Training camp may be over a month away but that does not mean that we, the People Who Matter, can not speculate about who we want to see in camp. The 2023-24 roster has to be set. On Wednesday, I covered this for the defensemen. The battles are not limited to the blueline in 2023. There are spots at forward that need to be figured out. Given the additions made by General Manager Tom Fitzgerald last month, there will be plenty of competition for a few spots. Just doing well at the 2023 Prospects Challenge and getting some extra looks in preseason games as a result will not be enough. I think it will take a consistently strong effort throughout training camp and preseason to make New Jersey’s starting roster in October 2023.
The transactions made in this offseason impact the forward group as a whole. Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier were re-signed to handsome contracts. Erik Haula was also re-signed and is presumably thankful he does not need to move for a little bit. Yegor Sharangovich and a pick was sent to Calgary to bring in Tyler Toffolli. Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian were not qualified but re-signed to new contracts. Jesper Boqvist was not qualified and so he signed with Boston. Miles Wood signed with Colorado and Tomas Tatar remains an UFA. Tomas Nosek was the last forward signed to a one-way contract back on July 19. That is, by and large, a summary of what happened in New Jersey.
More action was afoot for the Utica Comets. Prior to free agency, Reilly Walsh was traded to Boston for Shane Bowers, a center who primarily has played in the AHL. On July 1, the Devils gave two-way NHL contracts to Kyle Criscuolo and Justin Dowling. Two more centers who primarily played in the AHL. On July 14, the Devils signed another center to a two-way deal who played his first run AHL games in six seasons last season, Chris Tierney. That is four players who can play center. It also fills out a Comets roster that lost the following forwards (thanks to James for highlighting these earlier in July): Aarne Talvitie, Mason Geertsen, Nolan Stevens, Brian Pinho, Jayce Hawryluk, and Nick Hutchinson. Returning are Timur Ibragimov and Joe Gambardella on AHL contracts. Ryan Fitzgerald, Yushiro Hirano, and Eric Cooley were all signed or re-signed to AHL deals. The Comets are expected to add
Josh Filmon and Chase Stillman full-time as both are done with their major junior careers due to age. (Edit: I was wrong, Filmon is 19 until March 2024. Thanks logi khanna for pointing that out.) Needless to say, the Utica forwards have underwent a lot of change in the 2023 offseason.
More change will come as the upcoming training camp battles for New Jersey will impact who will suit up for the Comets.
Who is in the Top Six Again?
On paper, this is easy. The Big Deal, Nico Hischier, Bratt, and Meier are locks to be on the top two forward lines for next season. On paper, Dawson Mercer and Toffoli are the most capable to be the other two. On the ice, this is not so easy. We saw plenty of Erik Haula up on a top line last season with over 460 minutes next to Jack Hughes. Ondrej Palat was injured for a big part of last season but could be an option as well based on his usage in the postseason. Head coach Lindy Ruff likes to move his forward lines around – even in games - so it may be a bit silly to worry about who is or is not on the first or second line. Still, it is important to identify who is subject to receiving significant minutes. They will lead the forwards and, by extension, the offense.
Last season may not offer a lot of help in terms of who that could be. Per Natural Stat Trick’s series report in the playoffs, the Devils really mixed things up in the Carolina series. A trip of Palat, Bratt, and Hischier was one of two lines that played over 30 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey against the Canes. The other was not a top-two line. Jack Hughes had 10+ minute spells with Tatar and Haula, Palat and Haula, and Mercer and Meier. In the series against Our Hated Rivals, Palat-Hughes-Haula played over 50 minutes together whilst Hischier mostly had Bratt and split between Tatar and Meier. Again, Ruff mixes his lines up between and within games. This may make it harder to identify who the coaches are comfortable in putting players together. This does make it easier to be flexible to make changes for match-up or performance purposes.
Anyway: the larger point is that the preseason games may be the decider for the top-six. And even that may not even last too long. There is a chance the full team only gets one preseason game together and even then the units may be mixed up. In my view, I would think it is going to be some combination of Hughes, Mercer, Meier, Hischier, Bratt, and Toffoli. Do not be shocked if Haula or Palat crash that group and someone fills up a third line as a result.
The Bottom Six Battles in New Jersey – Within New Jersey
Given the changes among the players, the only returning bottom-six players from last season’s team are McLeod, Bastian, Haula, Palat, and Curtis Lazar. You can put asterisks on Palat and Haula as they both did play further up in the lineup both in the season and in the playoffs. Lazar was only able to play in 4 season games and 6 playoff games last season. When he did, he was on a fourth line.
This is where the new additions not named Toffoli are likely going to compete for minutes. Tomas Nosek does a lot of what Michael McLeod already does except he is older, a bit bigger, and can play left wing. Chris Tierney, when he is in the NHL, can also play center and shoots left so he could theorhetically can play left wing too. Lazar is a right winger as well as someone who could play center. With these three, you can see both as either potential covers or replacements for the likes of McLeod and Bastian. McLeod and Bastian have been fourth-line mainstays for the Devils. This even continued into the playoffs where McLeod and Bastian at least provided a few points against Carolina. Not to mention that McLeod technically knocked out Our Hated Rivals. One would think they have the inside track for those roles, but to have three players who can play in one of their positions, it makes me wonder if the Devils figure there is the potential for an upgrade.
The Bottom Six Battles in New Jersey – The Comet Factor
This is also where some of last season’s Comets could possibly make the situation even more contentious. Alexander Holtz, Nolan Foote, and Graeme Clarke are the favorites from Utica to battle for some kind of forward position. You can even add Tyce Thompson, who has had some cups of coffee with the New Jersey Devils in the past, as a dark horse. Here is a quick summary of their situations:
- Of the four, Holtz is the most talented. Holtz has the advantage of having a great shot. He got 19 appearances last season after 9 in 2021-22. He also has the (dis)advantage of many in the organization pushing him for him to be better. His skating and off the puck play are cited as reasons as to why he did not play more last season. Holtz strikes me as the player who needs to be in a scoring role to get the most success from him. (And power play too.) I am not sure if that role is really available on this team. Unless he is prepared to force the Devils’ hands, he may be stuck for at least the start of this season.
- Of the four, Foote has been talked up the most. GM Tom Fitzgerald has touted Foote as a success of their developmental model. Which, OK, but Foote’s lack of speed and his skating have held him back from producing a lot at the AHL level – nevermind playing a lot at the NHL level. That said, at least one member of management is a fan of N. Foote. When the GM praises a player, you have to think he will get a chance. Foote has to make the most of it in camp.
- Of the four, Clarke has had the biggest improvement in Utica from a production perspective. He went from 8 goals and 18 points in 31 games in his first AHL season to 10 goals and 24 points in 52 games in his second AHL season to 25 goals and 58 points in 68 games in his third AHL season. Clarke was arguably the Comets’ top forward last season. His ELC is ending after this season. Now is a great time for the 22-year old to show that he can do more than just produce in the ‘A.’ But he will have to battle for attention as he has not received any call ups – unlike the other three in this group. If he does not get it in this season, I fear he may be following in Reilly Walsh’s footsteps.
- Of the four, Thompson may be the most suited for what is available: a depth fill-in position. That is what Thompson has done in his past 11 games with New Jersey over three seasons. If the team wants energy, then Thompson can probably do so and without much issue for fewer than 10 minutes per game. I would not count him out of the camp battle depending on what is being sought after.
This foursome is who I think will do the most to get attention in camp and be closely watched in preseason games. Even if these four do not make New Jersey’s opening night roster, they could very well be called up for one reason or another as the season progresses. Of course, there could be someone unforeseen jumping ahead with a great camp. Chase Stillman could possibly show they are closer to making it than other realize. Bowers, Criscuolo, and Dowling have been around enough to know What It Takes to make it and could make the battle even larger.
The Bottom Six Battles in New Jersey - Overview
For the purposes of this post, on paper, I see the bottom six being some combination of Haula, Palat, McLeod, Bastian, and Nosek, as I am assuming Haula and Palat are not in the top six. This means there is one spot left open – a right winger – for Lazar, Holtz, Clarke, or Thompson to take. As Tierney and Foote are left-handed shots, they may have to out-perform someone like Nosek to make the initial roster. Which is a lot to ask.
An initial guess as to the third and fourth line candidates may require taking a step back and wondering what the coaches want. Based on last season, the fourth line can be an “energy” line but without Miles Wood, they may be allowed to play more than dump-and-chase hockey. The third line could be a kind of a scoring line. Not that you would know it from Haula last season, but he has created plenty of scoring chances and Palat is far from a black hole on offense. This may be a spot for Holtz to take in theory.
I would think the coaches would also want some of the forwards to be options for special teams. Among them, Nosek did the most in 2022-23. He averaged 2:33 of shorthanded time per game with Boston last season. That is another reason why Nosek could be penciled into the NJ lineup right now. Lazar did not do much of it in his limited time in NJ but he did average 1:06 of shorthanded ice time per game in Vancouver last time. He could be an option. Within New Jersey, Haula, Bastian, and McLeod each averaged at least a minute of shorthanded ice time per game last season. From this perspective, this furthers my thinking that Nosek is definitely a Devil.
Power play time, on the other hand, that’s something that absolutely favors Holtz, Palat, and Haula. Each averaged over a minute per game for the Devils PP last season. Bastian just missed out at 57 seconds per game, so if the Devils want a big dude just to be in front, then there’s that. But if the Devils want a bottom-six player to be a part of their man advantage units, then Holtz, Palat, and Haula would be the most viable options based on usage. And based on talent, absolutely Holtz for his shot alone.
I think this further solidifies the grouping I originally had in mind for this end of the forwards. There’s no way outside of injury that Haula and Palat are not playing. Nosek was not signed to a one-way contract to not play; I think he can be penciled in. McLeod and Bastian should be safe enough bets to start on the fourth line. And that one spot next to Palat and Haula is there’s for Holtz if Ruff & Co. want a more offensive option. Assuming Holtz makes the improvements the team wants to see. If they want something more defensive, they can move Nosek (or Bastian??) up and slot in Lazar.
Following that, the Devils will need to figure out a spare forward. Two if the Devils decide to keep only one extra defenseman. I think that’s Brendan Smith based on Wednesday’s post. (Aside: Wednesday’s signing of Cal Foote doesn’t change that in my mind. I think he’s set for a Utica team somewhat short on experienced defensemen past Russo and Wotherspoon as well as right-shooting defensemen beyond Russo and Simon Nemec. Not to mention he’s, at best, the fifth-best right-shooting defenseman in the organization.) This kind of spot absolutely favors a veteran who is comfortable stepping into the lineup for limited minutes. Lazar did it last season when he could actually play and he is in a position to do so.
The issue is who would be the second one. Nolan Foote is eligible for waivers so he could be kept to avoid being lost to the waiver wire. The problem is that a younger player like him really needs to be playing somewhere instead of just biding their time for an opportunity. While it would be a disappointment if Holtz or Clarke does not make it this time, both are waiver ineligible. The Devils can freely move them back to Utica so they can get some minutes. There’s a risk in doing so with Foote. And if he does clear, then it begs the question: Is he really worth a NHL active roster spot? (This is a fair question for the expected Comets like Tierney, Criscuolo, Dowling, etc.) I understand that this may be a lot of thinking about for the 13th/14th forward on the roster. Given that most NHL teams go through at least 16 in a season, it is a valid issue.
Ultimately, with Ruff’s tendency to mix up forward lines for multiple reasons, I would take any forward projections with a grain of salt. At least with the defensemen, there were some stable pairings. Expect some movement among forwards even during the first game of the season depending on how that goes. That said, here’s my initial guess (apologies if I flip-flopped some of the wingers):
Meier-Hughes-Mercer, Bratt-Hischier-Toffoli, Palat-Haula-Holtz, Nosek-McLeod-Bastian
Extras: Lazar, Foote (assuming Smith is the only extra defender).
Call-up options: Clarke, Tierney, Dowling, Criscuolo, Thompson, Bowers (will change based on positional need)
Utica’s Many Changes at Forward
This is going to be heavily dependent on who prevails in the battles for New Jersey’s depth spots. Based on my guess, Clarke, Thompson, Tierney, Criscuolo, Dowling, and Bowers will be Comets. They’ll join Brian Halonen, Chase Stillman, and the collection of AHL-signed players – most notably Ryan Schmelzer and Joe Gambardella - to figure out their 12-14 forwards. If nothing else, the team will be a lot stronger down the middle as the four signed this offseason all can play in the middle. It will also be a lot different looking given all of the changes, as previously noted by James.
The Comets’ final playoff game roster had Halonen, Schmelzer, and Holtz as a line; Gambardella and Clarke on a line with the now departed Nolan Stevens; and Tyce Thompson on a fourth line. That helps a little in terms of how Dineen sees some of the returning forwards. I could see the incoming centers just overtake the prime spots. Clarke (and if he’s demoted, Holtz) should absolutely be on a scoring line based on past results. Stillman seems set for their bottom six to start. Schmelzer and Gambardella may have to make way from the top six, but they will battle in camp as returning Comets and they should have regular spots on the roster. From a New Jersey perspective, the hope and goal is that the NHL signed younger players get minutes in the role that New Jersey forsees the player becoming one day. From a Utica perspective, it is to continue contributing to a team that has been a playoff caliber team since the Devils took over in 2021. These are not mutually exclusive but they may clash in spots. Hopefully not so much involving the NHL-signed players.
What I would look for in a potential call-up is going to be dependent on what the team needs. A player to fill in a on fourth line for “energy” and other purposes? Thompson could do this. Maybe Stillman in a season. And if he’s successfully demoted, Foote. A center? Call up one of the four the Devils brought in this offseason. A winger with some offensive touch? Clarke comes to mind. Holtz if, again, he’s demoted. It will be a moving process throughout the season.
And I do mean moving. One of the roster rules AHL is the number of veterans who can be in a regular season game for a team. Teams are limited to 5 veteran (320+ GP across NHL, AHL, and European pro leagues) and 1 veteran-exempt (261-320 GP across NHL, AHL, and European pro leagues) players in their lineup. With Cal Foote now signed, the Comets have 7 potential veterans along with Russo, Gambardella, Wotherspoon, Dowling, Criscuolo, and Tierney. The veteran-exempt player would be Schmelzer. Last season’s Utica team had to cycle veterans in and out of the lineup due to this rule. Unless New Jersey or Utica plans to make some transactions, they are set to do so again. Which may be fine given how much of the AHL season are played in back-to-back-to-back games on weekends. It does not so much concern New Jersey, but it will concern Dineen in Utica. In the bigger picture, perhaps not a big deal. But it is something.
As stated in Wednesday’s post, a lot can change between now and October 12. There are pre-preseason games (Prospects Challenge), training camp for the rookies, training camp for the veterans, and actual preseason games. There will be drills, video sessions, off-ice sessions, possibly injuries, and more. And, once again, this is all for an opening night roster that can and will change many times throughout the season. The Devils used as many as 19 different forwards who played at least 2 games last season. 15 of those 19 appeared in at least 10 games; the four that did not were Foote, Thompson, Lazar, and Andreas Johnsson. Not making the opening night roster this season may be a disappointment but it is by no means an ending.
That said, I want to know what you think. Who do you think will prevail in the upcoming battles at forwarde in this Fall’s training camp? Who is in your top six for New Jersey? Who makes your bottom six? Is this the year where Holtz sticks in New Jersey? What do you do with Nolan Foote? Who from Utica would be a call up? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about these upcoming training camp battles at forwards in the comments. Do not forget to vote in the AAtJ Top 25 Devils Under 25 poll either; which is relevant as a number of the under-25 year old forwards in this post are in this year’s poll. Thank you for reading.