Last week, we took a look at the older of the Devils two Swedish Jespers and what he might be able to bring for the team next season. This week, we shift our sights to the other Jesper, the one drafted 36th overall in 2017. This Jesper, Jesper Boqvist, was well-regarded at the time he was drafted, and in his two years in Sweden’s top league since, he has shown that those positive opinions were not misplaced. Now, this offseason, he has signed an ELC with the Devils and will have an opportunity to make the team in New Jersey out of camp. With the Devils now having several new faces in the NHL picture at forward, though, where does he fit?
Jesper Boqvist has spent the past two seasons since being drafted with Brynas IF in the SHL. John dug into his history a bit in this post after he signed his ELC and Brian recapped his 2018-19 season here. In short, Boqvist has been a very effective player for a Brynas team that hasn’t been particularly good over that stretch and he’s been among the best U21 players in the league. In the past two seasons, Boqvist has put up a combined 16 goals and 32 assists for 48 points in 74 games. Using Rob Vollman’s NHLe numbers from 2018, that works out to 32 points/82 games at the NHL level as a 19/20 year old. That gives us a good enough baseline expectation for what he can bring but NHLe is an imperfect metric, and considering some of the context like age, teammates, and injuries, that number could be underselling things a bit.
Mapping the Depth Chart
Coming into this offseason, it seemed like Boqvist was a near-lock to make the NHL roster in the fall if he signed his ELC, based on his abilities and the Devils’ depth chart. After a big time offseason where the Devils added first-overall pick Jack Hughes, top KHL player Nikita Gusev, and veteran winger Wayne Simmonds, the depth chart is now a little bit tighter here in August. That is undeniably a good thing for the Devils, but it also raises the question of where Boqvist fits now on the roster. Boqvist has played a little bit of center but he is primarily a winger and a left-handed one at that. The list of left-handed wingers already sure to be on the Devils’ roster is as follows:
- Taylor Hall
- Jesper Bratt
- Blake Coleman
- Miles Wood
Add to that that Nikita Gusev is a righty who typically plays on his off wing and the left looks awfully crowded. Of course, Bratt has been playing his off wing over on the right for two years running now and Coleman has spent a little time over there as well, so there is some potential room, but that would still leave Hall, Gusev, and Wood on the left side at a minimum.
While he is generally listed as a left-winger, there is also a chance Boqvist could be turned around like Bratt was to get him into the lineup. On the right, he will have Kyle Palmieri and Wayne Simmonds to contend with, along with Jesper Bratt if he continues on his off wing, as seems likely. Put the situations on the left and right together, and that gives you seven players who are essentially locks to be in the opening night lineup at one of the wings for New Jersey. That leaves exactly one spot remaining on the NHL depth chart, and the chances of the Devils keeping Boqvist around just to be a healthy scratch are near zero.
Given the other competition in the system, it does seem pretty likely right now that Boqvist is one of the eight best wingers the Devils have. His primary competition for that spot will come from this list of players:
- Michael McLeod
- Joey Anderson
- John Hayden
- Brett Seney
- Nathan Bastian
- Kevin Rooney
The question, of course, will be whether John Hynes and company prefer to keep Boqvist around to play a potential fourth-line role or go with someone who they think better fits that mold more, such as a banger like Bastian or a guy with some PK chops like Rooney. Guys like Rooney, Seney, and Anderson also played substantial NHL minutes last season, so it’s possible that figures in as well. Boqvist did not really play any PK time in the SHL last season, so that could be a factor if the team sees him as the number four winger on either side.
Assuming Boqvist does make the team, how does the lineup shake out on the NHL roster? Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, and Travis Zajac are likely to be the top three centers down the middle, and for the purposes of this exercise we’ll assume Pavel Zacha slots in at 4C (though I am on record saying the team should look at moving him to the wing). At wing, there are a couple safe assumptions to make:
- Hall and Gusev will start the season as the 1LW and 2LW
- Palmieri will be either 1RW or 2RW
I think the rest remains somewhat fluid. The team will pay Simmonds a decent chunk of change this season, which points him toward the top-nine, but his recent performance at 5v5 is much more bottom-six-ish. You can probably pencil Jesper Bratt in at one of the top three RW spots, though it’s hard to say where with Simmonds (and, to an extent, Boqvist) in the mix. Blake Coleman and Miles Wood are both destined for bottom-six roles with a healthy roster, with Coleman likely having the upper hand for the third-line minutes.
So where does that leave us? Ultimately, I think Boqvist’s fate hinges on a couple things (other than, obviously, his own performance in camp/the preseason):
- Will the Devils keep Boqvist around if they see him as a clear fourth on the even-strength depth chart at LW or RW?
- Are the Devils open to putting Wayne Simmonds on the fourth line at even strength?
For the first question, I think we have to look closer at the personnel. What does the Devils’ PK look like if Boqvist is on the roster? Last season, Zajac, Coleman, Zacha, and Brian Boyle were to top PK forwards for the Devils in terms of TOI/game. Boyle is obviously no longer in the picture, and the only other Devils forwards who averaged more than a minute per game on the PK were Kevin Rooney and Joey Anderson, two direct competitors for that final forward spot. The only other Devils forwards with more than 20 total PK minutes last season are Hischier and Palmieri. Gusev and Hughes seem highly unlikely to play that role and Simmonds had 26 seconds on the PK last season, so I don’t think he’s the solution either.
This makes me lean towards the Devils potentially going in another direction if Boqvist hasn’t made a solid case for the top-nine. I don’t think they want to go into the season with Hischier or Palmieri as Plan A on the PK unless they really have to and there aren’t a ton of other options with Boqvist in the mix instead of Rooney, Anderson, or perhaps McLeod, who has a lot of PK experience at lower levels.
I think there’s a decent chance Boqvist does make that case for the top nine, though. He is an explosive player to watch on video and the one time I did get a chance to see him in person at the Devils’ prospect camp a couple years back, he was clearly one of the guys on a separate level from the rest of the group. He really doesn’t have much more to prove over in Sweden at this point and my feeling is that the versions of the Devils’ roster that include him are likely better than the ones that don’t, even if they have to get a little creative on the PK. While the samples aren’t huge, Palmieri, Hischier, and Bratt all have looked capable there at different times in the past two years.
So going back to what the lineup looks like with Boqvist in the mix, I think there are a couple options available. Either Simmonds drops down to the fourth line or the Devils go with both Wood and Coleman on the fourth and splits Simmonds, Bratt, and Boqvist between the three non-locked-down top-nine winger positions.
Hall — Hischier — Bratt
Gusev — Hughes — Palmieri
Coleman — Zajac — Boqvist
Wood — Zacha — Simmonds
Hall — Hischier — Palmieri
Gusev — Hughes — Simmonds/Bratt
Boqvist — Zajac/Zacha — Simmonds/Bratt
Wood — Zacha/Zajac — Coleman
I think each option has its appeal. I’m a little biased toward keeping Simmonds’ 5v5 minutes somewhat limited, just because he hasn’t been very good at evens of late. That will also keep him fresh for the spot where he really has a lot of value for the Devils: in front of the net on the power play. I’m also enough of a realist to know that that’s probably not overly likely, at least to start the year, which would push us to Option 2.
If things click right, there are certainly some fun possibilities for Option 2 as well. We know how dominant a line of Hall, Hischier, and Palmeiri can be, and I think there is a nonzero chance that a year on a line with Hughes and Gusev, two top-flight playmakers, could revive Simmonds’ even strength scoring. I am very intrigued by a Travis and the Jespers line, if only for the novelty of it. The bit of time that Zajac and Bratt have spent together at evens has gone poorly, but that was also largely in 2017-18 where a lot of Bratt’s on-ice numbers away from the top line were not so good. That fourth line also has some potential shine as a unit that can become a forechecking nightmare, and the option of flipping Zajac and Zacha to make it a 3a/3b-type scenario is also there. Zacha did also have some of his best numbers with Bratt last year so there is some reasoning behind that to go along with us already knowing Wood-Zajac-Coleman works.
Overall, the upside of Boqvist making the roster, aside from him being a potentially explosive playmaker, is it could give the Devils 12 surefire NHLers at forword, with some capable fill-ins waiting in the wings behind them. Relegating fringe-y players like Seney, Anderson, and Rooney to extra depth instead of opening night starters makes the team that much stronger, and the potential of Boqvist to be another tough-to-contain matchup for teams adds additional excitement to an already exciting roster.
Where do you stand on Jesper Boqvist’s chances of making the opening night roster? What is your preferred lineup if he does? Do you think the Devils are better off with Boqvist in New Jersey this year or do you think maybe there isn’t room in the top-nine? Sound off with your thoughts below in the comments and thanks for reading.