Wrapping Up Training Camp
The Devils faced the Rangers just last week in a preseason match-up that saw Akira Schmid and Erik Kallgren stand on their heads for a 3-2 win.
With five preseason games under the Devils’ belts and one more to go after tonight, Real Hockey is just about underway, which meant that the Devils largely rostered their NHL lineup against the Rangers.
As Jackson noted in his excellent preview this morning, Cal Foote and Graeme Clarke were both assigned to Utica, with Foote clearing waivers. (Clarke has one more season before he’s waiver-eligible.) Neither assignment was much of a surprise. Cal Foote seemed destined to serve as an injury call-up at best once Colin Miller was acquired and Brendan Smith’s services were retained, but Clarke appeared to have a real opportunity to make the Devils’ 23-man roster come the start of the regular season.
It didn’t shake out that way. Though his linemates through preseason weren’t the cream of the crop, Clarke didn’t help his own case, often looking lost and a step or two behind NHL competition. If he had played just a little better and Holtz just a little worse, it might’ve been a different story. But with Holtz showing flashes of NHL competence, and with waiver-eligible Tyce Thompson and Nolan Foote appearing more-NHL-ready, Clarke’s relegation to Utica was inevitable.
Clarke, 22, is running out of time to iron out the wrinkles in his game. The Devils have more depth at wing than they have in years, so he’ll need a solid campaign in the AHL to work himself into the NHL conversation for next season.
He has all the tools necessary to become a top-9 goal scorer. He just needs to put those tools together.
The Devils struck first tonight on the power play after the Rangers iced too many men. Jack Hughes took an offensive zone draw and lost, but Palat anticipated the puck’s trajectory and forechecked his way into a board battle that prevented the Rangers from clearing.
Hughes swooped in to scoop up the loose puck along the boards and sent a short pass to Jesper Bratt, who was lurking in the high slot. Bratt’s quick snapshot beat Rangers goalie Jonathan Quick clean glove-side and put the Devils up 1-0. It also secured Bratt’s position as the NHL’s leading preseason goal-scorer with five goals.
Though Bratt’s line ultimately registered a negative CF% at even strength, I thought Bratt looked excellent tonight, especially on the power play. He’s registered nine points through the preseason already. While preseason performance has very little impact on the regular season, it shows that Bratt’s already getting his timing down and is just as lethal as ever.
This Bratt guy. Pretty good at the goals. pic.twitter.com/FrNSJQbork— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 4, 2023
Luke Hughes struck moments after Bratt, sending a floater through traffic that made it past Quick on the glove side and into the net just over 30 seconds later. Unfortunately, it was the high point of the night for the youngest Hughes, who suffered a 27.78 CF% at even strength and had an ugly turnover on the power play in front of Vitek Vanecek during the third period.
Quick was not strong tonight. It’s safe to assume the Devils will face Igor Shesterkin more often than not, but it’s comforting to see that there are holes in the chainmail links around New York’s net. Should Shesterkin fall to injury at any point during the season or playoffs, the Rangers could find themselves in a world of trouble.
The first period rounded itself out with a couple of big hits: one legal, one not. Kevin Bahl stepped up for a massive, legal body check on the Devils’ blueline, which cut off a zone entry at the knees. Jacob Trouba responded a minute later with a decidedly illegal hit from behind on Tyler Toffoli.
Toffoli was not injured, thankfully, but the referees decided to allow Trouba to skate free. No penalty on the play.
Bahl was all over the ice through the first twenty minutes, following up his hit with a penalty drawn by utilizing his newfound foot-speed that forced a slashing call on the Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad.
Hischier almost scored to put the Devils up 3-0 off a feed from Timo Meier, but the post (and Jonathan Quick) defeated him.
The second period saw a run of penalties that drew special teams, for better or worse, into the spotlight. The Devils’ power play shone, striking twice, while their penalty kill went 3/4.
The Rangers scored first off an odd rebound from the back-boards that gave Will Cuylle a wide-open net. Vanecek lost sight of the puck and wasn’t able to slide to the far post in time. A better goalie might’ve anticipated the strange bounce and driven the far post immediately after losing sight of the puck, but it’s also the preseason, and I don’t think Vanecek played poorly tonight. These kinds of goals happen.
The Devils found themselves on the power play shortly after. Nico Hischier sent a perfect pass from the defensive zone all the way up to Meier, who was flying toward the Rangers’ blue line, springing the power forward for a breakaway. Trouba hustled back, however, and brought Meier down in what clearly should have been a tripping penalty.
But Meier stuck with the play even as he was hauled down (and into Quick), which enabled Dawson Mercer—who out-skated and out-muscled his man—to take the pass and put the puck through a sprawling Jonathan Quick.
Trouba was not called for a penalty once more. Then again, he did take out his own goaltender and allowed Mercer to score. The Devils became 2/3 on the power play for the night at this stage of the second.
Brendan Smith and Tomáš Nosek took slashing penalties after Mercer’s goal. Both penalties were deserved if you follow the absolute letter of the NHL rulebook, but they still struck me as odd calls in a game where Trouba had thus far been allowed to run amok with impunity. I suppose referees need the preseason to get up to speed as well. Hopefully they get into the swing of things in time for the playoffs.
The Rangers and Adam Fox slipped a pass-turned-deflection past Vanecek on the ensuing power play midway through the second, but Jack Hughes answered right back with a power play goal of his own—a one-timer from the left faceoff circle.
Jack friggin Hughes, everyone. pic.twitter.com/V0V20SwclH— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 5, 2023
New Jersey entered the third up 4-2.
The Rangers generated a few shots on an early power play generated by Curtis Lazar tripping Erik Gustafsson, but this period was pretty quiet.
After Trouba took Meier out at the knees on the latter’s breakaway, Meier also got caught with a high stick later in the third, which sent Othmann to the box. Meier plays a rough-and-tumble style and it was definitely a rough-and-tumble game for him. Luckily, it seemed as though none of the crashes or smacks he received tonight resulted in injuries.
Aside from Nico Hischier’s empty net goal to secure the 5-2 victory, the only other big moment from the third period was a Devils power play that turned the puck over several times and forced Vanecek to make some big saves.
The worst turnover came from Luke Hughes. Hughes overskated the puck on the breakout, hanging Vanecek out to dry. Vanecek made a huge glove stop on a mini-breakaway, but you’d rather not surrender grade-A chances like that while you’re up a man.
Those are the growing pains we’ll have to accept from Luke Hughes as he transitions from college to professional hockey.
Vanecek stayed strong when he needed to, and the Devils rounded out an overall solid 5-2 win with Hischier’s goal.
You can hear from Luke Hughes post-game here:
“It’s gotten to the point where everyone is getting really eager and excited for the season to start.”— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 5, 2023
L. Hughes ⤵️#NJDevils | @Genucel pic.twitter.com/iGCGDoVdRz
Special Teams an X-Factor?
The power play was the difference-maker for the Devils tonight, scoring three of their five goals and converting 3/5 times with the man-advantage. Aside from that final power play, where the Devils got lazy in their own end and gave away more chances than they generated, it was their x-factor tonight and more than secured them the win.
New Jersey stuck to the middle of the pack last season in power play percentage, scoring 21.9% of the time with the man-advantage. That was good for 13th in the league. Edmonton and the two-headed monster of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisatl possessed the highest conversion rate at 32.4%.
13th in the league is nothing to scoff at, but it was also near the bottom of the pack for teams that considered themselves Stanley Cup contenders. If the Devils manage to improve by even a few percentage points, that could have a massive impact on their ability to gain early leads through the regular season and the playoffs.
I’d also say that the penalty kill was successful tonight. While it surrendered one goal on four opportunities, a 75% success rating, any game where you’re surrendering multiple penalties and only allowing one power play goal against is an overall positive in my book.
The Devils Need Šimon Nemec to Step Up
“Wait a minute,” you say. Nemec didn’t even play tonight! How is he supposed to step up?
At some point, Bill Spaulding said Brendan Smith had a good first period. Having been in a hockey broadcast booth a few times myself, sometimes you say things to fill time. With the benefit of hindsight and Natural Stat Trick, however, I cannot agree. Brendan Smith had by far the worst CF% in all situations on the team at a staggering 18.18% as he struggled beside Luke Hughes.
Colin Miller, who also plays the right side, has had a similarly rough preseason. There’s plenty of time for Miller to prove that he’s a net-add to this team, so I’m not counting him out yet, but we know what Smith is at this point: below replacement value.
Now, Nemec has had just as many errors and negative advanced stats through the preseason as Smith and Miller. He’s also had some bright moments that the other two lack, such as creating plays, quarterbacking a power play, and exhibiting talent above and beyond his main competition for the last roster spot on defense. He just needs to play with more consistency.
The problem for the coaching staff is where do you put him? Bahl and John Marino look like the Devils’ shutdown pair, and a very good one at that. Jonas Siegenthaler and Dougie Hamilton have too much chemistry to split up yet.
That leaves Lindy Ruff with the high-reward, catastrophic risk pair of L. Hughes - Nemec. That could be the Devils top pairing—in 2026. Right now, I don’t think that’s Ruff’s preference.
Without Nemec, the Devils may have to resort to Miller or Smith as mainstays on the third pair, a noticeable weakness on an otherwise-resurgent defense corps. If Nemec, however, managed to give the Devils even average performances as a top-six defenseman, that would give the team an extra layer of depth heading into the playoffs.
Palat and Mercer on the forecheck means that dumping the puck or losing possession on entry isn’t the complete end of a play like it might’ve been in the Hynes dump-and-chase era.
Bratt said earlier that having the eight-year contract signed freed him to just think about hockey. That certainly appears to be the case, as he’s the NHL preseason’s leading goal-scorer and, after a hiccup or two in the early games, has looked every bit as dynamic, shifty, and effective as last year. Without contract negotiations and questions about his future to occupy his mind, Bratt could even improve on last season, let alone meet the standard he’s created for himself.
Former Columbus Blue Jacket-great Jonathan Quick looks strange in a Rangers uniform.
The power play appears focused on getting pucks to open shooters in the slot, which resulted in Bratt’s goal.
Bahl - Marino looks like an effective shutdown pair, but they might have slightly more offense to unlock than we originally thought.
Bahl is looking like a legitimately faster, more agile skater. His footwork transitioning into a back-skate lost him hardly any speed, and he’s looking comfortable pinching into the offensive zone because he knows he can get back in time.
Vanecek ended the night with a low save percentage but made the big stops when needed. That’s all the Devils need from him this year.
Do you think the Devils should go into the season with Colin Miller and Brendan Smith as the 6th and 7th defensemen, or should Nemec make the team? What do you think about Jesper Bratt on the penalty kill? Will the power play be the Devils’ x-factor this year? Let us know your thoughts below, and thank you for reading!