For the New Jersey Devils to become a competitive team year in and year out once again, it will take more than just hitting on top prospects like Alexander Holtz or bringing in top tier free agents (which did not happen anyway). A great organization is not one that is simply top heavy, think of Edmonton with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl but not much else. Instead, think of one that has those top tier players mixed in with great role players, for example, those middle 6 forwards who put up the needed points to really make a team dangerous.
As Devils fans, one player we almost expect to grow into that role, or even perhaps play better than that role depending on who you ask, is Jesper Boqvist. Despite being only 22 years old, no one really considers him a prospect anymore, and you can certainly expect a fairly high ranking from him in the AATJ top 25 under 25. This all despite only scoring 4 goals last season in 35 NHL games to go along with a grand total of 0 assists. Beyond that, he was a net negative in possession, sporting a -2.13 relative Corsi, good for 10th among all forwards who played at least 200 5v5 minutes. He also was mostly a non-factor on special teams, accumulating only a little over 27 minutes on the power play, and a measly 1:16 on the penalty kill. No one would look at his rookie season stats from last year and think super highly of them.
While this is a weak comparison for many reasons, nonetheless, Jack Hughes, who was considered by many to have had a down rookie year considering his #1 draft selection, managed 21 points in 61 games, and was a net positive in possession, with a 0.78 relative Corsi. Of course, Hughes should have been better than Boqvist, given his draft position and incredible talent, but I just wanted to mention him for a perspective in expectations. People think Hughes had a down year for a #1 pick, but he still was performing at a definite higher level than Boqvist, who people mostly are happy with and are expecting good growth from.
My question, then, is this: what would be realistically positive growth that would make us consider his sophomore year a successful one? Considering his 0.114 points per game last season, negative possession numbers, and lack of contributions on special teams, what should realistic expectations be for him?
Well, we should obviously look for an expansion of playing time and responsibility. In his rookie season, according to Natural Stat Trick, Boqvist averaged just under 11 minutes per game. He held a bottom 6 role, spending most of his time out there with Wayne Simmonds (105 mins), Pavel Zacha (95 mins), John Hayden (72 mins), Jack Hughes (66 mins), and Miles Wood (60 mins). Because the top 6 generally get more offensive zone draws, Boqvist only had a offensive zone faceoff percentage of 50.63%, so despite the small playing time and bottom 6 role, he was not sheltered.
This year, if we are to see that expansion of both playing time and responsibility, it will have to come with a more solid position in the lineup. As I tried to show there, he was shifted all around the bottom 6, playing with a bunch of different guys throughout his 35 NHL games, and not always the most talented either. This season, if he improves, a more stable position should be available to him. Looking at the forward corps, you have Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmieri, Nikita Gusev, Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes, Travis Zajac, and probably Andreas Johnsson who will occupy stable positions in the top 9. However, that lineup is not awe inspiring, and if Boqvist’s game improves, there is no reason he cannot take a steady middle 6 role alongside the likes of Zajac, Bratt, and Hughes. That would improve his time on ice per game, and also give him a better quality of teammate. All of these would be great for the growth of his game, and also help to up his production in year two.
However, that spot will not just be given to him, he will have to earn it. Producing 0.114 points per game in year 2 will not cut it. Better teammates and more time on ice will certainly help to generate more scoring opportunities, but he will need to take advantage of those, producing more points. Last season, he had an xGF/60 of 1.57, good for 5th worst among forwards on the team, and a HDCF/60 of 5.57, second worst among the team’s forwards. Those will need to improve if he wants to have an improved year 2. He will need to gain himself more offensive zone time, and work the front of the net, generating more high danger opportunities. Having only 5 and a half of those per 60 minutes last year was very poor, and he will need to generate those to create more points.
The good news is that so far this season, he has played fairly well in Europe. He is currently on loan playing in the HockeyAllsvenskan league in Sweden, the second highest pro league there behind the SHL where Holtz is playing. In 10 games for Timrå IK, he has 7 points, 6 assists and a goal, and has 14:31 of ice time per game. These are not eye popping numbers, but again, we are not looking for him to become a superstar like we are with Hughes. We want middle 6 production from him; anything more is a bonus. Producing 0.7 points per game in a Swedish pro league isn’t too bad, and could translate to some growth when he gets back to the NHL.
It is definitely worth seeing how he continues to play there during this down time when we would usually have hockey but now don’t. He is the type of player that the Devils need to hit on, someone that can complement the top players on the Devils quite well, someone who can find a niche in the lineup and capitalize on it. The guys like Hischer and Hughes and Holtz are flashy and are definitely needed, but guys like Boqvist, if they hit, are the keys that help teams win Stanley Cups. Growth from him this year will be imperative for a Devils franchise looking to bounce back sooner rather than later.