The New Jersey Devils have played five preseason games to this point and the reviews have been mostly positive. The line of Tyler Toffoli-Jack Hughes-Jesper Bratt already looks to have plenty of “chem” as Hughes so eloquently put it, both goaltenders have shown more positive than negative to this point, players on the fringe of the roster are making their case to break camp with the team, and the Devils have won every game they’ve played to this point.
There’s been a lot of storylines to come out of the preseason thus far, but with preseason being what it is in general, its tough not to watch the games and jot down notes for the mental rolodex. Little takeaways like who did well here and there, who didn’t look so hot, where one could come up with a take but not necessarily have 2500 words worth of content to discuss due to sporadic playing time, sporadic partners, and a small sample size of information to draw from.
Like you reading this, I’ve watched as much as I can this preseason within reason (every game should be on TV but this article isn’t about beating that dead horse, so moving on). I’ve jotted down a few things that have been on my mind watching the games but I don’t know that I’m ready to get behind what I see and think as a full-fledged take.
With that said, I will debut a brand new game aptly titled “Moore-On or Moron”, in which I give some percolating thoughts mixed with general musings from watching the preseason games. It’s pretty simple, as Moore (being me, as thats my last name) may be on to something with any given thought, hence, Moore-On. OR they’re just the incoherent ramblings of a guy on the internet who might be a moron.
Feel free to play along in the comments if you so wish. None of these are addressed to anybody in particular (unless noted) and my intention isn’t to call the reading audience (aka YOU) a moron, but you may have had similar thoughts or takeaways from watching the games and might’ve been curious what a person with consistently good opinions like me might be thinking.
Kevin Bahl is a Top-4 defenseman on the Devils Right Now
I’m not sure there’s been a player on the Devils who has done more to raise his stock in the preseason, and frankly over the course of the past calendar year, than Kevin Bahl.
Bahl showed tremendous growth in his game throughout last season to the point where he was one of the better defensive defensemen on the Devils by the time the postseason rolled around. As Bahl gained more confidence and experience, he continued to get better and better and that has carried over into this exhibition season. And while everything in the preseason has the caveat attached to it that “its just preseason”, he looks prime and ready to step in and fill the void left by the offseason departures of Ryan Graves and Damon Severson and that he is capable of handling a bigger role. This is certainly key as there are plenty of minutes to go around on the penalty kill, and I think his style of play compliments partner John Marino well. They have the look of a potential shutdown defensive pairing, and the Devils are going to need that to close out games.
Verdict: Moore-On. Bahl seems to be gaining the confidence of the coaching staff, which is critical, and he has an advantage over Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec in terms of NHL experience that may give him an edge in terms of being trusted in the closing minutes of games.
Colin Miller is bad and should be waived to make room for (blank)
Colin Miller seems to have fit right in as the Devils fanbase’s new resident punching bag, filling a role left vacated by the departures of Damon Severson and Miles Wood before him. It’s not entirely unwarranted either as his flub in the first period against the Islanders where he had all the time in the world to settle down a puck got past him and led to a goal against. It’s as bad as it gets for someone with as much NHL experience as Miller has.
(Of course, a similar, tough situation happened in the second period of that same game to Simon Nemec that also led to a goal against. And of course, Akira Schmid didn’t stop either puck. But we’re not allowed to talk about that when piling on Miller to pump up the player we would prefer to have on the roster)
But hey, why even have guys like Colin Miller and Brendan Smith around in the first place? Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec are the future and will be in Newark much longer than those two veterans. Smart people like John have suggested that putting one or even both of the rookies on the blueline might not be as big a risk as we think it might be. I certainly respect John’s opinion and viewpoint on the matter and know he’s not alone in thinking that. So why not cut the cord and declare the future is NOW, baby!
Verdict: Moron. I think punting one of the veteran defensemen to the curb to make room for both Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec is a bit rash and teams that generally have “win now” aspirations aren’t looking to give away veteran depth defensemen on the eve of the season. I think there’s a good chance one or both of Miller and Smith would be insta-claimed, and in Miller’s case, its not great roster management to cut ties on a veteran defenseman that quickly after trading a draft pick for him.
Miller hasn’t had a great preseason, yet, I think a veteran like him deserves the benefit of the doubt. I think Tom Fitzgerald, Lindy Ruff, and Ryan McGill, who has a connection with Miller from their time together in Vegas, deserve that as well. Miller has enough veteran savvy to make winning plays, such as tying up the puck in the corner in the closing seconds of Monday’s game to help secure the win, and you’re going to need that veteran savvy with the relative inexperience on the backend being the alternative.
Both Miller and Smith will be on this roster for a reason, and that will be to help insulate whichever rookie winds up making the team, most likely Luke Hughes. They’ll be tasked with playing third pairing sheltered minutes, with the other veteran waiting for his turn in to get in the lineup. This makes sense, and if the Devils have to upgrade over either veteran, there’s always the trade deadline to reevaluate and make such moves.
The Devils should say YOLO and go with a Luke Hughes-Simon Nemec pairing
This take is directly tied in with the previous take and deserves its own mention. We got a taste of this Monday night as Lindy Ruff shuffled his defensive pairings and we saw the two highly touted Devils prospects on a pairing with each other. It didn’t go great as the pair was on the ice for the Devils 3rd and 5th goals against, but that hasn’t stopped the Devils from continuing in yesterday’s practice. Nor should it.
Verdict: Moron. Both Hughes and Nemec are talented and they might wind up being a long-term defensive pairing for years once both players are seasoned pros. Neither player has played mistake-free hockey this preseason and that’s to be expected. Pairing the player who is closer to being NHL-ready (which in my opinion is Luke and its not close) with a veteran is fine for the time being. There’s nothing wrong with Nemec playing top-pairing minutes in Utica until he’s called upon, and there’s nothing wrong with Luke playing sheltered minutes in his first full NHL season as he learns the league.
One could point to Nemec’s flub on the 3rd goal and the redirection on the 5th goal and be inclined to give the kids a break, and I get that. There’s going to be more tolerance for highly touted rookies than there will be for the classic “veterans who don’t make mistakes” that 200 Hockey Men Coaches traditionally love to play over kids. But I think Monday’s game is a prime example of the downside of putting all your eggs in the basket of putting them both on the roster, let alone the same pairing.
There will come a time when there is a Hughes-Nemec pairing and it’ll be awesome. That time isn’t now.
Luke Hughes should be on PP1 over Dougie Hamilton
I will preface this portion of the article by saying we haven’t seen the full Devils squad united yet this preseason, nor have we seen what the power play units might look like once they are.
With that caveat out of the way, something Bill Spaulding said on the broadcast Monday night caught my attention when he suggested the Devils have enough talent to potentially have two good power play units. Considering the Devils have mostly played two separate rosters to this point, part of me wonders if that might continue when it comes to power play work.
I don’t know how anyone watching the Devils would want the trio of Tyler Toffoli-Jack Hughes-Jesper Bratt separated under any circumstances. By having Luke Hughes with his vision, passing and skating ability with them as the facilitator, there’s potential for something special there to where it almost doesn’t matter who the 5th skater is. Whereas with Hamilton on the power play, it feels like the power play is trying to set him up for a blast from the point, there’s less puck movement, less skating, and he’s more stationary than Hughes.
Conversely, you could put a power play lineup of Meier-Hischier-Holtz-Mercer-Hamilton on the ice and that could theoretically be a top PP unit for most teams. It speaks to the embarrassment of riches the Devils have when it comes to their organizational depth.
Verdict: Moore-On, sort of. I would file this line of thinking under “I need more information”, but for now, it doesn’t seem ridiculous to suggest that Luke Hughes might be better suited for a PP1 role than Dougie Hamilton, despite the fact that Hamilton is the highest paid player on the team and has made a career out of contributing on the power play.
I think over the final two preseason games, I’ll be paying close attention to how the power play operates and what personnel they choose to use....particularly if we get a situation where its after a stoppage in play and players are rested or they’re desperate for a tying goal in the third (which, how desperate is one going to be in a preseason game). Who are the horses that they go to in that spot, and will Ruff have enough faith in Luke Hughes to trust him in that spot? He has to this point but that has been with a split roster.
Jesper Bratt might have another level to gain
Going into his age 25 season, I wouldn’t have thought that Jesper Bratt had much more room to grow in terms of development. It looks like his shot might have improved though, and with 12 SOG already through three preseason games, he may also be getting a little more aggressive in terms of letting it rip.
Last season, Bratt attempted 381 shots, 74th in the league and averaging roughly 4.5 shot attempts per game. I don’t know if him shooting more is a conscious decision on his part, if its because its preseason and he’s one of the top guys on a thin gameday roster, or a testament to the chemistry he has playing with Tyler Toffoli and Jack Hughes already. But he is one of the better players on this roster, and his shooting rates have gone up the last few seasons. The eye test certainly suggests he’s getting a little extra oomph behind his shot. Bratt is in his physical prime though and should theoretically be stronger than ever physically.
Is it crazy to suggest that with a better power play and more pucks on net that Bratt could flirt with 40 goals or score 80-85 points?
Verdict: Moore-On. Bratt wouldn’t be the first person to take his game to another level at his age, and while I question whether or not there’s enough of the puck to go around with higher volume shooters like Timo Meier, Jack Hughes, and Dougie Hamilton on the roster, shooters shoot.
Graeme Clarke didn’t get a fair shake to make the team
I saw this was suggested by someone in one of the comment sections (and to be clear, I’m not calling that person a moron). While I would agree it was always going to be tough for Clarke to crack the roster, he also didn’t do anything to make a case for himself.
Clarke is certainly a victim of his waiver-exempt status, as the reality of the situation is that he can be sent down without risk of losing the player while others he is competing with can not. I also won’t dispute that others have been put in a better position to succeed. Alex Holtz has been paired with Timo Meier and Nico Hischier throughout camp, while Clarke was with Justin Dowling and PTO Max Willman on Monday. That line had a rough go of it as they were on the ice for several goals against and generated nothing offensively.
It’s not fair.
News flash.....life isn’t fair.
In Holtz’s case, the Devils have a lot more riding on whether or not he succeeds than whether Clarke succeeds. Holtz is the higher upside play and his draft status is going to give him more runway to make his case. Its why putting Holtz in the best possible situation to succeed and removing any variables when it comes to linemates makes sense.
I don’t dispute that Clarke drew the short end of the stick when compared to, say, Tyce Thompson....another player Clarke was competing with for a roster spot. But we’re also not that far removed from Thompson skating with Willman and Chris Tierney in Philadelphia the other night. Maybe Thompson’s age and experience has been the difference, or perhaps there’s more of a sense of desperation for him as this might be his last chance to stick with the Devils, but I don’t know how one could watch Thompson and then watch Clarke and tell me the latter has been better. And none of this mentions Nolan Foote, who hasn’t played much this preseason but seems to be well ahead of Clarke on the internal pecking order as well.
Verdict: Moore-On in the sense that there’s some validity to the point, Moron in the sense that Clarke didn’t distinguish himself and didn’t do enough to earn it.
Clarke isn’t ready for the NHL, and that’s fine. The Devils don’t need to rush him and they’re not going to as he was among yesterday’s cuts. He clearly needs more time, so let him get more time. Him not making the 2023-24 roster doesn’t mean his career is over, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he saw some NHL time this season anyways.
Please feel free to leave a comment below with any thoughts of the above takes. I’m certainly one man (and perhaps one moron) with an opinion but that’s what I’ve taken away through five preseason contests.
Thanks for reading!