Unexpected Names Making a Case for the Devils

With just one weekend and one preseason game left before the start of the 2016-17 season, the Devils are close to finalizing their 23-man opening night roster.

After letting more than 10 players go to unrestricted free agency, there was bound to be some openings on the roster for this season.

Pavel Zacha, the sixth overall pick from a year ago, looks to be making the team out of camp, to the surprise of no one. But there are some unexpected names, making a case for themselves.

Two of those players are forwards, Blake Speers and Miles Wood. With a combined age of 40, both are part of a youth-injected offense that hopes to change the woeful tides of a year ago, finishing 30th in league in scoring.

Speers, 19, is just one summer removed from being drafted in the third round (67th overall) at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. His last three seasons have been spent with Sault Ste. Marie (OHL). He is coming off a season in which he bested career-high’s in goals, assists and games played. He’ll get one more look on Saturday versus the Panthers at West Point, skating on the team’s fourth line with Jacob Josefson and Vernon Fiddler.

Wood, 21, has one professional game under his belt, playing in New Jersey’s season finale last season, where he registered two shots in 13:06 of ice time. Wood signed an entry-level contract with the Devils following one season at Boston College, where he was nearly a point-per-game player. While most believed he’d need some time before coming back up right away, he’s had an impressive camp, which may culminate in an opening night spot on the roster. He’s not slated to dress on Saturday’s preseason finale but did survive Friday’s cuts that saw Joseph Blandisi and Nick Lappin assigned to Albany.

Defensively, there’s been no shortage of impressions. Yohann Auvitu, Seth Helgeson and Steve Santini have all survived cuts leading up to this point and with Jon Merrill to start the season on injure reserved, there is opportunity.

Kyle Quincey, who signed late in the offseason with New Jersey, has been dealing with a minor injury, but it doesn’t appear to be anything that will sideline him for the start of the season. Depending on how head coach John Hynes wants his roster to look then, there could be just one spot remaining for the three.

If Avitu, 27, makes the team, he’d actually be the fourth-oldest among defensemen. His puck mobility has been noticeable, as was his three-assist performance versus the Rangers just over a week ago. In his last two appearances, he’s seen significant time on the Devils’ power play and is expected to do so again on Saturday versus Florida. With six seasons in the Finnish professional league on his resume, he has a good shot at cracking the opening night roster. He’d be the first French-born player to play for the Devils in their history.

Helgeson is entering his fifth season in the Devils organization. He has 41 games to his credit and 35 penalty minutes. At 6-foot-4 inches, he’s not going to be confused for an offensive defenseman and he’s made his mark in the preseason with his body, being credited with four hits in Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to the Islanders. He’s built some equity with the team already, but nothing is guaranteed.

Santini, 21, is the youngest of the blueliners competing for an opening night roster spot. Like Helgeson, he’s known for his defense first and foremost. Though his shut down ability comes with reasonably good skating. He got a brief taste of the NHL last season, suiting up for one game, but may need to log some bigger minutes in Albany before making the full-time leap to the NHL, after spending three seasons at Boston College. If he projects to be what the Devils think he’ll be, then it will be a nice transition after surrendering Adam Larsson in the Taylor Hall deal.

For these players and some others, one more game and chance to show they belong. Final cuts to get down to the regular season roster are due by 5 p.m. on Tuesday.