The Devils have done a good job constructing and keeping together a roster that will be as strong as any in the league in the top six. Their top two centers are in the conversation for one of the best one-two punches in the entire league and the wingers they have to support those centers are high-level performers as well. When the season opens, barring injury, the top six will likely include some combination of Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Timo Meier, Tyler Toffoli, and Dawson Mercer, giving them consistent strength across the top two lines.
Beyond the top six, things are not quite as settled, but Tom Fitzgerald has constructed a deep roster of skaters, and the Devils have a good chance to ice bottom six that can create mismatches and even eat minutes effectively against other teams’ top units. No lineup is ever static in the NHL, so there is a high probability that some of the guys mentioned as part of the top six will be playing on the third line from time to time, but generally speaking, the bottom six will be constructed from some combination of this group of players.
- Erik Haula
- Ondrej Palat
- Nathan Bastian
- Michael McLeod
- Curtis Lazar
- Tomas Nosek
- Alexander Holtz
- Graeme Clarke
- Nolan Foote
This group can be split into a few different categories but encompasses most of the likely options that could see significant time at forward for the Devils in 2023-24. John went into the specific training camp battles in some detail over the weekend, so I’m going to try and focus on the possible end products and the potential combinations that could power the Devils to be a problem for opponents in the bottom six. First, the categories:
The Veteran Top-Nine Locks - Ondrej Palat, Erik Haula
The Fourth Line Mainstays - Nathan Bastian, Michael McLeod
The Veteran Depth - Tomas Nosek, Curtis Lazar, Chris Tierney
The Young Potential X-Factors - Alexander Holtz, Graeme Clarke, Nolan Foote
The top two groups represent the guys most likely to be in the lineup on a nightly basis. Palat and Haula are going to be fixtures in the top nine for the Devils as long as they are healthy, and they could potentially rotate into top six spots with other wingers occasionally moving to the third line to potentially generate matchup issues or shake things up if the team hits a rough patch. When mapping out the opening night lineup, though, Haula and Palat look like the cornerstones of a gritty and capable third line. Haula is the likely candidate for that 3C spot with the left-shot Palat probably typically landing in that 3LW spot, though he is capable of playing either side like many Devils wingers.
That leaves the 3RW spot firmly up for grabs, and I think most people foresee that as the potential spot for Alexander Holtz to finally gain his foothold in the NHL. It makes some sense, as Holtz remains one of the Devils top forward prospects, even with a somewhat concerning career arc thus far. That’s probably one of the more likely outcomes, but I wonder if Graeme Clarke isn’t the one who makes the most sense in that position. The 2019 draftee has a somewhat similar skillset to Holtz but was among the centerpieces of the Utica Comets in his age 21 season last year.
Tom Fitzgerald admitted that Holtz ended up a bit mismanaged last season in a recent interview so you have to wonder if the team will want to give him some runway to really sharpen his game in the AHL before making the NHL jump. Clarke, meanwhile, followed up a pretty impressive preseason with the NHL club with a quality end-to-end performance in Utica. I think Nolan Foote, with some of the praise that has come his way this offseason, could maybe figure in here as well, but he might be more at home in a fourth line setup, given his skillset and the fact that he is a left shot and primarily a left wing.
With Haula and Palat there to serve as the stabilizers on that line, there is ample opportunity for that 3RW spot to be an attractive spot for one of the Devils’ younger wingers to break into the league and stick, but that also means they are, to an extent, banking on someone to seize that opportunity, which carries some risk. In the end, the Palat-Haula-Holtz option is probably most likely, but I really like Clarke’s game and think he has a bit more of the edge in his play that might fit in on that line with the veteran grinders.
I think if Clarke (or Holtz) can find some of the scoring touch that they have displayed in the AHL, they can potentially round out a really effective third line for the Devils in the upcoming season. The combo of Haula and Palat provide a really solid foundation for that line and probably give them an acceptable floor of effectiveness, even if the ceiling is more dependent on Clarke or Holtz developing into a viable trigger man on that line.
Meanwhile, the fourth line similarly likely has one spot really up for grabs, with the incumbent McLeod and Bastian likely securing center and RW spots, respectively. The fourth line will have a bunch of players potentially in the mix to fill the third spot in the unit, many of them veteran but some looking for promotions out of Utica as well. I think based on experience and the fact that they brought him in, Tomas Nosek is likely the frontrunner to fill the last spot on that fourth line. Put together with McLeod and Bastian, that has some solid potential as a grinding, shut-down unit.
I do think that this is where Nolan Foote has some real potential as an option for the everyday lineup in New Jersey, and I think if he can make the leap with his skillset, he could give the fourth line a bit more scoring pop than it might otherwise have without him. Foote has a plus shot while having the size and grit that teams like to have in a fourth line role. I think he and Bastian bookending a fourth line gives the team potential added scoring depth that could find some timely goals. Whether it’s ultimately McLeod centering that unit, or even the recent addtions of Nosek or Lazar, that fourth line has a chance to be effective.
The Devils are in a position where even if their young guys don’t effectively make the jump, they can still put together a decent enough bottom six, but if one or more of these guys that have been knocking on the door can take the next step, it gives the Devils an even more dangerous and difficult to handle bottom couple of lines. That’s always a big if in the NHL, but the Devils have done good enough work building the roster overall that they have some wiggle room to allow some guys to grow.