Halfway into training camp, the injury bug is biting the Devils, giving increased opportunity to prospects looking to crack the opening night roster.
The Devils opened training camp on September 22nd and have played three preseason games with three more to go before opening the regular season against Chicago on October 15th in Newark. With training camp about half over, first cuts have been made and more are to follow in the next week as the regular season approaches and the team decides on the final roster. However, some players will be getting more chances to shine as injuries to regular NHL players are already starting to pile up before the regular season even begins.
Damon Severson has been a mainstay on the Devils blue line since making his debut in the 2014-2015 season and has played every one of the teams games for the last three seasons while averaging over 22 minutes per game in each season. If he is out for any significant amount of time, there will be a large amount of important minutes up for grabs.
Ty Smith was one of the NHL’s best rookies last season, finishing 7th in Calder trophy voting. he was also one of the Devils best players last year, contributing 23 points in 48 games while averaging over 20 minutes on ice per game. His absence would leave another top four spot open on the Devils blue line.
With Smith and Severson both out, that would leave an opportunity for PK Subban and Jonas Siegenthaler to step up into the top 4 of the Devils defense while giving players such as Colton White, Christian Jaros and Kevin Bahl an opportunity to slide into that 3rd defensive pairing. Colton White was a 4th round pick by the Devils in 2015 and has played 11 NHL games spread over the last three seasons while playing primarily for New Jersey’s AHL affiliate in Binghamton. (Newly relocated to Utica). Christian Jaros was a 5th round pick by Ottawa in 2015 and has played 83 NHL games for the Senators and Sharks over the last four seasons. He was traded to New Jersey this past off season in exchange for Nick Merkley. Jaros has good size, standing at 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighing in at 222 pounds. Kevin Bahl is one New jersey’s top prospects and was acquired in the Taylor Hall trade with Arizona. He was one of the most exciting pieces the Devils got in that trade, due in large part to Bahl’s massive body. Bahl is 6 foot 6 inches tall and weighs 230 pounds. At just 21 years old, and only having played 34 professional games, 27 in the AHL and 7 in the NHL, Bahl is still very raw and yet to reach his full potential. It will be fascinating to see if any of those three seize this opportunity to make an impact and force the Devils to reconsider who they want suiting up as the team’s top six defensemen heading into the season.
The injuries to two of the top defensemen so far this preseason also makes one wonder if head coach Lindy Ruff will be more cautious with how he uses his other top defenders, Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves. In order to guard against going into the first week of the season with a completely depleted blue line, it would not be all that shocking to see coach Ruff use Hamilton and Graves in limited roles in the final preseason games. The injuries to Smith and Severson, along with a cautious approach to Hamilton and Graves would give ample opportunity to the guys on the bubble of making the team to show what they have to offer and force the Devils to keep them in the NHL.
The injury to Jack Hughes could also keep him out of preseason action going forward as a precaution while giving Dawson Mercer even more opportunity to prove that he belongs in the NHL. Mercer was the Devils second first round pick in 2020, had a phenomenal season in the QMJHL last year and has turned some heads since he arrived at Devils camp last month. Mercer can play either center or on the wing and has shown flashes of brilliance so far in the preseason. With one of the top two centers out, Mercer will likely see an increased role in the final preseason games as he pushes to make the opening night roster.
The Devils final 11 days of training camp will be filled with fascinating roster decisions as last year’s youngest team looks to take the next step in their development and push for the playoffs in late March and early April.