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Preseason Game #5: New Jersey Devils vs. New York Islanders

The Devils are 4-0 in the preseason. With just three more games remaining before the start of the regular season, the hour grows late for prospects to make their mark and earn an opening night spot on New Jersey’s roster.

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NHL: Preseason-New Jersey Devils at Montreal Canadiens
Does Graeme Clarke earn his way onto the team, or does he start his year in Utica?
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils vs. New York Islanders

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: MSG, MSGSN

The Opposition: Light House Hockey

The End of the Old Guard

The Devils are 4-0 in the preseason, including a split-squad sweep of Philadelphia and Montreal in which both New Jersey rosters only had half their available pools of prospects and players to ice a team.

The Islanders are 2-1. If this was early in the regular season, you might say these two teams were comparable. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

While both the Devils and Islanders fell to a surging Carolina Hurricanes team in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the consensus is that these two teams are meeting each other from opposite ends of the ladder: the Devils as they climb into the NHL’s contending stratosphere, and the Islanders as they tumble down the rungs into the mushy middle and irrelevancy, sooner rather than later.

Of all 31 teams in the NHL and of all New Jersey’s rivals, Devils fans might have the most familiarity with the Islanders. Not because their rivalry has reached the level of the Rangers or the animosity of the Flyers. In fact, the familiarity has very little to do with their matchups on the ice. It begins and ends with one of the last members of the NHL’s old guard, a general manager named Lou Lamoriello.

Lamoriello needs no introduction here. Long before this website was named All About the Jersey, it went by In Lou We Trust. For two decades, Lou Lamoriello remained a titan of New Jersey sports; he’ll always be remembered as the man who helped bring three Stanley Cups to the Devils of the late 90s and early 2000s. But in the latter years of his tenure with the Devils, In Lou We Trust became a sardonic expression that illustrated just how far the once-legend had fallen in service to an ownership that demanded playoff contention at all costs. We know what resulted from that strategy: a ten-year rebuild and re-rebuild that is only now paying dividends.

Now, at the head of a flagging New York Islanders franchise, Lamoriello finds himself nearing a similar position that paved the way for Ray Shero, then Tom Fitzgerald, to take the franchise’s reigns. Devils fans have doubtless noticed their rivals across the Hudson making the same pitfalls that plagued New Jersey in the 2010s: signing aging veterans to bloated contracts for too much money, mortgaging the future for help making the playoffs, and bowing out in the first round.

After acquiring Bo Horvat at the trade deadline (and signing him to a contract Lamoriello himself said was “too long and for too much money”), the Islanders only picked five times in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft and not a single time inside the top 45 picks.

With just a few preseason games remaining and training camps nearing a close, expect the Devils and Islanders to narrow their lineups to players who could make opening night rosters or play NHL games at some point in the 2023-2024 season. That means fewer prospects and more veterans or older youngsters trying to claim a roster spot.

The Islanders’ Lineup

Expect the Islanders to ice their “mostly-NHL” lines, or near enough, from practice yesterday. Hudson Fasching, who was relegated to the second practice group simply to keep practice numbers even, may draw into the lineup tonight in lieu of Kyle Palmieri. Palmieri is injured and unlikely to begin the season on the Islanders’ main roster.

Also typical of Lou Lamoriello, Palmieri’s injury was not disclosed and his timeline to return remains unclear.

Someone to watch on the Islanders is Oliver Wahlstrom, who ostensibly fills a similar role—goal-scoring right wing—as Palmieri. A strong preseason showing could earn the former 11th overall pick a higher place in New York’s lineup to begin the regular season, but time is running out for the 23-year-old to establish himself as an NHL regular.

Training Camp Cuts

The goal tonight is for Devils players to avoid getting injured. This is the goal of any preseason game, a time of year that has more to do with boosting team owners’ revenue than defining opening night rosters, but it remains especially true tonight as the Devils’ staff rosters more NHL players than prospects.

Don’t expect to see the Meier - Hischier - Holtz line reunited tonight unless it’s for a final chance at making an impression. When asked after the second Flyers preseason game, Ruff responded with some harsh truth: “Honestly, I didn’t think the line was that great.”

Holtz has looked much improved this preseason. But Holtz has played well in preseasons past and faded when the games counted. Any momentum he can create in the final few games before the regular season can only bolster his confidence and his case for remaining with the big club long-term.

Same for Simon Nemec. Nemec has had an up-and-down preseason, flashing moments of brilliance alongside some defensive miscues that could see him start the year in Utica instead of New Jersey.

It looks like Thompson and Clarke may get the nod ahead of Holtz tonight, however.

I’m interested to see if these lines remain the same for tonight’s game. If so, this feels very much like the last—or one of the last—chances for a whole lot of depth players before Lindy Ruff and the coaching staff make their final decisions. Aside from the top line and the usual bottom-six mainstays like McLeod and Bastian, there’s a whole lot of guys on this lineup fighting for a spot on the team.

As you’ve probably seen, the Devils also cut 13 players before their preseason matchup against the Flyers, leaving 42 players remaining at camp: 7 goalies, 23 forwards, and 12 defensemen. Tyler Wotherspoon cleared waivers and was assigned to Utica, which will please most readers of this site.

Your thoughts

Do you think Alexander Holtz or Simon Nemec will make the opening night roster? If so, will they end the season with New Jersey or see themselves sent down to Utica? How do you think the Islanders will fare this season? Leave your thoughts below!