Training camp is over a month away for the New Jersey Devils. However, that does not mean that we, the People Who Matter, can not speculate about what we want to see in camp. The 2023-24 roster has to be set. There are spots on the roster open for players to take. There is a depth chart to establish if and when injuries and performances require a call-up from Utica. The competition will start with the younger players and Comets getting together for camp as well as the 2023 Prospects Challenge.
One of the areas in most need of some answers is the defense. The blueline will look different in 2023-24. Damon Severson was signed-and-traded to Columbus back in June. Ryan Graves joined the Pittsburgh Penguins on July 1. The team traded a fifth round pick in 2025 for veteran defensive defenseman Colin Miller. Two of the most exciting and talented Devils prospects figure to make the New Jersey roster on defense. Luke Hughes signed out of college, got a taste of the NHL, scored his first goal in a dramatic fashion, and played in the playoffs. Simon Nemec, the second overall selection of 2022, had a very productive season in the AHL with Utica. His graduation to the NHL may be sooner rather than later.
This is all at the NHL level. Down in the AHL level, James noted earlier this summer of the Comets’ changes on the blueline. Reilly Walsh was traded for Shane Bowers. Jeremy Groleau and Zack Hayes were released. It is anticipated that Daniil Misyul and Topias Vilen will join the Comets roster in full for next season. Colin Felix was signed to an AHL deal. The biggest wildcard may be Santeri Hatakka, who has experience as a young defenseman but missed nearly all of last season with injury.
The Devils and Comets have a lot of pieces. Training camp is where the coaching staff and management will start to put them together. On that front, there is consistency. In New Jersey, Lindy Ruff is expected to be re-signed as head coach and Ryan McGill is still the assistant coach in charge of the defense. In Utica, Kevin Dineen is still in charge. Devils Assistant GM Dan MacKinnon is still overseeing Utica while GM Tom Fitzgerald is managing New Jersey. With that in mind, I think we can pencil in part of the blueline and identify where the battles will be in September and October.
New Jersey’s Decisions on Defense
Natural Stat Trick has a defensive pairing tool that easily identifies which defensemen have been paired with, how much, and how the team performed when they both took a shift. Here are the pairings from New Jersey’s regular season at 5-on-5 play (all defensemen would be used in 5-on-5) last season. I made a quick chart highlighting key on-ice stats for each pairing as well as limiting it to pairings that played at least 100 minutes together last season.
As you can easily see, the pairing in green is the only one returning in full. Dougie Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler were together for a large part of the season. As they should. When they were on the ice, the Devils dominated the run of play and out-scored the expected goals model by quite a bit. With the same coaching staff, I would assume this pairing is the safest to be together on Opening Night 2023.
Everything else, well, there has to be some changes given the personnel changes. John Marino’s most common partner was Ryan Graves by a whole lot. The on-ice rates show that was a good decision. While not as strong in on-ice rates as Hamilton-Siegenthaler, the Devils were well above breakeven in all stats. Again, the team out-scored the expected goals model with Graves-Marino on the ice, which helped their usage. Of course, that pairing cannot return.
There is no immediate answer either. Marino’s next most common pairing at 5-on-5 was with Severson and that lasted less than 71 minutes total. Right there is going to be one of the battles. Who can play well alongside Marino? Or, in other words, who should be on the second pairing?
Marino is a right-handed shot. Graves is a left-handed shot. Assuming the staff wants to maintain a left-right dynamic, that would be a place to start the discussion. Luke Hughes, Kevin Bahl, and Brendan Smith are lefties. Simon Nemec and Colin Miller possess a right-handed shots. To that end, who among Hughes, Bahl, and Smith would mesh best with Marino? The coaches were more than fine with having two defensive-minded defenders play on a pairing, so I would not immediately rule out Bahl. Or Smith just to see if he can do so in a pinch. In my view, I would love to see Luke Hughes take this spot and let him use his offensive and dynamic skills with Marino effectively providing cover.
This leads to the second question: Who will make up the third pairing? Severson was a monster in this role. The run of play went real well with Severson and Smith, Severson and Graves, not so well with Severson and Siegenthaler (that GF% of less than 30% explains just 172 or so minutes together), and incredibly well with Kevin Bahl. Their 300 minutes and change together was not only great for New Jersey but it helped Bahl get into playoff games ahead of Smith. Of course, Severson is gone. Bahl remains, Smith remains, and the team just got Colin Miller, who has played on third-pairings in the past.
This could be the most interesting of the defenseman battles in camp. Nothing is really set and there are at least two candidates for each side. Bahl should have the inside track to be one of them. He was getting in games ahead of Smith for a reason down the stretch last season. His new deal secures that he has some kind of immediate future in New Jersey. For the right side, Miller should be the favorite if only because the Devils traded for him. Nemec may end up being the (far) better player but he is both waiver-ineligible and his entry-level contract can slide for another year. Luke Hughes (who is waiver-ineligible but his ELC cannot slide) went straight to the NHL, played in playoff games, and was never sent down. Nemec is already established in Utica and he can go back in case he needs a little more seasoning. The clock for him really starts in 2024 - and by that time, both Miller and Smith will be gone. The Devils can afford to wait on Nemec. Unless Nemec gives them a reason to wait less.
This is not to say that the battle for the third pairing is limited to just that. Whoever does not win out will need to be prepared as a seventh defenseman. Injuries can and do happen in the season. Trades can happen that will force others to draw in to fill in spaces. A team needs to know who can be fine as a scratch and jump into a game without much preparation. They also need to know who could be a potential call-up should the team go beyond seven. This is common for most teams. Even last season, the Devils used nine defensemen over the course of a season.
As of early August, I can see the pairings shaking out this way.
Siegenthaler-Hamilton, L. Hughes-Marino, Bahl-Miller. Extras: Smith, Nemec (call-up until ready)
Of course, training camp and preseason games could very well change this. As could Utica’s camp and season in terms of who is a first or second call up from the defense.
Utica’s Decisions on Defense
Utica went through 12 different defensemen who played at least one game last season. Multiple names from that list are gone. Nikita Okhotiuk was traded to San Jose, Kevin Bahl effectively graduated to New Jersey last season, Dylan Blujus was traded for future considerations to Belleville in March, Groleau and Hayes were not qualified, Ivan Chukarov seems to be out of contract (this is more of an Adirondack issue), and Walsh was traded. In other words, only five return - and that assumes Simon Nemec does not make the New Jersey roster in the Fall. That is a big assumption; I think he will absolutely fight for a spot.
This is not to say that the Comets have no additions. Jarrod Gourley signed an AHL deal from Adirondack. More recently, the Comets signed Dan MacKinnon’s son Will to an AHL deal. He plays defense and just came out of UNH. Robbie Russo was re-signed, Santerri Hatakka could be healthy enough play, and two more prospects are set to join the team in Utica. Daniil Misyul and Topias Vilén are signed and stand to get a lot of ice time in Utica. Something that any developing prospect would need. Vilén impressed at the Prospects Challenge last year, I am most interested in how he does this Fall after a successful season at Lahti Pelicans. Given that Vilén was the only other defenseman called up during the postseason along with Nemec, I figure management thinks highly of him.
In terms of what the blueline could look like, your guess is as good as mine. Nemec’s status will be based on how he does in New Jersey’s camp. Even if he does not make the Devils roster, he may not be an early cut. I would figure the vets Robbie Russo and Tyler Wotherspoon will lead a fairly young defense followed by Michael Vukojevic, Gourley, Hatakka, Misyul, and Vilén. MacKinnon and Gourley may shuttle between Adirondack and Utica as needed, but its at least covered. Whoever meshes well and performs will get the minutes.
The wildcard is Hatakka. He has 49 games of AHL experience and 8 NHL games with San Jose. He could step in to help bolster the Comets defense. He could even jump Wotherspoon, Misyul, and Vilén as potential call-ups beyond Nemec based on how he performs. This is an important season for him among the other Comets on expiring ELCs after this season. Even if Hatakka shows himself to perform on a level of a Brendan Smith, then there is his replacement already within the organization and it makes the Meier trade even more of a Devils victory.
While it is still well in the distance, much can change between now and October 12. Games, performances, injuries, drills, and coaching decisions are all up in the air. The defense will be one of the areas for New Jersey to figure out what they will start with.
And that is essentially my final point for this topic: This is all for how the Devils will start 2023-24. Much can and will change throughout the season. Consider last season. Nikita Okhotiuk did not make the Devils roster initially and ended up playing in 10 games. Kevin Bahl and Simon Nemec were paper decisions ahead of the season, Bahl was sent down for about a week in November, and Nemec did not actually come back to NJ’s roster until Utica’s playoff was done. Smith was a regular until he was not. Luke Hughes was on a Michigan team aiming for the national championship, fell short, and immediately joined New Jersey. The 82-game season is a marathon and a grind of one at that. There will be changes made. This is all about setting up how the campaign will begin on defense. For all we know, Nemec and Hughes are a pairing in April 2024 and the Devils add a defender by the deadline. Much can change. This is all about the start.
To that end, I want to know what you think. Who do you think will prevail in the upcoming battles on defense in this Fall’s training camp? Do you agree that it is fair to assume Luke Hughes is in while Simon Nemec may not be? What kind of third pairing would you want to see? Who from Utica would be a call up beyond potentially Nemec? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about these upcoming training camp battles 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 defensemen in this post are in this year’s poll. Thank you for reading.