In a recent article, I discussed three New Jersey Devils who are poised for a bigger role this season. In this article, I will focus on four players who will be under the microscope during the 2022-23 campaign.
I took a couple of things into consideration in my choices, including the pressure to perform, if they need to prove their worth, or simply play a position that will be heavily scrutinized due to last season’s shortcomings. To begin, here’s a look at a player who became a household name thanks to his breakout performance.
The Jesper Bratt saga has almost come to an end after he narrowly avoided arbitration yesterday and signed a one-year contract worth $5.45 million. Last season, the league took notice of the 5-foot-10 forward who finished with 73 points in 76 games. While general manager Tom Fitzgerald has yet to lock the Swede up long-term, the stage is set for the 24-year-old to prove last season was not a fluke and that he can replicate or perhaps exceed his numbers. All eyes will be on Bratt, who will be on a mission to prove his worth when the season begins in October.
I received a comment on Twitter stating Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes weren’t necessarily required to have a “prove it to the organization season,” and both got paid even though Bratt has been better than both of them the past two seasons. Last season, Bratt led the team in points, but he also played 27 more games than Hughes, who was over a point per game player. During the 2021-22 campaign, he finished with 30 points, one less than Hughes.
Bratt was eighth on the team in goals with seven and first on the team with 23 assists. Additionally, Hischier and Hughes were first-overall picks compared to Bratt, who was selected in the sixth round (162nd overall). Don’t get me wrong, there have been plenty of gems found in the later rounds of the draft, such as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, but in most cases, there is a higher risk involved.
After yesterday’s signing, Fitzgerald stated he will continue to work towards a long-term deal to keep the winger in New Jersey. The next 82 games will be telling. As long as Bratt remains healthy, all eyes will be on the youngster, and his time is now.
On Oct. 6, 2020, New Jersey selected Alexander Holtz with the seventh-overall pick at the NHL Entry Draft, ahead of Anton Lundell and Seth Jarvis, who both received Calder Trophy votes, and of course, Dawson Mercer, who played all 82 games last season for the Devils. Fans were expecting the 6-foot Swedish winger to make the final roster out of training camp, but everyone had to wait until Nov. 5 for his Devils debut.
The 20-year-old appeared in nine games last season, averaging 12 minutes of ice time. A common complaint was that Holtz was not given an opportunity to succeed with the big club, especially when he played under 10 minutes for two of those games. I looked back at the line combinations, and Holtz started in a top-six role at least five times. There were actually quite a few instances where he was on the top line playing alongside Nico Hischier and Pavel Zacha.
He has been training with Bratt this offseason and, during development camp, said he decided not to participate in the World Juniors because he is focused on making the Devils roster out of training camp. Head coach Lindy Ruff told the Stockholm native that he needs to work on his speed, and he agreed. Holtz shared that he has been working out almost every day and skating three days a week in Sweden and is looking to make an impact this upcoming season.
There will be an immense amount of pressure on Holtz, as fans are waiting for him to showcase why he was worthy of a seventh overall selection. That black cloud that followed Zacha through his time in New Jersey will now follow the young Swede as he hopes to have a breakout season.
Last summer, New Jersey fans celebrated landing the league’s biggest free agent, Dougie Hamilton, on July 28, 2021. Fitzgerald signed the 6-foot-6 defenseman to a seven-year deal worth $63 million with an average annual value of $9 million. His Devils debut was something out of a storybook as he scored his first goal for the club 17 seconds into his first game.
Unfortunately, in early January, he was taken to a hospital after getting hit with a deflected puck against the Washington Capitals. The incident resulted in a broken jaw, which required surgery and kept him off the ice until the end of February. During his end-of-season media availability, he said he never felt the same after the injury.
When I caught up with Ken Daneyko at the Devils’ Draft Party, he told me that he believes Hamilton is poised to get back to his standard of play this season. He explained that things take time – adjusting to a new system and battling injuries -and it is not a seamless transition for everyone. It was a good reminder that there is more to the story than what we see on the ice. When a player earns $9 million per season, it is guaranteed their on-ice production will be scrutinized, and in Hamilton’s case, he will be looking to bounce back after some unfortunate setbacks in the Garden State.
I have previously stated that Mackenzie Blackwood is poised for a bigger role this upcoming season. With that being said, his goaltending partner Vitek Vanecek will be under the microscope as he is expected to provide stability in a position that has been discussed at great length. Without playing a single game for the Devils, Fitzgerald offered Vanecek, who was a restricted free agent, a three-year contract worth $10.2 million to shore up a position of weakness.
Vanecek has started 75 career games with a 41-22-10 record, including six shutouts. His numbers over the past two seasons have been very consistent, which was clearly a draw for Fitzgerald. At this juncture, there is no way of knowing who Ruff will turn to, but as long as pucks are being stopped, I don’t think he or the fans care which goaltender will be in the crease. Will the 26-year-old be the savior the club has been looking for? Fans were very critical of last season’s goaltenders, and this season, all eyes will be on Vanecek to see if he can help the team find their way back to the postseason.
Each season, players come into training camp with the goal of making it to the Stanley Cup playoffs along with the individual goals they would like to achieve. These four players will have the attention of Devils fans for different reasons, but the result, of course, is the same – they will all be watched very closely over the next 82 games.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and is a credentialed correspondent covering the New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettos_NHL and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.