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Question Marks in the Devils’ Forwards Group

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While the New Jersey Devils have great young forwards in Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, and Jesper Bratt, they currently have very little security up front if anyone gets injured or traded.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at St. Louis Blues
What happens if Palmieri gets traded?
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Devils filled one of their roster needs yesterday evening when they acquired Andreas Johnsson from the Toronto Maple Leafs. With how quiet the Devils have been in free agency with skaters, I wondered whether Tom Fitzgerald is planning on making more additions or plans on standing pat. However, there are still a few short-term problems with the depth chart, and a very important long-term concern. Let’s begin with the most basic issue: quantity.

The Number of NHL Forwards on the Roster

Of the forwards currently under contract with the New Jersey Devils, only nine played a significant number of games in the NHL last season. They were:

  • Travis Zajac (C) - 69 games, 25 points, 17:06 ATOI
  • Miles Wood (LW) - 68 games, 23 points, 13:14 ATOI
  • Nikita Gusev (W) - 66 games, 44 points, 14:42 ATOI
  • Kyle Palmieri (RW) - 65 games, 45 points, 17:07 ATOI
  • Pavel Zacha (C) - 65 games, 32 points, 16:16 ATOI
  • Jack Hughes (C) - 61 games, 21 points, 15:52 ATOI
  • Jesper Bratt (W) - 60 games, 32 points, 13:59 ATOI
  • Nico Hischier (C) - 58 games, 36 points, 18:04 ATOI
  • Andreas Johnsson (LW) - 43 games, 21 points, 15:45 ATOI

A few things become immediately clear while looking at this list. First, the Devils are completely set at center (unless they want to move Zacha to left wing). Second, their winger situation is a bit wacky - especially with the misusage of Gusev and Bratt by John Hynes (and to a lesser extent Nasreddine) last season. The Devils might want to use each of the wingers above except Wood in their top six next season. However, Johnsson might be better suited for the third line, and using him on the second or first would leave the bottom six extremely thin on the wings. Using all of Gusev, Bratt, Palmieri, and Johnsson in the top six would leave either Pavel Zacha or Jack Hughes would be left with questionable linemates in the middle six - and that would be less than ideal.

The trade-off to pushing one of those four aforementioned wingers down to the third line is that one of the Devils’ Binghamton players would have to take on a top-six role. Jesper Boqvist and Janne Kuokkannen would probably be the main contenders for that type of role. Whether they can handle it will be discussed later in the article. So with ideal usage of the nine NHL forwards under contract for the New Jersey Devils, this might be what the distribution looks like:

?-Hischier-Palmieri
Bratt-Hughes-Gusev
Johnsson-Zacha-?
Wood-Zajac-?

Obviously, you can switch some things around here. I could see Jack Hughes playing on the “third line” here even if that line gets about as much even strength time as the second. But in terms of more pressing issues, you could move Gusev to the top line on the left side, or move Johnsson to the top line, but either change still leaves big question marks in the depth chart. These areas of uncertainty could really hurt the team if Fitzgerald does not acquire more NHL-proven forwards and any of the team’s current group gets injured during the season. So let’s look deeper into the structural issues with the current Devils’ forwards and who on the roster might be able to alleviate them, who might not be able to, and some unavoidable concerns in the not-too-distant future.

The Devils might be losing one of their top wingers soon

Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev are in the final years of their respective contracts, and the Devils might not keep both of them. Palmieri will be 30 years old when he hits unrestricted free agency, and Gusev will be 29. Since I imagine Tom Fitzgerald might be apprehensive about giving two term-heavy contracts to soon-to-be aging wingers, let’s take a look at them side-by-side with Evolving-Hockey’s RAPM comparison:

Evolving-Hockey

There are a few things to consider here. First and foremost - this was Nikita Gusev’s first season in the NHL, and I think most would agree that it took him some time to adjust his game. In his first 20 games, Gusev had eight points (five goals) while just playing an average of 12:51 per game. In his first 20 appearances, Gusev played fewer than 10 minutes on four occasions. In his final 46 games in 2019-20, Gusev had 36 points (eight goals) while playing an average of 15:30 per game. In his final 46 games, Gusev’s lowest ice time in a game was 12:12 on December 21 against Columbus. If Lindy Ruff uses Nikita Gusev the way he was used in those final 46 appearances, I think we’ll see Gusev break the 60-point barrier.

Meanwhile, Kyle Palmieri has never broken the career high he set in his first year with the Devils of 57 points. Since then, he seemed on track to break it in 2017-18, but injuries kept him out of 20 regular season games - and he probably could have scored 60 points had he been healthy the whole year. However, he was not - and he did not. Regardless, his point-scoring pace has stayed incredibly consistent throughout his time with the Devils - with a low of 0.66 points per game in 2016-17 and a high of 0.71 in 2017-18. Every other season has been within those two rates. Along with that, Palmieri has been above-average defensively in his time with the Devils.

I have nothing against keeping both players - and I would do so as long as neither contract goes past five years or above the 5.5-6 million range. Of course, if Gusev has a great season, the Devils might have to give him more than that to keep him, which would probably complicate keeping Palmieri. And if Fitzgerald feels like he has to trade one of them mid-season due to a lack of competitiveness and not wanting to re-sign both, then Devils fans are going to be watching an even rougher team than they already have been.

Where Yesterday’s Acquisition Fits on the Devils

Yesterday, the Devils announced that they had traded forward Joey Anderson to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for Andreas Johnsson. Johnsson has played 125 NHL games and is a left wing with 30 career goals and 37 assists, playing an average of 14:15 in those 125 games. Here are his career stats going back to the Swedish Hockey League:

HockeyDB

Johnsson was given a four year contract after that 2018-19 season, averaging at $3.4 million per year - and he has a modified no-trade clause for the final year of the contract, which is 2022-23. As of now, I think it is extremely unclear if Johnsson can fill a top-six role, or if he should be kept on the second or third lines only. Considering he was on the Toronto Maple Leafs - with one of the most talented forward groups in the NHL - I do not foresee any significant improvement to his game in the coming three years.

This trade probably serves mostly to keep Miles Wood off of Jack Hughes’ wing, which is a victory in itself. This, of course, relies on how Lindy Ruff decides to use his wingers - and whether he uses Jack Hughes on the second or third line. Regardless, Johnsson provides some scoring depth, and the Devils need it.

However, I do not consider the loss of Joey Anderson to be insignificant. With the trade of Blake Coleman last season, and Tom Fitzgerald’s allowance to let Kevin Rooney go across the river, I thought Anderson might be an important two-way player moving forward. With one less bottom six and penalty killing option, the Devils are going to have to look into their Binghamton pool for answers if there are no further UFA pickups.

The Boqvist Issue

Jesper Boqvist had a bad season in the NHL in 2019-20. There is no way around it. One might hope that, after some time in the AHL, he might be more apt for another NHL shot. That might not be the case.

HockeyDB

For reference, Boqvist is currently playing in the HockeyAllsvenskan, which is given the name “Swe-1” by HockeyDB. It is actually the second highest league in Swedish hockey, after the SHL. That aside, Boqvist’s performance in the AHL is not too amazing. 11 points in 19 games is not enough to make me think that he’s ready for another NHL chance. Both Janne Kuokkanen and Nick Merkley had higher point-scoring rates in much larger sample sizes. Comparing him to Johnsson, Johnsson had 44 points in 52 games in the SHL before being brought to the AHL, where he played for full seasons before getting an NHL shot at 24. Boqvist might just need another year before he’s actually NHL-ready, and last year’s decision to not let him play again in the SHL may have been premature.

Hockey Viz

It would be quite something if Jesper Boqvist can turn right from this kind of player into what fans hoped he might be last season. I don’t think he’s ready, though, and the Devils should be careful not to harm his development any more than they already might have.

The In-Betweeners

Janne Kuokkanen is the leading name in this group, considering his AHL dominance and decent performance in the Finnish Liiga so far in his season - with a goal and assist in four regular games. He also only got to play one preseason game after being loaned (since they were already at the end of the preseason schedule), in which he scored a goal and an assist. In 56 combined AHL games last season, Kuokkanen had 15 goals and 33 assists. He was one of the best playmakers in the AHL and should get a chance with the Devils from the start of the season. He can play left wing for the Devils - as he is currently playing there with Karpat in the Liiga. With Kuokkanen’s skill, I think he can push for a role on any of lines - and he could be useful for spreading talent down the lines.

Nick Merkley is also likely to make the New Jersey Devils at some point this season, but it is unclear how much of a role he is capable of handling. Unlike Kuokkanen, he has not fared well in the Finnish Liiga so far, with zero points in four games and 25 penalty minutes (he was given a major for a headshot). In the AHL last season, he was good but not great with 11 goals and 24 assists in 54 combined games. In the AHL, Merkley has actually scored fewer points per game in each season. He had 39 points in 38 games in 2017-18, 34 in 45 in 2018-19, and then 35 in 54 in 2019-20. Regardless, he got a chance with the New Jersey Devils last season, in which he did pretty well and probably would have gotten more games if not for an eye injury. I’m interested to see if his impact was just a fluke, but I doubt he takes anything more than a fourth line role when he gets on the Devils roster.

The Last-Chances

I’m not a believer, at this point, in Michael McLeod. His AHL offensive numbers are uninspiring. While his 200-foot game is supposed to have improved in his time in Binghamton, the Devils cannot count on McLeod for very much with his five points in 33 career NHL games. However, this is not to say I do not hope he can make something out of his young career - but I feel his window in New Jersey is closing fast. It would be closing especially fast if he is unable to even improve his AHL scoring from his 23 points in 47 games last season.

Nathan Bastian, however, is definitely nearing the end of his time in New Jersey if he cannot carve a role out for himself in the NHL next season. Bastian will be 23 by the start of the season, and he is now waiver eligible. He has improved substantially in his time with the Binghamton Devils from a mere 18 points in 68 games in 2017-18 to 38 points in 62 games this past season. However, if Bastian fails to earn a roster spot or significant playing time, it might be in Fitzgerald’s best interest to package him in a trade rather than risk him on waivers - I think a lot of teams would be willing to take a chance on a big former second round pick who has grown in the AHL. The problem with Bastian is that he might be just too good to fly under the radar if he gets sent down, but not good enough to reliably contribute in the NHL.

The Prospects

The Devils just do not have a lot of signed prospects who are close to NHL ready. Of those who could possibly force the issue in the coming year, two names come to mind - Yegor Sharangovich and Nolan Foote.

Previously I did a whole article about whether Nolan Foote might be ready to crack the NHL roster. Most of this was premised on whether Foote could be an option for a sheltered scoring line, but I think the need for third line-left wing would be better left to Andreas Johnsson. Foote would probably be score some goals on a sheltered line with his great shot, but I’d be worried about whether his skating ability would keep up with the NHL pace of play. I could see him getting called up during the year, but acquiring Johnsson will probably help him stay in the AHL after camp.

Sharangovich is having quite a time for himself in the KHL right now, and I wonder if his play in the a league much tougher than the AHL will result in the Devils giving him a look as a potential NHL player during the preseason.

Elite Prospects

Sharangovich is on a better scoring pace right now in the KHL (22 years old) than he’s previously had in the AHL (age 20-21), KHL (2017-18 - age 19), or MHL (2015-16 - age 17). Given he was drafted as a 20 year old overager, the Devils front office has to be happy about this type of development - and he’s looking kind of electric out there.

He put a lot of distance between himself and that backchecker from the moment he got the puck on his stick to when he shot it. If he can do anything like that for the Devils in camp, I would not be surprised if he took a roster spot - especially when considering that he’s been playing hockey in a tough league while everyone else was waiting to play again. Otherwise, he could be an option as an injury replacement on the fourth line in case a center gets hurt.

Unsigned Draftees

The Devils have a few unsigned draftees looming on the horizon. Tyce Thompson is doing very well in the NCAA with Providence. Aarne Talvitie had a bit of a down year for Penn State but is otherwise promising given his freshman season and international performance. Both players have until August 15, 2022 to sign with the Devils. Thompson most recently had 44 points in 34 games for Providence College in the 2019-20 season - and I thought he might be signed by the Devils considering his great sophomore season and the Devils’ need for depth. Thompson is 21 and could probably benefit from going to the AHL at this point - but it seems he will be staying with Providence for the time being.

Since Alexander Holtz is playing the SHL, he is not allowed to leave the team and then come back later in the season. Therefore, if the Devils were even thinking about having him play in the NHL this season, they will have to wait until after the Swedish season is finished. However, they might have to deal with his SHL club if they want to sign him to an entry-level contract, since Holtz is signed through the 2021-22 season with Djugardens IF.

Concluding Thoughts

After looking deeper into the Binghamton pool, I have not come away convinced that this forwards group is ready for an NHL season. With so few NHL-proven players, Tom Fitzgerald needs to acquire more wingers capable of playing in the top nine. If he does not and the team does not perform well in 2021, the team will not have the flexibility to trade players away at the deadline without becoming nearly-unwatchable to end the season.

As of now, the Devils would be relying on three of Janne Kuokkanen, Nick Merkley, Nathan Bastian, Jesper Boqvist, and Michael McLeod to play wing in the NHL - and two of them probably in significant roles. I doubt that three of them will be ready, and the Devils will need a 13th and 14th forward as well. If any of the established NHL forwards under contract get hurt or traded in 2021, these players might be getting more minutes as the season goes on. There is not enough NHL-proven depth on the team, but how much this affects their performance depends on the team’s health.

The biggest long-term issue here is what to do with Gusev and Palmieri. I do not think acquiring Johnsson really answers the question. Gusev and Palmieri are important to the success of the power play and top six’s scoring - and Palmieri has been a consistent goal scorer for years. Losing Gusev via free agency would be a shame, given his great skill. Losing Palmieri via free agency would be also be a shame, given his great shooting, consistency, and two-way ability. Ultimately, losing either for nothing would be poor asset management. The Devils can re-sign both, potentially putting some stress on their future cap situation while they might decline in their production. Otherwise, the Devils can trade one or both away - but doing so would probably be painful for awhile given how thin it would leave the forwards at wing.

The Devils have a lot of cap space, and they should use it. While it’s not certain that they would be able to make the playoffs, I do not want to see the Devils start to waste the best years of Nico Hischier or what could wind up being the end of their time with Kyle Palmieri. Rather than build up a new top-six next July around Hischier and Hughes after trading more players away, I think the Devils need to put themselves in a better position to compete by signing a UFA or two. Even if they do not make the playoffs, signing UFAs now gives the Devils the flexibility to make trades during the season without dipping too far into in-between players and prospects.

Your Thoughts

What do you think about the Devils’ depth at forward? Do you think they have enough players to survive an NHL season? Should they go for bottom-of-the-barrel signings to fill the roster needs? Should they seek out a top-six option in free agency? Would signing a top six winger complicate or fix their Palmieri/Gusev issue? Do you think any of the Binghamton players can fill roles in the top three lines? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Credit to Evolving-Hockey for RAPM charts and HockeyViz for isolated impacts as well as HockeyDB and Elite Prospects for basic statistics.