In just about every season on just about every team in just about every sport, there is the common concept of a player having “something to prove.” That, for whatever reason, the player needs to do a good job, demonstrate their value, and confirm that their talents and effort are good enough for their future. Maybe it is someone in a contract year. Maybe it is someone coming off an injury. Maybe it is somebody on the margins on the roster. Everyone on a team has a reason to do their very best; but some more than others will have additional incentive.
The New Jersey Devils, as a team, arguably has plenty to prove. They just made the playoffs in 2017-18 after one of the crummiest seasons in franchise history in 2016-17. It was done on the back of Taylor Hall having one of the best seasons in Devils history and winning the Hart, the team keeping games close and winning more than enough of them early to survive a swoon in January and February, and others performing above expectation at points throughout the season to support successes. Yes, they were out-done by the Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. After missing the playoffs from 2013 through 2017, that is an improvement by any standard. But the questions remain: Can they sustain whatever gains they made in 2017-18? Can they do it again? So, as a team, the Devils have plenty of reason to show they were not one-hit wonders (for a given definition of hit).
Even so, there are players on the current roster that should have more of a drive, more of a chip on their shoulder, or more of an incentive than most to have a really good 2018-19 season. That is what I will list in this and tomorrow’s post. Today will focus on players in contract years. Tomorrow will focus on the players who are not.
The Pending UFA with the Most to Prove: Marcus Johansson
Sorry, Brian Boyle. No disrespect, Keith Kinkaid, who is indeed playing his future in 2018-19. No hard feelings, Ben Lovejoy, who may claim the same. The Devils do not have a lot of UFAs after next season, but there is one notable one on the list: forward Marcus Johansson. He had a really rough 2017-18 and if anyone has the most to prove in a contract-year situation, it’s the 27-year old forward that can line up in any position.
Let’s take a step back. In 2016, the Capitals signed Johansson to a three-year deal worth $13.75 million contract. According to CapFriendly, this had a cap hit of $4.583 million and a modified no-trade clause that allowed Johansson to block five teams as potential trade targets that started for the 2017-18 season. This deal appeared to pay off early as Johansson set career highs in goals and points in the first year. He had a good season, as graded by the readers of Japers’ Rink. But the cap was an issue for the Caps that Summer and this made him expendable. Ray Shero took advantage rovided them relief by way of trading a second and a third round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft for Johansson. At the time, this was seen as a good move. The Devils added a top-six caliber forward in his mid-20s that can play in either forward spot for the cost of just two draft picks. That is an upgrade.
Unfortunately, Johansson went on to have one of the rougher seasons in his career and the Devils did not really benefit from it. Two concussions - one caused by a intentional head-shot from the violent chumpstain Brad Marchand - limited Johansson to just 29 games played. Johansson started the season, got hurt, returned, got hurt again, and then returned at the very end. If one looks at his point totals (5 goals, 9 assists) or his 5-on-5 stats (here at Natural Stat Trick), then one may understandably conclude he underwhelmed. Between recovery, games missed, and the rust that comes with not playing, it is no wonder that Johansson’s performances seemed underwhelming. Was he missed at times? To a degree, yes, Alex thought so back in April. It is not Johansson’s fault he was concussed twice in one season. Still, New Jersey did not get to see the best he had to offer.
The time to show that would be now. Johansson’s contract is ending after this season and there are legitimate questions about his health given what he suffered last season. For Johansson’s own sake, he needs to have a season where he can demonstrate that he can still play his game, hopefully play throughout most of the season without a significant injury, and be productive in doing so on and off the scoresheet. A healthy and effective Johansson will only make the Devils better up front; which fills in one of their roster needs. And it could get him a very lucrative pay day; players in their late 20s who can play well up front get paid really well. I’m sure he and his agent knows how much Adam Henrique just received. But to get that kind of money, Johansson needs to play and perform to the level he was at that earned him that three-year contract. Because of his potential impact on the team and his earning potential, Johansson has the most to prove among the pending UFAs for next year.
The Pending RFA in New Jersey with the Most to Prove: Pavel Zacha
It could be argued that Will Butcher or Mirco Mueller have more to prove. Butcher would do well to show he can be more than just a third-pairing defenseman and a power play specialist. I think he is; CJ would likely agree; but Butcher needs to take the opportunity to do that. Still, Butcher is all but guaranteed a raise and a NHL job for the future. Mueller missed a lot of time last season with a broken collarbone. While he was decent in his appearances, he has a chance to take a regular spot on the blueline if he can A) play well on the left side and B) play well in general. He may need to do so to ensure his own NHL career. But I think Zacha has even more to do.
Pavel Zacha was the final first round selection when David Conte was the Director of Amateur Scouting and the first first round selection under General Manager Ray Shero. In a way, he is a link to the past and the present. While other players picked in 2015 have thrived, it is not yet quite clear what kind of player Zacha is. Is he an offensive center? Can he play defense? Is he even a center, or is he better suited at left wing? Who do you play him with? Watching Zacha, he skates fairly well, he can pass the puck quite well at times, and he has good instincts. But at the same time, he has a tendency to be anonymous in games and not take enough initiative. Even when drafted, the word on his game was that he had plenty of tools - the concern was whether he could put it together. I still see that now.
Let’s summarize what Zacha did last season. According to NHL.com, Zacha finished tied with Blake Coleman for eleventh on the team with 25 total points. Zacha scored 8 goals out of 112 shots in 69 games, so he averaged a shot per game but did not shoot it a lot. Zacha’s ice time stats at NHL.com shows that while he averaged over a minute per game on the penalty kill and power play (on secondary units), he averaged a total of 14:22 per game. According to Natural Stat Trick, Zacha played mostly with Miles Wood with 370 minutes together in 5-on-5 play. The rest was a mix of other forwards as his second most common forward teammate, Kyle Palmieri, only had 196 minutes with the young forward. Zacha was not horrible in 5-on-5 play but he did not move the needly much. As per Natural Stat Trick, his CF% of 48.6% was eighth out of 17 forwards (minimum of 150 5-on-5 minutes played), his SF% of 49.2% ranked ninth, his SCF% of 48.1% ranked ninth, and his HDCF% was the only percentage above 50% at 55.4%, which ranked sixth on the team. Zacha’s relative on-ice stats are nothing to write home about; they were negative but not all that significant. All together, this is the picture of a bottom-six forward. But between his age, knowing that he did not have common forwards, and his own position did shift from wing to center as needed, some of this is forgiveable. Zacha was not a bad player last season. Yet, there are few signs that suggest Zacha can be an impact player or take on a larger role.
The time to figure that out is now. While he is just 21 now, he will be coming off his entry level contract after this coming season. Zacha needs to show he can do more and the Devils coaches need to sort out how to best use him. Is he an offensive player? Can he help drive the play or compliment someone? Who should he even play with and where should he play? Zacha and the Devils need to sort all of that out to establish what his future may hold because it is not clear now. That’s why his situation is more crucial than Mueller’s or Butcher’s.
The Pending RFA Not in New Jersey with the Most to Prove: John Quenneville
John Quenneville has been in the Devils’ system since 2014. He just attended his fifth development camp. He’s now 22 and appeared in 14 total NHL games in two seasons of professional hockey. Quenneville has battled injuries in both seasons, which has undercut his development. On top of that, there have been past concerns about conditioning. Hardly the start one would hope for in a prospective player.
Jeff wrote a good post about Quenneville earlier in this offseason about how he needs more time in Binghamton. I agree with his main point if only because Quenneville has yet to be able to show what he could do in a whole season. I’m not as optimistic, though. At this stage of his career, with his entry level contract expiring, this is the time for him to show up and show off why he should seen as a player of the future for this organization. Quenneville has been thought to be on the verge of making to New Jersey but that has not happened and the competition has stiffened in this past year. Is Quenneville really that close in an organization that re-signed call-up favorite Nick Lappin and where 2016 first round pick Michael McLeod is now professional, and the Devils signed Joey Anderson early to get him out of college? It does not seem that way to me. So the pressure is on for Quenneville in my view. He needs to come to camp this Fall and impress with better conditioning and better performances. Even if he does not make it then, he needs to keep grinding and priming with the B-Devils and actually make the most of whatever call-up he may get. As with Johansson, injuries may not be under his control. But the other stuff might be. If he succeeds, then he should earn a respectable second contract. If not, well, he may get another one - but the intent may be for him to primarily play with Binghamton instead of being a hope for the future.
For a former first-round selection and someone who has been in the system quite a while, 2018-19 may end up being Quenneville’s time to show to the powers that be that could possibly have a NHL career in the NHL. That’s a lot for him to prove. And that pulls him ahead of players like Kapla, Baddock, Jacobs, Pietila, and even Lappin (watch as he’ll get called up yet again in 2018-19).
Johansson, Zacha, and Quenneville are my choices for pending free agents for 2019 that have the most to prove on this roster. Granted, it’s July 20 and things may change. We may see Ray Shero do something with this roster to change things around. Or perhaps other players will come in on try-outs or one-year deals; they inherently have a lot to prove too. We shall see.
In the meantime, I want to know what you think. Do you agree with these choices? If so, do you think they’ll succeed and show the Devils that they are effective players for now and the future? If not, who has more to prove among pending UFAs, RFAs, and RFAs not in New Jersey? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about these three players in the comments. Tomorrow, I will go over who I think has the most to prove that is not entering a contract year next season. Thank you for reading.