By Steve Lichtenstein
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For the finale of the 2015-16 regular season, Devils coach John Hynes allowed three players to make their NHL debuts.
When the puck drops to start the new season next Thursday in Florida, there’s a chance that Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood and Steve Santini will be stretching their consecutive games played streaks to two.
As the Devils rebuild under general manager Ray Shero and Hynes, spots at the bottom of the roster are bound to become more competitive. Shero has been shrewd in his year-plus as lead architect, accumulating young players with skill through the draft and the trade market.
Now comes the hard part. The Devils have quite a few more cuts to make to get down to a league-mandated 23-man roster by opening night.
Following Wednesday’s announcement that both forward Luke Gazdic (broken left foot) and defenseman Jon Merrill (broken finger) will miss about four weeks, the Devils stand at 24 skaters and four goaltenders. Assuming Gazdic and Merrill land on injured reserve, New Jersey will likely send three more skaters down to its AHL farm club in Albany sometime after Saturday’s preseason game against Florida at West Point.
If the decisions came down to who are Hynes’ best 23 players, I don’t think there would be any doubt that the three rookies above would be spared the axe.
However, NHL organizations are loathe to move a young player up if he’s not going to get significant ice time. Better to let such a player grow his game by playing a lot at a lower level than have him sit on the bench for 50 minutes — or even worse, in the press box.
So the test for Zacha, Wood and Santini becomes about quality AND quantity. Will they contribute enough to play a key role every night?
Of the three, Zacha, the 19-year-old center who was the Devils’ first-round pick in the 2015 draft, would be the best bet to stick.
At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Zacha is built for the big leagues. His skill set, especially playmaking, was on full display during the Devils’ 5-1 thumping of the Toronto Maple Leafs in his NHL cameo. He recorded two assists while playing on a line with his idol, the rehabilitating free agent Patrik Elias.
“It was a great opportunity for me to show what kind of player I am and motivation for me all summer to work hard to get back and make the team,” Zacha said at Devils Media Day two weeks ago. “I was more on the ice this summer than I was the years before just to feel more comfortable on the puck.”
A hip injury sidelined Zacha for the Devils’ development camp in July, but he has been at full speed all preseason. Hynes has moved him around and auditioned him on both specialty team units.
Though these exhibitions can’t be taken as tell-alls, he has passed with flying colors.
So, in my opinion, has left winger Wood, though he has a more difficult path to New Jersey.
The 21-year-old Wood will remind some of former Islander Randy Wood, Miles’ father. Very often first to the puck along the walls, Miles is a bit more physical. He plays bigger than his 6-1, 185-pound frame. In the small preseason sample, Wood has showed off his quick sniping ability, registering a pair of goals.
On the downside, Wood committed three minor penalties (a bugaboo for New Jersey all preseason) and has some work to do on his defensive zone coverages.
He could easily be a loser in the numbers game. Fellow wingers Kyle Palmieri, Taylor Hall, Mike Cammalleri, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Beau Bennett are all locks. In addition, Reid Boucher, Joseph Blandisi, Sergey Kalinin and Jacob Josefson have the inside track on Wood based on their experience last season in Hynes’ system.
That doesn’t mean Wood isn’t the better fit. Both Shero and Hynes seemed concerned that though the Devils improved their overall speed and skill up front, they lost a lot of the grit that allowed them to stay afloat in the playoff chase until the final month of last season.
That happens to be Wood’s specialty. Give him a shot to be a bottom-six mucker — I know he has a much better scoring touch than the departed Tuomo Ruutu.
Like Wood, Santini is also on the bubble, even after the Merrill injury.
Yohann Auvitu, a 27-year-old rookie after being the top defenseman in the Finnish League last season, has intrigued Hynes with his skating and vision, especially on the power play. With Andy Greene, Ben Lovejoy, John Moore, Damon Severson and Kyle Quincey secure in their jobs, Santini and Seth Helgeson are battling Auvitu for the sixth and seventh slots.
“I think every young player wants to come in and make the team,” said the 21-year-old Santini, “but at the same time you have to respect the process and respect what plan management has for you. So for me, I’m just focused on getting better every day and trying to help the organization any way I can.”
The 6-2 Santini also made an impact in his initial NHL opportunity to end last season, rocking Leafs defenseman Andrew Campbell with a Scott Stevens-like open ice hit (that was whistled for roughing).
The Devils need a big, physical stay-at-home defenseman like Santini. While Lovejoy is expected to be matched with Greene on the top pairing, the other right-side d-men, Severson and Auvitu, are more offensive-minded, which Hynes might find redundant.
As a left-handed shot, Helgeson would be the logical choice to be sent down, but he would have to clear waivers first. The Devils should take the risk and keep Santini.
The waiver wire will almost certainly include one of the Devils’ backup goalies from last season. Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood have been competing for the role of Cory Schneider’s understudy and this will be a tough call.
Wedgewood, in my view, is a little bit more athletic and showed more upside in his four-game cup of coffee than Kinkaid did in his 20 starts. I wouldn’t be shocked, however, if the brass deemed Kinkaid more reliable over the longer term.
Though the Devils are in the midst of a four-year postseason drought, the long-term view should still be the priority for Shero and Hynes. Of course, they can catch fire for a while like last season and sneak up in the standings, but the odds that they can outlast superior teams in their own division like the Penguins, Capitals, Rangers and Islanders for 82 games are long.
Shero said at the start of training camp that the organization wouldn’t fixate on the playoffs this season. Good. Let the rookies with talent grow up in New Jersey. Zacha has the tools of a rookie of the year candidate. Play a Wood over someone like Josefson, who has had six years to prove he was worth his first-round selection in 2009 and has all of 17 career goals to show for it. Let’s see if Santini can be the player Merrill never developed into.
The kids will be alright.
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