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Game Preview #28: New Jersey Devils at Columbus Blue Jackets

After beating out the Bruins in overtime, the Devils—now winners of seven of their last nine—head to Columbus to face the Patrik Laine-less Blue Jackets.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Philadelphia Flyers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: BSOH, MSGSN2

Key Takeaways

  • After defeating one of the league’s best in overtime, the Devils head to Columbus for the Dads and Mentors trip to face a struggling Blue Jackets team that has nevertheless gotten the better of them in the recent past.
  • The Blue Jackets will face the Devils without Patrik Laine, who broke his clavicle against Toronto and is out long-term.
  • Outside Zach Werenski, the Blue Jackets lack star power. However, goaltender Elvis Merzlikins has had a fine season and could prove the difference-maker if the Devils don’t receive another admirable performance from one of Vitek Vanecek or Akira Schmid.

The last time the Devils played the Blue Jackets . . .

. . . we all had a miserable time. Fresh off the back of embarrassing losses to the Rangers and the Red Wings, New Jersey returned from Thanksgiving—in which they held practice and many “heart to heart conversations” on the ice—and played about fifteen minutes of solid hockey, losing 2-1 to a bad team. Notably, whenever we reference the Devils are 7-2 in their last nine or they’re on a hot streak, that cut-off comes right after this Blue Jackets game. Though both Jack Hughes and Dougie Hamilton played, Nico Hischier was absent due to his early-season injury. Just under a month later, the Devils are beginning to turn things around off the returns of Hischier and Hughes, slightly better goaltending than they’d received in the past, and the emergence of Šimon Nemec.

The Devils Roster

The Devils practiced on Friday using the same lines that won them the game against the Bruins.

I don’t have much commentary regarding their lines. I’m not always a fan of the we won last game so we can’t change anything logic, but hey—they beat the Bruins with this lineup and didn’t look half bad doing it.

The Blue Jackets are struggling

Despite that victory against the ailing Devils, the Blue Jackets this season have been a mess. After Mike Babcock couldn’t go more than a few weeks without Mike Babcocking, he was fired—I mean, allowed to resign—before the season even began, forcing GM Jarmo Kekäläinen to hire Pascal Vincent to replace him. I’ll admit I don’t watch the Blue Jackets willingly very often. I also realize that nobody was expecting the Blue Jackets to be all that good this year. Still—aside from the Babcock thing—I seem to remember that fans and people around the league actually felt a sense of optimism around Columbus.

Yes, they were not a playoff team. But they had an exciting stable of rookies and young players headlined by third-overall pick Adam Fantilli and rounded out by Yegor Chinakhov, Kent Johnson, Kirill Marchenko, David Jiricek, and Liam Foudy. They had a reasonable goaltender in Merzlikins and theoretical star power with Werenski, Johnny Gaudreau, and Patrik Laine. Damon Severson makes too much money for too long, but he should’ve been a fine addition to their weak blue line. And because Kekäläinen, they also acquired Ivan Provorov, who—aside from being a controversial figure in the league—is not very good.

Yet they sit fifth-last in the league. What happened?

Well, first we can point to their center depth. They have a lot of centers but few who are actually any good. Fantilli has played well for a nineteen-year old, but he’s not capable of holding down top-line center duties by himself. Ditto for Johnson and Sillinger. At five-on-five, none of the Blue Jackets’ centers have positive possession numbers, and only Jack Roslovic—who hasn’t played since early November—has positive expected goals-for. Their lack of depth and trust in their center corps led to coach Pascal Vincent forcing a square peg into a round hole by turning Patrik Laine into a center at the beginning of the season to disastrous results.

Combined with Gaudreau underperforming (16 points in 31 games) and—despite the offseason additions—a shaky defense corps, and lots of injuries, it’s no wonder the Blue Jackets are 4-5-1 in their last ten.

Alongside Laine, centers Boone Jenner and Jack Roslovic, and defensemen Adam Boqvist and our formerly-beloved/despised Damon Severson also remain on injured reserve and shouldn’t face the Devils.

The Blue Jackets Roster

Like the Devils, the Blue Jackets practiced on Friday. These were their lines:

Taking the numbers and attaching names to them, Columbus will likely roster these line combinations tonight:

Gaudreau - Fantilli - Danforth

Marchenko - Voronkov - Chinakhov

Bemstrom - Sillinger - Johnson

Texier - Kuraly - Olivier

Werenski - Blankenburg

Provorov - Jiricek

Bean - Gudbranson

Peeke

Merzlikins played in the Blue Jackets 6-5 victory over the Maple Leafs, in which he surrendered five goals in the third period but stopped 43/48 and secured the overtime win. They’ve played Merzlikins a lot—20 out of their 31 games—but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Spencer Martin get playing time against the Devils. Per Money Puck, Merzlikins is (as of 6:00 PM 12/15) 34th league-wide in goals saved above expected with 1.2 That puts him on par with John Gibson, Jake Allen, and Andrei Vasilevskiy. It also puts him in the upper half of the league. Fortunately for the Devils, the Blue Jackets’ goaltending depth only goes as far as Merzlikins; Martin is 61st in goals saved above expected at -3.3, putting him below Schmid’s -2.0 and just ten places above Vanecek’s -5.5.

Your Thoughts

Will the Devils claim vengeance against the weakened Blue Jackets? Does Vanecek get the start after an excellent game against the Bruins, or will he play the second half of the back-to-back against Anaheim? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading. Onward.