It’s time for another edition of New Jersey Devils news and rumors. This week, we’ll be looking at injury updates to more than a few players, including Jack Hughes and Mackenzie Blackwood. We’ll also take a look at Alex Holtz’s play in the AHL, where he’s already making a name for himself just four games into the season. Let’s get into it as the Devils get ready for their first set of back-to-back games of the 2021-22 season.
Hughes Out for Five Weeks
Though the news was not totally unexpected, the Devils confirmed Hughes would miss the next five weeks of games with a dislocated shoulder he suffered against the Seattle Kraken in the team’s second contest of the season. That means the Devils will be without their best player for the next 15-20 games or so, a less than ideal scenario.
This is stating the obvious, but if the Devils want to play meaningful games in March and April, how they fare without Hughes will determine it. There’s no doubt losing him is a significant blow, but the team is in a better spot to absorb his loss than they would’ve been in previous seasons. With that said, their center depth is a bit questionable at the moment.
Nico Hischier is clearly the Devils’ No. 1 center, while Dawson Mercer looks to be making his case to be their No. 2 with Hughes absent. That’s moved Michael McLeod into a third-line role, but so far, he’s struggled with the increased usage. It’s a small sample size, but McLeod has the worst Corsi for percentage (CF%) on the team since Hughes’ injury. His expected goals percentage (xG%) of 44.2 percent isn’t great, either. Time will tell, but the Devils may have to call up someone from the Utica Comets (AHL) to strengthen their depth down the middle.
The most obvious candidates are Jesper Boqvist, who has two assists in four games with the Comets, and Tyce Thompson. Thompson has three points in four AHL games and did play center last night after being on the wing in the team’s first three games. Perhaps I’m reading a bit too much into Thompson moving to center last night, but the timing is curious. Either way, it’s something the Devils might have to consider if McLeod continues to struggle. They need him playing well while Hughes is missing, and if it’s not going to be as the third-line center, they need to figure that position out.
Blackwood Close to Returning; Bernier Too
In some much-welcomed injury news, it appears Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood is close to returning from offseason heel surgery. The team has been without their starting netminder through their first five games. But they’ve gotten by thanks to Jonathan Bernier and Nico Daws, who had a sensational NHL debut in a win against the Buffalo Sabres last Saturday. Without them, the team would likely not be 3-2-0 right now.
Thankfully, getting Blackwood back should help quite a bit. If the Devils are really to survive the next five or so weeks without Hughes, they’ll need their goaltending to be well above average to borderline elite. That won’t happen without Blackwood starting his fair share of games. He looked good during the preseason, so hopefully he can pick up where he left off despite the long layoff.
Speaking of Bernier, it appears he’s close to re-joining the team after a short injury absence of his own. From the looks of it, he could even be in net tonight when the Devils take on the Pittsburgh Penguins, who could get Sidney Crosby back in their lineup after he had offseason surgery. If that’s the case, having Bernier back would be a significant boon for the Devils, especially with the team playing the Columbus Blue Jackets tomorrow evening.
Miles Wood’s Injury Remains a Mystery
It didn’t appear Wood’s injury would be a long-term concern when he got hurt during a preseason game. As it turns out, his injury may be of the most concern:
Wood described the injury, whatever it may be, as some bumps and bruises. But almost a month later, and head coach Lindy Ruff is stating Wood is the furthest away from returning from all the team’s injured players. That’s pretty worrisome, considering Hughes will miss the next five weeks of the season.
For a team that can use all the scoring depth it can get without Hughes in the lineup, not having Wood will sting. He scored at a 25-goal pace over 82 games last season, which would’ve been a career-high for him. They’ll have to find ways to make up for his loss, which is why Jesper Bratt and Yegor Sharangovich need to start hitting the back of the net sooner than later. But there’s probably someone on the Comets they should be considering too.
Holtz Might Be Too Good for the AHL
It probably wasn’t too hard to see this coming, given how Holtz played during the preseason. To say he’s lighting the lamp for the Comets would be an understatement. After last night’s 5-2 win, he’s up to five goals in four games, which would put him on pace for 90 goals in the Comets’ 72-game schedule. Unsustainable? Sure. Surprising he can score a lot of goals? Nope, not in the least bit.
The reason the Devils drafted Holtz with the seventh overall pick at the 2020 draft is simple: his shooting talent is difficult to find. There’s no need to look further than his second goal last night, which was a wired wrist shot plenty of NHL goalies would have trouble stopping:
I’d be surprised if the Devils called up Holtz for either of this weekend’s games. But if they struggle to score against the Penguins and Blue Jackets, don’t be surprised if he joins the team for their California road trip, which begins on Tuesday in Anaheim. The Devils don’t have anyone who can shoot the puck as Holtz can, and there’s clearly a place for what he brings to their roster. A second line of him, Mercer, and Bratt sounds pretty fun now, doesn’t it? And that could help the Devils find the offense they need to make up for the loss of Hughes.
That wraps up this edition of Devils news and rumors. Make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers this weekend for the latest Devils coverage as they complete their first set of back-to-back contests.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
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