Devils’ COVID-19 Cases & Injuries Forced Next Man up Mentality

The New Jersey Devils needed to fully embrace the “next man up” philosophy this season. Injuries have plagued this team at virtually every position dating back to early October prior to their first game against the Chicago Blackhawks. The team has dealt with multiple COVID-19 cases, and it appears they are finally over the hump with no current players in COVID protocol. Let’s take a look back at some of the players who have jumped into the lineup throughout the first half of the season.

Boqvist Returns and Multiple Players Makes Devils Debut

The Devils have only had two forwards play in all 40 games this season, and those players are Dawson Mercer and Michael McLeod. It seems that since the beginning of the season the coaching staff has been rotating players in and out of the lineup to make up for injuries and both COVID and non-COVID-related illnesses. Holes in the lineup have been filled by players who made their Devils debut along with a center who made his return to the club.

Jesper Boqvist Cracks New Jersey’s Lineup

Some fans expected Jesper Boqvist to make the opening night roster, considering he appeared in 28 games last season and 78 NHL games over the past three seasons. It is safe to say that rookie center Dawson Mercer took his opening night roster spot after a successful training camp. On Oct. 10, 2021, the team confirmed the Swede was cut from the training camp and would begin the 2021-22 season with the Utica Comets in the American Hockey League (AHL).

The 23-year-old was called up on Nov. 9, and played his first game with the Devils that evening against the Florida Panthers. That night he earned an assist on Ty Smith’s first goal of the season. In the middle of December, the team announced Boqvist was placed on the NHL’s COVID protocol. He returned on Dec. 26 and played in every game for New Jersey from Dec. 29 to Jan. 13, and currently has four points in 15 games.

Alexander Holtz Makes His NHL Debut

Fans were expecting the former seventh overall pick to make the team’s opening night roster along with Mercer. As we know he did not make the initial roster and like Boqvist began the 2021-22 campaign in Utica.

“It was disappointing. I thought I had a good preseason and everything and then got sent down to Utica,” Holtz said on the Speak of the Devils podcast. “I really had it on my mind that I wanted to get back here and do my best down there in every game.”

Alex Holtz New Jersey Devils
Alex Holtz, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

A little over a month later he was called up during New Jersey’s California road trip. In his first stint with the club, he earned two points averaging 11 minutes of ice time. He was recalled from Utica, along with Nolan Foote, for the second time on Jan. 1 and appeared in one game. On Jan. 7 the club announced they again assigned him back to the Comets.

De Leo and Gauthier Get Their Chance

Some offseason acquisitions were overshadowed by the signing of Dougie Hamilton and Jonathan Bernier. On the same day Hamilton signed his contract 26-year-old Chase De Leo signed a one-year, two-way contract. The center was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 2014, and prior to joining the Devils played with the Anaheim Ducks. He began his season with the Comets and waited until Nov. 24 to be called up to the NHL. He played 5:30 against the Minnesota Wild and 10:48 against the Predators before being assigned back to Utica where he currently leads the team with 31 points in 22 games.

Frederik Gauthier was one of five players who was invited to camp in September and one of two who earned a contract. The 6-foot-5 forward previously played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Arizona Coyotes. On Oct. 8 he signed a one-year, two-way contract ($800,000 salary at the NHL level, $175,000 at the AHL level). He made the Devils’ initial roster and made his debut on Oct. 21, 2021. Gauthier appeared in eight games this season before being assigned to the Comets. During that duration, he did not register a point and tallied four shots on goal.

Geertsen, Jaros and White Provide Depth on Defense

The Devils’ defense vastly improved during the offseason, but have only had one defenseman remain healthy through the first 40 games. Ryan Graves and Hamilton have missed a combined 15 games and the the team is currently without Hamilton and Ty Smith. This has required other players to jump into the lineup, namely Mason Geertsen, Christian Jaros and Colton White. All three players have answered the call when necessary including one who has played as both a defenseman and forward.

Geertsen Plays Where He Is Needed

Mason Geertsen was claimed off waivers on Oct. 3, and has been utilized as both a forward and defenseman this season. He may not be a Ryan Reaves or Tom Wilson, but at 6-foot-4 Alberta native, he brings a physical presence to the lineup and has 30 hits in 12 games. Most notably he was involved in a scrum against the Vegas Golden Knights with 15 seconds left in the game that resulted in both Geertsen and Lehner getting tossed from the game.

Related: Q & A With Colorado Avalanche Prospect Mason Geertsen

“He provides a safe working environment for everybody,” said head coach Lindy Ruff on Nov. 28. “I don’t want players taking liberty with our players and that’s what he’s here for.”

White and Jaros Providing Stability on the Blue Line

White and Jaros have been the Devils’ third defensive pairing for the past two games. White has appeared in 10 games and has two assists. Jaros has also appeared in 10 games and has averaged 10 minutes of ice time. The current pair have combined for 9 blocks and 25 hits.

Six Different Goaltenders Have Played for the Devils

The Devils can’t seem to catch a break when it comes to their goaltending situation. Mackenzie Blackwood, Bernier, Scott Wedgewood, Nico Daws, Akira Schmid, and Jon Gillies have all suited up over the past three months. The Devils have had no luck with their backup goaltenders as Bernier will be out for the remainder of the season following successful hip surgery.

Blackwood had seen his share of ups and downs this season, which led to fans speculating how healthy he has been. Yesterday head coach Lindy Ruff told the media that even though he was backing up Gillies he is in a day-to-day scenario. Currently, Blackwood is ranked 57th among all NHL goaltenders with a goals against average of 3.29 and 62nd with a save percentage of .894.

New Jersey Devils MacKenzie Blackwood
New Jersey Devils goaltender MacKenzie Blackwood is scored on. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The first half of the season proved challenging for the Devils who dealt with arguably more adversity than any other team in the league. Five players remain on injured reserve and there is hope that the worst is behind them and the team can focus on climbing up the standings. At the time of publication, the Devils are sixth in the Metropolitan Division with 35 points. New Jersey is set to play their 41st game of the season today when they host the Dallas Stars at Prudential Center.

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