The New Jersey Devils opened up training camp on Dec. 31 with media availabilities, followed by on-ice activities beginning the next day. The team wasted no time getting right into things, either. Their first regular-season game is just 10 days away, and there’ll be no preseason games to iron out any wrinkles.
We’ve already seen potential line combinations and what roles players may fit into to start the season. The Devils also held their first scrimmage yesterday morning, so there’s a lot to unpack from just four days. Let’s get into it.
Ruff Talks Pace, Player Roles
New head coach Lindy Ruff had a lot to say during a virtual media session when camp opened on Dec. 31. But the two most notable points that’ll grab your attention were about the pace at which the Devils will play and how he plans to use his players.
We’ll start with the up-tempo style Ruff plans on implementing because that’ll be a significant change. The Devils were the slowest paced team in the league under head coach John Hynes from 2015 until his firing on Dec. 3, 2019. They kept shot events to a minimum, ranking last in the league in shot attempts for and against per 60 minutes and expected goals for and against per 60 minutes.
The Dallas Stars, the most recent team where Lindy Ruff was a head coach (2013-2017), were among the fastest-paced, highest-scoring teams in the NHL during his tenure. The Devils’ roster’s strength lies up front, where they have smaller, speedy, skilled wingers. So they should be able to settle into an up-tempo style of hockey pretty well.
As for player usage, Ruff had some interesting comments on that:
“I think the days of almost every team having a what they would call a shutdown line … I think you need lines in today’s game that can play against anybody. The true strength of a team is, if you can stick your top line out against the other top line and win that battle, you’ve got a good chance to win. If you have your so-called shutdown line and you’re going to play them against the other team’s top line, there’s a good chance that your best players won’t get enough ice time by the end of the night.”From ‘Everything we learned during the Devils’ remote media day,’ The Athletic – 1/1/2021
If you’re a Devils fan, this should be pretty encouraging to hear. One of the many oddities of the team’s start to the 2019-20 season was their defensive-minded forwards logging more ice time than their best offensive threats. This was especially true when the team was looking to close things out late in games.
And the end result was not always the desired outcome. You have to look no further than the Devils’ first six games last season when they started 0-4-2. If Ruff is true to his word, players should end up in better situations to succeed, and that should net more positive results.
Hughes Skates With Johnsson, Palmieri
I’ve been beating this drum ever since the Devils acquired Andreas Johnsson from the Toronto Maple Leafs. So it was good to see Jack Hughes paired with Johnsson and Kyle Palmieri during the first few days of on-ice activities.
Palmieri has long been a good fit for Hughes as a linemate because of his shooting talent and underrated defensive ability. Johnsson has averaged 45 points per 82 games over the last two seasons and was one of the Leafs’ most efficient five-on-five scorers. He’s also a pretty good shooter himself.
When Hughes didn’t see minutes with Palmieri or Taylor Hall, his most common linemates last season were Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, and Wayne Simmonds. Skating with Johnsson and Palmieri will be a big contrast from playing with Wood or Simmonds because they should finish the chances he creates. And that can only be a positive.
Subban and the Power Play
P.K. Subban had the worst season of his career in 2019-20, specifically at even strength and on the man advantage. He’s had plenty of success on the power play in the past, and the expectation is he’ll play a big part there in 2020-21.
The Devils don’t need Subban to be a Norris Trophy contender again. Nor should they expect him to be, but they need him to bounce back in some capacity. With that said, giving him a significant power play role might not get him headed in that direction.
Subban had a goals above replacement (GAR) of minus-2 on the power play in 2019-20. His expected GAR (xGAR) of minus-0.4 was a bit better, but that meant he was still expected to finish below replacement level on the power play. It was also the second season in a row where he struggled on the man advantage — he had a GAR of minus-0.5 and xGAR of minus-0.8 in 2018-19.
If it were a one-year blip on the radar, then you’d have the argument Subban is due for better power play results. But that’s two seasons in a row of below replacement-level numbers at that game state.
If not Subban, then the Devils’ best option to man the first power play unit would be Damon Severson. Severson finished last season with a GAR of 1.1 on the power play, and his xGAR was 2.2. Overall, he’s had more of a positive impact on the man advantage than Subban has over the last three seasons.
The Devils’ man advantage should look much different with Mark Recchi in charge of it. That could benefit Subban, and it doesn’t hurt to have some trial and error with him in Recchi’s new system. But Severson seems to be their best option in the long run.
Fitzgerald Speaks on Bratt’s Contract Situation
Every Devils fan wants to know, “when is Jesper Bratt going to sign a new contract?” General manager Tom Fitzgerald provided a bit of an update on Saturday afternoon during his first (virtual) media availability of training camp.
“Jesper’s agent and I have been in constant communication,” said Fitzgerald to reporters. “We’re trying to find a common ground on their thoughts on how a deal should be structured versus how we think a deal should be structured. I see a lot of parallels with Jesper’s situation with the MacKenzie Blackwood situation, and you know the contract negotiations.”
In a normal year, a contract negotiation dragging into camp wouldn’t be too problematic. But with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, some issues arise. Until Bratt signs a new contract, he has to remain in Sweden until he gets a working visa. Once he signs, he’ll have to quarantine in New Jersey for seven days and test negative for COVID-19 four days in a row before participating in on-ice activities.
The longer Bratt goes unsigned, the more likely it is he misses regular-season games. And with the Devils implementing Ruff’s new system, he’ll have work to do to catch up on things once he arrives in New Jersey. So a deal needs to get done sooner than later.
Notes on Devils’ First Scrimmage
The Devils held their first scrimmage of training camp yesterday morning. They played three, 15-minute periods with the lines and pairings they had been using since practice began, followed by a bit of 3-on-3 and a shootout. Here are some takeaways from the scrimmage.
Zajac Line Stands Out
The line of Janne Kuokkanen, Travis Zajac, and Nick Merkley had an impressive performance, as they were on the ice for three of Team Red’s four regulation goals. Merkley finished with two goals during regulation, plus a goal during the shootout. Zajac had a couple of assists, while Kuokkanen tallied one himself on Josh Jacobs’ goal.
Merkley looked like a player poised to make the NHL roster. He played well on loan in the Liiga (Finland), and that confidence has seemed to carry over into camp. If this line continues this way through the next week or so, they should be a lock as the Devils’ third line when the regular season begins.
You probably didn’t expect much from defenseman Josh Jacobs during this scrimmage, but he played quite well. He scored on a beauty of a shot and tallied a primary assist on Merkley’s second goal. Jacobs also potted one during the Devils 3-on-3 session after regulation.
Jacobs likely has an uphill climb to become a regular on the Devils’ blue line. But if he keeps playing well throughout camp, he could land on the team’s taxi squad, which will comprise of 4-6 players and is allowed by the NHL for the upcoming season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zacha, Gusev Show Chemistry
Pavel Zacha and Nikita Gusev, along with Bratt, got a good run together to end the 2019-20 season, and they played quite well. It’s unfortunate Bratt is not in camp to practice alongside them, but that didn’t stop Gusev and Zacha from connecting on a couple of quality scoring chances. And Zacha was able to finish this pretty setup from Gusev in the third period:
Miles Wood started the scrimmage on a line with Gusev and Zacha. But Jesper Boqvist got a couple of shifts at center with Zacha and Gusev during the third period. Whether it’s at center or left wing, Ruff should give Boqvist an extended look on that line. He has the most skill and upside to play with Gusev and Zacha, at least until Bratt returns. And he’d be a better fit than Wood moving forward.
Building Blocks Coming Together
It’s early, and it’ll be hard to have a real sense of things until the Devils begin playing games. But there have been some encouraging signs, like Ruff placing Hughes with Johnsson and Palmieri, and Merkley continuing to show he’s ready for an NHL roster spot.
Zacha and Gusev showing they may still have some chemistry is a positive sign as well. The team has put together the foundation over the first few days. Now we’ll see how it evolves over the next week-plus of camp.
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Advanced stats from Evolving Hockey