Mueller Has Surprised, McLeod Has Disappointed In Exhibition Games

By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Devils lost their first preseason game in regulation when a split squad fell to the Islanders 3-0 on Monday night at Barclays Center. New Jersey sent most of its top players to Prince Edward Island, where they mashed Ottawa, 8-1.

Such mismatches make it difficult to get excited about the Devils’ 4-1-1 record in these exhibitions. You have to take into account who is playing these games and understand that some of the entrenched veterans might not be giving their full efforts. For them, the preseason is more about getting in game shape while avoiding injuries.

However, some evaluations can be made. New Jersey, which is coming off a dreary last-place finish in the Eastern Conference, ran a highly competitive training camp. Maybe only a dozen roster spots were etched in stone heading into the games. A bevy of young players had opportunities to earn big-league paychecks.

So, with one tilt in Washington on Wednesday remaining before the games begin to count Oct. 7, here are some nuggets from these affairs, all coming with the preface, “Yeah, I know it’s only preseason but … ”

Mirco Mueller

The Devils’ Mirco Mueller skates against the Washington Capitals during a preseason game on Sept. 18, 2017, at the Prudential Center. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

1) The biggest surprise has been …

Twenty-two-year-old defenseman Mirco Mueller, who was traded from San Jose just prior to June’s expansion draft. The previously underachieving Mueller had Jon Merrill 2.0 written all over him, but he has been impressive to date. Listed at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Mueller has shown why the Sharks chose him 18th overall in the first round of the 2013 draft. He has been adept at skating and passing out of the Devils’ zone and has a pair of goals on point slap shots. The goalies he beat? That would be Washington’s Braden Holtby and Montreal’s Carey Price. Not too shabby.

2) The odd man out on the Devils’ blue line could be …

Steven Santini, who looked like a promising stay-at-home defenseman in his 38 games last season. Unfortunately, new additions Mueller and Will Butcher appear to be the front-runners to join veterans Andy Greene, Damon Severson, John Moore and Ben Lovejoy. The Devils also seem determined to keep the mediocre Dalton Prout around as a spare part. Santini is only 22 years old, which means, barring any unexpected trades, he could be headed to Binghamton to get regular ice time.

MORE: Lichtenstein: 2017-18 Devils All About Becoming Gritty Again

3) Though the defenseman who should be most concerned about a demotion is …

Lovejoy, who has looked even older than his age of 33 this preseason. The NHL game is getting faster every year, and Lovejoy has acted like a pylon on several occasions. Devils coach John Hynes adores Lovejoy’s warrior mentality and locker room presence, so it would be shocking if he doesn’t make the final cut. However, Lovejoy’s game bears watching.

4) The biggest disappointment has been …

2016 first-round pick Michael McLeod. With top-line center Travis Zajac out for three to five more months while recovering from a torn labrum and free agent acquisition Brian Boyle dealing with a scary battle with leukemia, McLeod had a golden opportunity to seize an opening day roster spot. Instead, he did not make a strong case before he exited Monday’s game with a lower body injury, possibly a victim of Barclay Center’s lousy ice. With an overabundance of penalties called this preseason, McLeod did not receive as much five-on-five ice time as Hynes probably would have wanted, but it was up to McLeod to take better advantage of every shift. Prior to his injury, McLeod was victimized on the Islanders’ first goal when he failed to tie up Brock Nelson in front. The Devils haven’t provided any updates as of this writing, but the 19-year-old was probably heading back to juniors anyway.

5) Nico Hischier has been …

As advertised. The Devils’ No. 1 one overall pick in June’s draft is fast, an exquisite passer and serious about playing a 200-foot game. He’s netted a goal in each of his three preseason games. Don’t expect the 18-year-old to be as prolific against these teams at full strength, but the talent is there.

MORE: Lichtenstein: For The Devils This Preseason, It’s All About Hischier

6) The top-line center on opening night should be …

Pavel Zacha, the 20-year-old and sixth overall selection in the 2015 draft. Recently acquired Marcus Johansson was given the first shot at replacing Zajac, but he looks far more comfortable on the left wing. Zacha has the wheels to keep pace with star left wing Taylor Hall, and his vision should provide Hall and right wing Kyle Palmieri with more scoring chances. He won’t be anywhere near as strong as Zajac in the Devils’ zone or the faceoff circles, but Zacha seems to be the best fit at the moment.

7) Bursting through the bubble comes …

Joseph Blandisi, who has done a 180 from his subpar preseason performance a year ago. That false start resulted in Blandisi spending most of last year in the AHL. The 23-year-old center has done all Hynes has asked this preseason, heading to the dirty areas in front of the net and playing diligent defense. With his skill, he has to make the team.

8) Unless my eyes are deceiving me, the Devils have uncovered …

A transition game. New Jersey has been at or near the bottom of the league rankings in goals scored since 2011-12, which, not coincidentally, was the last time they made the playoffs. They’ve been a plodding team, struggling to score in the five-on-five cycle game. That’s starting to change, with the young guns on the secondary lines like Hischier, Jesper Bratt and John Quenneville generating chances off the rush with power forwards Drew Stafford, Stefan Noesen and Jimmy Hayes hustling into position to finish them off. Welcome to the 21st century NHL.

9) The saddest cut will be …

Scott Wedgewood. When the 25-year-old goaltender took the ice at the midway point of the preseason opener against the Caps, the sparse Prudential Center crowd gave him a nice round of applause. They remembered his stellar four-game audition two seasons ago, when Wedgewood stopped 111 of 116 shots (a .957 save percentage), several of them in spectacular fashion. He shut out the mighty Penguins and kept the high-scoring Caps off the board before surrendering a goal in overtime. Unfortunately, injuries have been a thorn in Wedgewood’s career and limited him to 10 AHL appearances last season after he barely lost out to Keith Kinkaid for the Devils’ backup job in training camp. Some have surmised that Hynes has hidden Wedgewood from public view this preseason since Wedgewood would need to clear waivers before he could return to the minors. I hope Wedgewood and his “Puddy” mask find their way back to New Jersey someday.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.


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