The New Jersey Devils have loads of young players who had breakout seasons last year. Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Jonas Siegenthaler all had career years, but the Devils still finished seventh in the Metropolitan Division. They have a solid core in place but were missing the complementary pieces needed to turn into a competitive team. If players like Alexander Holtz, Ondrej Palat and Vitek Vanecek play to their potential, they will be in great hands and may be well on their way to developing into a playoff contender, but these players alone may not be enough to push them to the next level. Here are three Devils that not many are talking about who could be X-factors in helping the team take the next step:
Brendan Smith was signed to a two-year deal in free agency after spending seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes. The 33-year-old defenseman should slot in on the bottom pair in New Jersey and has the capability to line up as a forward if needed. He was fifth on the Hurricanes last season with 3.83 shots blocked per 60 minutes, which would have been third on the Devils amongst players who played more than 70 games. The Devils finished 25th in the NHL in blocked shots per 60 minutes and had 25 losses where they were outshot by their opponents, so adding a player like Smith should be a huge help in that department.
Smith also averages 6.33 hits per game, another category that the Devils struggled in. They were 31st in the NHL in total hits last season, and head coach Lindy Ruff continuously talks about how his team needs to become tougher to play against. Not only will Smith help in both of these categories, but he will also help fill a leadership role on what promises to be a young team this season.
Smith has played in 56 career playoff games and said he’s learned a lot from Red Wings legends Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, that he hopes to pass on to some of the young Devils players to help keep the team moving in the right direction.
John Marino was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins for Ty Smith and a third-round draft pick in 2023. The former sixth-round draft pick is expected to have a huge impact on the Devils’ penalty kill after he led the Penguins in total shorthanded time on ice last year. New Jersey’s penalty kill started slowly by giving up 14 power-play goals in its first 20 games but eventually evened out to finish 14th in the league.
Marino is a steady defensive defenseman that should help solidify a Devils’ blue line that gave up 3.68 goals per game last season, which was fourth worst in the NHL, by consistently stealing pucks from the opposition and getting it quickly to the offensive players. The 25-year-old was second on the Penguins with 43 takeaways last year and excelled in transitioning the puck.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have traded John Marino to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Ty Smith and 3rd round draft pick 2023. John Marino is good defensive TOP4 defenseman, meanwhile Ty Smith still has a high upside, but he was not good this last season. pic.twitter.com/S3bULw52pB— Andy & Rono (@ARHockeyStats) July 16, 2022
Adding Marino to a right side already made up of Dougie Hamilton and Damon Severson gives the Devils tons of flexibility and stability to its defensive core that was forced to ice players for more minutes than they were accustomed to or capable of last year due to lack of depth.
Fabian Zetterlund is not guaranteed to make the team this year but after impressing in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Utica Devils last season, he definitely deserves a shot. The Swede recorded 24 goals and 28 assists in 58 games last season in the AHL and three goals and five assists in 14 games with New Jersey.
The former third-round draft pick is a Swiss Army knife-type of player. He is strong and powerful enough to play in a checking role but also has the offensive abilities and finishing capabilities to play on the top line and special teams. His versatility could prove to be a major asset for the Devils, specifically on the power play, as he may possess the best right-handed slap shot the team has had since Kyle Palmieri and Ilya Kovalchuk.
Although it’s a very small sample size, Zetterlund led all Devils skaters with a plus-5 in the plus/minus column and was fifth on the team in Corsi-for percentage amongst players who played over 10 games. He certainly did not look out of place during his stint in the NHL. The 23-year-old will provide much more energy, versatility and value than players like Tomas Tatar and Andreas Johnsson to the Devils’ bottom six and even the top two lines if needed.
The Devils built a great young core made up of players who proved they can excel offensively, but it became even more apparent that it wasn’t enough to push them over the top. The additions of Palat, Haula, Vanecek and maybe Holtz will certainly help improve the team, but Smith, Marino and Zetterlund could be the perfect “glue” guys to help push New Jersey into a potential playoff contender.
Mason works in the sports gambling industry but his true passion lies in the game of hockey. He covers the New Jersey Devils for The Hockey Writers and spent time in the past covering Penn State men’s hockey for various online media outlets. Feel free to send him an email or follow him on Twitter to further connect.