In a sign that the New Jersey Devils are ready to compete for a Stanley Cup, this offseason was more tempered than the last few. General manager Tom Fitzgerald prioritized locking up his core for the long term and retaining internal free agents rather than going shopping in the lean free agency market. He supplemented his core with trades for veterans Tyler Toffoli and Colin Miller and finished his to-do list with the signing of Tomas Nosek to a one-year deal.
These additions leave few openings in a lineup bursting with young talent. The one spot fully up for grabs is a third-line wing. Ondrej Palat’s ability to play either the right or left side allows head coach Lindy Ruff several options on that line. Competition for ice time will also be fierce on the fourth line where five players are battling for three spots. The final major battle is in the net. Will the team turn the starter’s net back to Vitek Vanecek or will upstart, playoff hero Akira Schmid wrestle away the crease? With rookies about to report to camp to prepare for the Prospects Challenge here’s a preview of the main internal competitions.
Third-Line Wing Up for Grabs
Eight of the top nine forwards appear set. Those top eight consist of Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Dawson Mercer, Timo Meier, Jesper Bratt, Tyler Toffoli, Ondrej Palat, and Erik Haula. Who fills the ninth spot on the lineup card will be the most followed storyline of training camp. Fitzgerald has constructed a roster that is so talented and versatile that the top eight are largely interchangeable. He has said that his goal is to have the best top nine in the NHL. The coaching staff has a wealth of options from which to select the ninth player. The most likely candidates are Alexander Holtz, Graeme Clarke, or Nolan Foote. Each is a highly regarded prospect with demonstrated success in the American Hockey League (AHL), and running out of opportunities to prove they belong in the NHL.
The mercurial 2020 seventh-overall draft pick will get the first chance to fill the spot on the right wing. After scoring the first goal of the season for the Devils, Holtz’s season never got on track. They told him that this was a pivotal summer in his career and defined areas where they expected improvement. There is no doubt he possesses an elite shot, but that will not be enough to break the starting lineup. The team is looking for him to add pace and awareness in all three zones and improve both his wall play and play away from the puck. The addition of Toffoli takes some pressure off of Holtz as he fills the need for a right-handed scoring threat at both even strength and on the power play. Toffoli could slot in on the third line and Holtz could move to the top six but it is more likely that the team will allow him to work with two defensively proficient forwards in Haula and Palat.
Like Holtz, Clarke excelled in the AHL last season. The 22-year-old winger led the Utica Comets in goals and points in the regular season and scored at a point-per-game pace in the playoffs. He has proven he can be dominant in the AHL and relishes a shot to make the NHL team out of camp. Clarke is a better skater and more dynamic than Holtz but does not possess the elite tools of Holtz.
His production cannot be overlooked and he should push Holtz and have every opportunity to make the team. Even if he doesn’t make the team out of camp he would be a candidate to fill in should they need a call-up, and being exempt from waivers he should garner some frequent flier miles on the Utica shuttle.
Like Clarke and Holtz, Foote had an excellent season in the AHL and has forced his way into vying for a spot on the NHL roster. Unlike Clarke and Holtz, he is a left-handed shot winger, built like a power forward and probably destined for a bottom-six role. He took major strides forward last season improving his skating and demonstrating his versatility by playing both wing and center when needed. He was featured in six games with the Devils last season and never looked out of place. Fitzgerald has said that Foote is an example of the success of the organization’s development program. The Devils are running out of time though as he must clear waivers should he be sent down.
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The Devils believe all three players are a part of their future, however, there is likely room for only one in the starting lineup and possibly two on the roster. They have indicated that there is still confidence that Holtz will blossom into the elite scorer they projected when he was drafted. Barring an exceptional preseason from Clarke, he is the most likely candidate to be returned to the AHL to begin the season. With Foote needing to clear waivers he will be given every opportunity to remain or could be dealt at the end of camp rather than risk losing him without compensation.
Fierce Competiton for the Fourth Line
The Devils have five players vying for three spots on the fourth line. They return center Michael McLeod and wingers Nathan Bastian and Curtis Lazar and added forward Tomas Nosek from the Boston Bruins. Foote could also find a home here if he doesn’t end up on the third line. The strength of the group is in its versatility as all five have played center at different points and all except McLeod have experience on the wing.
Fitzgerald re-signed McLeod and Bastian on the first day of free agency and Nosek later on in the period. Lazar was acquired from the Vancouver Canucks at the trade deadline but was never able to get on track after suffering two partial MCL tears after joining the Devils. Bastian is also recovering from a shoulder injury suffered in November that plagued him for most of the season. Having him and Lazar at full strength will allow Ruff to put together a tough, fast line that can dominate on the forecheck. Last season the Devils were at their best when they could roll four lines, and early in the year they were often carried by the fourth line of Bastian, McLeod, and Miles Wood.
In many ways, Nosek plays a similar game to McLeod. Both can push the pace, are excellent on the penalty kill, and are dominant in the faceoff dot. McLeod finished third and Nosek sixth in the NHL last season in faceoff win percentage. McLeod was often deployed by Ruff just to win faceoffs then immediately left the ice. With the specter of the Hockey Canada 2018 World Junior scandal looming, and potential consequences for McLeod, Nosek is a perfect insurance policy. Should he be available, there is no reason to believe that McLeod won’t be on the ice. He was arguably the most consistent Devils player in the playoffs against the New York Rangers culminating in him scoring the series-winning goal.
The depth will foster competition and give Ruff the ability to design lineups to match opponents. Assuming Bastian and McLeod are a lock for opening night, the real competition will come down to Lazar vs. Nosek with Foote likely remaining for depth. Lazar is motivated and has an advantage having played in the system already and should have a leg up on Nosek. While not insurmountable, this advantage should be enough to get Lazar and his speed and forecheck into the lineup on Oct. 12.
Who Will Lead the Devils Onto the Ice?
Much of the offseason speculation centered on whether the Devils needed to upgrade their goaltending. In the end, Fitzgerald appears to have decided to run it back with Vanecek and Schmid. Absent any roster changes in camp, the only remaining question is how to split the workload. Will they try to split the games more evenly or will Ruff send out Vanecek for another 50-game season? The challenge for Ruff is keeping Vanecek fresh while not overburdening Schmid, who only has 18 regular-season games in his career.
Both goalies had stellar regular seasons, as Vanecek became the first Devils goaltender not named Martin Brodeur to win 30 games and played to stellar numbers posting a 2.45 goals-against average (GAA) and a .911 save percentage (SV%). Schmid posted even better numbers. Over 18 games he had a 2.13 GAA and a .922 SV%. Their play diverged in the playoffs with Vanecek giving up seven goals above expected in just seven appearances while Schmid entered the playoff series against the Rangers and outdueled reigning Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin over the next five games, shutting out the Rangers in Games 5 and 7. Neither played particularly well in the second round against the Carolina Hurricanes, even though Schmid ended the playoffs with exceptional stats of 2.35 GAA and a .921 SV%.
Vanecek will have to demonstrate to his teammates that he has regained his confidence, as he was a man without answers as he stood before his locker after Game 4 against the Hurricanes. He is well-liked by his teammates and was embraced by Devils fans almost immediately with “Vi-tek, Vi-tek” chants ringing throughout the Prudential Center. With two sets of back-to-back games followed by two games in three nights, there should be plenty of opportunities for each to get a chance to emerge with a good start. The Devils would be wise in both the short and long term to find ways to get Schmid experience and play the pair as a tandem, rather than feature one goalie over the other. Either could be the one to lead the team onto the ice on Oct. 12, while the other will likely do the same the following night.
With rookies reporting this week and the veterans set to report next week, the Devils will enter the season with the highest expectations they have had in a decade. A significant factor in the expectations is the depth built by Fitzgerald. With great depth comes competition, and with competition, championship teams are forged. While much of the roster is set, the battles outlined here will set the tone for the season.