It might be a preseason game. It might not matter in the standings. It might not represent how the regular season—and potentially playoff—matchups will turn out. But any game against the Rangers is one where the Devils, full roster or not, should show up and give it their all.
They won tonight. Whether they deserved to is up for debate.
Making a Mark
With training camp just about halfway done, tonight was a big opportunity for prospects who haven’t yet solidified their claim on a New Jersey Devils roster spot to make an impression. Devils management gave several prospects and fringe lineup players a chance in a lineup that featured opening-night hopefuls Kevin Bahl, Šimon Nemec, Tyce Thompson, Graeme Clarke, and Nolan Foote. Some of them pushed their names closer to marking those limited roster spots; a couple may have played themselves out of the conversation.
Tonight's projected #NJDevils lineup at MSG (not official):— Catherine Bogart (@CatherineBogart) September 28, 2023
Toffoli - Hughes - Bratt
Foote - McLeod - Clarke
Willman - Nosek - Lazar
Bowers - Dowling - Thompson
Hughes - Miller
Bahl - Marino
Wotherspoon - Nemec
I thought it was interesting that Hughes lined up between Toffoli and Bratt through much of the game. This suggested two things to me:
- It’s a line the coaching staff wanted to evaluate in a game setting and could become a go-to trio should Holtz end up not making the team or struggling to score during the season.
- They wanted the other lines to stand on their own merits. Hughes, Bratt, and to a lesser extent Toffoli are NHL stars and veterans who have the ability to make any linemate look good in the preseason. Putting them on a line together forced the other lines to use the full breadth of their senses, skill, and work ethic if they wanted to make an impact.
Devils should’ve scored more; they also should’ve allowed more
The Devils immediately leapt out of the gates and put the Rangers on notice, hammering Igor Shesterkin with a handful of shots early on. Tragically, most teams need more than a handful of quick shots to beat the Vezina-winner. It looked early like a game Shesterkin might take over and stifle any chance at victory.
Until Tyler Toffoli scored.
Taking the lead with a little Twistin’ Toffoli. pic.twitter.com/hy3cegjPuN— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) September 28, 2023
It was a funny sort of goal: a broken play initiated by Jack Hughes to Nemec that ended up on Toffoli’s stick, who snuck it on the backhand through Shesterkin’s five-hole.
It’s exactly the kind of goal you need to score on Shesterkin when he’s at his best. When I played net (at a much, much, much lower level), set plays and smart plays were always easier to predict, easier to see as they unfolded, easier to stop. Broken plays were almost impossible to predict, and that’s how Toffoli—who did the right thing and got the puck onto the net—managed to slip it past Shesterkin.
Šimon Nemec would later struggle during the rest of the game, but through the first twenty minutes he was involved in plays, created chances, and of course notched the assist on Toffoli’s goal.
The Devils took the ice for the second period with all the momentum on their side. It didn’t last long.
After a first period that saw the Rangers muster nine shots on net total, they peppered Akira Schmid with eight shots through the first five minutes of the second. It was a sign of things to come: while the Devils had a few good scoring opportunities and a powerplay that generated some momentum, they were on the back foot through most of the middle period.
The Rangers hemmed in New Jersey in the defensive zone for an extended amount of time, which eventually led to an exhausted Kevin Bahl taking an interference penalty in front of the net as he hauled down one of the boys in blue.
Now, I don’t always dislike net-front penalties. Sometimes you have to set the expectation that, if you want to go to the front of the net, you’ll get punished for it. Still, Bahl has to use his size smarter than that. He should know better than to overturn someone in the middle of the slot in clear view of the refs.
The Rangers’ powerplay tested Schmid, but he stood tall and shut down their man-advantage. Often, your team’s best penalty-killer has to be the goalie. That was the case tonight, as Schmid weathered an onslaught and his penalty killers weren’t always there to bail him out.
Something I noticed: Tyce Thompson had a chance near the half-boards to clear the puck, but he thought he had an extra second or two and didn’t manage the clear. It led to a shot that Schmid was ready for, but in the NHL that puck has to get cleared.
Schmid ended his night with a shutout and headed to the bench halfway through the game for Erik Kallgren (pronounced SHALL-gren). Kallgren surrendered a goal on the first shot he faced—a tough pass through the slot that forced him to butterfly slide across the crease. It was going to be a tough shot to stop anyway, but he was a quarter-second behind the play and made himself smaller than necessary in his butterfly stance.
The Devils later mustered a reasonable powerplay that didn’t score yet managed to shift the momentum closer to even rather than suffering a full broadside from a Spanish galleon.
The second period came to a close with some extra-curricular activity on Šimon Nemec’s part. Clearly, the Devils youngster isn’t just skill and smooth skating. He showed a willingness to play physical when he had to tonight.
Aside from a few scattered bursts of pressure, this period was all Rangers. They scored once and outshot the Devils 15-8.
We all know what Igor Shesterkin can do on a good—even average—night. Tonight he was almost perfect, stopping 19/20 through 40 minutes. Luckily for the Devils, former New Jersey-great Louis Domingue came in to play the final 20.
Much like Kallgren, Domingue surrendered a goal on his first shot of the night. Jesper Bratt chipped the puck into the net on a beautiful, silky-soft backhand from . . . Kevin Bahl? Kevin Bahl. Kevin Bahl managed skate with Bratt, manufacture a two-on-one, and deliver a perfect backhand saucer pass into the slot. Well all right then.
Bratt having a Bahl out there. pic.twitter.com/CusNiOZ8A2— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) September 29, 2023
New Jersey weathered another penalty kill shortly after. Chris Kreider tried to beat Nemec along the boards, and Nemec—sensing he was perhaps a step behind, and losing a handle on his stick—managed to interfere with him just enough to get tagged for the penalty. I thought it was a generous call, but it was enough for interference.
During the penalty kill, Mike McLeod stood up on the line and stripped the puck from Alexis Lafreniere, springing Tyce Thompson for an abbreviated breakaway. Thompson managed to separate himself a few feet from the back-checkers but didn’t have time to do more than shoot into Domingue’s torso.
McLeod would later break up a play near the blue line and, with the netminder pulled at the other end, set himself up for an empty-net breakaway, securing a Devils 3-1 win.
Wait—no. A broken-stick slapshot from the point ended up on Brennan Othmann’s stick, who rifled it past Kallgren in the final seconds of the third period.
Devils won 3-2.
It was an at-times ugly game. Without Akira Schmid standing on his head through the first thirty minutes, I’m not sure they would’ve come away with a 3-2 victory—but the goalie is part of the team too, and the Rangers are very familiar with relying on goaltenders (and getting shut down by Schmid).
Schmid might have only played half the game tonight, but his play in goal was perhaps the primary factor in the Devils’ victory tonight.
Who stood out for the Devils?
For the purposes of this preseason recap, I narrowed my focus onto the players I felt still needed to prove themselves to make the full 23-man roster come the beginning of the season. That included high-potential prospects like Šimon Nemec, who could be a candidate for either Utica or New Jersey, and fringe veterans like Curtis Lazar.
I wasn’t watching Luke Hughes as closely because I believe his spot in the lineup is—barring unforeseen disaster—secured.
By the end of the game, no Devil looked particularly good relative to possession stats. Nevertheless, I didn’t feel as though they were totally dominated in the run of play tonight. They had some good plays and, were it not for Shesterkin, they could’ve scored a lot more.
- Per Natural Stat Trick, Bahl recorded the fifth-highest xGF% at 50.61. He also recorded an assist on Jesper Bratt’s goal. The backhand saucer pass that led to the goal was a thing of beauty and not something I would’ve thought Bahl capable of, but I’m just as impressed that he had the relative footspeed necessary to create a 2-on-1 play.
- I also thought he made quicker decisions with the puck under pressure tonight. I can see the change Ruff mentioned in his maturity and decision-making.
“For him, confidence is a big deal. [. . .] There’s been parts [in scrimmages] where he’s been mature enough to just move the puck and be that fourth guy to get involved.”
- Nemec was notable tonight. Sometimes in good ways. Sometimes in bad ways. He drew my attention all night, whether it was setting up Toffoli for the first goal, or interfering with Kreider and taking a preventable penalty.
- By the end of the game, Nemec’s advanced stats were ugly. He got crushed in the run of play and recorded a CF% of 25 and xGF% of 24.11, good for third-worst and fourth-worst, respectively, on the team.
- Nevertheless, I think the right move is for him to work out the bugs in his game in sheltered minutes at the NHL level this year instead of the AHL.
- What may secure Nemec’s spot is Colin Miller’s own play: Miller had as bad or worse advanced stats as Nemec but without the bright spots to make up for the warts.
Honorable (non-prospect) mentions:
- Jesper Bratt, mostly. Bratt had a really ugly giveaway in front of the net that forced Kallgren to make a save, but he also had a great goal. It’s preseason hockey; you can tell the stars and veterans assured a lineup spot aren’t trying that hard.
- Tyler Toffoli scored once and created a few other scoring opportunities. He had the second-highest xGF% on the Devils tonight and it showed.
- John Marino was quietly very good tonight.
Unfortunately, there were a couple of players who likely booked their tickets to Utica tonight.
Tyler Wotherspoon was one of them. I’m not sure he was in the lineup as anything more than comfort for Nemec. Wotherspoon has an NHL contract but was caught out of position several times. There was one instance in particular where he was burned on the outside because he didn’t have the agility to pivot while backskating to keep pace. His lack of skating ability also contributed to his interference penalty.
I don’t know that anyone was expecting Wotherspoon to make a run at the Devils lineup, but I’m not certain he’s capable of serving even in a depth call-up capacity.
Graeme Clarke going to be seeing that play in his dreams tonight.— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) September 29, 2023
Tries to bury it on the backhand, but Igor does Igor things.
Clarke's looked good again tonight.
Said this morning he felt he should have buried his chances against MTL. But gotta keep pushing. #NJDevils
Graeme Clarke did not help his case in my eyes. With respect to Amanda Stein, who does a great job for the Devils, Clarke seemed lost on the ice more than once. Nolan Foote had a great feed to Clarke on a 2-on-1, but Shesterkin was there to stretch across and make the save. I think Clarke generally gets a goal there, but it was the one play out of several where I actually thought Clarke put himself in a position to score.
He and Holtz are competing for the same position: finesse scorer who operates on the one-time side for the powerplay. I’ve wanted Clarke to get a chance there for the last year. He needs to play better through the rest of the preseason if he wants to overtake Holtz.
Tyce Thompson was up and down. He had a chance to clear on the penalty kill but didn’t. He had a clear one-time opportunity on the powerplay but couldn’t hit the net. He got a good shorthanded chance—but the absence of high-end speed in his skating meant he didn’t have enough time to do more than fling a shot on net.
Erik Kallgren, meanwhile, was fine. He was unlucky on the first goal, facing a difficult cross-slot pass that served as a rude introduction to the game. He made some solid saves through the end of the second and the third, but I think the idea that he was ever a true challenge to Schmid’s spot on the roster was vastly overblown. He’s an adequate third option. Just one you hope to not need.
One Last Highlight:
During one play, Lazar borrowed a stick from Toffoli. And a glove. Later, Toffoli offered him his helmet, too.
First preseason preview down. Now my first recap.
It was an up-and-down game but the Devils came out on top. Akira Schmid proved he hadn’t lost a step from last season, Kevin Bahl looked like a fine replacement for Ryan Graves, and the Devils might’ve scored more were it not for Igor Shesterkin.
Did you think the Devils deserved to win tonight? Who stood out? Who didn’t (or stood out in a bad way)? Let us know in the comments, and thanks for reading!