The Devils, with their mostly-AHL squad, looked alright on their first few shifts against the New York Islanders, who were dressing more of their top guys. The Devils were sitting Hischier, Hughes, Bratt, Meier, Toffoli, Haula, Hamilton, Siegenthaler, and Marino — so they were not exactly looking for a victory. This did give Lindy Ruff the ability to make a final evaluation for who will have the final roster spot (assuming Smith/Miller as the 6th/7th defensemen and Lazar as the 13th forward), with just about everyone remaining in camp (except Nolan Foote) on the ice.
Max Willman scored the first goal of the game for the Devils with a great deflection across Sorokin, off a feed from Santeri Hatakka at the point right off the faceoff. 1-0, Devils. Willman, 28, is on a PTO after previously playing 50 games for the Philadelphia Flyers over the past two seasons (4 goals, 2 assists).
Chillen out, Maxing, scoring all cool. pic.twitter.com/9rFNQC4TKm— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 6, 2023
Colin Miller took the first penalty of the game for interference about halfway through, hooking Anders Lee in the neutral zone as the teams battled for the puck by the boards. Brendan Smith, however, would draw a high sticking minor from Kyle Palmieri right off the faceoff to send the game to four-on-four. Palmieri got his stick up when he was trying to hit Smith by a loose puck. Michael McLeod had a nice moment on the four-on-four, dicing through the Islanders and setting Luke Hughes up for a shot from near the faceoff dot. But, Hughes flubbed the shot and the Devils had to fight for it once more.
Akira Schmid’s first big test of the night came when Mat Barzal took the puck up the other way with the Devils caught in their offensive zone. With Horvat on the other wing, he beat Hatakka with a pass, giving Horvat a wide open shot on Schmid. Horvat pulled the puck from backhand to forehand and tried to squeeze it through, but Schmid was able to smother it.
Through one, the Devils led the game 1-0, and the shots were even at 11-11.
The New Jersey Devils got their first real power play of the game when Oliver Wahlstrom high sticked Dawson Mercer by the boards. The Devils sent out Hughes, Miller, Bastian, Tierney, and Holtz. The Devils were unable to get much goin on the power play, as they never created much space for themselves.
J.G. Pageau set Anders Lee up for a chance to the side of Schmid. Lee, all alone, went to his backhand, but Schmid was able to stay in front of it. Then, on the other end, Dawson Mercer drew a defender to him and slid the puck across to Kevin Bahl, who beat Sorokin with his shot! 2-0, Devils. Bahl was beat by Pageau’s pass earlier, but he extended the lead instead.
Nate Bastian, after the goal, took a tripping penalty when he was chasing Casey Cizikas. Barzal had a one-timer through a screen saved by Schmid, and Kyle Palmieri caused a bit of a stir when he poked at the puck in Schmid’s pads. Near the end of the penalty, Simon Nemec took a loose puck after Tyce Thompson tripped up Julien Gauthier with his skate in the neutral zone. It went uncalled, and Nemec showed a new level with a burst of speed, and his quick shot beat Sorokin to make the game 3-0!
Simon says take a 3-0 lead. pic.twitter.com/8S9xYKrYEN— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 7, 2023
Brendan Smith took a crosschecking penalty with over two and a half minutes to play in the period, and the Islanders went back to the power play. The Islanders did not get very close during their power play, only taking some point shots. At the end of the two minutes, Bo Horvat took a slap shot off his lower leg and struggled to get off the ice before hopping down the tunnel. And with just another shift after the penalty, the period expired with the Devils up 3-0.
After the Devils went to the power play for Sebastian Aho slashing Tyce Thompson, Casey Cizikas got a breakaway off a feed from Cal Clutterbuck and was stopped by Akira Schmid. Although the Devils looked better after the initial danger was averted, they were again unable to score despite Alex Holtz looking good during this advantage, as he got a couple shots along one from Luke Hughes.
Right after the penalty expired, Ryan Schmelzer tripped up Cal Clutterbuck and went to the box. On the penalty kill, the Devils and Islanders traded chances, with Mercer just missing the five hole on a breakaway, followed by a chance by the net for the Islanders that Schmid went diving to cover.
After those early chances, the game slowed down to a crawl, with only three shots coming in eight minutes following the last power play. The Islanders were certainly playing down to the Utica Devils’ level by this point, as they probably just wanted to avoid any more injuries. The Devils’ defensemen especially seemed to hold up well, with the Islanders completely at bay. The game ended a 3-0 victory for the Devils, with Akira Schmid locking up his 30-save shutout. So with that out of the way, let’s get to evaluating that last roster spot.
Hughes-Miller Still Does Not Look Too Great
For those hoping to avoid seeing Brendan Smith on the third pairing to start the season, I do not think this game did too many favors for you. Yes, it was a shutout — but not all of the defensive pairings played very well. Luke Hughes and Colin Miller mostly played against the Horvat line and the Lee-Pageau-Wahlstrom line, and they did not do very much. They saw only six team shot attempts in 12 minutes together, and they were outshot 2-5. Despite this, they actually had a 58.22 xGF% at a 0.14-0.1 differential. Talk about defensive hockey.
To some extent, I feel the lack of NHL forwards playing tonight did a bit of harm to evaluating these defensive pairings, but the Hughes-Miller pairing survived the night. Hughes did not have a lot of push towards the offensive zone, and Miller was not helping in that department. I do not think this game definitely means Miller is going to start as the seventh defenseman, but part of pairing Luke Hughes with someone means figuring out who will let Luke shine offensively.
Bahl-Nemec Was A Mixed Bag
While both Kevin Bahl and Simon Nemec scored tonight, they did not have a particularly good night defensively. With a 26.47 xGF% on a 0.28-0.77 differential and a 0-3 high-danger chances deficit, they were not on their best game in their own end. They, like Hughes and Miller, had a lot of trouble against Horvat’s line, where they were out-attempted 12 to nothing and outshot four to none. In that matchup, they had a whopping 0 xGF and a 0.38 xGA.
On the other hand, Bahl looked good with the puck yet again, and Simon Nemec scored a great goal shorthanded. Bahl is, of, course, a lock for the starting lineup. On the other hand, I do not think that Simon Nemec played himself onto the roster with this game. For an NHL spot with the roster the way it is right now, Nemec needed to affect the game offensively and defensively — but he has not really done that.
Smith-Hatakka Was Solid
One late-period penalty aside, the Smith-Hatakka pairing was the best of the defense. They still struggled against the Horvat line, but hardly gave up any opportunities to anyone else on the Islanders. Brendan Smith continued to show that another year in the Devils’ system might have him playing a bit better than last year. But I think surprising everyone was Santeri Hatakka. Am I surprised? Not really, considering how much Fitzgerald states his liking for the guy. Hatakka had an assist with three shots, and that pass to Willman was on point. He looks like a guy that is willing to play physical, but might have more offensive tools and IQ than advertised.
Do I think Hatakka makes the team? Well, I would have had a hard time conceiving of any defenseman other than Simon Nemec making the team on its last spot. I think that, given the way the forwards played tonight, he at least put his name into consideration. But in all likelihood, he should be Utica-bound as a waiver-ineligible player on a team with seven defensemen pretty much set.
Holtz Not Amazing at 5v5
Alex Holtz, who played on a line with Michael McLeod and Tomas Nosek, was pretty much invisible at five-on-five while his line was cratered in a matchup with the Holmstrom-Horvat-Barzal line. In those seven-plus minutes against top competition, the Devils were outshot five-to-none. Holtz did get two shots on the power play, but that might not be enough for Lindy Ruff. Given that the Devils really do not have anyone else right now, I think Holtz sticks on the roster anyway. But if other forwards had great games, he might have been bound for a tough conversation.
Tyce Thompson’s Rough Game
A big reason why the last spot is such a question mark is that Tyce Thompson, who a lot of fans expected to come back hungry for a roster spot, has not made an impression. He had just one shot tonight, and his line with Chris Tierney and Justin Dowling was outshot 2-5 with a horrific 5.57 xGF% (0.05 to 0.77). With each of the other three forward lines posting xGF percentages in the 70s, this stands out as a truly terrible game for that line. To that end, this probably means Chris Tierney is Utica-bound.
Without Thompson or Tierney on good track to make the roster (though one of them still might based on prior history), it is legitimately difficult to figure out who should get the last forward spot. The three remaining from this lineup are: Max Willman, Ryan Schmelzer, and Joseph Gambardella. Since Willman scored the goal tonight, he has the edge from the game — and what a deflection it was. Otherwise, it looked like Willman meshed pretty well with Curtis Lazar and Nathan Bastian — and they were the most productive offensive line for the Devils with 0.39 xGF. Willman led the team with five shots and was second on the team with 0.34 ixG, behind McLeod’s 0.35 (McLeod had a very good showing of his skating ability with the puck, but he still needs a shot to go with it). He was definitely trying to make an impression, and given the state of the roster, he might have done enough.
Ryan Schmelzer is the other possible pick for the team, and he had a nice game. The longtime Binghamton/Utica center is now 30 years old and has been captain of Utica for two years. He is very familiar with the Ruff system, and he looked like he had good chemistry with Joe Gambardella and Dawson Mercer against the Islanders tonight. Schmelzer got the secondary assist for feeding Mercer before the Bahl goal.
Between these guys, I think the guy who has an edge for the last spot on the roster is Max Willman. Maybe that is not what we were expecting going into camp, but he has at least shown something thus far.
A Note on Nolan Foote
It sounds like an IR stint to start the year is coming for Nolan Foote. I think this may lend something to the possibility of a guy like Willman or Schmelzer starting the year with the team, as Fitzgerald won’t have a problem sending either down when Foote returns.
#NJDevils are off tomorrow. Sounds like a Nolan Foote update will come on Sunday instead.— James Nichols (@JamesNicholsNHL) October 7, 2023
Schmid’s Solid Conclusion
While skaters can take a shift half off in the preseason, it would be pretty hard for a goaltender to give a half effort. At least, I think it would be. Akira Schmid, after having a rough game his last time out against the Islanders, fared much better against even more NHLers than last time. While I think Vanecek will have the slight edge in their platoon, it was so nice to see a good game from Schmid before the season starts. He looks much more ready and warmed up, and I hope he has a fantastic year.
Words From the Coach Before the Season
“The regular season is not going to be easy. But I like the way we locked into the way we needed to play.”— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 7, 2023
Ruff ⤵️#NJDevils | @Genucel pic.twitter.com/JSGqjXchxV
What did you think of tonight’s game? What do you think will happen to the final roster spot? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.