New Jersey will begin their 2023-24 campaign tomorrow evening after going 7-0 in the pre-season. And just this morning the team signed head coach, Lindy Ruff, to a multi-year extension. Ruff, took the team through an excellent season in 2022-23 and an undefeated pre-season over the last month. Solidifying his contract into the future allows Ruff and the team to head into this critical Devils’ season without concerns about contract negotiations. Expectations are very high in New Jersey, and the contract signing is both a reward and a dangle.
Team rosters were announced over the last 24 hours and there were no surprises. The Devils are going with 14 forwards, 7 defensemen and two netminders. The one change that is possible for opening night (i.e., tomorrow night) is that Erik Haula has a day-to-day injury and may not play in the contest against Detroit that is scheduled.
During the Devils 7-0 preseason, several players were doing exceptionally well on the ice. Although a few wound up back in Utica, generally the team showed that not only is it built for today, but there is a large amount of young talent that will not mature for several years. It’s obvious the future is bright in New Jersey. Here are some observations from the last few weeks.
As expected, Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes led the way in scoring–they each appeared in four games. Bratt scored nine points (5G, 4A, +7, 0 PIM), but just as importantly as the number of points he posted, Bratt looks like a more mature player than he did at the same time last year. He battles hard for the puck and has excellent hockey sense–he always seems to be in the right place, whether in the slot or around the net, the puck seems to find him.
There is no question that Hughes is a more dynamic player than Bratt is –Hughes has amazing touch and vision and is often mesmerizing when he has the puck. But he is only 22 years old and still making many mistakes; he can lose control of the puck at some very inopportune times. Although there are many times when his creativity and skill make up for this, when it gets to a tight game in the playoffs (as against Carolina last Spring), turnovers could be critical to the outcome of the contest. Although he looked a bit better about this during his four pre-season games, there is a still a way for him to go.
Dawson Mercer was very durable last season and he continued to show steadiness this fall. If Jack Hughes was not around, Devils fans would be talking mostly about Mercer. At 21, he is likely not at his peak production yet, but he looks to be a point a game player this year. Mercer can score goals and make plays, and he is a threat all over the ice. On other teams he is a sure top six player, but because New Jersey has so much talent up front, Mercer has to compete to stay there.
Which brings me to Alexander Holtz, who was less impressive in the pre-season than was hoped for. When I say that, I do not mean he was totally ineffective nor failed to post points (he posted three points in 4 games); the issue was that he often disappeared or he tried something that did not work. At age 21, he still has time to impress more and more, it just was not that apparent during the pre-season.
On the back end, there were two rookies and one youngish Devil to watch. Kevin Bahl got his real NHL opportunity last season, when he became a regular. He made some rookie mistakes and at times he was not strong enough on the puck or on his skates. But during this pre-season, he looked a lot more confident and under control than he did last year. And wow, can he hit! Bahl uses his size extremely well, both on open-ice hits and along the boards–rarely did he make a mistake during the five games in which he appeared.
Luke Hughes made his first appearance at the end of last season, and it was immediately apparent that he was going to be a top defenseman in the league in the near future. By this fall, he looked like he was definitely ready for the NHL full time. His vision, passing, and creativity, as well as his work along the blueline on the power play, were a sight to behold. Its only up from here and working with veteran blueliner Brendan Smith can only help him this season.
Last but far from least was the play of last year’s top selection, defenseman Simon Nemec. Recently sent back to the AHL to continue his professional career, Nemec got better and better as his playing time increased this fall. Never hesitant to shoot, Nemec posted a point per game in the pre-season (4 GM, 2G, 2A, 4 PIM, +2). His instincts, shot, and distributing the puck were all excellent. Should there be an injury this season, Nemec should be one of the first blueliners to be called up.
The season starts tomorrow evening, when Detroit comes to town. The Red Wings are another young team, so it should be an exciting night.