Devils 2022-23 Training Camp Battles: Defensemen

When New Jersey Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald took over on Jan. 12, 2020, one of the first things he addressed was his team’s blue line. At the time, the defensemen included Sami Vatanen, Mirco Mueller, Andy Greene, Will Butcher, P.K Subban, and Damon Severson. Fast forward a few seasons and the only blueliner left of the aforementioned bunch is Severson. Fitzgerald has done a great job building up his defensive core in both size and skill. Whether it was via trade or free agency, he has focused his attention on improving the blue line and this summer parted ways with veteran P.K. Subban and 22-year-old Ty Smith.

Related: Devils 2022-23 Training Camp Battles: Wingers

The final article in this mini-series will focus on the team’s defensemen and what the battle will look like for that position. Let’s start with the defensemen who are expected to make up the team’s top two pairings.

Players Who Are Expected to Make Up the Top-Four

Jonas Siegenthaler

Jesper Bratt wasn’t the only Devils player who had a breakout performance last season. Jonas Siegenthaler emerged as one of the best defensive defensemen in the league. He quietly started the 2021-22 campaign as a second and third pairing defenseman along with Subban, but by April became a top pairing blueliner with Dougie Hamilton and Damon Severson.

Fitzgerald realized he had something special with Siegenthaler and over the summer signed him to a five-year extension with an average annual value (AAV) of $3.4 million. He provides a service that has been needed on the blue line for quite some time in New Jersey and it is safe to say the 25-year-old is officially part of the team’s young core.

Ryan Graves

Last season marked Ryan Graves’ first year wearing the Devils’ crest. He put up the best numbers of his career earning 28 points (six goals, 22 assists). In addition to his offensive contributions, he led the team with 135 blocked shots and was a top penalty killer along with Severson. His contract will expire at the conclusion of the 2022-23 campaign, and it could be the first time he will deal with free agency as he was traded from the New York Rangers to the Colorado Avalanche who then dealt him to New Jersey. It is unclear if the 6-foot-5 blueliner is part of Fitzgerald’s long-term plans, but fans can expect him to be more comfortable in a top-four role this season.

Damon Severson

Could this be Severson’s final season in New Jersey? There is a good chance that could very well be the case as his contract expires at the conclusion of the 2022-23 campaign. He is another player coming off a career season collecting 46 points (11 goals, 35 assists) in 80 games.

Damon Severson New Jersey Devils
Damon Severson, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It seems like time is running out for New Jersey’s longest-tenured player with Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes preparing to begin their NHL careers. The Devils have Hamilton, Siegenthaler, and Marino locked up through the 2026-27 season and with so many prospects waiting in the wings, it seems unlikely that Fitzgerald will re-sign Severson since Nemec and Hughes will most likely be regulars at that point in time. Regardless of where he plays next season, Severson will want to put himself in the best position possible knowing a summer of negotiations is ahead of him.

Dougie Hamilton

New Jersey’s $63 million man will be looking to rediscover his game after a series of unfortunate injuries last season including a broken jaw and is expected to bounce back in a big way after being limited to 62 games last season. During the 2021-22 campaign he played alongside various defensive partners including Kevin Bahl, Graves, Siegenthaler, and Smith. His 30 points (nine goals, 21 assists) was also the lowest total in a season since his sophomore year with the Boston Bruins. When I spoke to MSG Networks studio analyst Ken Daneyko this summer he explained that Hamilton is poised to have a big season and will play to the “Dougie Hamilton” standard that fans have grown accustomed to the past few years.

Players Battling For The Final Spots on the Bottom Pairing

John Marino

On July 16, John Marino was traded by the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Devils in exchange for Smith and a 2023 third-round pick. Over the past three seasons, he has collected 64 points in 189 games and averaged 20:38 of ice time, which was the third highest among Pittsburgh defensemen, and had 88 blocked shots. The 25-year-old can be categorized as more of a defensive defenseman and is more of a Siegenthaler than a Hamilton. He is a capable blueliner who is strong in his own zone and can play tough minutes and was utilized as a top penalty killer for the Penguins last season along with Brian Dumoulin.

Related: Devils’ Defensive Depth Improves With Marino Trade

In a statement following the trade, Fitzgerald mentioned that Marino’s style will be a complement to the defensive core that he has been building these past few seasons.

“John is a competitive, highly mobile defenseman who strengthens our back end,” said Fitzgerald. “He takes pride in his game away from the puck and his puck management and ability to transition play will fit in nicely with our style and the strengths of our forward group.”

Brendan Smith

New Jersey signed veteran blueliner Brendan Smith to a two-year, $2.2 million contract back in July. The former first-round draft pick spent last season with the Carolina Hurricanes earning eight points (four goals, four assists) in 45 regular-season games and four points (one goal, three assists) in 14 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

The signing made sense as Fitzgerald made it a priority to bring more veterans into the locker room, as Smith has appeared in 571 career games suiting up for the Detroit Red Wings, Rangers and Hurricanes. During his media availability, he talked about the excitement of joining a young skilled team.

“There’s a lot of young talent and that’s kind of the way the game is going, is a lot of those young players are coming in,” Smith said via Zoom conference call. “Looking at Jersey, all those young guys are a year older and I think they’re ready to take that step. I think for myself, I can kind of fill that area of maybe a physical veteran defenseman with a little bit of a voice and maybe help these guys grow in an area to take that next step. So I think for myself that will be a lot of fun.” 

The 33-year-old acknowledged that he will be the team’s fifth or sixth defenseman and said he is excited to be part of the core that has been put together. He admitted it will be a work in progress to get familiar with each other during training camp and find the right defensive pairs, but believes the team is on the cusp and is ready to take the next step to be a competitive team.

A Player Who Will Battle for the 7th/8th Defenseman Slot

Thomas Hickey

On Sept. 13, the club announced that they had signed veteran Thomas Hickey to a professional tryout contract (PTO). The 33-year-old was a member of the New York Islanders since the 2012-13 season and last season appeared in only two NHL games, splitting the rest of his time between the Bridgeport Islanders and Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League (AHL). The thing that New Jersey fans may not want to hear is that the Calgary native has not played more than five NHL games in a single season since 2018-19.

Thomas Hickey Islanders
Thomas Hickey with the New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The likelihood of the former fourth-overall pick becoming a regular on the Devils’ blue line is slim considering they have six capable defenders who are above him on the depth chart. The best-case scenario is the club can utilize him as a depth defenseman who can jump in if injuries occur to the team’s top six.

Prospects Who Can Earn a Spot on New Jersey’s Roster

Kevin Bahl

The New Westminster native was drafted 55th overall by the Arizona Coyotes in 2018. Eventually, he became part of the Taylor Hall trade along with Nate Schnarr, Nicholas Merkley, and a conditional 1st-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, which became Dawson Mercer.

TSN’s Craig Button’s Analysis: Smart, big defending defenceman who takes away opponents’ space and makes life uncomfortable for them. Good puck play.

Highlights From Last Season

  • Scored his first career NHL goal on April 12 against Karel Vejmelka and the Coyotes.
  • In 17 games with the Devils, he collected four points (one goal, three assists).
  • Appeared in 54 games with the Utica Comets collecting 16 points (three goals, 13 assists).

Last season he appeared in New Jersey’s last 11 games and mostly played alongside Hamilton during that time. He had an air of confidence around him during his last call-up, and it was apparent to both fans and the coaching staff.

Kevin Bahl New Jersey Devils
Kevin Bahl, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

“I thought he felt comfortable,” head coach Lindy Ruff said back in March. “Sometimes you look at a young player and he looks nervous. He didn’t look nervous. He looked like he belonged. He looked like he’s taken that step and saying ‘I’m almost there. I know I can play. I know I can make plays. I know I can protect the puck. I know I can get there first.’ All the little stuff.”

At 6-foot-6, 230 pounds he would be a nice addition to the defense that Fitzgerald has put together. It is completely plausible to say that he has the best chances out of Nikita Okhotiuk and Reilly Walsh to be a regular call-up and compete with Smith for that final spot on the blue line.

Nikita Okhotiuk

New Jersey drafted the Russian defenseman with their 61st pick at the 2019 NHL Draft. On Dec. 30, 2019, he signed a three-year, entry-level contract, and has appeared in 91 AHL games collecting 18 points.

TSN’s Craig Button’s Analysis: He makes your efforts as an opponent doubly hard because he competes so hard and takes pride in being a staunch defender. He’s a player in the defensive zone who engages quickly and hard on opponents so they are not in positions to take advantage offensively.

Highlights From Last Season

  • Made his NHL debut on April 21 against the Buffalo Sabres and scored his first career goal against Craig Anderson.
  • In five NHL games, he earned two points (one goal, one assist) and averaged around 15 minutes of ice time.
  • Appeared in 63 games with the Comets scoring three goals and tallying 12 points.

When Okhotiuk was called up to New Jersey he described his playing style as being physical and staying back to help defend his goaltender. It is no surprise to hear that he watched Niklas Kronwall growing up and he made sure to bring that physicality to the ice with 16 hits in his five appearances with the Devils.

Reilly Walsh

The Devils drafted Riley Walsh with their 81st pick during the 2017 NHL Draft, the same year they selected Nico Hischier first overall. He previously played for Harvard University for three seasons and during some of that time was defensive partners with Marino.

Bill Placzek’s Scouting Report: Possibly the best Eastern Prep school prospect in the class, he is a bit undersized, but no one can deny his superb skating and offensive talent as he lead all scores as a dee-man. Has great pace to his game, and can get up ice in transition and put the puck right in front of his teammates, ripe for picking. 

Highlights From Last Season

  • Led all Comets defensemen last season with 43 points (nine goals, 34 assists) in 70 games.
  • The Massachusetts native made his NHL debut at 23 years old against the Ottawa Senators.
  • Earned his first career point in his debut nabbing an assist on Nolan Foote’s goal.

Related: Devils 2022-23 Training Camp Battles: Centers

Ahead of Walsh’s debut on April 26, Ruff talked to the media about why he was called up from the Comets.

“He’s a guy that we want to see play. He’s had a good season down in Utica. We know where we are at and a lot of these young guys are getting an opportunity to play right now. His puck moving ability is something we want to see. He is a guy who’s first pass has been good and offensively has been able to create opportunities for the players on the ice, and that’s what we are looking for.”

Reilly Walsh Binghamton Devils
Reilly Walsh, Binghamton Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

I will be the first to say it will be difficult for Walsh to crack the lineup, but the next couple of weeks will give him an opportunity to show his growth and why the coaching staff should give him serious consideration for a roster spot. Like the aforementioned two prospects, fans will most likely get a glimpse of him at some point between October and April, but most likely not when the Devils’ season opens up in Philadelphia on Oct. 13.

Is Simon Nemec the Dark Horse?

Back on July 7, 2022, the Devils selected Simon Nemec with their second-overall pick at the 2022 NHL Draft, and one week later he signed a three-year, entry-level contract. He has been praised for his hockey IQ and breakout passing ability and is widely regarded as the top defensive prospect of his draft class. It will be a long shot to see him make the opening night roster, but as I said during The Hockey Writers Devils Preview Show, I believe there is a good chance he makes his NHL debut at some point this season.

Devils fans got a glimpse of New Jersey’s prospects, including the aforementioned four, last night when they beat the Montreal Canadiens in their first of three games at the 2022 Prospects Challenge in Buffalo, New York. The rookies will be back on the ice tonight as they are scheduled to face the Buffalo Sabres at 7 pm. Fans will need to wait until next week to see what Smith, Marino, and Hickey can bring to the ice as the veterans will report to camp this Wednesday.

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