This article should surprise absolutely no one who closely follows the Devils, but the plethora of defensive riches the Devils have accumulated has now spilled over to their AHL affiliate — the Utica Comets. Building off John Fischer’s article about the Devils training camp battles on defense, this post will cover who may be left off of Utica’s roster after pre-season.
For this post, we will assume that the seven Devils defensemen to start the season will be in no particular order: Dougie Hamilton, Luke Hughes, John Marino, Jonas Siegenthaler, Colin Miller, Kevin Bahl and Brendan Smith. Simon Nemec and to a lesser extent, Cal Foote, will both push for a spot. Dark horse candidates Daniil Misyul, Santeri Hataaka and Topias Vilen may also alter the conversation with a strong showing in camp as well, but right now, let’s go with these seven.
I’d like to start off by saying that despite the connotation logjams aren’t necessarily bad. Logjams create competition. Competition drives players to their max potential. Logjams also create depth in case of injury or future salary cap issues. Overall, it’s good for the franchise to have these things.
Logjams can stymie development sometimes and prevent NHL opportunities, but that’s an issue for another day. Right now, if a player such as Simon Nemec beats out Colin Miller and Brendan Smith in camp, the Devils have the ability to promote him. These veterans were signed mostly as stop gaps, not road blocks.
Caveats out of the way, let’s dive in.
One Foote in, One Foote Out
The speculation is that LW Nolan Foote will make the Devils roster this season due to the fact that he would need to clear waivers and because of comments like this from Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald:
#NJDevils GM Tom Fitzgerald called Nolan Foote “the example of proper player development.”— Ryan Novozinsky (@ryannovo62) July 13, 2023
My latest on Foote’s path, how his dad, Adam, helps him, and his NJ future role in NJ.
“He’s put himself in a position to play full-time in New Jersey next year.”https://t.co/kPyVZr6DOk
Despite 141 NHL games to his credit, the speculation is not so high that his brother Cal Foote will join him in the big club at the start of the season. Cal signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Devils last week. Two-way deals are usually two-way for a reason.
That said, with a strong camp Foote could POSSIBLY earn a spot with the Devils IF he beats out Brendan Smith or Colin Miller AND the Devils feel that Simon Nemec could use a little more seasoning. That’s a lot of if’s, and’s and possibles, so the smart money is on Cal starting the season with the Comets, but stranger things have happened.
Utica’s blueline for 2023-24
On the right side (assuming that Foote and Nemec start in Utica), the Comets have Simon Nemec, Cal Foote, Colin Felix and Robbie Russo. Manning the left side will be Tyler Wotherspoon, Daniil Misyul, Topias Vilen, Will MacKinnon, Michael Vukojevic and Santeri Hatakka.
Although all of these players will likely play some games for the Comets this season, some will almost certainly start in Adirondack. Locks for Utica (if they are not on the Devils) include Simon Nemec, Cal Foote, Robbie Russo, Tyler Wotherspoon, Daniil Misyul, Santeri Hatakka and Topias Vilen. It’s not clear how many more defenders Utica will carry.
I would not be surprised to see Michael Vukojevic in the ECHL as he was an often-scratched player last season on a less-stacked Comets blueline. Felix played in the ECHL last year and may have to start there as well. Dan MacKinnon’s son, Will, is a bit of a wild card after finishing his collegiate career, but regular ECHL icetime may be better for him than bench time with the Comets.
While the logjam at the AHL level could easily resolve itself after this season (Russo, Wotherspoon, Vukojevic, Hatakka and Felix are all on the last year of their current contracts), the logjam at the blueline at the NHL level will be tough to crack after the graduation of Simon Nemec.
That said, injuries happen. Players have to be moved for cap considerations or traded to acquire other assets for a deep cup run. These things have a way of working themselves out. Prospects such as Topias Vilen, who only turned 20 a few months ago, are still very young and will have to be patient for their opportunities. Other, older prospects such as Daniil Misyul and Santeri Hatakka will be playing this year to hopefully edge their way onto the roster in 2024-25 once the contracts of Brendan Smith and Colin Miller expire.
Overall the Devils logjam at defense is an abundance of riches after years of good drafting and quality acquisitions in the Shero/Fitz era. Devils fans should enjoy the depth for now as it won’t last forever.
Now it is time to tell us what you think. Let us know in the comments below.