In their second to last preseason game, the New Jersey Devils fell to the New York Islanders by a score of 5-2. The Devils dressed a mostly watered-down lineup with plenty of bubble players hoping to make an impression for the opening night roster. Here are four takeaways from last night’s game, as well as some quick hits ahead of tomorrow’s preseason finale against the Boston Bruins.
Clarke’s Impressive Preseason Continues
Even though Graeme Clarke is a long shot for the Devils’ opening night roster, he’s caught everyone’s attention with his play. There was his power-play goal that knotted the game at two in the second period, but he was also one of the Devils’ best players at five-on-five.
Clarke finished yesterday’s contest with a 66.67 CF%, ranked first on the Devils, and 59.11 xG%, ranked third. He had four shots on goal at five-on-five and six for the game. His ten shot attempts at all strengths doubled Alexander Holtz, who finished second with five. He had six scoring chances and one high-danger chance as well.
There isn’t much more Clarke could’ve done to impress. And if he and Fabian Zetterlund were both waivers exempt, he would begin the season with the Devils. Clarke has a 57.58 CF% and 59.63 xG% through four preseason games and has been the better player of the two. But the Devils can’t afford to lose Zetterlund on waivers, so Clarke will have to start the season with the Utica Comets in the AHL. At the very least, he’s put himself in a position to be the Devils’ first call-up when an injury strikes.
Holtz Has Done His Part
Alexander Holtz has had a strong preseason thus far. Though the Devils did not dress many of the players he’d play alongside during the regular season, he still did some good things last night. His five-on-five numbers weren’t great; he had Corsi and expected goal percentages (CF%, xG%) below 35 percent. But he drew a couple of penalties, one of which led to Clarke’s power-play goal in the second period.
Holtz was in on the forecheck and won a couple of one-on-one battles he likely wouldn’t have won a year ago. He mostly excelled in transition and skated well, as head coach Lindy Ruff said in his post-game press conference.
At this point, Holtz should be as good as a lock to make the opening night roster. He’s shown he can play with different linemates, and even though his five-on-five numbers weren’t great last night, they’ve been solid throughout the preseason. The shot and chance generation has been there, which is what you were hoping to see from him during the exhibition games if you’re Devils management and Ruff.
McLeod May Have Earned His Spot Over Boqvist
Last night was a big night for Jesper Boqvist. He was one of a few players on the bubble fighting for a spot in the Devils’ bottom-six. He didn’t have a great outing, however. He finished with a 34.78 CF%, 27.62 xG%, and wasn’t able to generate much at five-on-five, with just two shot attempts and one shot on goal. Sure, he went up against an Islanders squad that dressed many of their regulars. But he still needed to do more, especially since Ruff placed him on the top line with Holtz and Zetterlund.
Boqvist’s competition, on the other hand, may have solidified his spot in the bottom-six. Michael McLeod played a top-six role last night alongside Clarke and Miles Wood and fared well, posting a 59.09 CF% and 65.52 xG% — the latter of which ranked first among Devils skaters. Considering the style of hockey he plays, it’d be a surprise if Ruff and general manager Tom Fitzgerald chose Boqvist over McLeod as the team’s fourth-line center. And based on last night, that may be the right call.
Bahl Wins Battle for Spot on the Blue Line
There wasn’t much question before last night’s game. But if anyone still doubted where Kevin Bahl fits into the Devils’ plans, he erased it. What’s seemingly been a common theme for him this preseason, he was once again one of the team’s best players at five-on-five. He finished with a 47.83 CF% and 62.36 xG%, and the Devils won the high-danger chance battle 2-0 with him on the ice.
It was a different story for Nikita Okhotiuk, Bahl’s main competition for the No. 5-7 defense role. He finished with a 29.73 CF% and 15.07 xG%, both of which were the worst on the team. He made a couple of nice defensive plays that prevented goals, but the Devils were also outscored 4-0 with him on the ice. Generally speaking, it was a rough night, as he had the worst game score impact among the team’s skaters:
When looking at their preseason numbers, Bahl has a clear advantage. He has a 55.56 CF% and 72.63 xG%, and the Devils have an outstanding 21-3 advantage in high-danger chances with him on the ice. His ability to defend one-on-one, specifically against the rush, has improved leaps and bounds from where he was this time a year ago. Compared to Okhotiuk, whose CF and xG percentages are below 40 percent for the preseason, the choice is clear: it’s Bahl’s gig to start the season.
- Perhaps it was because he was Bahl’s partner for a better part of the game, but Šimon Nemec had a solid outing. He was on the ice for two goals against, but that came with Okhotiuk as his partner before Ruff switched up the defense pairs a bit. Nemec finished with a 50 CF% and 45.56 xG%, and I rarely noticed glaring mistakes, which is a plus for an 18-year-old just drafted three months ago. He needs time with the Comets, but it’s easy to see his potential.
- Last night’s performance was a hard to one assess for Mackenzie Blackwood. He gave up five goals on 2.31 expected goals and made just 21 saves on 26 shots. He was also playing behind a watered-down lineup, and four of the five goals he gave up came when Okhotiuk was on the ice. Was it a clunker? I wouldn’t go that far, but if it was, it doesn’t hurt to get it out before the regular season begins this week.
- It’s not that Nolan Foote had a bad preseason. It’s just that he didn’t do much to stand out, much like last night’s game. His CF and xG percentages were below 40 at five-on-five last night, but he still had four shot attempts, three shots on goals, and two scoring chances at all strengths. He’ll begin the season with the Comets, but like Clarke, Foote could be among the team’s first call-ups if injuries strike.
The Devils close out the preseason tomorrow night against the Bruins. Stayed tuned to The Hockey Writers for season previews before the Devils take on the Philadelphia Flyers in their regular season opener on Thursday, Oct. 13.
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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