There’s no mystery about what the Devils are hoping to discover among the 34 forwards who are attending camp this week: Someone, anyone, who can light the lamp.
New Jersey’s offense was thoroughly inept last season, averaging just 2.15 goals per game. That meager output topped the production of just two teams—the sad sack Coyotes and Sabres—and wasted a solid defensive effort by goaltender Cory Schneider. Desperation led the Devils to extend pro tryout contracts to fading veterans Tyler Kennedy and Lee Stempniak, either one of whom could actually make the squad. But the real hope is being placed on a pair of recent first round draft picks.
With the Devils looking to get younger, faster, stronger and more dangerous, both Pavel Zacha (6th, 2015) and John Quenneville (30th, 2014) are guaranteed to get long looks in camp. Zacha appears to have the higher upside of the two, and there’s been some thought that his size (he’s a solid 6' 3", 210 pounds) might allow the 18-year-old center to make the jump directly to the NHL after just a single season with Sarnia of the OHL. But after a fairly pedestrian performance at the Prospects Challenge tournament in Buffalo, the pressure is on to make a stronger impression in the preseason if he hopes to stay in the hunt for a job.
Zacha responded with some promising moments in his exhibition debut against the Bruins on Sunday night. “We thought he showed speed,” coach John Hynes said after the Devils’ 2–0 loss. “He was strong on the puck at times. He did a pretty good job in the face-off circle. So, it was good performance for him.”
That qualified praise was a fair reflection of Zacha’s performance. He was tentative with his positioning too often, and didn’t do much in terms of creating offense—though to be fair, that’s partly on his veteran linemates he was saddled with most of the night, particularly Tuomo Ruutu who doesn’t look like he has much left in the tank. But the strength is there and so are the legs—Zacha set the pace on two or three shifts. He needs to play with that kind of jump more consistently if he hopes to be there on opening night.
Quenneville, on the other hand, looked very sharp. It helped that he skated most of the night with Adam Henrique and Kyle Palmieri, a pair of likely first liners, but Quenneville earned the favorable assignment. He showed a real playmaker’s eye, setting up a pair of quality scoring chances with his attentive, heads-up passing. He kept his feet moving, was strong in support and spent most of the night on the right side of the puck. He also wrecked Boston forward Max Talbot with a heavy hit in the first, earning an appreciative response from the Devils bench.
“He played well” Hynes said. “He made some nice plays. He was hard on the puck. A good performance from him. I saw a lot of positives. I liked [the way he competed]. He looked quick, speedy.”
At 19, Quenneville looks to be the closer of the two, but with six preseason games remaining, both still have plenty to prove. And both are well worth watching as camp plays out.
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