitek Vanecek (32/35 saves). It wasn’t a pretty game. But the Devils’ superstar pulled them to their first official win of the year after a perfect 7-0 preseason, and Vanecek made the saves they needed him to make.

Since it’s the second half of a back-to-back, expect Akira Schmid to draw into the net against Arizona tonight. Schmid had a great preseason, closing out the Islanders with a shutout a week ago. In the eyes of the coaching staff, Vanecek is clearly the starter. He played the home opener against the tougher opponent. But how much of a head-start he has on Schmid—especially if the Swiss netminder continues his preseason form—remains to be seen.

The Devils lineup from yesterday:

Despite a first period that saw the Devils hemmed in their own zone, their offense surged through the second and third periods against the Red Wings, resulting in positive possession stats for most of New Jersey’s skaters. One of those who did not manage positive CF% was Brendan Smith, who played the left side while Luke Hughes played the right.

Now, Smith has served as the resident whipping boy since joining the team last year. It’s not my intention to dogpile on him so early into the year. I didn’t think he played poorly against the Red Wings. I also think Smith is a serviceable third-pairing defenseman. I only bring it up because I was interested to see Luke Hughes play the right side last night, a position that Smith moonlighted in last season. It’s possible this was just a test run. That this is one of many looks that will feature a combination of Luke Hughes.

It’s equally possible that the Devils’ coaching staff might prefer Smith over Miller—so long as Hughes can adjust to the right side.

It’s too early to tell—being Game 2 and all—but it seems like one of the few areas in flux on a Devils squad that is comfortably locked in to its current line combinations.

How is Alexander Holtz looking?

Holtz lined up with Ondrej Palat and Erik Haula against the Red Wings. He only played 12:03 and registered one shot on goal, but that line managed a CF% of 73.33 and had some good looks that did not quite register a goal.

While he didn’t score or register a point, I generally thought Holtz did a solid job last night. He didn’t try too hard. He made smart chip-ins instead of forcing plays that weren’t there. He had very solid possession stats.

My one critique of his game last night was that he didn’t work himself into the open areas of the ice. His positioning was just a touch off, and he wasn’t always a pass option because of that. The best goal scorers—the ones that rely on their shots—have to play elusively and maneuver themselves into open ice.

See this breakdown of how the Penguins’ Jake Guentzel manages to fool defenders and create space for himself:

Karel Vejmelka and Connor Ingram struggled for the Coyotes last season. If Holtz can find a way to do something similar, he’ll put himself in a prime position to score tonight.

Your Thoughts:

Where do you think the Coyotes will finish this year? Does Luke Hughes continue playing the right side, or does Colin Miller draw into the lineup (or does Brendan Smith shift back to the right)? Let us know in the comments below!