Devils to Keep an Eye on During Preseason

The 2019-20 season is right around the corner. The New Jersey Devils released their full training camp roster yesterday, and while there weren’t any surprises, there’s still plenty of intrigue around the 56 players in attendance. New additions, such as Jack Hughes and Nikita Gusev, will be the center of attention. But don’t forget about some of the team’s prospects vying for NHL spots, either. Here’s who to keep an eye on when preseason action gets started on Monday. 

Jesper Boqvist

Boqvist is one of the Devils’ top up-and-coming, young players. He had a breakout season in Sweden, finishing with 35 points in 51 games, which translates to 34 points in 82 NHL games. That improvement was enough for the organization to sign him to an entry-level contract this summer. He was one of their best players at last weekend’s Prospects Challenge and looked ready to compete for an NHL roster spot. 

What was most noticeable about Boqvist at the Prospects Challenge was his skating and ability to create offense. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get minutes with some of the Devils’ most skilled players, like Hughes, during the preseason. If he produces, he should be on the opening night roster on Oct. 4 versus the Winnipeg Jets. 

Jack Hughes

Hughes was the first overall pick at the Entry Draft this past June, and with good reason. He finished with 112 points in 50 games for the USNTDP and broke Alex Ovechkin’s scoring record at the U-18 World Championships, with 32 points in 14 career games. If he makes the Devils’ roster, he’ll be the first player from the USNTDP to make the jump straight to the NHL. And there’s little reason that won’t be the case. 

Jack Hughes
Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers

What makes Hughes a special prospect is his speed and elite vision. He carries the puck into the offensive zone with possession more often than not, and he’s a high-end playmaker. How he performs during the preseason will determine his role with the team. But it’d be a surprise to see him with anything less than top-six minutes. So look for him to skate with other skilled players such as Kyle Palmieri and Gusev. 

Ty Smith

Smith had a stellar season with the Spokane Chiefs (WHL). He finished with 69 points in 57 games and was the CHL Defenseman of the Year. Now the former first-round pick is looking to land a full-time spot with the Devils. And he seems to be in a good position to do so, even with the team already carrying seven defensemen. 

Related: Devils’ Top 10 Prospects: Preseason 2019

What will help Smith standout from the rest of the crowd is his puck-moving ability. He’s a great passer and rarely chips the puck off the glass to get out of the defensive zone. Although he’s a left-handed shot, he primarily played the right side for the Chiefs. That was the case at the Prospects Challenge, too, so look for him to continue playing there moving forward.

Nikita Gusev

Gusev was one of the Devils’ prized acquisitions this summer. He was a seventh-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2012 but instead opted to play in the KHL in his native Russia. He was one of the league’s best players over the last few seasons and finished with 82 points in 62 games in 2018-19, which translates to 87 points in 82 NHL games.

Nikita Gusev
Could Nikita Gusev be the next Artemi Panarin? (Photo: Alexander Golovko)

Eighty-seven points may be a stretch, especially since it’ll be his first NHL season. But he’s going to get an opportunity with other top-six forwards, which means the chance to rack up points will be there. He’s a natural left wing but is a right-handed shot, so head coach John Hynes could look to play him as a right-wing during exhibition games. That could help make his transition to the NHL a bit easier. 

Michael McLeod

This will be the former first-round pick’s second pro season. He finished 2018-19 with 33 points in 55 games for the Binghamton Devils, the team’s AHL affiliate, and was their top-line center for a long stretch. He eventually earned a call-up to the NHL to close out the season and totaled 3 points in 21 games. 

McLeod will be facing a bit of an uphill battle to make the NHL roster. The Devils have great depth at center, with Hughes, Nico Hischier, Travis Zajac, and Pavel Zacha. So McLeod’s best shot may come by playing right-wing. But one way or another, it’ll be interesting to see how he’s progressed over the summer. If/when an injury strikes, he could be one of the team’s first call-ups if he shows he’s ready for it. 

Pavel Zacha

The 2019-20 season will be a big one for the 22-year-old center from the Czech Republic. It’ll be his fourth one since the Devils took him with the sixth overall pick at the 2015 Entry Draft, but he hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations that come with being selected that high. He’s never finished with more than 25 points in a season, which he’s done in each of the last two. With that said, there won’t be as much pressure on him to be a go-to offensive threat. 

New Jersey Devils, Pavel Zacha
Pavel Zacha could be the New Jersey Devils’ Swiss army knife in 2019 (Photo byAmy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With Hischier and Zajac, as well as the addition of Hughes, Zacha will be looking at a bottom-six role with less offensive responsibility. He could center the team’s fourth line, or he could be a third-line winger with Zajac and Blake Coleman to form a shutdown line. He does need to find more offensive consistency, but his real value comes on defense and specifically the penalty kill. So look for Hynes to use him in different situations when needed. 

Nathan Bastian

Bastian spent most of last season in the AHL and had 18 goals and 24 points over 58 games. But with all the injuries at the NHL level, he earned a call-up to close out the season. He scored three goals in seven games but caught his coaches’ attention with his physical play and willingness to stand up for his teammates. 

Related: Bratt Will Be Key to Boosting Devils’ Offense

Bastian may be looking at a tough road to make the NHL roster, especially after the addition of Wayne Simmonds. The two forwards play a similar game, and Simmonds will add more on offense than Bastian. But like McLeod, he could be one of the first in line for a call-up depending on how things shake out. So a good preseason will help his cause. 

Devils’ Camp Should Be Competitive

Of course, these aren’t the only players who’ll have the focus on them. All eyes will be on P.K. Subban to see how he performs in his first action with the Devils. How will Taylor Hall look after a knee injury limited him to just 33 games a season ago? Is Nico Hischier heading for a breakout season in what’ll be his third in the NHL? There’ll be no shortage of storylines, and that should make for an entertaining couple of weeks before the regular season gets underway.