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Sharangovich was tremendous while on loan in the KHL, where he totaled 17 goals and 25 points in 34 games. Kuokkanen has three seasons of AHL experience and looks ready for a shot at a regular NHL role. While Boqvist primarily played left wing last season, he’s looked much more comfortable at center during camp. It may be a line of three rookies, but their performance as a unit during the scrimmages suggests they might offer the Devils some depth to start the season.
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The fourth line, at least out of the gate, should have some familiar faces. Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha are likely to begin there, but there’s still one spot to fill alongside them. Nathan Bastian looks to be in the running for that opening, as does Michael McLeod, which would give the Devils some size and scoring punch on the fourth line.
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All of this will change when Hischier and Bratt return, though. It’ll be interesting to see where everyone fits when that happens, especially if the Sharangovich, Boqvist, and Kuokkanen line clicks during game action. That could give Ruff some difficult decisions to make in the bottom half of the lineup, but that’s not a bad problem to have.
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The Devils’ defense will have a mixture of new and old faces after a few offseason moves. They acquired Ryan Murray from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for a fifth-round pick. Despite having chronic lower back problems, Murray has been an effective top-four defenseman when in the lineup. If he can stay healthy, he’ll give the team a significant boost on their top pair.
Also joining Murray is Dmitry Kulikov, who the Devils signed during free agency to a one-year deal worth $1.15 million. Kulikov isn’t going to have the significant role Murray will, but he should provide the team with some defensive depth as their no. 6 or 7 defenseman.
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In a somewhat surprising move, the New Jersey Devils have brought back defenseman Sami Vatanen on a one year contract worth $2 million for the season. Vatanen will need to quarantine and arrive in New Jersey before he can participate in team activities. His timetable to join the team and be ready for games is yet to be determined. Vatanen brings a familiar presence on the backend that does nothing but strengthens the depth of the Devils blueline.
The Devils originally acquired Vatanen from the Anaheim Ducks for fan favorite Adam Henrique, en route to the first playoff appearance since the run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. The Devils then traded Vatanen almost one year ago to the Carolina Hurricanes for Janne Kuokkanen, Frederick Claesson, and a 2020 3rd-round draft pick that became Nico Daws. Kuokkanen looks to be a lock for the opening night roster and could make a major impact on the Devils. Claesson is still a free agent and Dawes waits in limbo for the OHL season to start.
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Vatanen did not play a game in the regular season for the Hurricanes last season due to an injury, which added to the drama of the conditional draft pick acquired by the Devils. He did play seven games in the playoffs, accumulating three assists in those games.
An NHL ready player and a 3rd-round pick is a steep price for only seven playoff games in hindsight for the Hurricanes. This only adds to the legend of good moves that Tom Fitzgerald has done so far in his tenure.
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The move does throw some confusion to the roster though, as it was thought the Devils already had their blueline set up with the assumption Ty Smith would make the team. Right now, if Ty Smith makes the team, the Devils would have 8 NHL caliber defenseman on the roster. PK Subban, Damon Severson, Connor Carrick, and Vatanen would be on the right side. Ryan Murray, Will Butcher, Dimitry Kulikov, and Smith on the left. It is yet to be seen how the Devils roster will shake up over the course of the season while the question of how the taxi squad will be used remains.
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In all, this is a good move for the Devils to bring back Vatanen. He was seemed to be well liked by his teammates and he is capable of being a player the Devils could really use. He can work the powerplay as well as the penalty kill. The only question is, can he stay healthy? Like Murray, if health isn’t an issue, both players are top four quality defensemen. If they aren’t healthy, the Devils will be back to square one and more questions than answers. But all in all, bringing Sami back is a smart decision.
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Ryan Murray Columbus Blue Jackets
Ryan Murray, Columbus Blue Jackets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Returning for his second stint with the Devils is Sami Vatanen, who signed a one-year deal worth $2 million less than a week ago. Like Bratt, he needs a work visa then has to quarantine for seven days before joining the team. So he’s likely to miss their first couple of games, at a minimum.
In addition to those three defensemen, the Devils return Damon Severson, Will Butcher, P.K. Subban, and Connor Carrick. Subban looks like he’ll start the season paired with Murray, while top prospect Ty Smith looks as if he’ll play alongside Severson on the second pair. Once Vatanen is eligible to play, the Devils’ defense pairs should look something like this:
Murray – Subban
Smith – Severson
Butcher – Vatanen
Kulikov – Carrick (extras)
No one will mistake the Devils’ blue line as the best in the NHL. With that said, it’s a pretty capable group. Subban had the worst season of his career in 2019-20, so giving him top-pair minutes won’t work if he doesn’t rebound to some degree. Though, it does help that Murray is the best defenseman Subban will play with since becoming a Devil.
Smith looked terrific during the Devils’ camp scrimmages, and he appears ready for the NHL. Severson was the team’s best defenseman in 2019-20, so Smith looks to be walking into a favorable situation to start his NHL career.
Once Vatanen is eligible to play, he and Butcher should give the Devils a reliable third pair. Butcher is one of the team’s more effective puck-moving blueliners, and he’s put up good numbers paired with Vatanen over the last three seasons. Vatanen should also get some meaningful minutes on both the power play and penalty kill.
New Jersey Devils Sami Vatanen
New Jersey Devils Sami Vatanen (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)
And with Kulikov and Carrick as the team’s seventh and eighth defensemen, that makes the Devils’ defense one of their better position groups.
Goaltending looked like it was going to be a strength heading into this season. But it’s now the Devils’ biggest question mark after Crawford announced his retirement. Crawford had a .917 save percentage (SV%) last season and would’ve been a significant upgrade as a 1B to Blackwood.
Now the Devils are left scrambling to find a backup to Blackwood with just two days before the regular season begins. Scott Wedgewood is the de facto no. 2 goaltender with Crawford retiring, but he hasn’t played in an NHL game since 2017-18. His recent AHL numbers aren’t all that encouraging either – he had a .893 SV% last season and .908 SV% in 2018-19.
If the Devils want to be competitive this season, they need to find a veteran backup behind Blackwood. They could look to the trade market, but it might be a challenge finding a willing trade partner since teams must carry a goalie on their taxi squad.
The Devils’ best bet seems to be scouring the waiver wire and hoping someone useful ends up on waivers. One team to watch is the Toronto Maple Leafs. If Jack Campbell wins the backup job to Frederik Andersen, as expected, the Leafs could place Aaron Dell on waivers with the intent of sending him to their taxi squad.