NEWARK–No, this isn’t early September nor is it training camp. But for the Devils and Sharks, Thursday’s contest offers opportunity–maybe even an audition. In what is a formality of the schedule, the featured foes find themselves well outside their respective conference’s playoff picture. And as the recent moves would suggest, some players might be getting an extra look with next season in mind.
New Jersey and San Jose will ice a combined nine skaters who have played nearly a third of their season in the American Hockey League. This does not include goaltender, Cory Schneider, recalled by the Devils on Thursday but backing up hot-hand, Mackenzie Blackwood. Dakota Mermis, also freshly-recalled, sees his opportunity to enter the lineup for the first time this season having played 53 games with the club’s affiliate in Binghamton.
“Any time you get to play in the NHL it’s an honor,” Mermis said following his first morning skate with the club. “Being with a new organization, my last was with Arizona. I think over a year ago was my last (NHL) game. It’s exciting to be back here.”
Mermis’ will get his shot as the Devils deal with an injury to their backend–Will Butcher unavailable after blocking a shot Tuesday night in St. Louis. His timeline remains TBD. It’s the same blue line though that has had some room for opportunity, following the club’s trade of captain Andy Greene on Sunday. Colton White, recalled earlier this month, has seen his minutes increase over his last two appearances including coming off a career-high 20:16 of ice-time on Tuesday as the team was forced to rotate five defensemen after Butcher left in the first period. A season ago, White was a number of Binghamton regulars who got a look amidst the injuries and departures down the stretch. Regardless of timing, he wants to make an impact.
“You always got to make an impression,” White said. “No matter when it is. You get to training camp and I think that’s when impressions really start and you keep going along from there. Every day is a new opportunity.”
The opportunity in front of White could be even greater. The extent of Butcher’s injury and timeline are not yet known and the team may still have some moves left before Monday’s trade deadline including a decision on veteran defenseman, Sami Vatanen, who remains sidelined with an injury but could also be dealt to a contender looking beyond the regular season.
Damon Severson has found his way in parts of the last two seasons, but the subject of occasional scratchings at times in his career doesn’t advocate for that when it comes to players like White. In other words, trial by fire is the decided course of action.
“You got to learn by playing the game,” Severson said. “You can’t learn by sitting in the stands. I’m a big believer in that. I know some people and management or coaching staff believe that guys that sit in the stands and watch the games once in awhile they learn the game more–I don’t find that to be the case. I think you throw the guys in the lineup, if they’re going to make a mistake at least they’re making it by trying not by being nervous.”
Elsewhere in the lineup, the Devils appear to have auditions upfront as well. Blake Coleman, also dealt Sunday, should afford a longer look for Joey Anderson and Nick Merkley, the latter of which will miss Thursday’s contest with an upper-body injury.
Likewise, San Jose has found itself dealing core players in the last several days. On Tuesday, they sent veteran defensemen Brendan Dillon to Washington for a pair of draft picks. Jacob Middleton, owner of seven NHL games at age 24, was recalled the same day and enters Thursday with a unique opportunity–playing on the left side of the Sharks’ top defensive pairing alongside leading point-getter, Brent Burns. Talk about opportunity.
Not all of the players vying for a contract or spot next season are playing on their first or second contracts. Others, like 188-game veteran, Stefan Noesen, are looking to get their career back on track. Noesen, who signed a minor league contract with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton after failing to make the Stars out of training camp. He signed a two-way contract with Pittsburgh in December before being claimed off waivers that same month by San Jose. His injury-plagued 2018-19 campaign cost him a qualifying offer from the Devils and now he knows he w
“I was upset I didn’t get to stay here in Jersey,” Noesen said prior to his first game versus his former team. “It kind of made me pretty rattled overall. I wanted to make sure I could get back and have a chance to come and fight for a spot anywhere. We decided to go a different direction–going to Wilkes-Barre and earn my way back into the NHL and was able to do that. I don’t know if it’s to earn a spot here or anywhere, it doesn’t really matter. I just want to be able to be back in the NHL.”
It’s the only kind of mentality the 27-year-old can have at this point in his career. Though he is well-remembered for his time in New Jersey, where he tallied a career-high 13 goals and 27 points in 2017-18 and had the game-winning goal in the Devils first (and only) playoff win since 2012, his career hasn’t gotten back to that point.
In 23 games in Teal, he’s scored four goals and added an assist. He might be one of the older Sharks clawing at a lineup spot, but the good news: he’s got his coach’s attention.
“Personally, I’m really happy with him,” Interim head coach, Bob Boughner said. “He adds a couple things to our lineup. He plays like a veteran, he’s been around for awhile. Whether it’s the American League or NHL, I think he’s added to our skill level. He has more skill than people give him credit for and his hockey IQ–he’s an intelligent player.
“He’s one of the guys that has really taken advantage of that opportunity and he’s really helped us and he can go up and down your lineup and play a fourth line role or play a first line role. It’s a real credit to him.”
So I guess you can count on seeing Boughner on Noesen’s resume under “References.” Opportunity could continue to come knocking for Noesen and company if the team decides to make some moves to its forward core before Monday’s deadline–most intriguingly, pending unrestricted free agents and San Jose mainstays, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.