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New Jersey Devils 2021-22 Season Preview Part 1: Forwards

A new season brings renewed hope that the Devils young group of forwards, led by Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, will be ready to take another step in their development. Prospects such as Dawson Mercer and Alexander Holtz also seem ready for their NHL debuts this season which will make this group a lot of fun to watch.

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New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils
It’s time to expect big performances from Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier.
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

With the 2021-22 season right around the corner, the time has come to start our season preview for the New Jersey Devils. In today’s post, I’ll be taking a look at the forwards that will be taking the ice for the Devils. I’m going to keep the same format that CJ used in last season’s preview to provide an overview of what happened last year, what has changed, and what we may expect to see this season. This post will be the first in our preview series that will also cover the defensemen, goaltenders, special teams, coaching and management, and predictions.

What Happened Last Year?

Stats from Hockey-Reference and Evolving-Hockey.

In the above table, you will see basic stats, peripherals, and analytics. All of these are included to help provide an overview of how the forwards performed last season. The “analytic” stats come from Evolving-Hockey and provide the impact that players had on shots (Corsi) and danger (Expected Goal) rates. The Goals Above Replacment (GAR) metric gives the sum value of their on-ice contribution.

Pavel Zacha had a “breakout” season for the Devils by being tied for the team lead in goals (17) with Miles Wood, as well as leading them in points (35) in 50 games. I put breakout in parentheses as he shot at 16.5% which was well above his career 9.4% coming into the season. The analytics seemed to suggest that he had some puck luck go his way last season. Zacha seemed to be at his best when on the wing, not at center, last season. When on the wing on a line with Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt, the trio had a 58.98 Goals For% (GF%), 48.87 Corsi For% (CF%), and 53.92 Expected Goals For% (xGF%) at 5v5 play according to Evloving-Hockey. It will be interesting to see if Zacha has truly turned a corner in his career or if last season was just a career year. I should mention that is was a frustrating season for Hischier as injuries limited him to just 21 games where he struggled to play up to his best on a consistent basis. It’s also worth noting that that Bratt was the leader in assists (23) last season. With his play two-way play, it’s no surprise to see that he was 2nd on the team in GAR (7.3) behind Jack Hughes (9.6).

Speaking of Hughes, the Devils top line last season was centered by him with Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich on the wings. At 5v5 play, the trio put up just a 34.37 GF% but had a 55.45 xGF% and 57.3 CF%. Hughes ranked 2nd in points (31), Sharangovich was tied-3rd (30), and Kuokkanen was tied-5th (25). In terms of GAR, Hughes led the team, Kuokkanen was 6th (3.6), and Sharangovich was 7th (3.2). Sharangovich was 3rd on the team in goals (16) as a rookie and will be looking to build off of that in his second season.

Miles Wood was another player that had a solid season for the Devils as a co-leader in goals (17) with Zacha. Wood mainly played on a line centered by Michael McLeod with Nathan Bastian on the other wing. Of course, Bastian was taken by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft and will need to be replaced. That trio at 5v5 play had just a 41.72 GF% but had a slightly better 47.85 xGF% as an energy line for the Devils. In terms of GAR rankings on the team, Wood (4.2) ranked 4th, Bastian (2.4) 8th, and McLeod (0.1) 20th.

Andreas Johnsson was a player that was brought in with big expectations to solidify the top 6 but failed to do so. He put up just 5 goals and 6 assists in 50 games. The analytics seemed to like him more than his counting stats, giving him a positive impact on both Corsi and Expected Goals. His GAR (3.8) was 5th on the team. At the end of the day, results matter, and the Devils will be hoping that his production catches up with his underlying metrics. It is worth noting that last season that he saw almost an equal amount of time between being on a line with Jack Hughes and Kyle Palmieri, and being on a line with Hughes and Jesper Bratt at 5v5 play. With Hughes and Palmieri, the trio had a 59.04 GF%, 53.29 CF%, and 52.29 xGF%. With Hughes and Bratt, the trio had a much better 80.51 GF%, 63.67 CF%, and 66.3 xGF%.

Speaking of Palmieri, he was moved with Travis Zajac to the New York Islanders in a trade last season. Neither veteran was in their prime anymore and had already started to see their production slip. Their departures opened up more playing time for the likes of Nolan Foote, Tyce Thompson, and Marian Studenic down the stretch last season. These are just a few of the prospects that will look to make an impact in New Jersey this upcoming season. Nick Merkley and Mikhail Maltsev were also a part of this group but as we’ll mention below have been moved.

Finally, I should also mention Nikita Gusev. He was unable to get going at all last season and ended up up being released after going through waivers.

What’s Changed?

As mentioned above, the changes to the Devils forwards started during last season. The Devils traded away veterans Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac to the New York Islanders for forwards A.J. Greer, Mason Jobst, a 1st round pick that became right wing Chase Stillman, and a 2022 conditional 4th round pick. Greer figures to be AHL depth for the Devils while Jobst has already moved on to another organization. Nikita Gusev was waived and released just a few days later after the Palmieri and Zajac trade.

General Manager Tom Fitzgerald also made a few changes during the offseason. First, he moved Mikhail Maltsev in the Ryan Graves trade to help bolster the defense. Maltsev proved that he belonged at the NHL level last season and the Devils will look for another young player to step into his depth role. Next, Fitzgerald moved Nick Merkley in a trade for Christian Jaros in another move to help provide some defensive depth on the blue line. Merkley is a bit of a one dimensional winger but did post a positive GAR in his short time in New Jersey last season. Finally, he lost Nathan Bastian to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft. The loss of Bastian could be felt as he was an effective player on the Devils energy line. He had a positive impact on shot attempts and was a positive player in GAR. It’s not a huge hole but certainly one that the Devils will need someone to step up and fill.

Now let’s move on to the additions for the forward group. Last spring, Fitzgerald signed four prospects to entry-level contracts in Graeme Clarke, Tyce Thompson, Aarne Talvitie, and Alexander Holtz. Holtz is certainly the best of this bunch and will see the NHL at some point this season. It’s more a question about whether he breaks camp with the team or goes to the AHL first for some additional development. Fitzgerald also added in AHL depth in players such as Brian Flynn and Chase De Leo. He also brought in some veterans into training camp on try-outs to compete for a roster spot. This includes Jimmy Vesey, Mark Jankowski, and Frederik Gauthier. We’ll cover the camp battles later in this post.

Fitzgerald’s big move was signing free agent Tomas Tatar. The 30 year old is capable of playing on either wing and has put 377 points in 625 NHL regular season games (0.60 Pts/GP). He figures to be a welcome addition to the Devils top 6 as a veteran presence that can still produce.

What to Expect This Season?

Let’s take a look at what we can expect this season by breaking things down by camp competitions, the potential starting line up, and how these players will perform.

Camp competitions

The Devils entered camp with a few openings in the bottom 6. Thus, there have been numerous competitions for roster spots among the forwards in this camp. This included veterans on professional try-outs such as centers Frederik Gauthier and Mark Jankowski as well as wing Jimmy Vesey. Gauthier earned a one-year, two-way contract yesterday while Jankowski was released from his try-out. It seems likely that Gauthier was signed for depth and to mainly play in Utica, though he will need to pass through waivers this weekend. Going by the lines in practice yesterday, courtesy of Corey Masisak, Vesey was on the 4th line right wing and that seems like a role he could fill. It will be interesting to see if he has earned a contract or not. We’ll find out soon enough.

I should note that Mason Geertsen was listed as 4th line left wing with Miles Wood sidelined for that practice. I haven’t mentioned Geertsen much since he’s mainly a defenseman that plays an enforcer role. I wouldn’t expect him to be a regular for the Devils, especially at forward, this season.

One spot that was open on this team was the 3rd line center spot with Pavel Zacha shifting to the wing. Dawson Mercer has had a real impressive camp and it seems likely that he has made the team. Mercer was centering the 3rd line with Tomas Tatar and Andreas Johnsson on his wings in those practice lines. It would be huge if he can help shore up the Devils center depth to form a 1-4 punch of Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, himself, and Michael McLeod.

Mercer isn’t the only highly regarded forward prospect that has been battling for a roster spot. Alexander Holtz, the goal scoring right wing, has given a good account of himself through the preseason with 4 points in 3 games. It’s possible he could make the team and start on the 4th line but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him sent to Utica so he can get 1st line minutes to continue his development.

Finally, Jesper Boqvist has been knocking on the door for a full time spot in New Jersey for a few seasons now but hasn’t taken advantage of his opportunities. He’s had a quiet camp and from the looks of it could be on the outside. He skated with Chase De Leo (since waived for purposes of being sent to Utica) and Holtz on the 5th line in practice yesterday.

Other young players that are still in camp but seem unlikely to have made the team consist of Marian Studenic and Tyce Thompson. They figure to go to Utica and try to earn a callup. Other young players that are already with Utica but could earn a callup include Graeme Clarke, Nolan Foote, and Fabian Zetterlund.

Starting Lineup

Taking into account last season’s lines, the different lines in the preseason, and the most recent practice lines, it seems the Devils could have a regular lineup resembling this:





This would keep last year’s top line together. It would move Zacha to the wing where he is more effective and on a line that he’s familiar with from last season. It also opens up that 3rd line center position for Mercer where he could skate with two players with plenty of NHL experience and offensive skills. Two-thirds of the 4th line return in Wood and McLeod with newcomer (should he be signed) Vesey in the spot vacated by Bastian. It’s also possible that they keep Holtz in the NHL and have him in that 4th line right wing spot.

The extras could consist of Jesper Boqvist, Frederik Gauthier, or Mason Geertsen if the Devils want to use him as a forward. You could consider any of these players to get the spot Vesey is in if the Devils opt to not sign him.

How Will They Perform?

Below is how some of the various projection models view these forwards:

Projection via Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic.
Projection via JFresh Hockey.

This group of forwards offers some nice upside but with some risk due to the young players the team has to rely on. The Devils will need Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier to continue to take steps in their development. Hughes seems poised for a breakout season and I am really looking forward to watching him. Kuokkanen and Sharangovich will want to prove that 2020-21 wasn’t a fluke and that they are legitimate top 6 forwards. The team will need Zacha to repeat his production and improve his overall impact on the game. They’ll need Bratt to continue to be one of the more effective two-way wingers in the game.

They’ll also need help from their prospects. Dawson Mercer followed by Alexander Holtz seem like the prospects that can really help this team in the present. Mercer in particular seems like he’s going to make the team out of camp and contribute right away. Holtz will certainly see some time this year. With his shot it wouldn’t be surprising to see him earn a regular spot at some point.

The team also will need the veterans to step up. Tatar should bolster any line that he plays on and provide some much needed offensive production. Johnsson will need to prove that 2020-21 was a down year and that he’s still an effective producer. Wood will need to continue to bring his physicality and secondary scoring to the table. Veterans like Gauthier and Vesey, should they play for the Devils this upcoming season should help provide depth and experience.

While there are a lot of things that can go right, it does seem like they are really relying on a lot of young players. This can swing things wildly in either direction between “success” and “failure” due to how unpredictable this players can be. Regardless, this team does seem poised to play more meaningful games this year and that experience should help this young core of players grow.

Your Take

What are your expectations for the Devils forwards this season? Are you expecting a big jump in play from Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier? Do you think Pavel Zacha will prove that he’s turned a corner or do you have lower expectations for him? Which prospects do you expect to see make the jump to the NHL and what do you expect out of them? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!