The lights went out on the New Jersey Devils’ preseason yesterday…literally. A power outage at the Prudential Center forced the cancelation of their final preseason contest, which was supposed to take place against the New York Islanders. Next up is the regular-season opener against the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 15. But before then, the Devils will have to make final cuts to get down to the 23-man roster limit.
The plan was to round up the last two preseason games and look at the roster before final cutdowns. Obviously that changes a bit with yesterday’s cancelation. But even with one less contest on their slate, it shouldn’t be hard to figure out what the Devils’ final 23-man roster will look like. Let’s dive into that and some of the good and bad from the team’s 6-2 loss to the New York Rangers on Wednesday night.
Siegenthaler Proves His Worth
There’s been a little of a debate on social media about who should play on the left side of the Devils’ third defense pair. After playing in three of their preseason games, it’s pretty clear Jonas Siegenthaler has the leg up on his competition. Because one of his appearances took place in an AHL arena, there are only advanced stats for two of his three games, but the results were quite good.
Siegenthaler was break-even in Corsi percentage (CF%) and had an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 58.8 percent in the two games where data is available. As has been the case throughout his NHL career, he was one of the Devils’ best shot suppressing defensemen during the preseason. He’s not going to score a lot, if at all, but he excels defensively and should play an important role on the penalty kill.
Compared to Kevin Bahl, who perhaps had the best chance at unseating Siegenthaler coming into the preseason, the results were not all that close. Bahl had a CF% of 46.8 percent and xG% of 43.4 percent through three preseason games. Of course, these are small sample sizes for both players. But that’s what you deal with in the preseason, and Siegenthaler clearly outperformed Bahl.
The Devils acquired Siegenthaler from the Washington Capitals for a 2021 third-round pick, which they obtained in the trade that sent Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes in Dec. 2019. For what Siegenthaler is, he looks like he could be a pretty shrewd pickup for the Devils. If they hadn’t made that move last April, their third defense pair would likely be in for some rough nights this season.
Foote & Bahl Struggle During Preseason
I mentioned Bahl’s numbers above, so there’s no need to get into them again. His play does need plenty of fine-tuning, as the game still looks too fast for him in the NHL. He got beat pretty badly a couple of times against the Washington Capitals this past Monday night. And he had some more rough moments in a 6-2 loss to the Rangers two nights ago. That’s not to say he’s a bust or anything like that, but it’s pretty clear he’s still got a ways to go before becoming an NHL regular. The Devils sent him to the AHL to play for the Utica Comets to begin 2021-22, which is the right move for his development.
As for Nolan Foote, he had his struggles, too. He finished with a CF% of 35.1 percent and xG% of 30.4 percent, both of which ranked among the bottom three on the team. Before the preseason began, I thought Foote would be among the frontrunners to start the season in the NHL from the Devils’ prospects. It turns out that’s not the case and that he could use more time in the AHL (it’s easy to forget he’s still 20 years old and doesn’t turn 21 until Nov. 29). He should play first-line minutes for the Comets, and will be playing alongside some talented prospects. So that should help him get back on track after a tough preseason.
Holtz & Mercer Good Bets to Play Opening Night
Alex Holtz and Dawson Mercer were both supposed to be in the lineup against the Islanders last night. It was a final chance for them to show they’re ready to play in the NHL. But even without having played against the Islanders, it seems they both did enough this preseason to start 2021-22 with the Devils rather than the Comets.
We’ll start with Mercer, who had a better preseason than I thought he would. He finished with three points in three games, and while his CF% was only 47.8 percent, he did have an xG% of 51 percent. Granted, it’s a small sample size, and he played against watered-down lineups, but he did not look overwhelmed. Mercer will probably start as the Devils’ third-line center, but he can play anywhere in the lineup, including right wing. That versatility to play anywhere head coach Lindy Ruff needs him to should lock him into a roster spot.
Holtz’s situation is a bit more tricky, but it appears he’s in a good place too. He tied Pavel Zacha for the team lead in points (four) this preseason. His on-ice results were similar to Mercer’s, as he had a CF% of 48.7 percent and xG% of 52.8 percent. The difference between Mercer and Holtz is that if Holtz is not on a scoring line, he won’t be as effective as Mercer. He just doesn’t have the two-way game Mercer does. So if the Devils are intent on starting Holtz in the NHL, they’ll have to make sure there’s room for him to play with the team’s top scorers.
Vesey & Boqvist in Different Places Among Bubble Players
The Devils brought in Jimmy Vesey on a PTO before camp began, and he fared well in his preseason appearances. He scored two goals, though one was an empty-netter, and spent plenty of time on the penalty kill. His on-ice results at five-on-five were quite good, as he finished with a CF% of 53.9 percent and xG% of 52.6 percent. It’s tough to say where he fits in with the Devils’ top 12 forwards, but he’s done well enough to earn an NHL contract. And if Mercer or Holtz end up needing to go to the AHL, that could give Vesey an opening for more playing time.
Jesper Boqvist had an interesting preseason. He only played in two games and did not register a point. But he did finish with a CF% of 74.2 percent and xG% of 66.8 percent. Still, he needs to be more assertive offensively, whether it’s facilitating play or shooting the puck. He’s waivers exempt at the moment. But once he plays nine more games, he’ll need to go through waivers if sent down to the AHL.
That should be a good enough reason for the Devils to start Boqvist with the Comets. He’ll likely be the Comets’ first-line center, and should play alongside Foote and Graeme Clarke, two players who scored at a good clip in the AHL last season. That gives Boqvist the chance to play meaningful minutes with some skilled players, something he hasn’t had much of since the Devils brought him over from Sweden before the start of the 2019-20 season.
Hischier Named to Swiss Olympic Team
This should come as no surprise, but Nico Hischier was among the first three players selected to Team Switzerland for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The other two players to join him, for the time being, are Roman Josi and Timo Meier. The Devils named Hischier their captain last season, although he only played in 21 games due to injuries. He entered camp healthy this season and has looked like one of the Devils’ best players. As long as he stays healthy in 2021-22, he should be anchoring Switzerland’s first line at the Olympics.
The Devils may have lost one preseason game due to an odd circumstance. But Ruff should have a pretty good idea of who he’s going to keep in the NHL and who goes to the Comets when he has to finalize his 23-man roster in the coming days. Injuries could play a factor in some decisions, but the main parts of their roster shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. And with a week of practice time until their opener against the Blackhawks, that should afford Ruff plenty of time to ice the ideal lineup for opening night.
* * *
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017