After a long summer of heightened expectations, huge extensions to key players, and approximately three million trade rumors involving big-name goalies, the New Jersey Devils finally returned to the ice to play some hockey! Jersey’s team opened their preseason campaign tonight with a pair of split squad games. At The Rock, the Devils steamrolled the Philadelphia Flyers, 6-0, while up in Canada, New Jersey doubled up the Montreal Canadiens, 4-2. Ondrej Palat, Erik Haula, Tyce Thompson, Alex Holtz, Timo Meier, and Michael McLeod were the goal scorers against the Flyers, while Joseph Gambardella, Simon Nemec, Dawson Mercer, and Jack Hughes found the back of the net in Montreal. The Devils picked up right where they left off from the 2022-23 season, dominating both the scoreboard and the territorial battle, and while the regular caveats of these games not counting still applies, winning two games by a total score of 10-2 is a terrific way to fill a fanbase hungry for success with encouragement.
Beyond the final scores, there were lots of noteworthy performances between the two games. In New Jersey, Jesper Bratt (fresh off signing his monster new contract) led the way with three assists and was flying all over the ice. Holtz scored his goal thanks to a wonderful pass from Meier, and the Holtz-Meier-Nico Hischier line looked excellent and mostly dominated play. Dougie Hamilton and Kevin Bahl were paired together, like they were at times last season, and the duo combined for a largely wonderful performance. Palat, coming off a season that left most Devils fans wanting, scored and looked very good on a line with Bratt and Erik Haula. In net, Vitek Vanecek played the first two periods for New Jersey, and while he had a light workload playing behind a Devils squad that controlled most of the possession, he pitched a shutout in the 40 minutes he did play.
Up in Montreal, Jack Hughes did Jack Hughes things with a goal and two assists of his own. Hughes’ effort on Mercer’s goal in particular is the same old superstar stuff we witnessed plenty of last season.
Tres bien, Jack Hughes— B/R Open Ice (@BR_OpenIce) September 26, 2023
Already in mid season form pic.twitter.com/XbBpmsytOO
Nemec scored a power play goal, which without context sounds amazing. Adding the context, uh, makes it a little less amazing though.
Hilarious goal notwithstanding, Nemec did handily control the run of play on a pairing with Topias Vilen, so even if you don’t want to give him credit for his goal he deserves credit for winning the puck possession battle. Tyler Toffoli saw his first action in a Devils sweater playing on a line with Hughes and Nolan Foote this evening, and even though he didn’t find the scoresheet he too helped tilt the ice. According to Natural Stat Trick, the shiny new offseason acquisition registered a 5-on-5 Expected Goals For% of 100%. Yes, 100%. The line of Hughes-Foote-Toffoli obliterated Montreal, with all three players finishing with an xGF% of 100%. With Toffoli on the ice specifically, the Devils created four scoring chances, three high danger chances, and didn’t allow a single one of either the other way. Again, it’s only preseason, but clearly a Hughes-Toffoli combo has the potential to do special things this upcoming season.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. Aside from a few players here and there, it was a great night to be a New Jersey Devil. Whether it was veteran stars or young bucks trying to establish themselves at the NHL level, the two squads enjoyed big contributions all around as they easily dispatched the competition tonight. Once again, yes it is only the first games of the preseason slate. But seeing key players in midseason form is just what the doctor ordered after months without hockey. Welcome back Devils.
The Game Stats:
Split Squad, Split Focus: With both games going on simultaneously, I tried my best to keep up with each match, but I had to make an executive decision on which game to prioritize. I decided to pay closer attention to the game against the Flyers, since that contest had a few more players I wanted to keep an eye on. Holtz is the obvious one, but I also wanted to see if Meier had developed any more chemistry with his teammates (namely Hischier) since the last time we saw him. I also was very interested in how Bahl looked, since I think his development (or lack thereof) could have sneaky-big ramifications for New Jersey.
We’ll start with Holtz. Whenever he was on the ice, I made a concerted effort to watch him as much as I could, even if he wasn’t directly involved in the play. I’m certainly not a professional scout, but I thought he had an up-and-down game. He scored, which is obviously great. But I did see some issues that were present last year as well, namely some fumbled pucks and whiffed passes here and there. It did not appear to me that his skating or effort level were big issues though, I thought he kept up with play well enough. Perhaps you have a different opinion on Holtz’s game tonight, but it felt like he was just a tad anxious out there, even if I didn’t think he looked awful. The thing is, if head coach Lindy Ruff is actually planning on putting Holtz on a line with Hischier and Meier to start the season, he doesn’t need to be perfect to be effective. Holtz will just need to do what he did tonight: Put himself in good positions to score a few times a game, and bury chances with some consistency. He can rely on Hischier and Meier, two proven play-drivers, to do the bulk of the work setting up chances, and all he has to do is put that blistering shot of his to good use. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see if that really is the plan for the beginning of the regular season.
So we scored a lot in Jersey. pic.twitter.com/Vl9z6jTLCr— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) September 25, 2023
Meier on the other hand, looked superb to me. He finished with a power play goal, the assist on Holtz’s tally, and four total shots on goal.
Timo Meier is good at hockey. pic.twitter.com/WirFH9knVG— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) September 26, 2023
When he was on the ice at 5-on-5, the Devils outshot the Flyers 8-4, and New Jersey outchanced the Flyers 7-4 (including 4-2 in high danger chances). When Meier came over to the Devils from the San Jose Sharks last season, he certainly did not perform poorly, but it did seem like his game never fully clicked with his new team. Now that he’s had some time to develop a rapport with the rest of the squad, the hope is that Meier really takes off and becomes the premium scoring winger this franchise has needed for a while. If this is the Timo Meier we can expect to see in the regular season, we’re in for something special.
As for Bahl, I tried to give him the Holtz treatment of watching him specifically whenever he was out there. Unlike Holtz, I thought Bahl played a very good game, and the numbers seem to back that assertion up. At 5-on-5 tonight, the Devils outshot Philadelphia with Bahl on the ice by a total of 6-2. And while the scoring chances and high danger chances were close to break-even for Bahl (4-3 SCF edge and 2-2 in HDCF), he did finish with a Corsi For% of 78.95%. Beyond the fancy stats, he also registered a secondary assist on McLeod’s gorgeous goal (we’ll get back to that shortly) and put two shots on net himself per NST. I really thought he was noticeable in a good way, he was very active and looking for opportunities to jump up into the play frequently, and he made good decisions in his own end. Even though he’s got a long way to go to prove he can be relied on night in and night out, he’s off to a promising start in that regard.
So the players I had my eye on in New Jersey all fared pretty well. What about in Montreal? Well the guys I was interested in the most were Nemec and Toffoli, primarily because of the fact that those two are relatively unknown quantities that have the potential to greatly impact the Devils’ upcoming season. As alluded to earlier, Nemec performed quite well. He scored that fluky goal and put three total shots on net. According to Natural Stat Trick, when he took a shift at 5-on-5, New Jersey collected six scoring chances for and gave up none against, and high danger chances were 3-0 for the Devils as well. As mentioned, he was paired with Vilen tonight, and the line he spent the most time with was the Mercer-Chris Tierney-Graeme Clarke line, so it’s not like he got the benefit of just riding the Hughes line’s coattails all night long. I touched on Toffoli already, and we can only hope his stellar performance tonight is a sign of things to come.
As far as the players I was most interested in watching tonight, they all performed anywhere from pretty well to fantastically well.
Injuries: The big fear with any preseason game is a major injury to a key player. The Devils escaped both games tonight with all their big contributors intact, but they did not get away completely unscathed. In the Flyers game, Brian Halonen dropped the gloves with Nick Seeler, and after the fight Halonen left the game and did not return. Meanwhile, Keith Kinkaid (welcome back!) entered the game in Montreal in the third period, but had to leave with about seven minutes left after a scrum in his crease that ended with a pileup on top of Kinkaid. There does not appear to be an update on either player’s status as of this writing. We can only hope both avoid significant injury.
Michael McLeod’s silky mitts: In the game at The Rock, for my money the McLeod goal was the prettiest of the bunch. Check it out:
Touchdown on Monday Night. pic.twitter.com/LTeEFivA4Y— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) September 26, 2023
Between that and his epic goal in Game 7 against the Rangers this past postseason, McLeod is showing us a surprising goal-scoring touch. His goal tonight was a thing of beauty.
Nice to Meet You: As a lifelong Devils fan and reader of this blog since the 2015-16 season, I’m excited to start contributing to All About the Jersey as a game previewer and recapper! Unlike my fellow new recruit Caleb, who previewed these games this morning, I was a mere lurker around these parts, as I never did create an account to be a full part of this community until now. I love the AAtJ community and I look forward to
having all my opinions viciously skewered beyond recognition a great season of Devils hockey ahead!
Your Take: Overall I was very impressed with the Devils’ efforts tonight. Now I’d like to know your opinion. What did you think of the games tonight? Did you watch both, or just one of the two? Are you as encouraged by most of the performances as I am, or do you see things differently? What is something you’d like to see during the next preseason game? Thanks to Caleb for his great preview of this evening’s games, and as always, thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread, and thank you for reading!