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FanFirst Friday: Center of Attention Edition

The New Jersey Devils seem set at the center position for years to come, thanks to Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier extensions. But the cupboards are bare in the system for the center position.

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NHL: New Jersey Devils at Washington Capitals
Devils center depth lost a bit with the loss of Jesper Boqvist to the Boston Bruins this summer. They don’t really have any great prospects in that position coming...which may or may not matter.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I looked at how the Devils season could possibly go awry, despite the lofty expectations everyone seems to be hoisting on them. Many are mentioning them as a true Cup contender. And with Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier anchoring the 1C and 2C position until at least 2027 (Nico’s deal expires then), the Devils seem as set as possible at center. Dawson Mercer also just so happens to be a natural center who has shifted to wing in the pros. It’s possible that he just fits more naturally as a wing in the pro game, but he could very capably fit in at that spot if he was called upon for an extended time. Then the Devils have Erik Haula, Tomas Nosek and Michael McLeod. All more natural centers for the bottom six (though Nosek is technically listed as a wing on Curtis Lazar and Chris Tierney can also be pressed into action in the middle of the ice, if necessary. Though I wouldn’t exactly be psyched if Nico and Jack get injured and your 1C is Mercer followed by Haula, McLeod and Nosek.

It’s a good thing that General Manager Tom Fitzgerald has some options there because the cupboard in the Devils system is fairly empty when it comes to pivots. Just look at CapFriendly’s depth chart for the Devils system right now. Shane Bowers will be basically the main option from Utica if he’s needed (possibly Chris Tierney as well). And he was basically discarded from two organizations last season. And even thought The Athletic has Bowers as an under-the-radar candidate for the Devils in 2023-2024, it’s still not ideal. As the old GIF from Mad Men says, “Not great, Bob.”

The article I wrote last week made me look at the depth of the team in case the dreaded injury bug pops up and I felt ok with wing and defense (goaltending has depth with Erik Kallgren and once he heals up, Nico Daws).

I think in one season, the Devils could possibly weather things, but the lack of up and coming centers is and should be something the Devils should address. I get that the prevailing attitude with regards to the draft is just draft the best player available and not for positional need, but I imagine a young center with skill or size or both might make a very valuable trade chip, even if there isn’t room for them in New Jersey in the immediate future.

Again, it might not be as big a deal since the Devils have a legit superstar with Jack Hughes and someone who will likely be a Selke candidate for years to come. The Devils are better off than many, many other organizations in the NHL. So this is likely making a mountain out of a molehill, but really the only prospects the Devils have at the center position are Zakhar Bardakov and Samu Salminen. Not sure either of them would qualify as A prospects for anyone. It’s also why there’s been some chatter this offseason on a podcast or two and on Twitter about Devils super RH defense prospect Seamus Casey possibly eventually moving to center.

What do the Devils have a ton of right now? Capable, quality RH defensemen. John Marino isn’t going anywhere soon. Dougie Hamilton clearly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Yes, Colin Miller is likely a fill in, but he’s probably a placeholder for uber-prospect Simon Nemec. Eventually the music stops and there’s no chairs remaining.

Now it’s possible that Casey could be a component of a deal to bring in a need somewhere else (say, like, goaltending) and he would likely be just as valuable as that center. But I personally would hate to do that, especially because the kid’s father was a Devils fan and it isn’t often you have those with NJ ties coming home. Having the ability to be able to play center as well could raise Casey’s stock in the Devils organization. But ultimately I bring up the Casey discussion about a positional change amongst some fans just because it shows where the organization currently is with regards to center depth. Sure, at the NHL level, the Devils should be golden, but it would be nice to have one or two pivots knocking on the door.

To be clear, I don’t think this is ultimately a huge issue. It might’ve been had the team not given long-term deals to Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. And given Erik Haula a more permanent home (though he still may wind up on Jack Hughes wing if Jack doesn’t prove he can win a faceoff or two). It wouldn’t surprise me to see Nosek centering line three and McLeod line four if Haula winds up on Jack’s wing again.

Regardless, if the Devils don’t deal away their first round picks in pursuit of Cups over the next few years (which is a VERY real possibility and I wholeheartedly endorse if brings the team closer to achieving that goal), I would love to see a center or two added to the team. The Devils could’ve taken Kent Johnson instead of Luke Hughes in 2021. Or Logan Cooley instead of Simon Nemec. Would I have wanted this to have happened? Hell no to Johnson, but possibly Cooley? But given the importance of having rock solid defense in the NHL, I still think the Devils made the right decision. Especially because they’d likely be moving Cooley to Jack Hughes’ wing instead of playing him as a third line center.

Look, the Devils have done really well with drafting, identifying and signing young talent and it’s fairly nitpicky to look at what they have and say they somehow missed something. It’s just the way things have shaken out and truthfully, I probably wouldn’t change it for anything.

What about you? Are you the type of fan that wants to see more center depth in the organization? So much so that you’ll talk about making Seamus Casey change positions? I won’t go nearly that far, but I would like to see a few added to the prospect pool over the next few seasons.