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The Importance and Fragility of Depth

The season is still very young, but the team and its fans have already seen how important it is to have extra players who are ready to contribute at an NHL level.

New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders
Raise your hand if you thought Chris Tierney would already have played a game for the Devils this season.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Everyone knows how well Tom Fitzgerald has done to create a contender with his moves to acquire elite-level talent. But only four games into the 2023-24 season, we have already seen the depth of the team get called upon in a big way to provide support. The New Jersey Devils already have a good number of injuries. Nolan Foote is on IR, while Tomas Nosek, Colin Miller, and Erik Haula have been unavailable for at least one game each due to injury. And of course, Nico Hischier left Friday’s game with an upper-body injury. With that, Lindy Ruff needed to make some lineup adjustments.

When the Devils signed Chris Tierney to a two-way contract during the summer, I did not expect to see him get into a game in October. I don’t know if I even expected to see him at all during the season. Since Tierney took the narrow path he had available to make the roster following Nolan Foote’s training camp injury, he was able to jump into the lineup on Friday due to Erik Haula’s injury. And even though he did not play too much on Friday, he figured to be an important stop-gap in the case of Nico Hischier needing to miss another game. We should find out later today whether or not Nico will be ready tomorrow night.

New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders
Forearm to the shoulder into the boards? Yeah, that probably hurts a bit.
Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

Between Curtis Lazar, Tomas Nosek, and Chris Tierney, the Devils have three players outside of McLeod and Haula in their bottom six group who can play both center and wing. If Nico Hischier were to miss a full game, and Erik Haula were still out, Lindy Ruff would have to decide whether to play Dawson Mercer at center or to put one of his bottom six center options on the second line. The thought might leave you grimacing — playing someone like Michael McLeod or Chris Tierney on the second line in the second full week of the season is not usually a good sign. But this is the reality of the NHL: you need people on the roster who can step in at a moment’s notice and work to stifle NHL competition. Chris Tierney did that on Friday, with his 81.49 xGF%.

I hope that Nico is ready to go tomorrow. I am not very fond of having to watch the team when either Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes are out of the lineup. But they will not be able to play 82 games every year, and I think Tom Fitzgerald did a great job of stuffing the organization with enough depth to overcome short-term injuries. As long as the Devils are beyond putting career AHLers on the team for weeks on end, we should be fine. Between Tierney in the NHL and Thompson with Clarke in the AHL, Fitzgerald has both veteran depth and young hopefuls to keep the team going in times of need.

On defense, though, I think the team has already seen how fragile depth can be. No matter how well a team prepares, they can be struck by more and more injuries. Thus, when Colin Miller went crashing into the boards in practice on Thursday, and made himself unavailable to play Friday as a result, Brendan Smith became a sure bet to play — as the team was down to six healthy defensemen. I do not think Miller was going to get his shot just yet, anyway — as he really struggled in the preseason and still needs to adjust to the Lindy Ruff system. But it’s unnerving to go into your fourth game of the year knowing there are no healthy scratches in the press box. You never know when someone will get injured in a practice accident.

Consider: if Nico Hischier and Erik Haula, are, for some reason, unavailable to play on Tuesday, Tom Fitzgerald would need to put one of his four injured skaters on IR to be able to ice 18 skaters. Or, if Hischier, Haula, and Nosek are still each out, but Colin Miller is ready to play, we would get to see our first “Brendan Smith at wing” game of the year before October is even over. I don’t expect this to be the case, but it is distressing enough as just a thought in the back of my mind.

New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders
I like Brendan Smith as a 6th/7th guy enough, but I don’t really want to see him at forward this year.
Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

I am not as concerned about the defense as I am about the forwards, though. If someone needs to be recalled from Utica to support the defense, I have faith that Cal Foote, Santeri Hatakka, or Simon Nemec would be able to do their job at the NHL level. There is simply more NHL-capable talent on the defensive end compared to the forwards group. In fact, I would not be surprised if, at some point this year, Tom Fitzgerald traded some of that organizational defensive depth for a better forward to supplant the extras currently on the roster.

The best teams in the NHL, over the past few years, have not been afraid to push for an overage of top talent. They have not been afraid to creep up against the cap, using LTIR and, increasingly, multiple teams eating salaries in trades to fit larger contracts into already-tight cap situations. With the Devils nearing the peak of their skater talent, I think Fitzgerald knows that the time is nigh to strike for a cup run. I do not think it’s a matter of if, but when. A trade now? It would be way too premature, and probably prevent someone like Alex Holtz from establishing himself. But a trade in February before the deadline? That would be more appropriate. Playing Chris Tierney and Curtis Lazar, with Nathan Bastian on the third line, is something we want to keep in October or November. As much as I like Lazar and Bastian and respected Tierney during his time in Ottawa and San Jose, we don’t want to see that in April or May. And if one of the top guys on the roster were to get hurt for an extended period of time, I would hope that Tom Fitzgerald makes the full use of LTIR. Other teams do it, and now the Devils are at the point that they need to be ready to make use of it.

New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders
Ondrej Palat knows something about competing in the playoffs while top guys are out with injuries (or coming back from them).
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

And above all, the Devils are past the point of injuries as an excuse. In response to Nico Hischier’s injury, Michael McLeod was able to step up in the lineup, while Jack Hughes was his usual self for the third period on Friday. The Devils did give up the late game-tying goal, though. Would they have given it up if Nico were still on the ice? Even so, picking up after the captain in his shutdown role is bound to be difficult. At the end of the night, they got out with two points and went home happy. That needs to be the standard: injuries are not an excuse to blow a game and lose. On a contender, an injury is a “next-man up” situation, not a death knell.

But even so, I do not really expect these early injuries to be a problem. Erik Haula and Nico Hischier are tough customers, and I doubt anyone can keep them off the ice as long as they are capable of skating. But it is a valuable, early reminder that no matter how much you plan for the worst, or how many backups you have lined up, something else can always go wrong — and the best overcome.

11:20 AM News Update Edit

Just before this article was scheduled to go up, Ryan Novozinsky reported on Twitter that the Devils have placed Tomas Nosek on injured reserve. In his stead, Cal Foote has been recalled from Utica, perhaps indicating that Colin Miller will continue to be unavailable in the short-term. With Nico Hischier and Erik Haula practicing, they are likely in more need of a defenseman than a forward. Nosek had been in a walking boot last week, and his time on injured reserve may give Chris Tierney a chance to establish himself with the team.

Your Thoughts

Were you surprised to see someone like Chris Tierney already in the lineup? How do you think the team should prepare for the health concerns of their top nine forwards and top defensemen? What do you think the pecking order is, right now? How did you feel the team responded to Nico Hischier’s injury on Friday? Are you comfortable with where the roster is for filling in these short-term injuries? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.