After getting a cup of coffee in the NHL for three previous seasons (between two teams), Janne Kuokkanen was able to finally secure a full time roster spot with the New Jersey Devils going into the 2021 season. Originally bouncing around the lineup a bit, Kuokkanen eventually settled in opposite Yegor Sharangovich (the subject of Stephen’s article yesterday) and Travis Zajac. After Zajac was traded, the pair of wingers were teamed up with Jack Hughes and the results were good no matter which center they had. In his 50 appearances, Kuokkanen managed 25 points, which considering how rough the season was for the team, isn’t bad at all.
More encouraging was the overall run of play with that latter trio on the ice, leading many to speculate that the Devils might keep that line together coming in to 2021-22. Well, the best laid fan plans tend to get thrown off, and the team’s acquisitions this summer did just that. The Devils, feeling they could use more goal scoring, went out and added Tomas Tatar, with most of the all-too-early Devils lineup projections having him push Kuokkanen down in the lineup.
Now even if those projections wind up being correct (training camp and preseason games seem to indicate they might be), Kuokkanen still absolutely has a place on this team...for now. Why for now? Simply because he could be surpassed (and sooner rather than later) if he doesn’t put together a big season this year.
Now hold on a minute, you might say, this team was bad last year, and they’ve only added a few players during free agency? So how can Kuokkanen’s spot be in jeopardy? Well there’s a couple of things working against him right now. Firstly, there’s the possibility/speculation that he’s a product of the line he was on/others he played with last season. While Jack Hughes and Yegor Sharangovich didn’t light up the league (here’s hoping they do this season), there was evidence at times that both of them were carrying some of the load for the team. Kuokkanen never received that same vote of confidence, possibly because of the names he was with, or possibly because there were stretches where, offensively, he vanished for a bit.
If Janne has a case of the vanishing offense again (and also doesn’t have the aid of Hughes/Sharangovich) the second problem he could run into is that there are some promising young players that will be needing spots soon. If we assume the Devils current Top 6 this season will be comprised of Tatar, Sharangovich, Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Pavel Zacha, not only does this move Janne down, but it means the team will need spots eventually for promising youngsters such as Dawson Mercer, Alex Holtz and Nolan Foote. Despite what I wrote last week, two of those three are looking like they might receive NHL time sooner rather than later, and the third has already seen some action last season.
If Kuokkanen doesn’t have a season that defines him as an important piece for the Devils, he could find himself working in a fourth line role, scratched, or otherwise. Usually, I wouldn’t put a one season window on a player, especially one as young as Janne (he’s still only 23) however with the talent coming down the pipe for the Devils, there’s going to be some personnel decisions to be made, especially this season and next. If Kuokkanen doesn’t establish himself as a regular contributor, he might find himself not being a regular Devils player.
Do you believe this is an essential season for Janne Kuokkanen? Do you believe there are players in the system that will eclipse him or no? If so, how long until you believe they do? Do you think Janne is a long-term piece for the Devils? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!