Last week, I mentioned how it is fairly difficult to talk in positives about this current iteration of the New Jersey Devils given their play on the ice. The only real way to do so is when discussing potential future talent that could blossom into something great. I was partly proven wrong on that by Gerard who did a quality piece on Kyle Palmieri, but Palmieri is also the future as much as he is the present so I feel vindicated to a degree. However, today let’s keep that positive vibe moving along and discuss two future pieces of this team, one a definite and another who hopefully becomes a staple: Pavel Zacha and John Quenneville.
It’s sort of funny what happened to Quenneville when discussing the future of this team. He is a first round pick, and someone that should have been talked about more before being called up this year. However, there was a lot of negative vibe around that pick. The Devils were awarded that 30th pick in 2014 after the league decided to be nice and give a pick back after the Ilya Kovalchuk signing fiasco. In reality, the Devils should have picked much higher in the round had Lou Lamoriello forfeited the 29th overall pick in 2012 instead of drafting Stefan Matteau. Given the run to the Finals that year, everyone knew it was a late pick in the round, and it made sense to many to forfeit it. And given out Matteau panned out, in hindsight it would’ve made even more sense. Had the Devils had a higher pick that year, they could’ve potentially ended up with someone like Dylan Larkin, Robby Fabbri, Jakub Vrana, or David Pastrnak had they drafted wisely (a debatable thing for the David Conte scouting team from 2005 onwards).
When we remove all of that, however, and just talk about Quenneville as a prospect and someone who could do something for this Devils team next year and beyond, he is definitely someone to look out for. In 2015-16, he had 73 points in 57 games as an assistant captain for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL, a league that is heavy hitting and usually suppresses scoring more than other CHL leagues. Then before being called up this year, he had 41 points in 53 games for Albany, a quality feat for his first play in a professional league. He is clearly moving in the right direction, developing very positively since being drafted by New Jersey. He deserved the call up 7 games ago.
He has been decent in his first NHL action as well, with 3 points in 7 games, not atrocious for anyone on the Devils at this point. His possession has been quite poor with a 41.2% Corsi, which equates to a -6% relative Corsi, but for someone who has been focusing very hard on improving his offensive game, that is ok for now. If he can produce points for an offensively-deprived team, the two-way play and the possession dominance can come later. What sticks out to me when I’ve watched him since his call up is just that – he is noticeable, he sticks out. There are players who are barely noticeable in their 10 minutes of ice time or whatever they get, but he is not. There are shifts where I see him making plays, doing positive things and going all out, which is great. 42 sticks out to me more often than not. That play he made to Joseph Blandisi in overtime to beat New York on Tuesday was a thing of beauty. I want to see more of that from him, from both of them actually.
While the play to Blandisi was great, he has actually spent most of his time with New Jersey playing alongside Pavel Zacha, not Blandisi. According to Quenneville’s WOWY numbers, amongst all the Devils, goalies included, he has spent the most 5v5 ice time with Zacha, not anyone else. And they have been good together. As I mentioned above, Quenneville has a very poor Corsi at just over 41%, but when with Zacha that bumps all the way up to 48%, which is above the team’s overall average. Zacha himself has a 46.6% Corsi overall, so his possession game is also improved when with John. They have definitely improved each other’s games. Quenneville has been up for 7 games now, and Zacha has centered him for most of that time. Interestingly enough, Zacha is also on a 6 game assist streak, which is far and away his largest point streak of the season. While I would not say that is completely connected to the presence of Quenneville, something is obviously clicking there while playing on the same line together, and that is not at all a bad thing.
What we have seen, for the most part, is that when given a chance to have the same line mates for an extended period of time, players can thrive more. If the line works well together, the players gel and become more effective. This has been especially true for the likes of Kyle Palmieri. Now that he has been solely on a line with Travis Zajac and Taylor Hall for quite a while, he has really taken his game up a notch. He is now the points leader just ahead of Hall, and is far and away the goal scoring leader on the team as well. And when you look at his game logs for the season, there is no question that he has been more productive the further the season as gone along. How much of that success can be contributed to playing on a static line with quality players is debatable, but there is no doubt that is been at least some of a factor.
While there is not much season left, my hope is that they keep Zacha and Quenneville together. From just looking at some WOWY stats, along with the eye test, they have definitely been making an impact when playing together. Zacha is on a solid point streak, and Quenneville has been noticeable out there on the ice, doing some positive things. Let’s see where things go with them for the rest of the year. While the Devils may be tough to watch on nights they’re clearly being outplayed by a way better team, being able to watch young talent like these two play together and play successfully is heartening. Zacha will obviously be up with New Jersey next year and most likely for the rest of his tenure with the Devils organization, but Quenneville is out there essentially on a tryout. Can he prove that he deserves a serious look at a roster spot come September? With how he has looked so far, at least in my opinion, he is doing a fine job of that.