We’re still far off from next season as July wears on, but there’s no reason we can’t start to look ahead to 2023-24, now that most of the dust has settled on the offseason. The Devils were efficient and did good business this offseason, they locked in their big RFAs, they retained a few other key pieces, and they made a big addition in the form of Tyler Toffoli as well. Most of this work was related to the forwards, though. The Devils look like they will have a formidable top-six heading into next season, and the bottom six is looking pretty strong as well. In all, the Devils will retain much of what drove them to their highest win total in history in 2022-23, but it’s not as if they don’t have a few question marks heading into the fall.
The goaltending situation has understandably garnered the most attention, as the Devils will look to a decent, but uneven Vitek Vanecek and a young only-somewhat-known quantity in Akria Schmid as it stands without another substantial move. The other, less talked about question mark, though, is how the Devils will deal with the departure two 20-minute-per-night defenders in Damon Severson and Ryan Graves. Both players had their flaws, to be sure, but they were also two proven, capable middle-pairing NHL defenders whose contributions the team will need to backfill over an 82-game schedule in the upcoming season. So what does the 2023-24 New Jersey Devils defense look like right now?
Here are the players likely in the mix for the opening night roster on defense next season:
- Dougie Hamilton
- Jonas Siegenthaler
- John Marino
- Luke Hughes
- Kevin Bahl
- Brendan Smith
- Colin Miller
- Simon Nemec
Theoretically, one or two other guys, like a Topias Vilen or Daniil Misyul (if he comes over to North America after signing his ELC) could play their way into the conversation, but the eight above are the ones that the final roster spots will likely go to. The easy assumption when Severson and Graves departed to Columbus and Pittsburgh, respectively, was that the Devils would see their two recent top-five picks step into the void left behind the two exiting veterans. That may well still end up being the case, but it’s not guaranteed to shake out in exactly that fashion heading into next season. As far as who is truly locked into the opening night lineup, I’d say Hamilton, Siegenthaler, and Marino are the only true sure things.
Waiver eligibility will probably be a significant factor in deciding who makes the roster, and given that the Devils have six waiver-eligible defensemen (Hamilton, Siegenthaler, Marino, Smith, Miller, Bahl), the team will have incentive to keep everyone from that group around and not risk losing them to waivers. That means that, for Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec, they will be competing against their teammates as well as the realities of the CBA for their spots in the NHL to start the season. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the initial assumption that the two highly-touted prospects will be the ones filling the shoes of the departing veterans a little bit murkier.
Of the two young defenders, Hughes obviously has a leg up on Nemec to start the season in New Jersey, given that the clock has already started on his ELC and his contract cannot slide, plus Hughes already made a splash in the last couple games of the regular season and in the second round of the 2023 playoffs where he looked anything but overmatched by NHL competition. Hughes had some shaky moments but looked like an obvious difference-maker in his first taste of big-league action and would seem to have the inside track to an opening night starting spot.
Nemec, for his part, had a strong campaign in AHL Utica in his first season after being selected second overall, growing into a top-pairing role as a teenager and putting up solid offensive production as a rookie defender. It’s obvious he will get a long look in camp, but if we take Hughes making the lineup as something close to a given, Nemec will need to displace one of the waiver-eligible defensemen on the roster or at least convince the team to carry two extra defenders instead of two extra forwards.
If the Devils do decide to waive a defender based on the performance of Hughes and Nemec, it would seem like Brendan Smith represents the most likely candidate. Smith did appear in close to 75% of the Devils’ regular season games last season, but with the emergence of Kevin Bahl as a reliable defensive option, the recent trade for Colin Miller, and the arrival of Hughes/Nemec, his position is now a bit precarious. I was critical of Smith at times last season, but I think he represents a pretty solid option as a seventh defender, so I can see why the team might be reluctant to expose him to waivers when the time comes, but I think if anyone goes that route, it would be him. I do think he could clear in the flurry of waiver activity just before opening night when teams trim their rosters, but my sense is that the Devils will be reluctant to do it without Nemec (and Hughes) really forcing their hand in camp.
All of that said, I think this is my best guess right now for how the defense sets up on opening night in Newark:
Siegenthaler - Hamilton
Hughes - Marino
Bahl - Miller
Siegenthaler and Hamilton setting up as the top pairing seems the most obvious scenario, as the duo spent much more time together than apart last season and they soundly squashed their competition in those minutes, to the tune of 62% of the goals and 56% of the expected goals at 5-on-5. The Devils don’t really have a great reason to go away from this setup, unless they want to try out an offensive super-pairing of Hughes-Hamilton. I suspect that could happen time-to-time, but it will likely be limited to late-game scenarios with the Devils chasing the score.
The middle pairing might be a bit more debatable, as I think there are reasonable questions on whether you’d want to immediately thrust Hughes into 20+ minutes a night of responsibility, but a pairing of the young, dynamic Hughes with the stalwart John Marino just makes a lot of sense to me. I think there’s an argument out there to give Hughes more sheltered minutes than the ones that Marino is likely to see, but I honestly think he might just be too good to limit to 16-17 minutes a night on a third pair. I think you at least give this setup a go to start the year.
Finally, we come to the third pair, which may not be the most productive offensive unit ever created, but it would feature two very capable defensive defenders in Bahl and Miller. Bahl really only just broke out in this respect last season, but he clearly started to find his way as an NHLer who can use his huge frame to his advantage. Miller, meanwhile, isn’t quite the player he once was, but has a pretty solid track record of suppressing opposing offenses in his ice time. If this third pairing could eat up some defensive zone starts and keep opposing offenses at bay, they can give some space to the top two pairings to increase their impact in the remaining minutes.
I do think Nemec is more likely than not going to start his season in Utica, with Smith acting as the seventh defenseman at the outset. I think the current impact of Nemec versus the guys he’d be replacing (namely Miller) is probably borderline, and I think the Devils will want to maintain maximum roster flexibility and protect the team depth by utilizing Nemec’s waiver-exempt status. As Nemec continues to develop, he may prove to be a more obvious upgrade and push his way into the lineup before the season is done. The specter of injuries will always loom as well, and Nemec seems like the guy who immediately gets the call if the Devils run into injury troubles.
All in all, the Devils have bigger shoes to fill on the defensive end than most would like to admit with Severson and Graves going, but the team is also uniquely positioned to absorb those losses with their high-end defensive prospects being at or near NHL-ready status in the upcoming year. I also think the Miller deal was a savvy bit of maneuvering from Tom Fitzgerald and the front office to give the team options and depth on the back end without leaning on their rookies too hard. As we close in on camp in 7-8 weeks, we’ll see if anything changes for the Devils roster-wise, but if they head into the season with this group, I think the team is in good shape.