This week the New Jersey Devils play games. Granted, they played three games on the 2022 Prospects Challenge. However, I like to call that pre-preseason. They were exhibition games intended for prospects and minor league players to build up some sharpness and make a good impression before the veterans and tryouts arrive at camp. The actual preseason is now here. They are practice matches, but there is something more at stake. With seven games over the next two weeks and 56 players in camp, here’s a guide for you, one of the People Who Matter, to make the most of this year’s preseason.
Know the structure of the preseason: The Devils will play two sets of back-to-back games this week, have next weekend off, then play on the following Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. How the games are set up lends itself to determining when to cut spending. The first four games should be a mix of NHL veterans (minimum eight as defined by the CBA, which is why Thomas Hickey is with the Devils on a PTO), NHL pledges and Utica Comets. If a group plays on Monday in Montreal, you expect another group at the Rock against the Islanders on Tuesday. Likewise in the house-and-house with our hated rivals. For the vets, most will be there to get rid of any rust on the ice rink. For the players with a legitimate chance of making the roster of New Jersey and even the Comets, it will be more impressive. Should they remain on the roster after that fourth game on Friday, you could see a further refinement of the line-up in the next three games.
Don’t worry about the results: It would be great if the Devils just stomped all over their league in these seven games coming up. It would be very worrying if they were flipped in their seven games. However, it doesn’t amount to much. If you attend one, feel free to encourage. Just know that preseason games are still exhibition games and the results don’t count for much. Example: Remember how the Devils did in the preseason last year? I do not do. I had to look it up. They went 4-1-0. They defeated the Caps 5-4, Our Hated Rivals 7-1 (!), the Islanders 2-1 in overtime, the Capitals again 4-1 and lost to Our Hated Rivals 2-6 (sigh) . This was a good set of preseason results. It didn’t matter when the real season started and the Devils plodded to a record of 27-46-9.
Pay attention to who is there and how they do it: Appearances are more valuable in these games, especially for those not set for the NHL roster. If it’s an attacker like Alexander Holtz, Fabian Zetterlund, Tyce Thompson or Nolan Foote, you’d like to see how they move out there, how they handle the puck, how they shoot at it, and how they contribute without the puck. If it’s a defender like Simon Nemec, Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotiuk or Reilly Walsh, see how they stop the defence, how they gain possession, how they support the attack in the transition and at the end of the opposition, and how they do business outside the game. If it’s a goalkeeper, see if they make saves and if they’re doing it on purpose or if they’re just throwing a body part into space in hopes of stopping.
You can also just see who makes the fewest mistakes. That could mean an unwise punishment. That can mean a costly turnover. That could mean you execute a pass or shot so poorly that you wonder what they were thinking. While the intent is to get players to contribute, the team simply won’t show their ability to handle an NHL game situation. Mistakes are going to happen. It’s hockey and mostly played by people who have only played a handful of times in months. The idea is to look for the least and/or least harmful errors.
Even easier, pay attention to who’s in the lineup. Of course, it’s a foregone conclusion that players like Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier will make the New Jersey Devils. The purpose of these games for them is to get ready for the October 13 opener in Philadelphia. For Holtz, Zetterlund, Thompson, Nemec, Bahl, Okhotiuk, Walsh and others, a roster selection could be a clue as to how the coaches think they are going to go into this season. Especially if they survive the first wave of austerity measures expected to be implemented next week.
In this regard, please note: how the devils play. Is it a dump-and-chase game when Miles Wood is there? Is the defense overloaded? Will the power play be set up in a Recchi-esque 1-3-1? How the players are used will contribute to how they perform. For those in the bubble, whether they go straight to New Jersey or have to wait may play a role.
Don’t worry too much about lines and pairs until the last game: The final preseason game on October 8 in Boston will be the team’s last appearance until their first regular season game on October 13. The last game of the preseason is similar to “dress rehearsals” for the first game. Anyone still fighting for a spot may still be there, but those lineups could reveal how the coaches might start the season.
Until that game, I wouldn’t worry too much about where a player lines up or who they’re paired with. Especially with the Devils’ first four games this week, the rosters will be a mix of players from New Jersey and Utica with different goals and roles. Just because you see Holtz lined up with Jack Hughes this week doesn’t mean Holtz absolutely makes the Devils and will align completely with Hughes. That could happen. Especially if the connection of the two is fruitful in preseason matches – again, performance matters. But it might as well be something for one game and the coaches have different plans in other games.
Furthermore, lines and combinations can and will change during competitions and also in between during the regular season. This is the only time a team can experiment without costing valuable points in the leaderboard. Expect the Devils and 31 other NHL teams to do just that over the next week and next week. So don’t get excited if you see Zetterlund on the left or Bahl on a third pair or something else. There is no guarantee that a decision will be made before October 13. If that’s the case on October 8, there’s a little more to it, as it could very well be the starting grid. Even that can change in the five days in between.
Depth is a goal and goes beyond 18 skaters: The Devils have 56 players in the camp this year. Two are currently unsigned prospects (Josh Filmon, Tyler Brennan) and seven are on AHL-only contracts. This means there are 47 players – 45 signed, two on PTOs – in the camp that will end up with up to 23 roster spots available for the season. When you consider who’s already on the team and signed to New Jersey, there aren’t many roster spots to actually fill.
However, depth goes beyond whether one is the thirteenth attacker or the seventh defender. I wrote this prior to the rookie camp, but it still applies. The 2022-23 New Jersey Devils will likely use at least 20 different attackers and 9 different defenders at some point during the season. These preseason games are important in determining what the order of the depth chart will be for the season. This will change if necessary due to injuries and appearances in Utica, but how it is set up will be determined in these games.
What this means is that if someone gets cut that you had higher hopes for, don’t despair. If, say, Nikita Okhotiuk doesn’t take New Jersey out of the camp, there’s still a real possibility he’ll be playing with the Devils sometime in 2022-23. It could be in a few weeks. It could be months. It may be to replace someone for any reason. It may be to complete a few matches. The point is, there’s still reason for these players to keep grinding, even if the preseason games don’t go as well as expected for a player. And of course, if they do it right, their reward might be to be the first call rather than be on the list right away. Depth extends beyond the active roster of 23 players for October 13. This can and will change in the upcoming season of 82 games, and how these seven games play out will help determine the order of the depth chart.
No injuries, please: If nothing else, the last thing anyone would want to see in these seven games coming up is injuries. Whether it’s an established player or someone with a long shot at making the roster, everyone in the camp has some sort of goal. Injuries will undermine that. As tempting as it would be to wrap all crucial players in bubble wrap until October 13, it just crowds out the problem and leaves players even more rusty when the real games start. Players can be physically in the best shape of their lives(TM), but they will need to actually play games to be physically and mentally prepared for games in the near future. This way they have no trouble getting up to NHL speed against competition that may already be there. This carries the risk of getting injured. So even if the Devils lose all seven upcoming games, if they come out of those games with or close to 100% in terms of health, then it’s a successful preseason.
Finally, enjoy: Enjoy the hockey as always! Yes, the games do not count. Yes, the purpose of these games is more for evaluation than anything else. Yes, you and I don’t make the decisions, although we will continue to speak our minds. It’s still the reduced tension game that matters for the season. The games are cheap. The atmosphere is more relaxed. It is still the sport where a lot can happen in a short time. It is still the game where success comes from chaos or an attempt to organize chaos. It’s still hockey. That is always worth appreciating.
Tomorrow the preseason games start again. First in Montreal. Then at the Rock Against the Islands. Then a back-to-back with Our Hated Rivals. The following week, the Devils host Boston on Monday, October 3; visit Long Island on Thursday, October 6; and the Boston exhibits end on Saturday, October 8. Also starting next week is our multi-part season preview leading up to the season opener in Philadelphia on Thursday, October 13. The season is getting closer by the day. Appreciate what’s happening now, because the games that count are at hand.
Did this guide get you ahead in the preseason? What would you add to this guide for fans of Devils? Are you going to attend preseason games and/or follow the broadcasts? Leave your answers and other thoughts on the upcoming preseason. Thank you for reading.