The New Jersey Devils will be missing the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs but the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, Utica Comets have clinched a postseason spot for the upcoming Calder Cup playoffs. The Comets have one of the best teams in the AHL and some of the players have been loaned to the Devils during the year. The Comets have some players that will compete for spots on the Devils’ roster during training camp in preparation for the 2022-23 season.
Fabian Zetterlund has been with the Devils for the last eight games and he excelled with the Comets with 24 goals and 28 assists in 58 games for Utica. Akira Schmid struggled during his time with the Devils but has done well with the Comets. He is a rookie and more time with the Comets to develop his game will serve him well if he is in the mix for the Devils’ starting goalie position during training camp.
The Devils have a lot of young talent that is becoming more experienced. The Comets’ success is another indication of more prospects that are capable of playing in the NHL. Here are three players with the Utica Comets that are in the mix to join the Devils’ roster in 2022-23.
Reilly Walsh is a member of the Comets who has yet to appear in the NHL. He has the chance to compete for a Devils’ roster spot on the defense with the expected departure of unrestricted free agent (UFA) P.K. Subban. This summer, Mason Geertsen, and Colton White are also pending UFAs while Damon Severson and Ryan Graves will be free agents after the 2022-23 season unless they are offered contract extensions before then. Devils general manager (GM) Tom Fitzgerald has expressed Severson’s value to New Jersey. The Devils will have room on the roster this summer for Walsh to receive an opportunity to make the NHL.
Walsh understands that being a part of a successful Comets club will increase his odds of reaching the NHL, “We all want to get to the NHL but it’s going to be team success here (in Utica) that gets us all there. You have to play (with the team mindset) every game.” He ranks ninth among defensemen in the AHL with 39 points – eight goals, 31 assists and has been durable in 2021-22 as he has played in 66 of 67 games for the Comets.
After being selected by the Devils during the 2017 NHL Draft, Walsh commented on the importance of being a two-way defenseman as something he needed to work on, “I think being more reliable in all situations, offensively I carry a lot of skills that can help me on special teams and in the zone play, things like that. I think being reliable on both sides of the puck is huge for me, being a trustworthy defenseman – like a guy that’s out there at the end of a game – no matter if we have the lead or trying to score. That’s my goal, to be a good two-way D-man. I have to build my strength, get bigger, be more of a presence on the ice. That’s what I’m going to focus on.”
Assuming Subban does not return next year, Walsh’s potential defensive partners may be Graves, Jonas Siegenthaler, or Ty Smith. The Devils may acquire another veteran defenseman during the offseason in a trade or sign another in free agency that may be paired with Walsh. The young blueliner has progressed in his second season in the AHL and has an opportunity to achieve his goal of making the NHL during training camp.
Alexander Holtz made his NHL debut earlier this year and had two assists in seven games for the Devils before he returned to the Comets. The 20-year-old is tied with Zetterlund for the lead in goals on the Comets (24) and has 49 points in 49 games with Utica during 2021-22. He dealt with his share of struggles early on with the Devils and during his return to the Comets. He participated for his home country of Sweden at the World Juniors where he improved his game.
Related: Devils Pick Alexander Holtz 7th Overall
His focus on shot selection has resulted in a drastic improvement in his offensive production. He is known as a sniper and may be a suitable line partner with Jack Hughes. The native of Stockholm can be a significant contributor to the power-play (PP) for the Devils. He averages a power-play goal (PPG) on one-fourth of his tallies as he has six for the Comets so far.
One of the primary obstacles he faces in being an effective offensive player is adopting a willingness to attack the middle of the ice and approaching the opposing net for closer opportunities to score. He can create chances from a distance but will also need to generate offense closer to the net to reach his potential as a 40-goal scorer (from ‘Alexander Holtz Is Devilishly Good,’ The Hockey News, 3/31/22). A roster spot will open up as players under contract next season such as Pavel Zacha and Janne Kuokkanen may be traded or other players who are scheduled to be free agents may be elsewhere. If Holtz works on his defensive game, he could be an option to put on the bottom six as well, which increases his chances of making the Devils’ roster out of training camp next year.
Uncertainty remains at the Devils’ goaltending position as New Jersey dealt with injuries and a lack of production all year. Schmid has done well with the Comets as he has a 21-8-4 record, a 2.49 goals-against average, and a save percentage of .915. The 21-year-old stands at 6’5”, which is an advantage for the rookie as it is less common for goalies to be of that stature.
Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier, the projected starter and backup netminder for the Devils at the start of the year, have been hampered by injuries. It is possible both are not on the roster at the start of training camp as Blackwood may be traded and Bernier may be forced to retire if he has setbacks during his return from hip surgery. Jon Gillies and Andrew Hammond are both free agents but are more suited as NHL backups or can play in the AHL.
One of Nico Daws, Marek Mitens, and Schmid may be traded during the offseason for New Jersey to improve at another position. Daws and Schmid have played with the Devils during 2021-22 and both have had struggles during their time in the NHL. Schmid appeared to be overwhelmed during his starts for the Devils while Daws has been inconsistent.
Fitzgerald will likely acquire or sign another free agent goaltender during the offseason. If Schmid remains with the Devils after the offseason, he will be a candidate to start his second season with the Comets to get even more experience to make his transition to the NHL smoother than it was this year. The Devils were in an emergency at the position when he played due to player injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak affected their roster. However, he remains an option to consider based on his production with the Comets this season.
The success of the Utica Comets is a good sign for the Devils’ franchise as they have a strong minor league system. Walsh, Holtz, and Schmid are three candidates who will be in consideration for roster positions for the start of next season. The Devils have other players on the team who have played with the Comets this year or before 2021-22. The Devils have the potential to have a good team at some point as they need to become more consistent in all phases of the game. With one of the youngest franchises in the league, the hope is another year of experience will benefit the club as they attempt to become an organization that consistently makes the playoffs like they were over a decade ago.