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New Jersey Devils 2020-21 Season Preview Part I: Forwards

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After a season of turmoil and shopping the expiring talent, the Devils forward group is dominated by new faces, and old faces in new places.

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

The Devils have not played since March 10th, 2020. While many may have taken the chance to enjoy the Stanley Cup Playoffs, or check out the prospects at the WJC, for the average fan, this has been an absence of Devils hockey longer than the break before the lockout-shortened 2012 season. When the Devils play the Bruins on January 14th, it will have been 310 days since the last official Devils game.

Therefore, moreso than anytime since I’ve been writing for this blog, I’m eager to offer the first installment of the Devils 2021 season preview. You can read last year’s full preview in this stream, where you’ll see we started with the same unit we will talk about today: the forwards.

What Happened Last Year?

In the chart above, basic stats were retrieved from Hockey-Reference, GAR and Impact stats were retrieved from Evolving-Hokey.

We always try to start off the unit previews with a “what happened” section. There are a lot of specifics that I’ll get into, but I think it’s good to see the entirety of what happened last season in one place as well. Above you’ll see the basic stats like goals/assists, peripheral role-based stats like hits/blocks, and analytical components from Evolving-Hockey on the impact players had on shot (Corsi) and danger (xGoal) rates as well as the sum value of their on-ice contribution (GAR).

The team leader in goals, points, and GAR was Kyle Palmieri. I wrote about the fact that Palmieri was the sole Devils constant in the dumpster fire season due to his shot, powerplay expertise, and underrated defense. When you account for his responsibility as a top line winger, and the steadiness of his production, Palms was probably the most valuable skater on the team last year. If it weren’t for Blackwood’s ridiculous hot streak to close the season, he likely would’ve been our AAtJ Devils MVP. He enters this season as the surest bet, though possibly also the most valuable trade chip.

His season-long linemate, Nico Hischier, was expected by many to make an offensive jump this past season after the former 1st overall had great underlying offensive impacts, but slightly underwhelming point totals to show for it in his first two years. However, in a season that spiraled fairly quickly, Nico never quite got his feet under him. The underperformance and subsequent departure of Taylor Hall may be somewhat to blame for the point drop-off, but his on-ice impacts in both the offensive and defensive zones took a hit after an encouraging sophomore season in which he seemed poised to take over the team. It’ll be on Hischier this season to prove his defensive skills can translate to preventing shots, and his offensive impacts can result in goals without Hall.

In the pleasant surprise category, for surprisingly similar reasons, we have Jesper Bratt and Blake Coleman. Coleman continued all-league defensive performance (finally registering a couple Selke votes) and improved his already-valuable offensive game by constantly threatening around the net. This 200-ft value at a bargain allowed us to flip him basically for 2 1st rounders at the deadline to the eventual Cup champs, Tampa (congrats Pickles!). Bratt continues to steadily improve year-over-year, but the features of this past season that propelled his value were the best defensive impacts of his career, and a hyper-efficient shot. These two joined Palmieri as the only Devils with positive xG ratios and they trailed only Kevin Rooney in terms of expected goal rate allowed.

Less consistent were those who rounded out the sometimes-top-6 — Nikita Gusev and Pavel Zacha. Zacha started the season off as one of the most valuable players on the team, but, as always, couldn’t put it together for a whole season. He did put up a career-high point total, though, and has also established himself as one of the most efficient penalty-killing forwards in the league over the past couple years (he’s 5th of 92 defenders with 300+ minutes over the past 3 years in GF% and 2nd in xGF%) Meanwhile, Gusev’s play (particularly his defense) was among the most harmful in the whole league early on — it even got him sat by John Hynes at one point. But after an extended stay on a line with strong 200-ft veterans Coleman and Zajac, Goose turned his season around and became possibly the Devils best forward down “the stretch” (such as it was).

It’s probably time I talk about Hall. It seems like a lifetime ago now, but Taylor Hall was actually a Devil to start last season. His value was tanked by two major things: 1) really bad shooting (both individual and team), and 2) rapidly declining defensive ability. Both likely contain hints of luck, but are also continuations of multi-year trends. So, even with some upward regression, it was clear the Devils had lost their MVP long before he was traded.

That leaves us with the dregs. This year, the bottom 6 forwards (wingers in parcitular) are pretty much up for grabs. Last season, the bottom forwards weren’t “good” per se, but they certainly had an identity. Miles Wood and Wayne Simmonds were physical players that could provide some net-front offense. Kevin Rooney and John Hayden were bulldogs tasked with making the game extremely boring for 50 seconds or so.

The rest of the lineup was filled in with a who’s who of “who?”. Jesper Boqvist gave us a thoroughly uninspiring 35 games with a paltry 4 points and cartoonishly bad on-ice impacts. We had short but decent stints from Merkley, McLeod, and Anderson as well as spot games Street, Seney, and Kuokkanen. Nothing of not from the rest of them other than Anderson playing well enough to get traded, and McLeod looking slightly less like a career-AHLer than he has at any point previous.

And that rounds up the forward recap of 2020. Now for what’s new!

What’s Changed?

The biggest changes going into the offseason were were those who had left. The tornado that swept through Rebuild 1.0 , taking Shero and Hynes along with it, also managed to sweep up the most talented forward (Taylor Hall) and the most reliable one (Blake Coleman) as well as another heavily used veteran (Wayne Simmonds). The final trade that would be made was a fairly recent one in which now-permanent GM Tom Fitzgerald weaponized cap space like his predecessor in order to turn a nice prospect in Joey Anderson, into an established forward with legit top-6 potential in Toronto’s Andreas Johnsson.

After the midseason yard sale of competent players, the hand-me-downs that were left on the tables in the driveway were let go in the offseason (Rooney & Hayden) which allows for the biggest overall change that you’ll notice in the forward group this season — we’re young.

Except for that one top winger slot that AJ will plug, all of the positions that were vacated are being likely to be filled by whichever prospects on ELCs win their camp competitions. We’ll get into the favorites for those positions in a moment, but for now, let’s just list off some of the cast members for this year’s play that are either new to the company or have been understudies until now.

Between their hype and their modest NHL playing time, many of you probably would remember Micheal McLeod and Jesper Boqvist. The rest of the contenders will probably be unfamiliar to those who we’re keeping up with the trades or haven’t been following Binghamton. Of the new acquisitions Nick Merkley (via Hall trade with Arizona), Janne Kuokannen (via Vatanen trade with Carolina), and Nolan Foote (via Coleman trade with Tampa), will all compete for roster spots. They will join AHL-veterans; Nathan Bastian, Brett Seney, Marian Studenic, and Mikhail Maltsev; as well as KHL upstart, Yegor Sharangovich, in a wide open competition for the the 12th, 13th, and 14th (if they go 14F/7D) spots. Journeyman Ben Street may also Kevin Rooney his way into one of those spots and play spoiler.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. That talk is for the next section on what to expect from this years crop of forwards: both old and new.

What to Expect This Season?

Let’s break this down into three sub-sections: Who is likely to win spots out of camp, where will they slot in, and how will they perform?

Camp competitions

We at AATJ absolutely have had you covered when it comes to learning about the Devils forwards this offseason. In early September, we did a unit on a bunch of candidates for roster spots including Kuokkanen (link), Merkley (link), Bastian (link), Foote (link), Boqvist (link), McLeod (link), and Seney (link). Chris also gave us some overviews here, and here.

Some young players have already racked up a few NHL games. Given his draft pedigree and success overseas, Boqvist is likely the favorite to retain his roster spot despite a discouraging first season, though he’s certainly not “safe”. After teasing the NHL a few times, Michael McLeod has taken his ample time in Binghamton to develop his 200-ft game and, after an efficient 12 game stint in 2020, seems poised to finally receive his full-on, make-it-or-break-it opportunity. He’s also not a roster-lock, but given that he’s a former first rounder in the last year of his ELC, it seems practicality is on his side as well as aptitude.

Given the state of the franchise, I think that logic — giving youngsters on expiring deals a chance to prove themselves — is likely to serve as the tiebreaker for several spots. I’ve listed the competitors for the final 2-3 forward holes a couple times in this piece, but I think the favorites are probably Kuokkanen and Merkley due to their success in the AHL and those expiring ELCs. I could be overselling management’s desire to assess talent, in which case a highly touted prospect like Nolan Foote could grab a spot despite being only 20. I could be underselling it as well, though, in which case someone like Seney or Bastian could snag and extra spot, or even steal someone like Boqvist’s, as new management/coaching staff try to get a thorough evaluation of every players development and readiness.

Assuming that my calibration of their desires is correct here, though, I’d expect the lines to look something like what’s written below. Side note: In a silly analysis I did on Twitter of Amanda Stein’s lineup reports early in camp, the projected lineup looked basically the same.

Starting Lineup

Johnsson-Hischier-Gusev

Bratt-Hughes-Palmieri

Boqvist-Zajac-Merkley

Wood-Zacha-Kuokkanen

Extra: McLeod, Sharangovich

Assuming Nico recovers from his December injury by opening night as he’d like to, this is his team. He’ll be the 1C at even-strength, and likely on PP1 and PK2 as well. Given Jack Hughes’s struggles defensively in 2020, I think the staff would prefer to give him stronger 200-ft wingers like Jesper Bratt and Kyle Palmieri and allow Nico to protect his own end, and let OZ-magician Nikita Gusev break some ankles during the offensive possessions while feeding AJ and the the d-men. I expect that any line centered by Nico will be able to at least tread water. Though, if AJ can’t handle the additional workload, and Gusev performs like he did in the first half of 2019-20, it could be a big ask.

The 2nd line is the one that will determine the fate of the team. We’ll see if the 18lbs of offseason muscle mass Jack(ed) Hughes has put on will be enough for him to hold his own against the big boys this season. Analytically, Bratt and Palmieri were excellent defensive wingers, but their reputations are not generally in line with those numbers. If they were a statistical artifact — a mere small sample mirage — then putting them with defensively suspect sophomore could spell disaster. However, if it’s real, and if Jack holds his own, then we competent 200-ft trio, including an electric young skater/passer winged by the most valuable (Palmieri) and most efficient (Bratt) shooters on the team.

The bottom 6 is a dumpster fire, let’s be honest. One or more of the AHL guys are going to need to swing way above their weight-class for these lines to not be an embarrassment. What I will say is that, with all of the different players competing, I expect (pray) that Ruff & Co. will be able to find at least 2 wingers that can join forces with Zajac as the “shutdown” line. All that line needs to do is suffocate the opposition top line enough to draw even with them (presumably 0-0) so that our top 6 can win matchups against the easier lines. Zajac has teamed up with the likes of Sergey Kalinin and Stefan Noesen in the past to serve that role, but in the past couple years has been gifted Blake Coleman — this season we’ll see pretty quickly how much Blake had been carrying that unit, and how much Trav still has left in the tank.

In my analysis of the training camp lines,

How Will They Perform?

Overall, I think that the top 6 can hold up well against the best in the NHL, but there’s a bit of a Jenga tower feel to it given the defensive struggles of guys like Hughes and Gusev last season, and even Bratt and Hischier in years past. If Gusev and Bratt did indeed figure out their 200-ft game as the season pressed on, Hischier’s defensive production matches his reputation, and Hughes’s bulk allows him to hold up better against grown men, then this will likely be an average or even above average unit. But one bad Jenga block and, well, yanno. This will be the first test of Ruff’s managerial expertise — finding the golden combination that maximizes these players’ talents.

The bottom 6 ... eesh. I think these images from Dom Luszczyszyn’s season preview over at The Athletic and Sean Tierney’s Lineup Creator paint the picture better than my words can.

via The Athletic
via Charting Hockey

The Devils have exactly 6 forwards that are noticeably better than a typical AHL call-up. And given that one of them is injured already and one of them is trapped in Sweden without a contract, that looks even more precarious than the image presents. And reports on the moment are that Bratt and Devils are not particularly close to a deal which is one giant freaking asterisk on this whole roster.

In short, the Devils will likely need not only breakout performances from players like Hischier and Hughes, but also probably a surprise from at least one training camp winner like Kuokkanen or Sharangovich or [insert your favorite prospect here] in order to keep up with the forward units of other NHL squads. But the crew is young and you have to think at least one of those names ends up in the “roster lock” section of next years edition of this preview. If they don’t, it’s going to be a long second rebuild.

What do you think this team’s forward lines will look like? How good do you think this forward group is? What are your concerns, if any, headed into the season? Who is poised for a breakout? Who do you expect to regress?

Answer these and any other questions you think I should have asked in the comments section below, and as always, thanks for reading!