The Devils traded Blake Coleman to the Tampa Bay Lightning on February 16, 2020 in exchange for Nolan Foote and a conditional first round pick from the Vancouver Canucks (which we now know will be the 20th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft). Nolan Foote is 19 years old, and turns 20 on November 29. Therefore, he is eligible to play in both the NHL and AHL this season without being sent down to juniors, where he played with the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL. The rule of the NHL-CHL agreement is that players must be sent down to juniors unless they turn 20 years old by December 31st of that season, or they have played four years in juniors. Since the AHL will start no earlier than December 4 this year (and may start later than that), Nolan Foote will be 20 years old before the next professional hockey season in North America starts - and he will either play in the NHL or AHL.
With that out of the way, we can answer the next question - should Nolan Foote start in the NHL or AHL this season?
Nolan Foote’s Track Record
Since Nolan Foote’s final season in Kelowna was cut short due to both injury and COVID-19, he only got to play one WHL game after the trade to the Devils. But if he got to play a full season, he was scoring at a pace of 83 points per 68 games (38 goals and 45 assists). While that’s not the most amazing season, he was only in his Draft+1 season (he was selected in the 2019 NHL Draft). Not to freak any readers out, but for comparative purposes (and what we can expect in his first NHL season): Foote’s scoring pace in his season was similar to Pavel Zacha’s in 2015-16 with the Sarnia Sting.
- Zacha: 28 goals, 36 assists in 51 games (1.255 points per game)
- Foote: 15 goals, 18 assists in 27 games (1.222 points per game)
Given that, I would estimate Foote’s ability to be somewhere between 25 and 40 points per 82 NHL games, depending on where he plays in the lineup and how much power play time he gets. If Foote were to make some sort of significant jump after training in the off-season, however, he could conceivably score more than 35 points given his offensive talent and NHL-ready physical game. Here’s what Tom Fitzgerald had to say about Nolan Foote:
“He’s 6-foot-4, he scores goals, he’s got an NHL shot already, he turns pro next year so we’ll get to see him quicker,” Interim General Manager Tom Fitzgerald said of Foote. “There’s a lot to like about this player. He’s a player that I thought really thrived at the World Juniors. I saw him this summer at the World Juniors camp and I was extremely impressed with the size, the hands around the net, and definitely the shot. Those type of players don’t grow on trees so when that’s being offered to you, you have to think. You really do.”
It is clear that Fitzgerald sees Nolan Foote as a future power forward, and with good reason - Foote himself agrees with that assessment, and thinks himself best at playing below the goal line and protecting the puck. However, the weakness that Foote believes he needs to work on most could very well hold him back from putting those skills to use in the NHL next season:
“I think quickness is the biggest [need for improvement],” Foote said. “I think my skating has improved a lot lately, but the NHL continues to get faster and faster. So I think just continuing to try and get quicker is going to be huge for being 6-foot-4. [You don’t have to be] the fastest skater, but I think if I got that in my game it’ll be really good for me.”
In order to play a 200-foot game, Foote is going to need to keep up with not just the straight-line speed, but the agility of other NHL players. However, if the Devils were to keep Foote in a sheltered role, then they might be able to make great use of his shot on the power play. At the World Juniors Championships, Team Canada’s goalies and goalie coach Jason Labarbera are big believers in the value of his shot - with some noting that it is NHL-ready.
While they played for different teams in the WHL, Ty Smith and Nolan Foote have had their paths cross in international games in the 2019-20 season for Team Canada. This goal came on the power play, and it shows where Nolan Foote ought to be positioned on in those situations. Rather than putting him in front of the net due to his size, putting Foote on his off-wing gives him the best chance to use his shot.
The Canadians take the lead 3-2 over the USA!— Tony Ferrari (@theTonyFerrari) December 26, 2019
Great play here, finished off by Nolan Foote (#GoBolts). Defender Ty Smith (#NJDevils) with a good, simple look to Foote which earns him the primary assist. #WJC2020 #WorldJuniors2020 pic.twitter.com/B0L7YXCCl6
However, that is not to say that Nolan Foote cannot work in front of the net. From the Canada-Russia series, here’s another one of his goals:
could Nolan Foote push for a spot on the Devils roster this year? heres a deflection goal off a shot from fellow Devils top prospect Ty Smith. pic.twitter.com/a781imOhGp— MacKenzie Goatwood (@GoatwoodGD) August 26, 2020
Taking his stats from both the World Juniors Championships and the Canada-Russia series, Nolan Foote had five goals and three assists in nine international games during the 2019-20 season. With those five goals, he managed to score power play goals of all sorts - this one being off a one-timer:
Canada flashes their lethal power-play once again, Nolan Foote ROCKETS it into the Czech net! pic.twitter.com/4oQ9ygbWdj— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 31, 2019
And finally, a rebound goal right in front of the net:
I think that it’s pretty clear that Nolan Foote will help the power play immediately upon his arrival in the league. The bigger question mark at this point is his five-on-five play. As a larger skater whose skating is still being worked on, Foote might struggle to gain the offensive zone by himself. And while it would be hard for him to keep up with some of the faster NHL players if he were to play in the upcoming season, it is possible that he could offset his skating with his hockey IQ. From his draft year, Ben Kerr at Last Word on Hockey had this to say about Foote:
Foote is a smart defensive player. He reads the play well and gets into good positions. He knows how to support the defence down low and battle against the opponent’s cycle. He is also not afraid to block shots or to take a hit to make a play. Foote uses his size and long stick effectively, cutting down passing lanes and intercepting passes. He has even been an effective penalty killer for Kelowna.
This is good for Foote’s chances of making the team, as the Devils do not need another skilled forward who cannot be relied on in the defensive end. Still, he will need to adjust to the speed of the NHL game, and I imagine his average agility and below-average acceleration will hold him back from being very effective in transition play until he builds more strength in his legs. Whether he gets an NHL shot at the beginning of the next season probably depends on who his linemates are.
Where Would Nolan Foote Fit In?
The Devils are likely set at center, with Nico Hischier on the top line, Pavel Zacha on a second-third line, Jack Hughes on what I imagine will be a sheltered scoring line, and Travis Zajac on a checking/shutdown line. Unless Zacha makes a transition to wing, Foote would be playing with one of those four centers. Given their respective styles, abilities, and usages, I imagine Foote would only fit in with Hischier or Hughes in the 2021 season.
As Hischier has the most well-rounded game of any of the Devils centers, Nolan Foote would benefit greatly from his ability to cycle the puck around the offensive zone as well as Hischier’s defensive reliability. Lining up on the opposite side of Kyle Palmieri would give opposing teams two great shooting wings to constantly think about in addition to Hischier’s skill and tenacity with the puck. This choice may also help the Devils’ top line against larger top lines.
With Zacha finishing the 2019-20 season on a productive streak of 14 points in the last 20 games, we’ll see if Lindy Ruff has any plans to break up his line to start next season - and if he can fix Pavel Zacha’s transition game, or lack thereof. His play in the offensive zone is fine - but gaining the zone is a problem. I highly doubt that adding another large forward to his line will help that issue, and I think it would be better for the Devils to keep him with at least one of Jesper Bratt and Nikita Gusev.
With Hughes finishing the 2019-20 season on a terrible string of games with four points in his last 20 games, he’s going to need some help from Lindy Ruff and Tom Fitzgerald moving forward. Hughes’ shot was not NHL-ready as a rookie, and we’ll see if that improves - but he can definitely use a better shooter on his line given the incredible amount of opportunities he can create in the offensive zone. Adding Nolan Foote to his line would necessitate adding a veteran winger from free agency or a trade, as I doubt Ruff would want Hughes to play with two young wings as a very defensively unrefined player. However, Foote being on Hughes’ line would encourage Ruff to shelter them (which is fine, considering Hischier and Zajac can take the tough matchups), allowing Hughes to go to work offensively while not making the team suffer so much on defense.
Lastly, Travis Zajac will probably be playing a very specific game for the New Jersey Devils next season - mostly taking on opposing top lines aside from which one the Hischier line is matched up with, and playing a bulk of penalty kill minutes. His linemates are a bit of a question mark right now, but I imagine he’ll be paired with faster skaters than himself. Zajac, as a big forward who is slowing down with each season, needs his wings in transition - and Nolan Foote is will need time to figure that area of the game out in the NHL. Therefore, for similar reasons to Zacha, I do not think Foote will be a good fit with Zajac.
I do not think the Devils have a ton of options to fill out the spots on Hischier and Hughes’ lines. Aside from sliding Janne Kuokkanen over from center, the Devils would need to acquire another top-nine winger for Ruff to utilize on those lines if Nolan Foote does not make the team. While there are some good options in free agency - Evgeni Dadonov, Craig Smith, and Tyler Toffoli to name a few - the issue for the Devils is actually getting one of those players to sign with the team. Of course, the Devils could move Jesper Bratt and/or Nikita Gusev off of Pavel Zacha’s line, but that would just create a need to acquire more veterans for Zacha’s wings so he does not sink next season. And as I stated above, I do not think Nolan Foote would be a viable option on Zacha’s line - nor do I think other young players (aside from Bratt) in the Devils organization would be.
Depending on if the AHL season actually starts on December 4 or if it gets delayed indefinitely or outright canceled due to the lack of fans à la minor league baseball - I think Nolan Foote should get a chance to play a few games in the NHL. His shot could be a boon to one of the scoring lines, and if placed correctly in the lineup his linemates can help account for defensive responsibilities and transition play that Foote will need time to adjust to. However, I do not think they should give Foote as long a leash as they gave Jesper Boqvist, who played 35 games before being sent down in the 2019-20 season. As a result, Boqvist seems to need more time in the AHL, as his 11 points in 19 games there does not exactly inspire tons of confidence. If the Devils give Foote a chance to be a sniper, they ought to cut him off at 10 or 15 games if the AHL season is actually happening and he does not look ready for the NHL game. They should take care not to waste so much of his time in a league he might not be ready for as they did with Jesper Boqvist. Sending him down would not have him end up in juniors, and his ELC runs regardless given his age - so I say the Devils should go with the most talented roster possible. Nolan Foote would be a physical sniper, and the Devils have not had anything like that for years - and I would be excited to see how either Hischier or Hughes interact with him in the offensive zone.
From his trade to New Jersey, to his game, his family, and more, hear from our newest prospect Nolan Foote, who we traded for yesterday.— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) February 17, 2020
: https://t.co/yRnn0rbckm#WeAreTheOnes | #NJDevils pic.twitter.com/j8kSVos6XX
How do you think Nolan Foote compares to other young players vying for roster spots? Janne Kuokkanen? Jesper Boqvist? Nick Merkley? Michael McLeod? Nathan Bastian? If he were to get an NHL chance, where do you think he should play in the lineup? Do you think he should get a chance to be carried by two established players such as Hischier and Palmieri, or should he sheltered with another unrefined young talent like Jack Hughes? Alternatively, do you think I’m wrong about him not being a good fit with either Zacha or Zajac? Would you rather see him at the start of the season or the end of the season? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.