When he made his NHL debut on April 29 defenseman Kevin Bahl gave New Jersey Devils fans a glimpse into what a part of the future of their blueline could be. Eight days later one of the centerpieces of the Taylor Hall trade has now played four games. He’s added some obvious size and snarl to the backend and the minutes he’s played have been invaluable for his development going forward.
In an ideal world Bahl is ready to play in the NHL full-time next season, but let’s not rush him before he’s ready. Some more seasoning in the AHL wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for Bahl, who turns 21-years-old on June 27 and has played in 26 games with the Binghamton Devils.
First Game Jitters?
“When you come in (to a new team) you’re trying to play simple and gain the coaches’ trust,” he said after his NHL debut against the Philadelphia Flyers. “I didn’t get much ice-time at the start, but I was just trying to keep pucks moving up the ice, play really simple, and I thought I got some more opportunities (to play) as the game went on. I was happy that I was able to keep it really simple out there.”
That first game he saw 15:01 of ice-time. Two days later against the Flyers he saw that number jump to 17:28 and registered his first NHL point/assist. In both games, he was on the ice for 22 shifts.
“I thought Kevin gave us a solid game, a real good game for his first NHL game,” Devils head coach Lindy Ruff said after the debut of the 6-foot-6 defenseman. “Like we’ve said before during this season, you don’t really know what to expect but he didn’t look nervous and I thought he handled every situation around him well. It was a real good first NHL game.”
Ruff went on to explain how invaluable this season has been for players like Bahl, who was the seventh player to make their NHL debut for New Jersey in 2021.
“These players are getting a great opportunity, all of our young players, to play a major role – the role that they want, they want that opportunity – and we want to win games,” said Ruff. “I want us playing the right way and build this foundation of defensive play, keep the shots down, be disciplined – and our team has been good with that.”
The Devils have seen defensemen come and go this season (Dmitry Kulikov, Sami Vatanen, Jonas Siegenthaler) but still waited before throwing Bahl into the fire in an NHL game. He understood the process and didn’t get frustrated when others were brought to New Jersey from Binghamton before he was.
“Earlier in the season it just wasn’t the right time, but coming in now after playing a bit in the AHL allowed me to be comfortable in the system, how to play against certain players – they are faster here than in juniors, so going to the A really helped me I think. I was just happy to get out there and play,” said Bahl.
“Honestly, I was happy to get this game under my belt. I was so excited and had a million things running through my head – do this, don’t do that – when I was out there it was just don’t think about anything, just react to the plays ahead of you, react to the situations. That was the focus, as dumb as it sounds,” he added with a laugh. “I thought I did that well.”
He did it so well that it earned him that second game. And earned a spot in the lineup for back-to-back home games against the Boston Bruins.
“I thought he’s played great so far. He came in with a great attitude right from the start and has had two great games,” teammate Jesper Bratt said after the Devils took three of four games from the Flyers. “He’s playing with good aggressiveness, he’s skating well, and making a lot of good plays out there. It’s good to see and we’re happy to have him here.”
On May 3 he saw his ice-time increase again, this time to 18:58 (26 shifts). New Jersey was shut out that night and at times Bahl looked overmatched against the veteran team that punched their ticket to the playoffs with the 3-0 win. The very next night Bahl was back at it against the big, bad Bruins and picked up an assist during his 16:05 (20 shifts), and the Devils won their home finale in overtime.
The assists are nice, but his best asset is his size, snarl, and long reach. He’s dished out seven hits in the four games and altered countless opponent’s shots because of his length and positioning. Of the 67:32 he’s played, 4:46 of that has been while New Jersey was shorthanded.
“I thought he got better,” said Ruff after the home finale. “I thought he was better tonight than he was the night before. It was an opportunity for him against a team with really good speed, really good players, and we noticed him physically down low and I thought he made some good plays. His first pass, penalty killing a few times, (overall) I thought he did a good job. From game one to game two he improved and that’s what you want to see.”
What the Devils fans probably want to see is Bahl wreaking havoc in the NHL against their Metropolitan Division rivals next season. While this has all been a great first few steps for him, it will be interesting to see how he comes back after a summer of training, possibly a rookie camp, and a full/normal NHL training camp.
“You’ve been doing it your whole life, you’ve been through everything. What changes here is that everything is a bit faster,” said Bahl of the differences from the OHL and AHL to the NHL. “ A bit more hockey sense, a bit more skill – but other than that nothing changes. It’s just hockey.”
If he can keep up with the speed (physical and mental) of the league, he may be a regular in Newark sooner rather than later.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.