Devils Standouts From Week 1 of Preseason

The New Jersey Devils’ first week of preseason games concluded with them winning three of their first four contests. Plenty of players stood out during their first set of games and have put themselves in a good position heading into the final week of the preseason. Here’s who’s made a positive impression as the Devils begin to narrow down their roster ahead of opening night. 

Kevin Bahl

Bahl was the centerpiece of the Taylor Hall trade, which occurred nearly three years ago, that sent Hall to the Arizona Coyotes. While the Devils turned other assets from the deal into Dawson Mercer and Jonas Siegenthaler, having Bahl become a meaningful contributor in the NHL could really shore up their defensive depth in 2022-23. 

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Bahl has looked the part since the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo, New York, just about two weeks ago. That’s carried over into the preseason, as he’s been one of the Devils’ best defenders. In two games, he has a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 60.78 percent and an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 88.69 percent; the Devils haven’t given up a grade A chance with him on the ice. 

Granted, two games is not a meaningful sample size, and the Devils haven’t gone up against an NHL-caliber lineup yet, but Bahl has looked NHL-ready. He’s defending the rush effectively and winning one-on-one battles more often than not. At 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, he can provide a physical presence along with his smooth skating ability on the third pair alongside John Marino. At this point, he’d need to have a horrific final week of the preseason to start the season with the Utica Comets (AHL). He’s the clear frontrunner over his competition.  

John Marino

Speaking of Marino, the Devils’ top defensive upgrade this offseason has been as advertised through his first two preseason games. He’s totaled a 64.71 CF% and 77.17 xG% at five-on-five through two contests and looks primed for a significant role on defense, even if it’s only on the third pair to start. 

Marino had an impressive performance against the New York Rangers in a 5-2 win on Thursday evening. He was creating turnovers and even forced Mika Zibanejad into a mistake that resulted in him taking a penalty that ended a Rangers power play. 

John Marino New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils defenseman John Marino (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Marino is defending the rush well, which was his biggest strength in his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He may start as a third-pair defender, but his defensive ability will likely have head coach Lindy Ruff deploying him in difficult defensive minutes more often than not. And he should end up as one of the Devils’ top penalty killers. 

Erik Haula

Another of the Devils’ offseason acquisitions, Haula has impressed to begin the preseason. Acquired in the trade that sent Pavel Zacha to the Boston Bruins, Haula looks like he won’t have much problem fitting into a middle-six role with the Devils. He’s tallied a couple of goals and has had no trouble creating chances, as he has nine shots on goal through two preseason games. 

At five-on-five, Haula has five grade B chances and two grade A chances, something that has been a strength of his throughout his career. Not only does he get scoring opportunities, but he has a plus-shot that enables him to capitalize on them. As long as he’s with wingers that can help him drive a line, he should have plenty of success as a third-line center. 

Tomáš Tatar

Tatar’s first season with the Devils didn’t go as hoped. He totaled 15 goals and 30 points in 76 games, well below where he produced in his three previous seasons with the Montreal Canadiens. But even though the production wasn’t there, he still excelled in transition and created offense off the rush. Those were some of his strengths in Montreal, one of the reasons I believe he could be a bounce-back candidate in 2022-23. 

So far, in two preseason games, it appears a bounce-back season may be in the cards. Tatar has two goals and has played well at five-on-five, totaling a 69.05 CF% and 76.45 xG%. With further additions up front, he should move down into more of a middle-six role instead of playing in the top-six. If he finishes up the preseason the way he started it, his presence in the middle-six can only help the Devils’ scoring depth in 2022-23. 

Graeme Clarke

Even though Clarke is a long shot for the Devils’ opening night roster, he’s earned an extended look in the preseason. He scored the game-winning goal against the Canadiens in the team’s preseason opener and had the primary assist on Dougie Hamilton’s goal with some solid work along the boards against the Rangers on Thursday. 

Graeme Clarke New Jersey Devils
Graeme Clarke with the Binghamton Devils (AHL) in 2020-21 (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Clarke had a strong first year in the AHL in 2020-21 — the COVID-shortened campaign — but struggled a bit with the Comets a season ago, partly due to injuries. He looks healthy and has totaled a 63.64 CF% and 69.69 xG% in 21 minutes of ice time in his two preseason appearances. The Devils will deal with injuries at some point, and since it appears Clarke will have a significant role with the Comets, he could serve as one of the team’s first call-ups if his strong preseason carries over into the AHL. 

Dougie Hamilton

Hamilton’s first season with the Devils came undone by injuries (broken jaw, broken toe) that caused him to finish with only 30 points in 62 games. Assuming there were no lingering issues from either injury, he entered this season as the Devils’ top bounce-back candidate. And through two preseason appearances, he’s shown the old Dougie Hamilton may be back. 

Related: Devils Need a Healthy Hamilton for the 2022-23 Season

Hamilton’s nine shots on goal tie Haula for the most on the team, and he leads the team in scoring with four points in two games. He was dominant against the Rangers, totaling three points (1 goal, 2 assists) and was particularly active offensively. Based on how the preseason has started for him, the Devils should feel confident about a bounce-back coming in 2022-23 if it continues in the team’s three exhibition games this week. 

The H20 Line

Whether you dig the nickname or not, the line of Ondrej Palát, Jack Hughes and Alexander Holtz has performed well in their first two preseason games. In just under 25 minutes of ice time, the Devils have a 55 CF% and 60.54 xG% with them on the ice at five-on-five. They’ve outscored opponents 2-0 and have won the scoring chance battle 13-11. 

Hughes and Palát are the sure bets on this line. Hughes produced at a 94-point pace last season, while Palát is coming off three straight Stanley Cup appearances with the Tampa Bay Lightning before signing with the Devils as a free agent this summer. He’s entering his 10th season in the league, so the Devils know what they’re getting from him. 

The key is Holtz. The seventh overall pick in the 2020 draft had 26 goals and 51 points in 52 games with the Comets a season ago. Is he NHL-ready? He looks much quicker than he did in 2021-22, especially in transition. In a game where the Devils got crushed at five-on-five by the Rangers, Holtz finished right behind Palát and Hughes in game score impact: 

Based on the combos used since training camp got underway, it appears Ruff will give this trio every opportunity to start the regular season as the team’s first line. If Holtz can fit in with Hughes and Palát and not weigh them down, it could make a significant difference for the Devils’ top-six. A strong final week of the preseason could solidify their status as line No. 1. 

Dawson Mercer

Since Hischier has a strained hamstring and is questionable for the start of the regular season, Ruff has played Mercer at both right wing and center in two preseason appearances. He opened up at right wing against the New York Islanders on Tuesday, then shifted to center against the Rangers on Thursday. He had no trouble in either game, as he was one of the team’s best players at five-on-five.

If Hischier is ready for the start of the regular season, then Mercer will shift back to right wing. It’s always good to have that versatility, though. And since Mercer spent the offseason focusing on getting ready to play on the wing, getting him comfortable at center during the preseason makes sense. I’d expect that rotation to continue a bit over the Devils’ final three preseason games, which doesn’t seem like it’ll be too much of a problem for him. 

Mackenzie Blackwood

The last two seasons haven’t gone particularly well for Blackwood. The 2021-22 campaign may have been rock-bottom, as he finished with a .892 save percentage (SV%) and goals saved above expected (GSAx) of minus-14.57 in 25 games. His struggles were far from all his fault, however. He had heel surgery in the summer of 2021, but the injury didn’t heal (no pun intended) as hoped, which caused his play to suffer. It also didn’t help that the Devils overplayed him while he clearly wasn’t healthy. 

Mackenzie Blackwood New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That’s all in the past, and it’s a fresh start for everyone in 2022-23. So far, that fresh start has been a much-welcomed sight for Blackwood. In five periods of preseason play, he has a .943 SV% and a 0.91 GSAx. He was close to the sole reason the Devils only lost 2-1 to the Rangers on Friday night, as he made 35 saves on 37 shots. His movement looks much improved from a season ago, and he’s been tracking the puck well, all encouraging signs that he may be heading for a bounce-back year too. A strong close to the preseason will only strengthen that argument. 

Devils Penalty Kill

Though the Devils haven’t faced a power play at full strength yet since it’s only the preseason, the early returns on their penalty kill are encouraging. They’ve killed off 14 of the 15 power plays they’ve faced (93.3 percent success rate) and have looked good in doing so. They’re allowing only 65.61 shot attempts per 60 minutes, eighth-best during the preseason, and 4.7 expected goals against per 60 minutes, ranked 10th-best.

With the Devils and assistant coach Alain Nasreddine mutually parting ways this offseason, it was safe to say the Devils’ penalty kill would have a different look under Ryan McGill, who they hired to replace Nasreddine. He spent five years as an assistant with the Vegas Golden Knights, who had a decent kill under McGill more often than not. Time will tell if their preseason numbers are legit once they face teams’ real power plays during the regular season. But so far, it’s hard to complain about the results.

Last Chances to Make an Impression

With only three preseason games remaining, starting with tonight’s affair against the Bruins, there are limited opportunities for players on the bubble to make their case for the opening night roster. Some are ahead of others, but standing out over the final three contests could make for some tough decisions for Ruff and Devils management when making final cuts in about a week’s time. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving-Hockey

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