The New Jersey Devils will have to wait until Wednesday for their first preseason game, but they got in some game reps with a couple of training camp scrimmages over the weekend. Their red vs. white scrimmage yesterday was particularly entertaining, with strong goaltending from Jonathan Bernier and a furious third-period comeback led by Jack Hughes.
But Hughes and Bernier weren’t the only standouts in yesterday’s scrimmage. While not every player in training camp participated yesterday (Practice Group A, which includes Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt, had the day off), plenty of players the Devils expect to contribute made their presence felt. Let’s go over who impressed ahead of their final scrimmage and first preseason contest.
After a shaky outing in the team’s first scrimmage, Bernier was at the top of his game for Team Red yesterday. Counting stats weren’t being kept, but he did not give up a goal in 30 minutes of action (periods were 15 minutes instead of the usual 20). He also made an incredible highlight-reel save that completely robbed Chase Stillman of a goal early in the game.
The Devils signed Bernier to a two-year deal this offseason to be a 1B to Mackenzie Blackwood. His performance yesterday has to be an encouraging sign for a team who had trouble stopping pucks in 2020-21. His positioning was sound, and he made a couple of stops on some high-danger chances, which has been a strength of his over the last few seasons. Team B will not play in Tuesday’s final scrimmage, so Bernier will head into the preseason on a high note after yesterday’s performance.
Mercer had a very good scrimmage on Saturday, and that carried right over into yesterday’s game. He picked up an assist on Miles Wood’s goal, who put the puck in after cleaning up a rebound off an Alex Holtz shot. Mercer also came close to scoring a goal with an impressive redirect from the high slot, but the puck went off the crossbar.
While Mercer has shown up on the score sheet in both games, his play off the puck has been just impressive. For someone who’s only 19 years old, his all-around game is well ahead of where most 19-year-olds are. He’s gotten reps at center in both scrimmages, but with Pavel Zacha playing as well as he has at that position so far, it wouldn’t hurt to give Mercer a look on the wing, where he’s played before. That might give him better odds to make the team rather than down the middle, where it’s looking pretty crowded at the moment.
Speaking of Zacha, he’s starting training camp at center after mostly playing left wing last season. So far, the returns have been pretty good. He didn’t score yesterday but had a couple of good chances, including a wicked backhanded shot he ripped off the crossbar. He played both games on a line with Janne Kuokkanen, with who he seems to be developing some chemistry.
Zacha is a good fit as a winger because of his shooting talent. With that said, if he plays this well at center in preseason games, the Devils will have quite a bit of depth down the middle with Hughes, Hischier and Michael McLeod. It’s worth keeping the experiment going with Kuokkanen on Zacha’s wing and perhaps Mercer. That could be a legit third line once the regular season begins.
Hughes was pretty quiet yesterday until he wasn’t. After not generating much through two periods, he broke out in a big way in the final frame and helped Team White get within one goal of Team Red. He tallied two goals, including a blistering wrist shot off the rush that Akira Schmid had no chance of stopping (video below). Hughes would also add a secondary assist on Yegor Sharangovich’s goal during some 3-on-3 practice after regulation.
After being the first overall pick in 2019, Hughes looks like he’s on the cusp of a breakout season. And that’s not because of his performance in a scrimmage. He had an impressive final four to five weeks of 2020-21 and was a high-end play-driver. The only thing missing from his game was the ability to put the puck in the back of the net. But if yesterday was a glimpse of what’s to come, it seems like he put in some work improving his shot this offseason. If that translates during preseason games, then watch out.
Alongside Mercer, Holtz is one of the Devils’ top prospects looking to also earn an NHL roster spot. He was much more active in yesterday’s scrimmage than in Saturday’s and showed why he was the seventh overall pick in the 2020 Draft. He finished with an assist and had an easy tap-in goal to give Team Red a 4-0 lead.
Part of the reason Holtz performed better yesterday had to with him moving up the lineup to play alongside Zacha and Kuokkanen. On Saturday, his linemates were Mark Jankowski and Joseph Gambardella, who are defensive forwards more than anything else. Holtz is much closer in skill level to Kuokkanen and Zacha, and that made quite the difference. That’s the key to unlocking Holtz’s potential too. He needs to be on a line with players who can create offense, such as Zacha and Kuokkanen. And given how the three looked together, it’s probably worth extending that experiment if the team doesn’t give Mercer a shot alongside Zacha and Kuokkanen.
I mentioned Jankowski above. You’re not going to notice him as much as the Devils’ top players because he doesn’t that kind of flash to his game. But he quietly had a solid showing yesterday. He got the scoring started for Team Red with a quick goal in the first period. And a couple of shifts later, he pounced on a Blackwood turnover and set up Tyler Wotherspoon for an easy goal, making for a two-point game.
The Devils brought in Jankowski on a PTO, and so far, he’s played well. He doesn’t have the offensive upside that Jimmy Vesey, who’s also on a PTO, has, but he has a solid track record as a defensive forward and penalty-killer. And though he won’t add much offense, he’s an underrated shooter and can score on occasion as he did in yesterday’s scrimmage. He’s fighting for an NHL spot just like Vesey. But he’s in a good place heading into preseason games after a solid performance yesterday.
Quick Hits on Second Scrimmage
- Dougie Hamilton made his unofficial debut yesterday and was quiet until the end of the scrimmage when he made a ridiculous pass on Sharangovich’s goal in the 3-on-3 session. It’ll take a bit of time for him to adapt to Ruff’s system, but passes like the one he made to Sharangovich are one reason to be very excited about his addition to the lineup.
- Tomáš Tatar, another newcomer to the Devils, also came alive in the third period when Hughes started the comeback. Tatar didn’t register a point, but he was more involved in the third period and had some good moments on the rush, which is a strength of his game. He should fit in well in Ruff’s system, which emphasizes generating scoring chances off the rush.
Devils Building Momentum Leading up to Preseason
Training camp scrimmages don’t hold too much weight at the end of the day. But they are a good way for players to get their season started on the right foot. That’s especially true for someone on a PTO like Jankowski or Vesey. The Devils are also getting encouraging performances from players like Hughes, Zacha and Bernier, who they’ll need to perform at a high level to make noise in a competitive Metropolitan Division. Add their top prospects making their presence known, and there should be plenty to keep an eye on once preseason games get started on Wednesday.
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Be sure to check out our Devils season preview page as the preseason gets ready to kick into high gear.
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