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Devils Should Exercise Caution When Counting on Late Season Surges to Carry Over

The Devils had some players who showed very well at the end of the 2018-19 season, but they should be very careful about expecting those players to replicate that success heading into 2019-20.

Detroit Red Wings v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

With the Devils season lost by around the New Year this season, it was an odd season to try and evaluate individual efforts. With a veritable tidal wave of injuries in the second half as well as a sell-off at the deadline, the roster over the last two-plus months of the season was littered with AHL call-ups and many players were forced into bigger roles on a depleted team. Some of those players had a nice stretch of play while the team was decimated by injuries and have people talking about what they can do going forward. I think it is reasonable to wonder what a player who plays well when the opportunity is given can do in a bigger role, but the team should be very cautious about penciling players into significant roles based on the stretch run of a lost season.

There were a few players who certainly stood out in the final months of the season, and to their credit, some of them were seizing on an opportunity to prove they could be more than roster filler. In a season such as this, though, when depth players get pushed up the depth chart, its important to temper expectations of what players can do in a lineup under normal conditions. For example, Steve Bernier once put up 32 points in 67 games for the Devils during the disastrous 2014-15 campaign but the team correctly concluded that he wasn’t poised for a position in the middle-six going forward.

These games where the team is playing out the string shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed out of hand, but they should be placed in the proper context with the rest of a season or career. Today, we’ll dig into three players who had a very nice final two months, but who the team should exercise caution with before counting on them to step up into bigger roles next season. One is a high-draft pick and constant topic of discussion, one is a mid-season waiver pickup, and the third is a former undrafted FA out of college who got his first significant time with the big club.

Pavel Zacha

Because I am a glutton for bickering about the first round of the 2015 Draft, we’re going to talk about everyone’s favorite lightning rod, Pavel Zacha. It was a tale of two seasons for the Czech center, who started the 2018-19 season about as poorly as a player possibly can. After being handed the keys to the 2C position, Zacha proceeded to go 12 games without a point in a stretch that included a demotion to Binghamton in early November. He followed that up with a four-goal outburst in three games and then another 13-game stretch without showing up on the score sheet. He didn’t record an assist until his 32nd game and didn’t record one with a goalie in the opposing net until his 36th. In short, it was a brutal first half of the season for the third-year pro.

Things picked up for Zacha around the halfway point of his campaign, though, particularly in the box score. Over his final 30 games, he put up 20 points, with 11 of those points coming in his final 12 games. That 12-game stretch easily represents the high-water mark of Zacha’s career from a productivity standpoint (Side note: Curiously, including his last game cameo in 2015-16, Zacha now has six points in four appearances on the last day of the regular season). He was noticeable in 5v5 play at times and seemed to be putting together some of those flashes that he’s always shown into more of a consistent impact.

This has led a lot of people to believe that Zacha is turning the corner and could be set to become the player the team was hoping for when they drafted him some time soon. I don’t think this possibility should be ruled out, but at the same time, given the body of work, I don’t think it’s necessarily wise to pencil Zacha in as the heir apparent to Travis Zajac or as a Plan A middle-six center again right now. He will need a longer period of sustained success and more evidence of being effective at 5v5 before the Devils should be entertaining that option again.

Zacha is an NHL player for sure, if for no other reason than his excellent work on the penalty kill, but he was still a liability overall at even-strength this season. As CJ touched upon in his Wednesday post, Zacha was actually well below replacement-level at evens this year, even with his hot finish to the season. He saw an uptick in goals at 5v5, but his primary assist rate cratered and perhaps even more concerning, his shots/60 dipped from an already meager rate in 2017-18. So, basically, his production was largely powered by a major uptick in shooting percentage this season. He remains young, just turning 22 on the last day of the season, but that excuse only holds water for a little bit longer. Until he can show a consistent improvement in his 5v5 play over the course of the season, the team should probably be looking for other solutions up the middle. Lucky for Ray Shero, the center depth appears likely to receive a very big upgrade at the draft in June.

Kenny Agostino

A waiver pickup from the Montreal Canadiens back in February, Kenny Agostino made his last two months of the season with the Devils count. The New Jersey native was quite effective after his arrival, putting up 13 points in 27 games to go with strong underlying numbers in substantial minutes after arriving in Newark. Agostino put up fantastic relative shot and chance metrics and, again with a nod to CJ’s post here, showed very well in the catch-all goals above replacement metrics from Evolving Hockey.

This is all great news for a player who the Devils picked up in exchange for nothing. It still seems wise for the team to not overreact to a relatively short stretch under somewhat unorthodox conditions, given the way the roster looked over the final couple months. I would be in favor of resigning Agostino this summer, particularly because its always fun to have a hometown player around, but this season was also the first time he managed to stick in the NHL, and at 26 years old, he’s not fresh out of college hockey or anything, either. I’ve seen some people pencil him into top-9 or even top-6 roles for next season, but that seems like a good way to end up disappointed if he can’t sustain the success he’s enjoyed in his brief career in New Jersey so far. I think he makes much more sense helping to power a good fourth line and serving as a good depth winger in case of injuries.

Kevin Rooney

Rooney was a player signed out of college by the Devils a few years back, and he had a couple brief appearances in the NHL but was mostly confined to Binghamton. The numbers there certainly didn’t scream “NHL” but scoring was never really the valuable part of his game, even going back to his days at Providence College. During the rash of injuries toward the end of the season, he found himself thrust into substantial minutes including some significant time in the top-6. Overall, Rooney played well in those minutes, and showed some abilities on the penalty kill as well.

Given his grind-it-out nature, people took a liking to what Rooney did for the Devils this season. His GAR numbers were some of the best on the team, to boot (along with Kenny Agostino). But for some of the same reasons as Kenny Agostino, it feels like jumping the gun to hope that he can head up a checking line unit or even count on him to be an every day regular in the NHL next season. He played decently in his opportunities and secured some nice praise from John Hynes along the way, but he is just now saw his first time in the NHL at age 25. It worked out well for Blake Coleman, of course, but Coleman’s career arc is much more the exception than the rule and he consistently had better numbers than Rooney at lower levels.

I think Rooney can serve as someone who can rotate in on the fourth line, but if they want to be upgrading the roster, Rooney probably makes sense as additional depth rather than someone you are counting on on a nightly basis from the get go.

With all three of these examples, the advice pretty much boils down to the same thing: be cautious before planning around players who surprisingly show well at the end of a season. With inflated minutes and/or a run of hot play, players can look like they are part of the solution when juxtaposed against an otherwise depleted roster. The Devils entered the 2017-18 season with hopes that the status quo would be good enough at a number of positions and that didn’t turn out well. Ray Shero seems cognizant of this at this point but its still worth reminding ourselves at the end of a season like this that 20 or 30 games should not be the main basis for making roster decisions. For the players who showed well towards the end of a campaign, but lack an effective track record, the policy should almost always be “hope for the best but plan for a bust.”