It was a tough 2020-21 for the New Jersey Devils. But it’s the start of a new season, with training camp for the 2021-22 campaign opening up today. The Devils had a busy offseason and are hoping for a fresh start with the additions they made. They’ll provide plenty of storylines over the next week and when preseason games begin on Sept. 29. But don’t forget about returning players, too, who’ll have their own camp battles to wage. Here’s what to watch as things get underway.
Can Sharangovich & Kuokkanen Avoid Sophomore Slumps?
Not a lot went right for the Devils during the 2020-21 season, but Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen were two bright spots. Sharangovich finished with 16 goals and 30 points in 54 games — a 24-goal, 45-point pace over 82 games. Kuokkanen wasn’t far behind him, as he finished with 25 points in 50 games — a 41-point pace over 82 games. Both players finished ranked sixth and seventh on the team in goals above replacement (GAR). And they were two of the Devils’ five most efficient five-on-five scorers, specifically Kuokkanen, who averaged 1.84 points per 60 minutes.
Both Kuokkanen and Sharangovich finished the final four to five weeks of 2020-21 on the Devils’ first line with Jack Hughes and looked quite good doing so, especially Sharangovich. Will they get another look alongside Hughes during training camp? The addition of Tomáš Tatar will bump one of them down, most likely Kuokkanen. But Sharangovich’s shooting ability gives him a good chance to keep earning big minutes alongside Hughes.
While Kuokkanen will probably move down the lineup, you’re going to see him get a chance somewhere in the Devils’ middle six. He needs to improve his shot and shoot the puck much more often than he did a season ago. But he’s a crafty playmaker who knows how to set up teammates for scoring chances because of his high hockey IQ. Both him and Sharangovich will be crucial to the Devils taking a step forward in 2021-22, so it’ll be worth keeping an eye on them during camp and the preseason.
Dawson Mercer’s Stock’s Rising
Mercer was the star of the show at this past weekend’s Prospects Challenge in Buffalo, New York, with a three-point performance against the Boston Bruins on Sunday afternoon. He’s perhaps the Devils’ most well-rounded prospect heading into camp, and he showed why at the Prospects Challenge. He made several defensive plays you don’t expect many 19-year-olds to make. As for his offense, it’s there too. He has a sneaky good shot, excels in transition, and knows how to set up his teammates for scoring chances.
The Devils’ most glaring hole up front is who’ll be their third-line center. We’ll detail that more in a second, but Mercer will surely be in the conversation. An ideal third-line center is someone who can contribute in all three zones of the ice, and Mercer checks off a lot of those boxes. The question is if he’s ready for the NHL. If he handles camp and preseason games the way he did at the Prospects Challenge, he’s probably going to make the opening night roster. But playing against NHLers is a lot different than a prospects tournament, so it’ll be interesting to see how he handles those minutes.
Who’ll Be the Devils’ Third-Line Center?
Speaking of the Devils’ third-line center, that seems to be the most intriguing storyline to follow in training camp. We already mentioned Mercer, but he’s not the only player who’ll be competing for the spot. Among the candidates are Michael McLeod, Jesper Boqvist, Pavel Zacha and even Sharangovich.
McLeod was the Devils’ fourth-line center last season but did score at a 14-goal pace over 82 games. Head coach Lindy Ruff seemed to trust him in defensive situations at five-on-five, and he was one of the team’s top penalty-killers. He needs to find another level of offense play on the third line consistently, but that’s possible with the right linemates. I’d expect Ruff to give him a look at the position early on during camp.
If the Devils are looking for more skill in their third-line center, Boqvist and Zacha are names to watch. Boqvist got a look at center towards the end of last season after mostly playing wing. He also played center in the few games he spent with the Binghamton Devils in the AHL. It hasn’t clicked for him in the NHL yet, but he has a track record of producing in other leagues he’s played in, specifically in Sweden. So perhaps this is the season where he breaks out.
Zacha was primarily a center until 2020-21, but he found plenty of success at left wing and never looked back. Ruff will probably give him another look at center, but if the Devils are going to get the most out of him, he needs to stay on the wing. His skill set translates better on the wing due to this shot, and he doesn’t have the two-way game to play center.
Sharangovich was a center coming up through the Devils’ system, and he even played there last season while on loan with Dinamo Minsk in the KHL. But like Zacha, his game translates well on the wing. Given his success with Hughes in 2020-21, it seems like a good bet he remains on the wing. But if all else fails, his experience down the middle gives Ruff another option to consider. Throw in Mercer, and this should be a highly competitive battle.
Makeup of Devils’ Blue Line
After signing Dougie Hamilton as a free agent and acquiring Ryan Graves through a trade, the Devils’ defense pairs should be pretty straightforward:
- Graves – Hamilton
- Ty Smith – Damon Severson
- Jonas Siegenthaler – P.K. Subban
Perhaps there’s a chance you could flip Smith and Graves, but that seems unlikely to start the season. If Smith gets off to a strong start and sustains it, that could be something you see later in the season. But it’d be a surprise if that’s how Ruff structured his blue line to start 2021-22.
The biggest question the Devils have on defense is who’ll be their seventh and maybe eighth defensemen. They’re not going to have prospects like Kevin Bahl or Reilly Walsh remain on their roster and not play regular minutes. The Devils acquired Christián Jaroš from the San Jose Sharks this offseason, so you can probably pencil him in as an extra defender.
If the Devils decide to carry eight defensemen, Colton White could join Jaroš as the team’s extra blueliners. The 2021-22 season will be White’s fifth with the organization since they drafted him in the fourth round of the 2015 Draft. He played in a couple of NHL games last season and did not look out of place. That’s what you want from a seventh defenseman who’ll be rotating in and out of the lineup. If he can show similar during training camp and preseason games, he and Jaroš should have those spots locked up.
PTOs Could Earn Gigs With the Devils
The Devils offered a few players PTOs before the start of camp — Mark Jankowski, Jimmy Vesey, Tyler Wotherspoon and Frédérik Gauthier. Jankowski and Vesey were NHL regulars last season, while Wotherspoon and Gauthier played primarily in the AHL.
Of the PTOs offered by the Devils, Jankowski has the best chance of making their roster. His production has slipped quite a bit over the last two seasons, but he’s still a stout defensive forward. And despite his production falling off, he has an underrated shot and can score goals from time to time. If McLeod wins the third-line center battle, Jankowski makes sense as the fourth center. But say Boqvist or Mercer end up as the team’s third center ahead of McLeod, Jankowski would be good depth to have as an extra or someone who can step into the lineup if an injury occurs.
Vesey could have a shot at making the team, too, but only if the Devils believe some of their top prospects aren’t ready for the NHL. If that does happen, however, Vesey makes sense as a fourth-liner. He’s averaged 21 points per 82 games over the last two seasons and can probably play 10-11 minutes a night without being a liability. That’s a better option than sticking a prospect on the fourth line and relegating him to 9-10 minutes per game and stunting his development.
As for Gauthier and Wotherspoon, they’re long shots to make the Devils’ roster. If anything, the organization could sign them for AHL depth with the Utica Comets. That’s not a bad thing, considering many of the Devils’ top prospects will be playing in the AHL this season and could benefit from some veteran presence.
Which Devils Prospects Break Through?
This is probably something Devils fans are most excited about with the start of camp. Many of the team’s top prospects — Mercer, Nolan Foote and Alexander Holtz, to name a few — will be attending. And those three specifically should have the best chances of any prospect to make the opening night roster.
Even before last weekend’s Prospects Challenge, Foote seemed like a good bet to start 2021-22 in the NHL. He played in 24 games in the AHL last season and totaled 17 points — a 56-point pace in an 80-game AHL schedule. Foote also got a cup of coffee in the NHL and had a goal and an assist in six games. His shot is his best asset, and at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, he plays a style of hockey that lends well to getting his career started in a bottom-six role.
We’ve already gone into detail about Mercer, so there’s no point in re-hashing it. Holtz was the seventh overall pick at the 2020 Draft and showed why that was the case at the Prospects Challenge. He might be best off spending some time with the Comets and fine-tuning his game before making the jump to the NHL. But his shot is lethal, and if he scores a bunch of goals during the preseason, he’ll have a case to start in the NHL too.
If I had to bet on which prospect makes the team, my money would be on Foote. But given the maturity in Mercer’s game and the Devils’ need for a third-line center, it’s hard to discount him. In all, the most likely scenario is that one or two prospects make the NHL roster. The Devils’ roster is pretty set after their offseason, unlike before the 2020-21 campaign. So it’s quite unlikely that six prospects make it this time around (for the record, the six prospects that made last season’s roster were Sharangovich, Kuokkanen, Boqvist, McLeod, Smith and Nathan Bastian).
From Hamilton and the Devils’ other offseason additions to their young players looking to earn bigger roles, there’s plenty to look forward to during camp and in the weeks ahead before the start of the regular season. And if their offseason was any indication, we should be in for an exciting few weeks leading up to the regular-season opener on Oct. 15 as the Devils look for a fresh start.
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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