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The Devils Need to Figure out Their Injury Contingencies

With Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes out in, at least, the immediate future, the Devils should take these weeks as a reminder of what can happen later in the season.

Anaheim Ducks v New Jersey Devils
I swear, I didn’t even look for this picture. It just popped up.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils are 7-3-1, sitting at second in the Metropolitan Division and third in the Eastern Conference. Record-wise, there is little to complain about from the team’s perspective. So you may be wondering now: am I really about to propose that Tom Fitzgerald make a trade in reaction to some short-to-medium term injuries for our top centers? At this very moment, no. Given his available cap space, Tom Fitzgerald has about one trade to make this year, barring a major LTIR stint. He needs to keep this trade in his back pocket until he absolutely needs it. The question now is which position groups need depth the most, and which need it the least?

Assuming Good Health

As with all sports leagues and teams, one of the most difficult things to accomplish is keeping a team healthy. You would hope that the team’s best players are not the first to go down, but it is better than losing them in April. And for what it’s worth, we might now find out the Lindy Ruff difference between “day-to-day,” “day-by-day,” and “week-to-week.” For all of the New Jersey Devils injury report vagaries, these are not the players to be teasing fans with information over.

In an exercise of good faith, let’s assume that this is not a Taylor Hall situation, in which one of Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes will get their entire upper bodies surgically replaced at the end of December. Let us say, then, that both Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier will certainly be playing hockey together by Thanksgiving. Hard to watch as it may be at times, the Devils can and should tough that one out without going any further than calling Utica players up and considering waiver claims. For the time being, Jesper Bratt can apparently carry Michael McLeod and Ondrej Palat at even strength, while Mercer and Haula split the middle six lines.

After getting those two back, which would be the group of players most in need of extra help? I think everyone would agree that the goaltenders, who have had an .896 save percentage and 3.19 goals against average, could use the help the most. But then, the Devils have options in Utica, including Nico Daws (and Isaac Poulter, who is only signed to an AHL contract), who should be given games if neither Vanecek nor Schmid put together a good string of starts. In the case of good health, Fitzgerald keeps that trade in his pocket until the Trade Deadline. If the goalies get hot before then, he will give them the space to work.

In the Case of Injuries...The Backup Plans

In just the first week of November, we have seen the Devils’ backup plans at center for when Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes are out. Max Willman was able to provide a spark in the bottom six as a call-up with no practice or morning skate, but I would not expect him — or really anyone in Utica — being capable of at all alleviating the loss of their leadership and play on the ice. And against better teams without their top centers, I would expect the Devils to play more like they did against St. Louis than Chicago. If either one of their health is in question in the long-term, Fitzgerald would absolutely need to make a move.

The Devils, meanwhile, have a myriad of wingers. Between Timo Meier, Tyler Toffoli, and Jesper Bratt, the top lines should always have elite wingers available. Dawson Mercer should pick it up, too, while Alex Holtz continues to grow into an NHL player. Ondrej Palat is the weak link here, as he has slowed down considerably since the first week of the season. Trading for a pure winger with this roster would almost certainly be a waste, though, given their general high-end talent. I am sure that the wingers situation will always be workable as long as the top centers are healthy.

The defense is tricky, though. If either of Dougie Hamilton or John Marino were to get hurt, I would imagine that Simon Nemec would be the first call-up from the Utica Comets, while Topias Vilen could replace any of the left-handed defensemen. Colin Miller, of course, is already in injury purgatory (so much so that MSG forgot to mention him in their injury update last night) after crashing into the boards in practice a few weeks ago. The Devils would have to lean on their European defensive prospects in the case of injuries on the back-end, which I am more comfortable with than calling up Utica forwards to replace top six producers.

The Sign Fitzgerald is Already Thinking About This, and Who He Can Get

You may have noticed that Max Willman had to travel on his own to Chicago to play last night, as the Devils did not carry any forward healthy scratches with them on their road trip. With Cal Foote in the press box, the Devils were rolling with 22 out of 23 roster spots filled, thus accruing cap space in those days where they had open roster spots. Is this good for the players? Absolutely not, as fewer players around the league are making NHL salaries, and more are earning their minor league salaries because of this trend around the league. Let us look how PuckPedia calculated the Edmonton Oilers’ accrual of cap space for the season, with just 21 of 23 possible roster spots filled.

Given this, I would expect as many roster shenanigans as possible from Tom Fitzgerald throughout the season. With the Devils at a projected cap hit of just over $83 million, CapFriendly’s estimated deadline cap space for the team is $1.454 million. That will not be enough to secure anything more than a bottom-six forward, backup goalie, or bottom-pair defenseman without LTIR, salary retention, and three-team trades (like the full Patrick Kane-to-the-Rangers process from last year).

One such example of a player who would need such measures to come to New Jersey is Adam Henrique. The Anaheim Ducks are having a good start to their season, but Henrique has been relegated to third-line minutes in his contract year. And with over $8 million in cap space, they would have more than enough to eat some of his salary on the way out, especially if they falter during the year. I would single out the San Jose Sharks as a team who could use some draft picks and other assets in exchange for eating a chunk of salary, as well.

But a player like Henrique would be perfect for the Devils as injury insurance to their top two centers. Hughes and Hischier are, by far, the most consequential players on the team. Without one, the other is prone to suffering more physicality from opponents. Without both, the team can be easily lost. Getting a guy who can both play wing and center in a top six role without looking out of place would be perfect for their playoff aspirations. We do not need to see Michael McLeod centering a top line in April.

Generally, we should want top six centers that drive offense.

This is just one ideal, cherry-picked example. There are other center/wing combinations out there in the league, and probably cheaper ones. But Henrique is on an expiring contract on a very young team playing above their heads: a situation not too unlike the one he found himself in during the 2017-18 season, when the Devils traded him. I think the Devils have enough low-end NHL talent and available prospects in Utica to make a trade interesting to Anaheim.

Still, I am not going to completely discount the goaltending and defensive situations. While the loss of Colin Miller has stung in the sense that it means that Brendan Smith will never even get a rest night at this point, Miller’s return from injury would largely dispel depth concerns in that area. But if his injured reserve stint turns into an LTIR stint, the Devils would likely need to ask Vilen or Nemec to take on an NHL role. I am sure they would love to, but I am not sure I would be comfortable asking Simon Nemec to help take over for someone like John Marino on a team with playoff-run aspirations. If Miller ends up out for longer than the team initially let on, the defensive depth becomes a serious concern too.

Vitek Vanecek is at least a platoon starter. I do not think that Akira Schmid totally forgot how to goaltend, either, after his excellent starts in the 2023 Playoffs. At the deadline, I believe the Devils would be able to trade for a salary-retained Marc-Andre Fleury as long as they had an NHL cap hit going the other way. But I view the Wild’s situation as the opposite of the Ducks: they are better than the way they are playing, and I am not sure if Fleury would even be available at the deadline.

Minnesota Wild v New Jersey Devils
Already friends.
Photo by Rich Graessle/NHLI via Getty Images

If you are looking for a guideline of what kind of goalie they would be able to acquire with only salary retention: it would be anyone on an expiring contract making under $3.5 million. Aside from Fleury: between guys like...Mackenzie Blackwood, Karel Vejmelka, and Casey DeSmith, who would you feel more comfortable giving games over Vanecek and Schmid? I am not entirely against the idea of adding a third goalie at the deadline, but a lot of the affordable, good third options are already held down by other playoff teams (such as Talbot, who is starting in LA, or Reimer in Detroit and Wedgewood in Dallas).

Final Thoughts

I have watched the Devils through several lost years and not-too-many good years. I have no doubt that, with all of the talent on the roster, they can overcome injuries and almost certainly make the playoffs, even if they are missing important contributors at times. However, teams cannot waste their Cup window years. Having watched the Devils play without Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier over the past game and a half, I am again ready to never watch a game without them again, 1-1-0 record aside.

I thus think it is in the best interest of the team that Tom Fitzgerald makes full use of the tools made available to him by the league. San Jose wants some draft picks to keep some salary as a third team in a trade? Cool. Accruing salary cap with empty roster spots? All the cool kids are doing it these days. Using LTIR to get extra cap space right before the deadline after accruing extra cap for a few months? Well, if either of Tomas Nosek, Colin Miller, or anyone else are still out long-term by then, you know where they’re headed.

What do you think of the team without Nico and Jack? How would you feel if either of them went down in the playoffs? Do you think the team has what it takes to survive without one of them at that stage? Which position are you most worried about injuries at? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.

Update on Jack Hughes (12:20 Edit)

Jack Hughes has effectively been downgraded from week-to-week to being out at least three-to-four weeks, per Ryan Novozinsky. It is indeed his shoulder, and not a concussion.

If this does turn out to be a more serious injury, you already know who I think the target should be. The last time Jack Hughes had a major shoulder injury, Ruff did his best to keep him out of the faceoff circle. If that is again a concern, it will be all the more reason to target a center-wing combo like Adam Henrique for the playoff run.

November 7, 8:15 AM Update: Tom Fitzgerald Speaks

Ryan Novozinsky posted an article on this morning, in which he gets some direct answers from Tom Fitzgerald on the state of each injured Devil. Fitzgerald confirmed the month timeline for Jack Hughes, also mentioning that Nosek and Miller are “both probably a couple of weeks away.” The most interesting piece of information came about Nico Hischier, as Tom Fitzgerald said that his return will be up to him. That means that Hischier is, at least, not hurt enough to land on IR, but in enough pain that the team is not expecting him to play as of yet. Fitzgerald had this to say on the matter:

If people think players are 100% healthy all the time, they’re wrong. But can players like Jack and Nico give us 75% of their ability – because it’s better than 100% of someone I’m going to call up.

Herein lies the issue of this very article. I think the New Jersey Devils are a very well-constructed team. But sometimes, when the best get injured, it just is not possible to keep depth in the AHL that is good enough to adequately replace them. A couple more losses now will be better for having them available in the playoffs, but I hope that Fitzgerald does ultimately look for a way to add more middle or top six forward talent to the team before the deadline.