One of the biggest themes of this Devils off-season has been the youth movement throughout the organization. The team declined to re-sign (or bought out) a number of 30-something veteran UFAs, made moves to bring in several younger players, hired the youngest head coach in the NHL, and, as you may recall, had their 73-year-old GM of 28 years step back from his role and later depart for Toronto. This purging of sorts, for better or for worse, heralds a brand new era in New Jersey, and with a lot of openings on the Devils roster, this will be the chance for a number of young players to prove if they are going to be a part of this new era.
One of these younger players, Jacob Josefson, has been in and out of the everyday lineup for years now. He first arrived in the rocky 2010-11 Devils season at age 19 and, after a short October stint ended by a hand injury, actually played quite well for Jacques Lemaire after being called up in February (2nd in 5v5 points/60 after his return), particularly for a player just hitting his 20th birthday. Since that promising start, however, a steady stream of injuries, AHL stints, and inconsistency have helped lead to an overall disappointing stretch of hockey as he approaches his age 24 season. But with GM Ray Shero specifically making room this offseason for Josefson to play a bigger role in 2015-16, this seems like Josefson's biggest shot at establishing himself as a top-9 regular in the NHL. Now the question is whether he will be able to make something of the opportunity.
The biggest knock against Josefson over the past few years is very clear: he has produced extremely little on the offensive end of the ice. Since the shortened 2013 season, Josefson's points/60 numbers have been dismal, and the worst any forward on the team with 500 minutes played. Josefson has obviously not had choice linemates or big minutes at any point, but even taking that into account, his output over the last several seasons has been abysmal.The best you can say is that there are some factors that point to him being a bit snake-bitten at times but the output is rough enough that it is still a major red flag.
Over the past 3 years, Josefson has been been a victim of low shooting percentages, both at the individual (4.6%) and the team (5.78%) level. One would expect an uptick in the direction of the mean for both of those numbers, particularly the team number, which would improve Josefson's projected point output. The fact still remains, though, that Josefson is not putting nearly enough pucks on net, as he sits second-to-last among Devils forwards (ahead of only Dainius Zubrus) in that category over the past 3 seasons. His youth bought him some time in earlier years, but the reality of the situation is that Josefson absolutely needs to step up his game offensively to stick in the NHL, even as a 4th line-type player, let alone as someone who gets top-9 minutes.
Part of the explanation for Josefson's stagnation in development over the past several seasons may root in one particular area, and that is the utter lack of any defined role, or linemates over any extended period of time. Part of that has been due to injuries and some from being bounced in and out of the lineup over the past few years. The takeaway, though, is that Josefson has been saddled with a constant revolving door of linemates since the start of 2013. Chemistry is sometimes overblown as a factor for player performance, but the utter lack of continuity seems to have taken it's toll on Josefson as his production has slipped considerably after his first two seasons where he had stretches with steady linemates and more ice time.
In 2012-13 and 2013-14, Josefson didn't spend more than about a quarter of his ice time with any individual forward and the skaters he spent the most time with ended up being several defenders before even getting to that forward. Tuomo Ruutu in 2014-15 was the first forward he ever spent more than 50% of his 5v5 ice time with and first he spent more than 30% with since 2011-12. It has to be difficult to establish much of a rapport with any linemates while being bumped in and out of the lineup regularly, and spending 30-45 total minutes with a host of different forwards. A good snapshot of his ever-unclear role was around the Stadium Series game in 2014, where he got the briefest of looks on the top line after returning from the scratch suite and had Jaromir Jagr lobbying for him to stick around on the line, before quickly being shuffled back down the lineup by Peter DeBoer in the following games. Whatever Jagr saw in Josefson is what fans have been hoping for from the Swedish winger, but whether it is due in part because of his deployment or not, Josefson has never been able to put it together and force the coaching staff to put him in those positions.
Josefson's ever-evolving role on the NHL roster makes it difficult to make a definitive judgement on his possession stats, but generally speaking, he has maintained decent, if fluctuating, posession numbers for the role he has been given. This past season, he was actually second on the team in relative CF% on the Devils behind only Jagr. At the same time, he also struggled in that department in his more abbreviated 2013 and 2013-14 campaigns. It's arguable that his more stable spot on the team in 2014-15 may have helped there, but ultimately, it's tough to draw conclusions based on his posession stats that are more detailed than "he can hold his own." The years with more stable linemates have been better in this department, and his WOWYs have generally been positive, but he also hasn't exactly established himself as a world-beater possession-wise. With some established linemates in 2015-16, the goal should be for his line to be controlling the flow of play at even-strength, especially if his individual production doesn't majorly improve.
Penalty Kill Weapon?
One area where Josefson has seen his role grow over the past several seasons is the penalty kill, where he became a mainstay this past season, averaging over a third of the team's PK TOI in the games he appeared in (via Puckalytics). In 2014-15, fans saw Josefson become a threat to score shorthanded goals along with that increased role on the PK, with him lighting the lamp 3 times with the Devils a man down. These plays are only flashes of the awareness and skill that a player needs to be a difference-maker in the NHL, but it is definitely a factor in why people continue to hold out hope for the young(ish) Swede to become something more than he has been.
As a PK contributor overall, though, the equation gets a little more murky for Josefson. In 2014-15, he brought up the rear among forwards in terms of shot supression when he is on the ice. That isn't the whole picture of a player's PK ability, but its certainly not a positive, especially when you consider his goals against/60 were near the bottom as well. As John continues his PK tracking project, a clearer picture of Josefson's PK contributions will hopefully be created, but for now, he may have to clean up some of his other PK tendencies to go with his newfound ability to score.
His Big Chance
For Jacob Josefson, this season sets up to be his make-or-break year. Many of the older players are now out of the picture in New Jersey and Ray Shero has made a point to say they want to give him a real shot at being a lineup mainstay. Whether he has underperformed in the past or his development has been botched is ultimately irrelevant at this point, as he will now have his chance to prove that he is part of the new era in New Jersey going forward. With an almost completely clean slate from top-to-bottom in the organization, there are no fan excuses of bias or unfair treatment left. If Josefson wants to be an NHL contributor, now is the time to make his case. At the age of 24, he should now be entering his prime as a hockey player, which means he's going to need to show more than flashes of skill on a shorthanded breakaway or a shootout attempt. He needs to have a real, tangible impact on the ice this season if he ever wants to be considered more than a 4th line plug on an NHL roster. The opportunity is out there, and this may be Josefson's best (and perhaps last) chance to really seize it.