With the preseason winding down, the New Jersey Devils made a big round of cuts yesterday, reducing their roster to 29 players with two preseason games to go. Among those who survived the cuts were top prospects Jesper Boqvist, Ty Smith, and Michael McLeod. There are just a few spots left to grab, so who has best shot to make the team’s opening-night roster? And who could be lurking in the AHL for potential early-season call-ups?
Stiff Competition Between Devils’ Forwards
There weren’t a ton of openings up front before the preseason began, and that hasn’t changed since games got underway. The Devils have a formidable top six led by Kyle Palmieri and a healthy Taylor Hall. First overall pick Jack Hughes has been lights out, with four goals in two games, and could even be looking at top-line minutes right away. Nico Hischier and new addition Nikita Gusev seem to have chemistry together, so that leaves maybe one top-six hole to plug.
One player who could be playing his way into that spot is Boqvist. He scored two goals against the Islanders on Saturday night, including the game-winner. His five-on-five metrics have been impressive, too, as he has a 55.74 Corsi for percentage (CF%) and 57.82 expected goals for percentage (xGF%). His relative CF% and xGF%, which show his impact when on the ice, are also overwhelmingly positive. He should make the team unless he falls apart in the final two exhibition games.
Determining the rest of the group up front is where things become a bit more complicated. There’s likely one spot remaining, maybe two at the most, and that depends on whether the Devils decide to carry 13 or 14 forwards. Among the group vying for it are McLeod, John Hayden, Kevin Rooney, and Nathan Bastian.
If Pavel Zacha, who’s out due to visa issues, misses the start of the regular season, McLeod will be the forward who benefits the most. After a trying preseason in 2018, he’s taken a noticeable step forward in his development. He’s playing with more confidence and hasn’t been afraid to jump in on the rush to create offense, something he struggled with last season.
In the battle for depth, the competition between Hayden and Bastian will be worth watching. They’re rugged forwards who play a similar style of hockey, so there won’t be room for both on the roster. However, Hayden may have the advantage, given it’d be best for Bastian to log big minutes in the AHL rather than being a healthy scratch consistently.
As for Rooney, he played in 41 NHL games last season and did a decent job. His role may be similar to that of Hayden’s, meaning he could serve as the 13th or 14th forward. It helps he excels on the penalty kill, which will boost his case to make the NHL when it’s time to announce the 23-man roster.
Ty Smith on Shaky Ground
Smith has long been the Devils’ top defense prospect. But he took his game to another level this season with the Spokane Chiefs in the WHL, finishing with 69 points in 57 games, and earned the CHL Defenseman of the Year award. Expectations were he’d be as good as a lock to make the Devils, but things haven’t gone all that well so far.
It started with an inconsistent showing at the Prospects Challenge at the beginning of September, and that seems to have carried over into the team’s exhibition games. It’s a small sample size, but Smith’s five-on-five numbers have not been that great as he has a 43.21 CF% and a 43.87 xGF% in 51 minutes played. It isn’t his numbers that are the biggest concern, though.
Smith’s passing, one of his biggest strengths, hasn’t been up to par. And he’s been out of position on more than a few occasions, which is uncharacteristic of him. It’s a stark contrast to how he looked last preseason when he seemed like one of the Devils’ six best defensemen, even as an 18-year-old.
The Devils will have a difficult decision to make with Smith because he can’t play in the AHL, so it’s the NHL or WHL for him. With that said, he doesn’t have to be sent back to the Chiefs right away. He’s allowed to play up to nine games in the NHL before it burns a year off his entry-level contract, and it’d be a surprise if the Devils didn’t exercise that option.
Smith doesn’t have a lot left to prove in the WHL, so it might not best serve his development to play in a league where he’s been dominant. If he still struggles after a nine-game NHL audition, then that’s a different story. But it’s the best option for each party so expect him to get an extended look despite not playing to his best abilities.
Who to Watch in the AHL
The Devils didn’t make any cuts that left you bewildered, but a couple of players will be worth keeping an eye on in the minor leagues. One of those is Russian forward Mikhail Maltsev, who signed his entry-level contract with the Devils this summer. He had a 54 CF% and 53.93 xGF% at five-on-five and fared well in the faceoff circle. He also showed off some of his skill with this dazzling goal against the New York Rangers.
Considering this was Maltsev’s first taste of NHL action, it makes sense to get him started in the AHL, even if he looked like someone who can already compete in the big leagues. He has a big frame, at 6-foot-3, 198 pounds, and played in 13 games for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL in 2018-19. He’ll be worth keeping an eye on because he doesn’t look too far away from playing in the NHL.
Another forward who missed the cut was right-winger Joey Anderson. After playing in 34 games last season, he’ll have to start the season with the Binghamton Devils (AHL). But that might not be the worst thing, given they should be a much-improved team with an influx of young talent. He should have a prominent role, and if he does well, he could find his way back to the NHL in short order.
Overall, the Devils have an impressive group of prospects playing pro hockey. Boqvist looks like a favorite to make the NHL, while Smith and McLeod aren’t far behind. They’ll also have depth in the AHL, which was not the case a season ago. Maltsev and Anderson will be factors for Binghamton, as will players like Brett Seney, Fabian Zetterlund, and Marian Studenic. And that should lead to some success for an organization that didn’t see it at either level in 2018-19.
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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