In stark contrast to previous years, the New Jersey Devils are light on professional tryouts (PTOs) in 2017-18. The major rationale, in all likelihood, is that the roster has not featured this level of depth and potential in its five-year playoff drought and the young guns are just too talented to be crowded out by aging veterans. That seems to be the case this year, as their oldest acquisition this offseason was 32-year old center Brian Boyle, who still has plenty to offer the Devils (leukemia diagnosis notwithstanding).
Clearly, general manager Ray Shero is willing to give younger talents every chance to crack the opening-night lineup. Of course, it should be a foregone conclusion that players like Pavel Zacha, Nico Hischier, and Miles Wood will get first-team minutes, but there are others jockeying for a regular role. Here are three more skaters who could potentially sneak into the lineup on Oct. 7 when the Devils open their regular season at the Prudential Center.
Joseph Blandisi, Left Wing
Let’s start with an easy pick. Joseph Blandisi is no stranger to the Devils’ lineup, playing 41 games as a 21-year old rookie in 2015-16 after wowing in the AHL. Despite possessing the needed speed, playmaking ability, and puck skills, Blandisi lacked the balance, composure, and defensive awareness requisite of an NHL forward, and thus went back to Albany at the start of 2016-17.
Since then, he has shown more completeness to his game and has continued to develop his physical and defensive play. In the 27 games he played in New Jersey last season, Blandisi had just nine points, but far more positives than negatives. Unfortunately, a logjam of one-way contracts and an AHL squad desperate for scoring help meant that Blandisi’s talents were better served in the lesser league, where he finished last year.
In 2017-18, the former Colorado Avalanche draftee will look to carve out a role for himself in New Jersey. His chances of doing so receive a huge boost this year in that he is no longer waiver-exempt, meaning that the Devils risk losing him should they decide to yo-yo him between the two leagues.
There is certainly an argument to be made that Blandisi’s improvement has merited an extended look this season. He came into training camp as one of the team’s fastest skaters, and, with his increased balance and physicality, a true impact player on offense. In his first three preseason appearances, Blandisi won puck battles, took up space near the front of the net, and even looked good on the Devils’ first-unit power play.
His four points in three games paint a picture of a player turning a significant corner. Time will tell if he turns into that creative middle-six winger that Devils fans often envisioned from Blandisi when he first debuted.
Mirco Mueller, Defense
Given the recency and hype of the Will Butcher signing, it may have seemed a foregone conclusion that the 2017 Hobey Baker award winner would be in the opening lineup on Oct. 7. In reality, that is anything but guaranteed, especially given the play of Mirco Mueller.
Barring injury or a trade, Andy Greene and John Moore will claim the left side of the top two defensive pairings. That leaves Butcher, Mueller, Yaroslav Dyblenko, Michael Kapla, Brian Strait, Tim Erixon and Viktor Loov competing for the final spot on the left side. Heading into the preseason, I made that list in order of chances to make it on the big club, so Mueller was already a favorite.
But if Mueller ends up in the lineup, it is not going to be solely because of experience or waiver-eligibility, but also talent and results. Standing at 6-foot-2, Mueller brings an imposing stature and solidifies that with remarkable aggression and hard work. That said, he also has contributed offensively, with two goals in as many games. The first of the two, in the opening contest against the Capitals, was a laser.
Nobody expects Mueller to be a top-pairing defender in New Jersey, but given the price paid to acquire him – a second and fourth-round draft pick – it seems Shero thought he was acquiring a sleeper much in the vein of the Kyle Palmieri trade in 2015. The early signs are promising from the Swiss defender.
Jimmy Hayes, Right Wing
Since the 2012 Stanley Cup run that featured Ilya Kovalchuk, David Clarkson, and Petr Sykora, the Devils’ right wing depth has been one of the worst in the NHL. Palmieri has been able to perform like a top-line right wing, but nobody else has risen to the challenge over the years.
Shero has noticed the Devils’ dearth of right-wing options and has been highly active in addressing that, drafting Blake Speers, Nathan Bastian, and Joey Anderson, among others, in the last three drafts. Moreover, this summer alone he brought in two more natural right wingers in Drew Stafford and Jimmy Hayes, the former receiving a one-year contract and the latter a PTO.
It seems that both Stafford and Hayes have made their case to be in the opening-night lineup. Given Stafford’s track record in the NHL, it would be no surprise if he is dressed for the Devils’ home opener on Oct. 7. Hayes, on the other hand, seemed to be a low-risk transaction in the event that Stafford took a step back.
Having bounced around from team to team over the years, it seemed Hayes would be nothing more than a healthy scratch or AHL fodder. Instead, he has shown in three preseason games that he may be more than that in New Jersey. He has shown snarl and impressive physicality in those contests. In one game he took four penalties, but John Hynes came to the defense of his new acquisition:
Jimmy was really excited to play … He’s a passionate guy. He’s been excellent for us since he’s been here. We just have to sit down with him and we’ll give him another chance to get back at it. We’d rather have to tame the tiger than prod it.
It seems, at the moment, that Stafford, Hayes, and Stefan Noesen will be competing for the bottom-six right wing spots. The competition has been fierce, but Hayes could very well end up being in the Devils’ lineup when they take on the Avalanche.