Depth is always a crucial part of an aspiring playoff contender. While it’s far from the New Jersey Devils’ main issue, it is something that probably needs addressing. Their defensive depth is actually in a good spot. Ty Smith has started to come around during the final month-plus of the season, and prospects Kevin Bahl and Reilly Walsh aren’t far off from becoming NHLers. Where the Devils’ depth is lacking, at least among their skaters, is up front, specifically in their bottom-six.
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While the Devils have some intriguing bottom-six forwards, it is an area that needs improvement. A healthy Miles Wood will help, but it’ll take more than him for a real upgrade. Fortunately, they should be able to fill those needs through free agency or internally from a deep prospect pool via the Utica Comets in the AHL.
Devils’ Current Bottom-Six
Before getting into how the Devils might address bolstering their bottom-six, let’s take a look at their lineup up front and see where some potential issues flare up:
- Yegor Sharangovich – Jack Hughes – Dawson Mercer
- Pavel Zacha – Nico Hischier – Jesper Bratt
- Andreas Johnsson – Jesper Boqvist – Tomáš Tatar
- Jimmy Vesey – Michael McLeod – Nathan Bastian
On paper, that third line looks pretty good. Boqvist has 14 points in his last 32 games — a 36-point pace over 82 games. Tatar has 15 goals and 30 points in 71 games, which comes out to 17 goals and 34 points in 82 games, while Johnsson would be on pace for 15 goals and 42 points in 82 contests. All three players have decent five-on-five metrics, but there are some caveats.
After a scorching hot start, Johnsson has only three goals and 16 points across his last 46 games. He’s been a healthy scratch the previous two contests and was playing a fourth-line role before then. He has one year left on his contract, and with his role getting reduced, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Devils moved him this offseason.
Boqvist has played well for the last couple of months, but can he do it consistently? He’s made legitimate strides as a player this season, so I’d lean yes, but that’s something the Devils’ decision-makers will have to decide for themselves. Tatar hasn’t produced to the levels the Devils expected when they signed him this past offseason, but he’s still playing well and would be the ideal third-line winger on an improved team next season.
The two players that have struggled most in the bottom-six are Vesey and McLeod. Vesey is on an expiring contract, and I don’t see the Devils retaining him, given some of the young talent they have coming up. McLeod is under contract for next season at a cap hit of $975,000, but I’m not sure it’s a lock that he’s a regular in the lineup. His expected goals percentage (xG%) of 46.03 percent is third-worst on the team to only Mason Geertsen and Janne Kuokkanen (min. 100 minutes played). He also has just four points in his last 39 games and doesn’t generate much offense, if any at all.
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McLeod does win a lot of faceoffs and is a valuable penalty-killer. He also has decent defensive impacts, but I don’t think it’s enough to justify him being an everyday fourth-line center. Fourth-liners don’t need to be scorers, but they do need to score from time to time, so the Devils may look to upgrade there. Given all that, it leaves at least two spots open in the Devils’ bottom-six, perhaps more depending on how far you want to go making changes. Now, let’s look at how they could go about that.
Devils Upgrading the Top-Six Upgrades the Bottom-Six
One way for the Devils to upgrade the bottom-six is by not upgrading it at all. Instead, they focus on adding top-six wingers for Hischier and Hughes. That pushes players down the lineup and allows them to fill their bottom-six internally. Before getting into a potential roster, remember there are multiple possibilities. I just picked one to give an example, but there are plenty of ways to do this. Here’s what I came up with using JFresh’s WAR Roster Builder:
In this scenario, the Devils acquire Conor Garland from the Vancouver Canucks with Pavel Zacha as part of the package. The Canucks were interested in Zacha before the deadline, while the Devils reportedly had interest in Garland. They also add Valeri Nichushkin through free agency, and both players go straight to the first and seconds lines.
What acquiring those two players does is push Dawson Mercer back to being the Devils’ third-line center, a position he’s played for plenty of the season. Alexander Holtz will end up as a top-six winger at some point. But at least to begin next season, starting him in a sheltered third-line role with Mercer and Tatar, two players who can carry a line, may suit Holtz the best. His defensive game will always be a weakness, and he’ll only be 20 years old to start 2022-23. Feeding him easy offensive minutes to get him settled in the NHL might be the best way to get the most out of him at first.
If Holtz thrives and needs a promotion up the lineup, Garland and Nichushkin are forwards who can play anywhere in the top-nine, specifically Garland. So the Devils would have the flexibility to move things around as they need.
The fourth line is a cast of familiar characters. I’d pencil in Bastian as the right wing on that unit, but for the sake of trying something a bit different, let’s put Fabian Zetterlund in that spot. There’s Zetterlund, Boqvist and a healthy Miles Wood. Zetterlund had 24 goals and 52 points in 58 games with the Comets before his recent call-up and has four points in four games with the Devils since that call-up. His time may be coming, and he likely offers more scoring than Bastian while also providing a physical presence at 5-foot-11, 218 pounds.
That fourth line would have a combination of some physicality (Wood, Zetterlund), good skating (all three players) and offensive upside (also all three players). With Tatar, Mercer and Holtz as a strictly offensive third line, the Devils would have a deeper bottom-six with a fourth line that can do a bit of everything. And don’t rule out prospects like Nolan Foote and Tyce Thompson making a case for a roster spot in the bottom-six heading into the preseason.
Devils Fill Bottom-Six Depth Through Free Agency
If the Devils and general manager Tom Fitzgerald opt to look outside the organization for bottom-six depth, they shouldn’t have much trouble finding upgrades. Like the scenario above, there are plenty of ways to add depth, namely through free agency. I just picked a few players to give examples of what that could look like. Here’s the lineup:
The most notable addition here is Ilya Mikheyev. While he might not be the most exciting free-agent signing, he’s a pretty underrated winger. His 17 goals in 45 games this season would put him on pace for nearly 31 goals in 82 games. That might not be a regular occurrence with him moving forward, but he’s been an efficient five-on-five scorer in his three seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, averaging 1.83 points per 60 minutes.
The Maple Leafs have also fared well with Mikheyev on the ice, as he has a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 52.8 percent and xG% of 54.23 percent. He’s a very good two-way forward and excellent penalty killer, which would help an already strong Devils penalty kill. He can play either wing and while he might not be a consistent 30-plus goal scorer, he’d help the Devils’ bottom- or middle-six:
The next two signings are relatively minor in the big picture, but Nico Sturm and Colin Blackwell are valuable bottom-six forwards. Sturm is far from a household name, but he’s one of the more underrated fourth-line centers in the league. He has 19 points in 66 games — a 24-point pace over 82 games — to go along with strong two-way impacts at five-on-five. He’s not the high-end penalty killer Mikheyev is, but he gets the job done and would likely join the Devils’ penalty-killing unit. While McLeod is a good defensive forward, Sturm has a bit more to offer two ways and would be an upgrade.
Finally, there’s Colin Blackwell. Some Devils fans may be familiar with him from his stint with the New York Rangers last season when he had 12 goals and 22 points in 47 games. He was having a solid campaign with the Seattle Kraken, who selected him in the expansion draft, with eight goals and 17 points in 39 games before they traded him to the Maple Leafs at the trade deadline.
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Blackwell isn’t your typical grinder-type bottom-six winger, but he does have an above-average shot. He has a career shooting percentage of 14.5 percent, so he can put the puck in the back of the net even though he’s not a high-volume shooter. Having a finisher like Blackwell in the bottom-six would help improve scoring depth.
There’s More Than One Way to Improve
The Devils and Fitzgerald will be able to find ways to improve their scoring depth this offseason. If they acquire wingers like Garland and Nichushkin, players like Mercer, Boqvist, Tatar and Holtz would move down the lineup and give the Devils a pretty deep group up front. If the plan is to stick with Mercer and Holtz as top-six wingers, signing players similar to Blackwell and Mikheyev in free agency on what should be affordable contracts without handing out too much term is also possible. But whatever route they decide to take, it should improve their scoring depth in 2022-23 one way or another.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick