It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The 2023-24 regular season is underway as Connor Bedard made his NHL debut for the Chicago Blackhawks last night. It’s the eve of the New Jersey Devils season opener as they’ll take on Dylan Larkin and the Detroit Red Wings tomorrow. The roster is set, however, you guys still have questions. Let’s dive into the latest Devils Mailbag.
What is a realistic prediction for Luke (Hughes)? Will he have a season similar to Quinn (Hughes) and Cale (Makar) in their rookie years, or does the Devils’ depth make that unlikely? @nhlbobby_
We’re starting this mailbag with a banger of a question.
What Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar did in their rookie seasons was remarkable. Luke’s brother, Quinn, finished his rookie season with eight goals, 45 assists, and 53 points. Makar with the Colorado Avalanche finished his rookie season with 12 goals, 38 assists, and 50 points.
Of Quinn’s 53 points, 25 came on the power play. As for Makar, 20 of his 50 also came on the man advantage. Therefore, if Luke is going to meet somewhere near that kind of point total, he’ll need plenty of power play time. Quinn finished the 2019-20 season with 256:07 on the power play, and Makar 213:22, first on both of their teams.
Additionally, despite his rookie status, Quinn played top pair minutes for Vancouver. Makar did, too, however, was limited to 11 fewer contests.
Here’s the good news. The Devils don’t have a clear-cut first-unit power play. Lindy Ruff has been gifted a lineup with a plethora of firepower. As a result, he has the luxury of rolling out two power-play units, both of which would certainly serve as a top special teams unit in any other organization. Dougie Hamilton will quarterback one, while Luke will quarterback the other.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Luke has a similar rookie season to his brother or Makar. However, it’s more likely he sits in the 35-45 point range as he’s currently projected to play third-pair minutes at 5on5 rather than top-pair minutes like the aforementioned.
How many games does (Alexander )Holtz get to see if he is NHL-ready (or still not)? @ArkH89
Great question. Last season, Alexander Holtz only saw three consistent games at the beginning of the regular season before he found himself in and out of the lineup.
It didn’t help that the Devils went on an absolute heater as soon as he was scratched from the lineup, either. Holtz finished last season playing just 19 NHL games, scoring three goals and four points.
Holtz came into camp in much better shape this fall. He was quicker on his feet and more confident in his decision-making. He even appeared a touch stronger on the puck which is always a plus. With his upgraded fitness, Holtz once again finds himself on the opening night roster.
He stuck by the side of Nico Hischier and Timo Meier for the majority of training camp. More recently, he’s been skating on New Jersey’s third line with Ondrej Palat and Curtis Lazar, although it’ll likely be Erik Haula instead of Lazar soon.
Here’s the thing. For Holtz, it’s just a matter of consistency and confidence at this point. There are certain games where you can see it all clicking for him. He clearly has the tools. Then, there are other games where he appears a little lost.
Jack Hughes had a great philosophy. He likes to look at his season in 10-game clips. Reflect on those 10 games and then try and get better moving forward. For Holtz to get his feet under him in regular season games, that’s probably the right amount of time to evaluate his performance. So we’ll start with 10 games to begin the regular season. Only he can determine if he’s NHL-ready or not. If he is, he’ll get more and I’m sure New Jersey would love to see him prove he can hack it for a full 82.
At some point could you see (Akira) Schmid taking over as the starter? @JHughesHart
The plan for New Jersey’s goaltending situation hasn’t wavered from their plan to start the 2022-23 season. The Devils brought Vitek Vanecek in to split the load with Mackenzie Blackwood. It’s the same plan this season, however, now it’s with Akira Schmid.
Vanecek put up excellent numbers in the 2022-23 regular season. He recorded career highs in wins (33), GAA (2.45), and SV% (.911). It’s true that Vanecek likely benefitted from tending a net for a superior team in the Devils rather than the Washington Capitals in the two seasons prior. However, Vanecek put together two separate stretches of wins in which New Jersey won 10 straight.
Yet, when Vanecek couldn’t be relied on in a few small stretches, it was Schmid who provided the stability in net for New Jersey last season. His sample size last season was small, yet impressive. The then 22-year-old secured nine wins in 14 starts, 18 games, and accrued a 2.13 GAA and .922 SV%. Those are superior numbers to Vanecek’s however, in significantly fewer games.
Unless Schmid breaks out and significantly outplays Vanecek for the Devils’ crease, it’s difficult to imagine Ruff veering off from his plan to play both goaltenders equally. Schmid, although impressive in the regular season and playoffs last year, still needs to prove himself in a bigger sample size. However, if he can maintain the numbers he totaled last season, there’s certainly a path for Ruff to throw Schmid a few more starts than Vanecek over the course of the season.
Will the Devils be in the market for a strong (third) pairing right (defenseman)? @DavidBirnberg
The context of this question is important. When will New Jersey need to make this acquisition? Has it not worked out with Colin Miller and Brendan Smith? Only time can tell.
The preseason wasn’t all that encouraging for Miller and Smith. Miller appears like he’s still getting used to the system. Smith seemed like he was a step behind in three out of four preseason games. We’ll give him credit where it’s due, though. Against an NHL-heavy lineup rolled out by the New York Islanders in the preseason finale, Smith finished strong.
By the trade deadline, if New Jersey identifies the right side as an area of weakness, General Manager Tom Fitzgerald will certainly address it. That is, of course, if Simon Nemec doesn’t get a handful of games and potentially prove himself to remain in the NHL lineup. Although, again, Ruff has been adamant he’s not comfortable having two rookie defensemen in the lineup. It’s hard to imagine he’ll make an exception come playoff time.
That being said, looking at the mix of skaters, after Hamilton and Marino, the Devild could certainly upgrade over Miller if it’s not working out with the veteran defenseman. Some right-shot defensemen on expiring contracts that could make sense closer to the trade deadline are Justin Schultz (Seattle Kraken), and Ilay Lyubushkin (Buffalo Sabres).
Will (Simon) Nemec get called up this season? @The_Devil1122, Before Christmas? @DaveNJ1010
The plan for Nemec this year is to get as much playing time as possible. The 19-year-old defenseman was vocal about the fact that he believes he proved himself in training camp. He thought he belonged on the NHL roster.
Yet, Fitzgerald stuck to his word admitting, “There’s no rushing this player.” And, as we mentioned earlier, Ruff stuck to his word as well, speaking to the complications of having two rookies on the blue line.
However, to say that Nemec won’t make his NHL debut this season seems unlikely. Nemec is the next-best right-shot defenseman not on the NHL roster. Despite being a left-shot, Santeri Hatakka has experience playing on his off-side and gave Nemec a run for his money this fall. Maybe his recall comes before Nemec’s based on fit. But, it would be a surprise to not see Nemec get at least a few games this season.
As for when this happens, the context of it matters. If it’s before Christmas, Nemec will get recalled if there’s some sort of injury on the right side of the blue line. If New Jersey’s health persists, it feels more likely Nemec will get similar treatment that L. Hughes received toward the end of the 2022-23 season. That, of course, is dependent on the Utica Comets season. If they’re winning and headed for the postseason, Nemec will certainly have a role in that and the organization will want him to compete for a championship.
In short, it’d be surprising to not see Nemec in New Jersey at some point this season. As for when, it’s wait and see.
Why is (Brendan) Smith on the roster? Johnson Al via Facebook
This is a common question. And although it might sound cliche, the truth of the matter is his presence among the youth in New Jersey is important.
Smith is serviceable enough to be a seventh defenseman rotating in the lineup when necessary. He’s not going to play every night, although he believes he can. It’s true that he had a rough preseason. However, he’s proved himself as an NHL veteran over his career. At this point, he’s not a nightly player, but again, his presence is important.
One of the things many might not see is just how well-versed Smith is in the game of hockey. He has a special way of viewing the game and although he may not be able to translate that on the ice with his own play, he can help young guys like L. Hughes and Kevin Bahl see it in front of them. There’s a future coach in Smith, for sure.
Barring injuries, it’d be surprising to see Smith surpass 45 games this year. We’ll see how it works out with some more time under Miller’s belt.
How does one phonetically pronounce Erik Haula? @jreinitzesq
My colleague and friend, Josh Reinitz, likes to toy with me while in the press box at Prudential Center. Apparently, my exotic New York accent is so bizarre that he has a difficult time understanding my pronunciations. Although no one else really has this issue as my accent is actually pretty mild, here’s the phonetic pronunciation Josh so desires.