It’s been a long time coming, but the regular season is close to 24 hours away. For the New Jersey Devils, that means playing competitive hockey for the first time in close to 10 months. With that comes final preparations for the season, as they finalize their roster for opening night tomorrow when they take on the Boston Bruins.
In doing so, they reached an agreement on a new contract with restricted free agent Jesper Bratt. They also claimed goaltender Eric Comrie off of waivers from the Winnipeg Jets. Plus, a look at possible line combinations for opening night.
Devils Sign Bratt to Two-Year Deal
It was a long and drawn-out process, but the Devils finally inked Bratt to a new contract. The two sides agreed on a two-year deal worth a total of $5.5 million (cap hit of $2.75 million). He still needs to obtain a work visa then must quarantine for seven days due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, so it may be a bit longer before he plays in games.
But once Bratt does join the team, he’ll be an immediate boost to the Devils’ top six. He was the team’s second-most efficient five-on-five scorer last season, just behind Nikita Gusev. Bratt also showed significant improvement defensively and was arguably the team’s best two-way winger in the second half of the season.
Not only did Bratt show improvement last season, but he’s taken steps forward in each season since he was a rookie. His goals above replacement (GAR) increased from -3.8 as a rookie in 2017-18 to +9.6 last season. If that upward trend continues, he should be one of the Devils’ best forwards in 2020-21.
Devils Claim Comrie Off Waivers
The Devils found themselves in a tough spot when Corey Crawford announced his retirement over the weekend. That left them scrambling to find a backup goaltender to Mackenzie Blackwood with less than a week before the season starts.
It was going to be hard for the Devils to replace someone of Crawford’s caliber on such short notice. And that’s certainly the case with their waiver claim of Comrie. He has minimal NHL experience, but his numbers are nothing to write home about — he’s totaled a save percentage (SV%) of .864 in eight career games.
On the flip side, Comrie has played well in the AHL. He had an SV% of .918 with Manitoba last season and has finished with an SV% no lower than .916 the previous two seasons. That’s certainly better than current Devils’ backup goaltender Scott Wedgewood, who had a .893 SV% in the AHL last season and a .908 SV% the season before.
Comrie doesn’t erase the Devils’ problem of needing to find someone to back up Blackwood. That’s now a long-term problem that’ll probably get attention this offseason. But for the time being, it’d be a surprise if they didn’t give Comrie a look at some point this season. He’s only 25 years old, and despite his poor NHL numbers, his AHL numbers suggest he deserves a shot.
Possible Line Combinations for Opening Night
The Devils ran with pretty consistent line combinations through their final three training camp scrimmages. But yesterday in practice, head coach Lindy Ruff went with quite a different look than what he ran during the scrimmages.
Ruff decided to run it back in today’s practice, so it appears these lines will be what the Devils open with tomorrow night against the Bruins.
There are few notes to go over. After a stellar loan over in the KHL, Yegor Sharangovich looks bound for top-line minutes with Jack Hughes and Kyle Palmieri. Sharangovich had 17 goals in 34 games in the KHL, and he’s shown an ability to score during camp scrimmages. His shooting talent makes him a good fit with a playmaker like Hughes, so it’ll be interesting to see if this line clicks.
Gusev mostly skated at left wing with Hughes and Palmieri during camp, but he moves down to right wing to play with Pavel Zacha and Andreas Johnsson on the second line. Zacha and Gusev had good chemistry together last season and showed signs of that continuing during camp. Along with Johnsson, the Devils should have a decent second line until Bratt and an injured Nico Hischier return to the lineup.
Aside from Travis Zajac, the Devils’ bottom-six consists of many of their youngest players. Jesper Boqvist, Janne Kuokkanen, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian are all rookies. And while Miles Wood is a veteran, he’s still only 25 years old.
The Devils’ defense pairs aren’t drastically different from what Ruff experimented with during camp. Ryan Murray and P.K. Subban have consistently remained together. Dmitry Kulikov and Damon Severson didn’t always play as a pair, but they did get some minutes together in scrimmages.
The biggest surprise is to see Matt Tennyson in the Devils’ top-six defense pairs. He struggled mightily in NHL action last season, but he likely won’t be a regular in the lineup once the recently signed Sami Vatanen joins the roster. Plus, it’s a good bet Ruff will heavily shelter Tennyson and Smith to start.
That concludes this edition of Devils news and rumors. Puck drop is almost here, as the Devils host the Bruins tomorrow at the Prudential Center at 7 PM. Make sure to keep it here at The Hockey Writers for the latest coverage.