There are just two games remaining for the New Jersey Devils in the 2023 preseason. They’ll welcome the New York Rangers to the Prudential Center on Wednesday and then visit the New York Islanders on Friday. Head Coach Lindy Ruff is likely going to want to ice his regular season lineup as the preseason nears its end. Remaining on the roster are still a number of bubble players fighting for a spot in the Devils lineup. So which Devils bubble players have the inside track to the NHL roster?
Monday night’s lineup against the Islanders featured a handful of bubble players. Following the Devils’ 6-5 victory, Ruff was vocal about the performance of some of New Jersey’s youth.
“There are areas of the game that I thought were not quick enough,” Ruff explained. “You look at almost not going back quick enough on the power play and almost giving (the Islanders) an opportunity where not much was going on. It’s NHL pace. So, you’ve got to be ready.”
Taking a look at their individual performances, we’ll take a look at who was in the lineup on Monday first.
Of all the Devils prospects in camp this fall, Thompson has been one of the more impressive ones. There’s a legitimate chance for Thompson to claim a roster spot at this point as Ruff continues to praise the 24-year-old following each game.
“Tyce gave us another strong game,” Ruff explained Monday night.
Thompson has played in three out of four preseason games and has yet to draw any criticism from the Devils head coach. What’s been on display in Thompson’s game is his versatility. He’s shown he can score, distribute as a playmaker, forecheck, defend well in his own end, and kill penalties.
Thompson checks a lot of boxes when it comes to bottom-six NHL forwards. There’s little to no room in the Devils’ top six, however, that’s not what they need Thompson for. He provides the necessary tangibles needed in the bottom six of an NHL lineup with the offensive touch that’s an added bonus. He’s not quite Tage Thompson, but there are the makings of an NHL player in Tyce. The following two preseason games will be telling, but it appears Thompson has put himself in favor with New Jersey’s brass.
The leading scorer for the Utica Comets last season has shown glimpses of what he provided in the American Hockey League last season. In the offensive zone, Graeme Clarke continuously moves his feet with or without the puck. He’s always making sure that the puck is moving to force defenders out of position and to keep the opposing goaltender’s eyes moving more than they’d probably like. It’s been encouraging to see how he can control the pace in the offensive zone when he’s on the ice.
However, the problem is he hasn’t found the scoresheet. When Clarke has a good shift, the puck is on his stick and as soon as he lets it go, he’s looking for it again in a scoring opportunity. Yet, he’s easily pushed off pucks and sometimes struggles to maintain control against larger-sized players.
He’s a gifted offensive player, however, his defense needs work. He’s struggled to clean up loose pucks, win puck battles along the boards, and transition the puck away from New Jersey’s end of the ice.
“I think if you look at his game, he’s been given a pretty good opportunity,” Ruff explained. “He’s had the puck enough. I thought early on (against the Islanders) we had some people open when we had the puck and we didn’t move it quick enough. Sometimes when your goal score, you’re looking for something better. He’s had some plays inside of games where breaking out of our zone, he put the puck in the middle of the ice and those plays have turned into turnovers or chances against. I have no doubt he can play the game when he’s got the puck. Sometimes away from it, he’s gotta take care of the puck better, especially in the (defensive) zone.”
Perhaps, if Clarke is surrounded by the right linemates who can support him, his defensive lapses might be more tolerable. However, at this time the Devils have more sufficient options to fill the roster. Clarke is better served going back to Utica.
There are moments when Simon Nemec looks like a brilliant NHL defenseman. There are others when you can see the deficits he still needs to work on.
Again, the NHL isn’t a developmental league. Sure, Nemec is likely good enough to hang around and play a handful of NHL games this season. However, it would greatly benefit him to return to Utica to continue working on his defensive game.
The offense is there. Just look at how he helped facilitate Jack Hughes’ power play goal on Monday.
Nemec is thinking the game quicker with the puck on his stick and it shows. His deficits come in the other two zones on the ice, however not egregious. He’ll occasionally turn pucks over or get caught out of position. The only egregious defensive effort of note came Monday against the Islanders. He turned the puck over to Pierre Engvall in the neutral zone and sprung him for a breakaway goal.
Nemec has a chance to start the season with the Devils and get a couple of NHL games under his belt. It’s hard to imagine there’s much room to keep him up, however, with Colin Miller and Brendan Smith still in the fold. Plus, Ruff has been vocal about the difficulties of having two rookies on the blueline at the same time. And Luke Hughes isn’t being demoted to Utica.
With a few seasons under his belt in the KHL, Daniil Misyul has begun to establish himself as a physical defenseman in the Devils organization. It began at the prospect challenge when you could see Misyul dominating the opposition with his physicality and further when he made sure to drop the mitts with whoever he could.
At training camp and the preseason, Misyul has been solid. He makes simple, effective plays in the defensive end to push the puck back up the ice and out of danger. Unfortunately, he’s a little further down the depth chart because of how much New Jersey has on the blue line.
Will Misyul start the season on the Devils roster? Probably not. But, if New Jersey finds themselves needing to recall a defenseman and are looking for physicality, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Misyul in 2023-24.
The Nico Hischier line is the only line that has stuck together from the very beginning of training camp. Flanking Hischier is Timo Meier and Alexander Holtz. There’s no question about Hischier and Meier’s roster status. Holtz, however, has struggled to hack it at the NHL level.
This fall, Holtz has come into camp in much better shape. He appears faster and more confident with the puck. His decision-making has reached a new level and as a result, he looks much more cohesive with his linemates who are established NHLers.
Over the weekend in Philadelphia, Ruff wasn’t particularly pleased with the performance of the trio’s line. However, last fall Ruff focused on Holtz’s deficiencies. This time, Saturday’s blunder was on the trio as a whole. Individually, Holtz appears NHL-ready.
The 21-year-old isn’t going to step into the lineup as a perfect player. Growing pains are to be expected. But, it appears Holtz has firmly planted himself within the Devils’ top-six. It’d be a surprise at this point to see him demoted from the varsity squad to start the season.
The problem with Nolan Foote this fall is that he’s just been fine. He hasn’t stood out in a positive or a negative way. At the end of last season, Foote was making himself present with his physicality, reliability in all three zones, and underrated shot that led to scoring chances.
Foote is still that player. However, that’s the problem. He’s still that player, while guys like Holtz and Thompson have improved their games. As a result, he’s indirectly fallen out of favor and appears more likely to start the season with the Comets.
There’s a spot for Foote in the NHL at some point. However, that might only happen when there’s a spot on the roster available later in the season.