Welcome to a very anticipated and exciting season of New Jersey Devils hockey! More than any time in the last 10+ years, there is a real level of energy surrounding this team, and it is really fun to be a fan of this franchise right now. With that energy and excitement comes expectations as well, and this is the first year in that same time frame where expectations have risen pretty high, with many calling this team a real Stanley Cup contender. With expectations, of course, also comes the risk of disappointment, just ask any fan of either New York football or baseball team right now.
Here at All About the Jersey, we are beginning our season preview for the Devils. Over the next several days, we will delve into each part of this team and organization that come together to put what will hopefully be a winning team on the ice. After all of that, all of the writers here will give our season predictions as well, and next offseason we will go back and see how we did, just like John did for last year’s predictions not too long ago.
For this preview, I will start by reviewing what happened last season with the forwards before taking a look at this year’s squad and finally going into some expectations for this year. And while I will attempt to be as thorough as possible, I ask that you add to my information by posting in the comments as well. If you think there is an angle I forgot to add about a certain skater, or you have a different view of how this group will perform this year, definitely let us all know. And finally, if you are so interested, you can check out the forward preview that I wrote up last year to see how the forward group was situated just a short 12 months ago.
What Happened Last Year?
Before going into individual performances, take a quick look at how the offense did as a whole last season versus years prior, with information coming from Natural Stat Trick:
Last year, you can see the massive jump from basically all of the years prior. Even the year they made the playoffs, in 2017-18, New Jersey’s offense was nowhere near as good as it was last season. The Devils managed something they have not done in many years now: they produced over 3 goals per game on average. And not only did they manage that, but they managed to produce over 3.5 goals per game, a massive, massive improvement. The Devils went from a team that regularly ended in the bottom 10 teams in the league in offense to the 4th best offense in the NHL last season. This jump is absolutely huge, and even more so if you look at it over a two-year span. In 2020-21, the Devils finished 26th in the NHL in scoring, a place they had generally been for a bunch of years at that point. Then, last season, they improved slightly to 19th. A nice jump, and a reasonable one for an improving, rebuilding team, but nothing out of this world. Then, last season, they really broke out and jumped all the way to the 4th best-scoring team. What an improvement.
This bump also came with a boost in shooting percentage and PDO, but not massive ones all things considered. The team’s PDO was basically luck-neutral, so it wasn’t like they were getting a ton of luck here. The team shooting percentage was higher, the first time it surpassed 10% in a long time, and only the 3rd time in that same span that it was even over 9%. But considering PDO was basically even, all that really happened was that this team elevated its game to where it should be.
Now, to filter out the impact that defensemen had on the team offense, let’s get into individual performances. Here is a chart of a bunch of different stats I accumulated, mostly from Natural Stat Trick, but some from Hockey-Reference. Players needed to have played at least 200 minutes in all situations for NJ to be included. Finally, all stats are for all situations except for OZFO%, CF%, GF%, xGF%, HDCF%, and HDGF%, which are all at 5v5. Only stats while playing for the Devils are included.
Last year, Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt were the top 3 on the list (I have it sorted by points scored), and they are the same top 3 once again. This is as it should be, and it is a good indicator that this team is performing properly, with a strong presence in the top 6 for producing points. If Timo Meier had been on the team for the entire season, he might have broken in and pushed Bratt out of the top 3; between San Jose and New Jersey, Meier had 66 points, but he played 57 games on a very bad Sharks team. On a much better line in New Jersey, you would expect that he would have scored more, and he could have very well ended with more than Bratt’s 73. However, Meier’s 14 points in 21 Devils games only extrapolates to 52 points in 78 games, which is how many Meier played in last year. So who knows?
Nonetheless, there is a strong scoring presence on this team that will be there once again this year, as Meier replaces and surpasses Tomas Tatar on that list, and the addition of Tyler Toffoli also adds another top 6 scoring presence. Dawson Mercer should also see growth as he is incredibly young and still growing as a player. Plus, if Ondrej Palat can stay healthy and play close to a full season, that would be another quality presence in the middle of this forward corps.
Overall, there isn’t much in terms of negatives to point out from this chart. We can get nitpicky and name some. Mercer rocked a nearly 17% shooting percentage and had 27 goals despite averaging under 2 shots per game. That is extremely unlikely to continue, he will need to shoot more to replicate his scoring numbers from last year. Similarly, Bratt ended with a shooting percentage over 15% and is due for regression on that front. Scoring 30 goals in consecutive seasons will be tough for him unless he changes his game and becomes more shot-heavy. However, with how dynamite he has played in the preseason, you never know, he could end up scoring over 100 points if this keeps up. And as I just mentioned earlier, Meier was on pace for a measly 54-55 points over a full season during his 21 games with New Jersey. If that is what he ends up producing this year, that will be a disappointment and would not be equal to the $8.8 million he is counting against the salary cap.
That all being said, those are just a few areas of potential concern and go against the grain of what is overwhelmingly a positive chart to look at. Jack’s numbers are ridiculous and he could be a Hart candidate if he improves at all. Nico is still Nico, enough said, he should get the Selke one year. Dawson will improve this year. Alexander Holtz could crack this lineup and add his scoring touch. Toffoli could be an improved Tatar. Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian are still defensive dynamos with heavy defensive starts. Hischier, McLeod, and Erik Haula are faceoff kings who will give the Devils possession more often than not. And oh, speaking of possession, every single player on that chart ended with a CF% over 50%, and everyone returning this year also had a GF% and xGF% over 50%. That is the mark of a good squad, and that is exactly what this forward group was last year. Very, very good.
This Year’s Squad: Departures
First, let’s look at departures from that chart above, as there obviously are some holes that will need to be filled. Of the 14 names on that list, 5 are no longer on this team, a fairly large turnover rate to be honest. Let’s go down the list. Tomas Tatar’s contract expired and he did not return to the team, eventually electing to sign with Colorado. However, word somewhat recently came out that he was initially offered a 1-year deal from Tom Fitzgerald but turned it down, hoping for more term. However, once Toffoli was added, there was no more room for him on this roster, so he had to go elsewhere. Tatar had a subpar first season in Newark, but really upped his game this past season, with 20 goals, 48 points, and the best GF% and xGF% among all forwards on the team. He did this with a strong net-front presence, as he also had the highest HDCF% and HDGF% among the same group of forwards. The Devils will need to replace his presence in front of the net without question. He is the biggest loss among the 5 that have moved on, but it is a hole that can certainly be filled.
Beyond him, Yegor Sharangovitch was traded in the offseason for Tyler Toffoli and is now on Calgary after signing a 2-year deal with the team. Yegor entered 2022-23 with a lot of expectations after making his presence known the year prior with 24 goals and 46 points, displaying a nice scoring touch that this team sorely needed. Last year, however, he regressed, ending the season with only 13 goals and 30 points, similar to his 2020-21 numbers despite that year being shortened thanks to the pandemic. Without a secure position in the lineup with the potential addition of Holtz, it was smart to move on, and hopefully, he can regain that scoring touch with the Flames. Miles Wood is also gone, having signed a massive 6-year deal with Colorado in the offseason. Many Devils fans were happy to see him go, as he was really just a fourth-liner with a ton of speed who, more often than not, created problems by taking dumb penalties. He had his moments, but not enough to warrant a long-term deal. At 28 years old, it’s kind of shocking that he got that kind of term somewhere, but better there than in New Jersey.
The last two who are gone are Jesper Boqvist and Fabian Zetterlund. Boqvist is a former second-round pick by the Devils, drafted 36th overall in 2017, a pretty high selection. He was given plenty of chances to become a regular given the high pick that was used on him, but he never showed any more than being a bottom 6 complementary player. He did manage 10 goals last year, but on only 67 shots, that was not going to cut it. He ended up in Boston on a 1-year RFA deal. Finally, Zetterlund was traded to San Jose as part of the Meier deal and signed a 2-year RFA deal with them after that. Last year was really Zetterlund’s first one in the NHL, having only played 14 games with NJ before that. It wasn’t a monster year by any means, but one that showcased that he could be a quality depth piece on a team with some more coaching, but not one that the Devils needed to keep by any means. He was a good piece to send to San Jose for Meier.
This Year’s Squad: Re-Signings
Now, who is here to replace these departures, and who will make up the squad this year? First, we should look at those who re-signed with the Devils on long-term deals. Three forwards from last year inked deals to stay here for some time: Timo Meier, Jesper Bratt, and Erik Haula. First, here was Meier’s card from JFresh and his reaction to the signing:
Next, check out Bratt’s card and reaction as well:
And finally, here is Haula’s card and reaction, this one from Andy & Rono:
Meier and Bratt specifically represent the solidifying of a core for this offense for a long time. Combine those two with Jack and Nico, and you have four guys who are signed for many years to come, three of them through at least 2029. Those four guys will be the staple of the top 6 for this team as it enters what is hopefully a period of serious competition for a Stanley Cup year in and year out. They are the heart and soul of this group; if you’re buying a new Devils jersey, there’s a decent chance it is for one of those four guys. Haula inked a 3-year deal, and he will be a key piece on this team during that time, but he is more of a middle 6 guy who would best be served as a third liner if the top 6 is fully healthy and firing on all cylinders. He is the type of guy you need to win Stanley Cups, one of several complementary pieces put together around the core that elevate a squad to the next level, but he isn’t the core of this group by any means.
Beyond those three, two-thirds of the fourth line also re-signed to stay on short-term deals, namely both Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian. In the interest of not making this preview any longer than it already is, however, I am not going to spend much time on these short-term deals. Simply put, both McLeod and Bastian signed deals to stay here as fourth liners, McLeod a one-year deal where he remains an RFA, and Bastian a two-year deal where he will be a UFA after the deal is done. They will anchor the fourth line for a little while longer, being given a heavy dose of defensive zone starts with the expectation of playing defensively sound hockey and getting the puck up ice. I am not going to post their player cards here, but if you want to check them out, here is the link to both of their cards from Andy & Rono after they re-signed.
This Year’s Squad: Additions
Now, let’s go to additions instead of re-signings. As I mentioned, Toffoli was brought in through a trade that sent Sharangovitch to Calgary. Here is Toffoli’s player card from JFresh, along with his initial take after the trade took place:
As you can see, JFresh was fairly high on Toffoli at the time of the deal, and his model is very high on Toffoli as a player. He projects as a very good top-6 winger who can play alongside either Jack or Nico and can help both drive possession and generate points. At only $4.3 million against the cap this year, it could be a potential steal for a Devils team looking to make a deep playoff run. He will need to replace what was lost by Tatar, and based on what he did last year, he should be able to do that and a whole lot more. He ended last year with 34 goals and 73 points in 82 games for Calgary, which was 10 more goals and 9 more points than anyone else on the team. He also had strong possession and xGF numbers, bolstering the point totals and showing that they were legit. He should provide a boost to this team’s scoring capabilities, and at a minimum, should be able to replace Tatar and more beyond that. He is a huge boon to the depth of the top 9 of this forward corps.
Toffoli is the biggest and most important addition to the forwards this year, and really the major one that matters most. However, he isn’t the only new name. In mid-July, the Devils signed Tomas Nosek to a one-year, $1 million deal to work as a depth, defensive forward. Here is the reaction to the signing and Nosek’s player card from Andy & Rono:
As you can see, Nosek is not an offensive forward at all, and his offensive stats leave a lot to be desired. At only $1 million, however, the signing and the purpose are clear: he is coming here to be a depth defensive piece among the forward group and fill a role alongside McLeod and Bastian as defensive forwards who can handle themselves in the defensive zone and play the penalty kill. Nosek is particularly effective on the PK, and you should expect to see a good percentage of his minutes come in that setting. As long as you temper your offensive expectations and understand what you are getting with him, his defensive game should have its uses at times.
Another depth signing to replace those that were lost was Chris Tierney, who was signed to a one-year, two-way deal worth $775,000. Tierney has been around the league somewhat, having previously spent a few years each with San Jose and Ottawa before spending last year between Montreal and Florida. Really, at this point, the battle is between Nosek and Tierney for a fourth line role, but with Tierney’s deal being two-way, he can move up and down between the AHL and NHL while Nosek cannot, so that tilts things a certain way. Tierney did have some decent offensive seasons in the past, reaching 48 points in 2018-19 with Ottawa, but last year he was only relegated to 36 regular season games after the Sens gave up on him ever turning into more than a fourth line, replacement-level forward, so to expect anything more than that would be a bad idea at this time.
In truth, other than Toffoli, and perhaps Nosek to replace Wood on the fourth line, the biggest addition(s) could come from within. Yes, there is training camp tryout Max Willman, who does have 50 games of NHL experience in Philadelphia, but the odds are much better of a younger guy from within the system cracking the lineup. There are some quality names in camp that have the potential to get playing time on the roster this season. The biggest, of course, is Alexander Holtz. I wrote in last year’s preview how I thought he could break into the lineup, but that never really happened on a consistent basis. He ended up playing 19 games for New Jersey, scoring 4 points, but never secured himself a long-term spot. That could change this year, and he has been given lots of top 6 minutes during the preseason, being put on a line alongside Hischier and Meier. The coaching staff clearly wants to give him the best chance possible to succeed right now, and having Nico and TImo as your linemates is about as good as you can get in the NHL. Look for him to be given every opportunity to cement a role for himself this year on the roster.
Outside of Holtz, other names to look at are Nolan Foote and Graeme Clarke. Both have been touted as quality prospects in this organization for a little while now. Clarke played fantastic hockey in Utica last year, producing 58 points in 68 games. He is 22 now, and expect him to be given a shot if he keeps showcasing that scoring touch (NOTE: he was sent down to Utica on Tuesday and did not have the best training camp, but if he keeps playing like he did last year, he will be back). Foote did not have as good of a year in Utica, with only 37 points in 55 games, but he did pot 20 goals, and he has been given NHL opportunities before, with 19 NHL games played over his last 3 years. If he can show that he is ready to make the jump, he will definitely be given the opportunity as well. There is a chance at least one of these two guys makes it on the opening night roster, and both could eventually see playing time in New Jersey if injuries arise.
All of that comes together to create a really strong group of forwards this year. It is an absolutely stacked top nine with quality players up and down the lineup. Every one of those top 9 guys can score when given the puck, and with that strong depth, there should be plenty of times where the pure talent advantage leads to tilted ice in NJ’s favor. As the team that scored the fourth-most goals in the NHL last year, this group has already shown that it is legit, and with a full year of Meier, a full year of Toffoli, and the growth of younger players, it has the chance to be even better, even with the loss of 5 players from last season. This is potentially the best forward corps the Devils have ever had, and if not ever, then certainly in decades.
This Year’s Squad: Lineup Prediction
Given that, what could the lineup look like come opening night? The beginning of the season can be a time to allow a young kid or two a crack at the lineup before sending them down after a few games to play in the AHL, unless of course, they can show that they belong. Mercer was given that shot and never gave his lineup spot back. Holtz was given it last year and was eventually sent down. Who could we see this year? Here is one guess for the opening night roster:
Bratt - Hughes - Toffoli
Meier - Hischier - Holtz
Palat - Haula - Mercer
Nosek - McLeod - Bastian
This is an extremely good group of forwards here. That is a scary good top 9 that has scoring capabilities at every single position, plus a defensively-minded and responsible fourth line to get the defensive zone starts and get the puck up ice. That top line has the potential to be one of the best lines in the entire NHL, and each player could reach a point per game if all goes well. Holtz is the question mark on the second line, but I think he is a given a shot out of camp to cement his spot in the NHL, and since he has been given a lot of time with Nico and Timo in the preseason, I can see this continuing into game 1. If he can’t play well with those two as his linemates, that is trouble indeed.
The third line is honestly one that could work as a second line on many teams. Mercer improved significantly last year, and at only 21 years old, is still going to grow. He can easily take Holtz’s spot on the second line if Holtz cannot work there long-term. For now, however, playing with Haula and Palat is a great spot for him, two veterans who know what they’re doing and should be able to thrive against weaker competition given the third line position they’ll be playing in. Palat can also move up to that second line role if needed. So could Haula, honestly, but his faceoff abilities make him a better fit on the third line to take the draws since Nico will have that handled on the second line. And as mentioned, the fourth line is there for defense and to get defensive zone starts, prevent goals against, and get the puck up ice. In that role, they have proven their abilities, and at least Nosek and McLeod should add to their value on the PK.
Things could be slightly off from this. Curtis Lazar could draw in on the fourth line over Bastian or Nosek, as he did in the preseason game against New York on Wednesday. It is also possible that another prospect could get a shot, although where they crack inside that top 9 is beyond me. This is a stacked group of forwards who should cause fits to opposing teams.
Expectations for This Season
Last year, I felt that we needed to see improvement out of the forward group, and boy did we ever. They didn’t just improve, they exploded onto the scene and made it known to the entire league that they are one of the best groups in the NHL and plan to remain there for years to come. The majority of the group is young, in their prime, and is only improving as they gel together as a group. This year, the expectations for the forwards are higher than they have been in perhaps a generation. Yes, we had high expectations when Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk were set to play alongside Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, and others, but I am not sure we expected them to compete to be the best group in the NHL. That is exactly what this current forward group has a chance to be.
Now, expectations should never be as high as the best possible scenario, we need to take into account all possibilities. The other end of this is to realize that this group made a massive jump last year. The Devils went from the 19th-best scoring team to the 4th-best. Many teams that make huge jumps like that have a strong chance of regression the next year. Sometimes, things go perfectly right for a jump like that, and when luck regresses to the mean, things don’t go as well. In that kind of scenario, the Devils could fall this year in terms of offense, might not score as much, and might have to work to remain a top-10 offense. While I don’t think this happens, and most people aren’t predicting this sort of thing, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility either and needs to be noted.
Taking all of it into account, I think the bottom end of expectations would still be a top-10 offense that should certainly be able to reach 3 goals per game on average. The low end would just have some negative regression from last year. However, the top end of expectations is a top 3 offense which improves upon last year and is extremely dangerous with perhaps the best top 9 in hockey. Middle of the road is what we saw last year, a top 5 offense that is very, very good, but is perhaps one tier below the best 3 offenses in the league. Analytical consensus says this group is slated for great things, so it isn’t wrong to have high expectations for this group. Just remember the New York baseball and football teams if you want to steel yourself from potentially being let down.
There you have it! We are truly in uncharted territory here at All About the Jersey, writing about a forward group that has the chance to be the best in the NHL after a decade of basically praying they wouldn’t end in the bottom 5. This group is loaded from top to bottom, especially on the top 9, where every player has the ability to score. The top line of Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and Tyler Toffoli has the chance to run circles around the opposition all season, and what they can’t get done, a second line anchored by Nico Hischier and Timo Meier certainly can. We have the chance to see significant growth from the likes of Dawson Mercer and Alexander Holtz as well, and there’s always a chance another young gun can force their way onto this lineup, whether it be Graeme Clarke or Nolan Foote. If you aren’t excited about what this group has the potential to achieve, I don’t really know what to say. This is as good as it gets as a Devils fan as far as I’m concerned.
That’s what I think, however. How do you feel about this forward group this year? What are you expecting from them this season? Are you as optimistic as me, or are you a little more hesitant given the very high standards we are setting for this group? Who do you think could be a breakout candidate this year, and what are your thoughts about the opening night lineup? Much different than mine? Please leave your comments below, and I hope you’re getting excited for another year of Devils hockey!