The preseason offered us Devils fans a small sampling of what to expect in the coming regular season and after six long months of waiting, anticipating, and speculating, the New Jersey Devils officially begin their 2016-2017 NHL season tonight as they face off against the Florida Panthers. For the Devils, it’s the second time in three years they’re starting the regular season on the road. They started out 3-0-0 the last time they began on the road (2014-2015), and hope to continue that trend going into tonight. The Devils and Panthers met during the preseason at West Point in a matchup where Florida prevailed in a 4-2 victory. Neither team was in action last night when the NHL season officially began. There will be several Devils- whether newly acquired or first year players making their debut with the team (nine to be exact). While the Devils are dealing with their own minor bout of injuries with Jon Merrill, Sergey Kalinin, and Kyle Quincey, neither compare to the Panthers loss of Jonathan Huberdeau, who was injured in the Panthers preseason finale against the Devils last week. He suffered an ankle laceration and will be out the next 3-4 months. It’s certainly a good thing that Kalinin won’t be playing tonight, considering he was responsible for Huberdeau’s injury. He would have definitely had a target on his back tonight.
Who to watch
Devante Smith-Pelly…Only until recently was he awarded the right wing slot on the Devils top line with Adam Henrique and Taylor Hall. DSP was remembered for his exceptional performance after being acquired by the Devils at the trade deadline last season when he tallied eight goals and 13 points in 18 contests. Coach Hynes clearly sees something he likes in Smith-Pelly, and is going to be given a paramount opportunity to cement himself in the Devils top-six. He needs to show he can produce because Hynes has several other options at his disposal to try with Henrique and Hall on the right side of their line.
Jonathan Marchessault…Making his Panthers debut tonight, and is slated to play in the Panthers top-nine. His opportunity to step up and play comes in the wake of the Jonathan Huberdeau injury, which is a situation that turned out to be a huge convenience for him. Like DSP, Marchessault was given a huge opportunity by Panthers head coach Girard Gallant to show he can produce (and belongs) in the top-six, or at least being able to serve as a viable plug in the Panthers forward corps while Huberdeau recovers from his injury.
What to watch
The young guys…As of now, it looks like the Devils will go with four rookies (five first-year players) against the Panthers. Forwards Pavel Zacha, wings Blake Speers, Miles Wood, along with defensemen Steve Santini (might be flipped out for Kyle Quincey) and Yohann Auvitu will make their Devils debuts tonight. While Zacha, Santini, and Wood played in the Devils regular season finale last season, this can largely be seen as the true NHL debut for these players, who must show they can contribute on and off the scoresheet in the coming weeks. The fact Ray Shero and Coach Hynes are putting this much faith in their young guys clearly shows how confident the Devils have become in their replenished youth crop and how their homegrown players can immediately contribute.
The disciplinary issue…One of the worst highlights of the preseason was the Devils lack of discipline, which resulted in frequent trips to the penalty box and a lot of time shorthanded. Aside from the nine minors the Devils committed in a preseason matchup against the Islanders, they didn’t fare too much better overall this preseason, and the amount of time they spent shorthanded was strongly reflected on the scoresheets of the preseason games the Devils played in whose stats were documented. Now that the regular season has begun and the games are going to start counting, it’s going to be very important for the Devils to avoid falling into those lazy costly habits if they want to make a strong statement early on this season.
Where to watch
When to watch