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Devils Prospects on the Fringe: The Defense

Last week, we took a look at which forwards and young players will be competing for roster spots during Devils training camp. Today, we turn our attention to the backend and look at which defensemen have a chance of making the Devils’ opening night roster.

Unlike the forward group, the Devils defense doesn’t have much room for young fringe players to make the cut. Instead, New Jersey’s defense is much heavier on NHL veterans. The youngest players are Jonas Siegenthaler and John Marino, who are both 25 years old. I think it’s safe to say that they’re both very likely to be regulars in the Devils’ top 6. Add to that a stacked right side that includes Dougie Hamilton, Damon Severson and now John Marino, and there’s a good chance it would take an injury or a trade for a prospect to see NHL action. Given that Siegenthaler and Graves are close to locks for the first and second pairing on the left side of defence, I only see two potential roster spots up for grabs, 3rd spot left defense and a place in the stand release as In addition. Really, it’s only one spot since Brendan Smith, the Devils’ other free agency who signed in July, likely won’t be waived a few months after signing a 2-year contract just so a prospect could sniff. sit in the press box.

While I think the most likely outcome in this scenario is that the Devils end up starting the year with the aforementioned 6 defensemen in their opening night roster, with perhaps a player on a PTO being signed in as a 7th defender, there are quite a few players in the system who could challenge for a spot on the roster.

I ended up dividing prospects into a few different tiers based on how likely I thought they would actually be on the team. With defenders, I don’t really think it’s necessary. None of these players have more than a handful of NHL games under their belt and the list isn’t long enough to make that necessary. Also, while the need for position is certainly a factor with forwards, NHL coaches are far more likely to try to play an RW down the left side, or move a cross to the wing, than to play a right-handed defender on the left side, or vice versa. That means the left-handers on this list are a step ahead of the competition.

Let’s start on the right side of the defense, with the brightest candidate in the pack: the 2nd overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, Simon Nemec. Apart from being clearly the most talented player on this list, the 18-year-old right-handed defender already has professional experience. More importantly, he excelled professionally last season, scoring 26 points in 39 regular season games for HK Nitra of the Slovak League. He followed that up with 17 points in 19 playoff games. The Slovak League is a few steps below the AHL in terms of quality of competition, but it’s still a professional league with grown men, so success there as an 18-year-old defenseman is worth it. to be written at home. What I mean here is Nemec wasn’t drafted just for his talent and what he could be in 5 years he showed he can handle big minutes against men and still be a productive attacking player at the moment, in September he will have the opportunity to show that he can do the same at the highest level. I suspect part of what led Nemec to be the Devils’ pick is that they’re hoping he’s closer to being NHL ready than some of the other top prospects in the last NHL Draft. General manager Tom Fitzgerald is heavily invested in Nemec, as he passed consensus top prospect Shane Wright and another highly talented offensive player in Logan Cooley to select Nemec. I think Nemec will have every opportunity to show he’s ready for the NHL, and while I don’t think he’ll make the lineup on opening night given the strength on the right side of the Devils, I suspect we’re going to see him play some games at some point this season.

On the right side we have 23-year-old offensive defenseman Reilly Walsh. Walsh made his NHL debut last season, appearing in just one game. Walsh has been productive during his time in the AHL, hovering around 0.5 pts/g over the past two seasons with the Devils AHL affiliate. He seems to be very gifted offensively, but his off-puck game and skating probably kept him out of a job in the NHL. Walsh is similar to Holtz in that he is a more one-dimensional player. Unlike Holtz, Walsh doesn’t have a high pedigree and now has the aforementioned Nemec potentially jumping over him on the depth chart. I’d like to see Walsh get a chance at some point this season, but I think he’ll have to show he can come in and contribute right away for him to get a chance before Nemec. Even then, it’s hard to see a long-term future in the Devils organization for Walsh with Nemec and Luke Hughes on the way and Dougie Hamilton under contract forever. I could see Walsh being traded or the Devils letting their rights expire at the end of the year barring a major escape from the former Harvard standout.

On the left side of the Devils blue line, there are three players I can see competing for a spot on the roster. Two of them have already made their NHL debuts, and a third is much more of a dark horse.

First, the great prospect who returned from Arizona in the Taylor Hall trade, 22-year-old Kevin Bahl. Bahl has appeared in NHL games in each of the past two seasons and managed to play 17 games last season. That could give him a leg up on the competition, as the 6’8” defenseman knows some familiarity with Devils head coach Lindy Ruff. On the other hand, Bahl’s appearances haven’t exactly gone spectacularly. He’s been a black hole in terms of his driving game, posting a 45.3% CF% for his career. He looks slightly better via Evolving Hockey’s xGAR model, he’s still overall negative in terms of xGAR, but his xDef from last year, which one would expect to be his daily bread, is positive (0.3). I don’t think Bahl will have any top 4 minutes in his future anytime soon, but there’s still a chance he’ll turn into a solid 3rd pair pk specialist. I could see him making the roster with a strong camp. If for no other reason than the Devils seem to like Bahl a lot more than I do.

Nikita Okhotyuk, 21, is the second of two left-handed defender prospects who made an appearance at Newark last season. Okhotyuk’s profile is similar to Bahl’s in that he is a defensive back who received accolades for his play at Utica last season. He’s not Bahl’s height (he’s only 1.80m) but obviously he’s still capable of playing a physically intimidating game. I think Okhotyuk is Bahl’s main contender for a roster spot in September. Bahl has more experience, but they play a similar role and it should come down to whether or not either of them can show they’re ready for the NHL level. Like Bahl, I see Okhotyuk’s ceiling as that of a 3rd pk pairing specialist.

The last player I’m going to talk about today is a real dark horse. Michael Vukojevic. Like Bahl and Okhotyuk, Vukojevic has two years of experience in the AHL. Unlike the other two, Vukojevic didn’t make his New Jersey debut last season. In fact, he went the other way and spent 4 games in the ECHL. The reason he’s even here is because his output has hovered around that of Bahl and Okhotyuk. While I can’t pretend to know much about him as a prospect beyond what’s on his elite prospects page, it’s not like the two former players have done anything. either to cement their place in the depth chart, so I’m comfortable placing it in a similar level to theirs.

Note that Luke Hughes returns to Michigan for another season. He will therefore not attend training camp or play professional hockey until his NCAA career is over. If you were wondering why he didn’t make the cut, this is the reason.

The future of the Devils blue line will arrive, potentially as soon as this spring, but before that, I think it’s more likely than not that we already know what the Devils back end will look like in October. Do you agree that no prospect will make the opening night slate? If not, who do you think will win a spot? Will the Devils make a trade to get someone on board if they seem ready? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading.