This week, Prudential Center will be filled with hopeful rookies looking to earn a spot on the New Jersey Devils’ opening-night roster. It’s an exciting week for the youngsters because the 2022 Prospects Challenge kicks off later this week at LECOM Harborcenter in Buffalo, New York.
The next article in this mini-series will focus on the team’s centers and what the battle will look like for that position. While there is an abundance of options on the wing, there are a handful of versatile forwards that the coaching staff can utilize at center. Last season, head coach Lindy Ruff consistently used Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, and Michael McLeod down the middle and, depending on injuries, used Dawson Mercer and Jesper Boqvist as well. It’s pretty easy to guess what the team will look like down the middle, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a battle for that final spot. I’ll start with the two centers that will be the team’s one-two punch.
Hughes & Hischier Lead the Way Down the Middle
There is no question about who will lead the team at center for not just this upcoming season but also the foreseeable future. At 23 years old, Hischier is entering his sixth NHL season and has developed into a reliable two-way center who is coming off a career season of 60 points in 70 games (21 goals, 39 assists). He won a team-leading 730 faceoffs and had a faceoff win percentage of 52.1. He is utilized in all situations, and over the summer, associate coach Andrew Brunette said during a podcast appearance that Hischier has Patrice Bergeron potential. Even though he has been around for a while, the former first-overall pick has yet to reach his prime and will continue to get better as time goes on.
Hughes’ career is continuing its positive trajectory, and, like Hischier, he is coming off of the best season of his young career, collecting 56 points in 49 games. The 2021-22 campaign was cut short for the 21-year-old as his last appearance was April 3 against the New York Islanders. The 5-foot-11 forward’s first two seasons in the NHL were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and multiple injuries – he missed 33 games last season. He has yet to play more than 61 games in a season, and it will be exciting to see what a healthy Hughes can do over the span of 82 games.
Haula Will Likely Play Center Despite His Versatility
The trade for Erik Haula added another versatile forward for the coaching staff to work with. Last season, he earned a top-six role with the Boston Bruins, playing alongside Taylor Hall and David Pastrnak, where he found success, including a span of 25 points (seven goals, 18 assists) in 36 games. He finished the 2021-22 season with 44 points in 78 games.
Devils reporter Sam Kasan asked Haula during his media availability in July if he prefers to play wing or center, or if he is comfortable with both.
“To be honest with you, I haven’t played much wing, just a little bit,” he said. “Mostly always at center, but whatever the right fit is, you know last year I played some wing, and the chemistry was there, and [I] played center. It all comes with chemistry on your line, and whether it’s wing or center, it is dependent on what works the best.”
He is expected to slide into that third-line center position, potentially playing with former teammate Tomas Tatar on his wing. He finished the 2021-22 campaign with a face-off win percentage of 53.9, which ranked 25th among players with over 500 faceoffs. McLeod was the only Devils forward ranked higher than the Pori, Finland native. The addition of Haula provides much-needed stability for the team’s bottom six and extra insurance if Hughes or Hischier miss time with injuries.
Will It Come Down to Boqvist vs. Mcleod as the Fourth Line Center?
After the Devils’ 2021-22 training camp, Jesper Boqvist found himself starting the season in the American Hockey League (AHL), playing with New Jersey’s affiliate, the Utica Comets. It could be argued that Mercer took his spot on the third line after outperforming him in camp. The Swede had to wait until early November to make his NHL season debut and ended the campaign with 56 games played and a career-high 23 points.
While Haula finished 25th among players with over 500 faceoffs, McLeod finished sixth. The only players better were Luke Glendening, Jonathan Toews, Claude Giroux, John Tavares, and Patrice Bergeron. That’s pretty good company for the 24-year-old, who just finished his fourth season in the NHL. Within the faceoff circle, McLeod has a clear advantage over Boqvist, but when you look at their overall games, it’s a little blurry as to who can contribute more.
The Swede put up three more points in 21 more games than the Mississauga native. Neither was a contributor on the power play, but last season, McLeod led all forwards in shorthanded ice time as a key contributor on the penalty kill. When I reached out to fans asking for their opening-night roster predictions, it was a 50-50 split between the two depth players for that fourth-line center position.
The good news for Boqvist is he can easily move the wing if the coaching staff wants to continue to use McLeod in the faceoff circle at the NHL level. He played on Pavel Zacha’s wing at various points last season and, like Mercer, can be moved around depending on injuries and what the team needs.
When it comes to the centers who will make up the Devils’ opening-night roster, there shouldn’t be too many surprises. We’ll see if the coaching staff, in fact, keeps Haula in the middle or if they decide to play around with a few different combinations over the next couple of weeks. With so many versatile players who can jump in if necessary, this is one position that fans will not have to worry about when the season opens in Philadelphia against the Flyers.