If you can remember back before the world ended and the pandemic started (I know, it isn’t easy), one of the last normal things to take place, especially as it relates to the world of hockey, was the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline. That happened near the end of February last year, only a few weeks before everything shut down. It was perhaps also Tom Fitzgerald’s first serious event after taking over for Ray Shero as Acting GM, a job he has since taken on in a more permanent fashion.
Looking back on it now, one of the major successes from that deadline, and one of the reasons Fitzgerald definitely should be praised, was the trade that sent Sami Vatanen to Carolina in exchange for, among other assets, Janne Kuokkanen. The Devils also got a draft pick and a player, but in reality, the winner of the entire deal, on either side, has been Kuokkanen.
Before getting into his play, however, just think about the deal itself. Fitzgerald sent Carolina Vatanen, who was injured at the time, as a rental piece to potentially help Carolina in a playoff run. Since then, Carolina would bow out quietly in the first round of the 2020 playoffs to Boston, wouldn’t re-sign Vatanen, and Vatanen would once again come back to New Jersey before the team placed him on waivers and Dallas claimed him. So for Kuokkanen and other pieces, Fitzgerald basically gave up absolutely nothing. You arguably cannot do better than that. At the time, AATJ readers in the poll from that link above liked the trade but didn’t love it; now, how can you not love it?
And even though losing Vatanen obviously meant basically nothing to the Devils, last year and now, the biggest reason for the trade being so good has been the growth of Janne. The 22 year old Finnish forward made the team out of camp, and initially was given fourth line duties alongside Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian. I wrote about their early season successes back in January, when it was clear that the three of them were gelling and off to a good start. Since then, he has only improved. He has moved out of fourth line duty, and Miles Wood has more often than not taken that position instead.
More recently, Kuokkanen has been given top 6 opportunities. Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, for example, he played all of his 5 on 5 minutes on what was technically the top line with Jack Hughes and Yegor Sharangovich, something he has done for several games now. And combined, they were one of the best lines on the team (as they have usually been recently). They were out there the longest of any line by far, thanks to McLeod and Nico Hischier flipping lines at some point in the game. With almost 12 minutes together at 5 on 5, Janne Jack and Yegor had an excellent relative Corsi at +10.84. They also had 9 Corsi For attempts between them, which was the most offensive line by far, none of the others having more than 5 Corsi attempts. And this wasn’t a line where Kuokkanen was merely a passenger, he definitely was a driver. If you look at with or without you numbers for the same game, among all skaters with at least 3 minutes on the ice with Janne, only Damon Severson and Ryan Murray had worse Corsi numbers when they were with Kuokkanen on the ice as opposed to when they were out there without him. Everyone else benefited in terms of possession by being out there with Janne. That is a great sign.
But of course, the solid play from him is not just limited to one game. That line stayed together for Thursday night’s debacle, and while that line was not as standoutish as compared to the other forward lines as it was on Tuesday, they did have a solid game, Janne included. That line had a similar relative Corsi, sitting at +10 even in that game, and once again their line had 9 Corsi attempts, the most of any line on the team. And just to show you that Kuokkanen has been productive on this line, not just a passenger to Jack Hughes, here is the chart Todd Cordell put out after the game showing shot attempts:
He wasn’t the biggest driver of play on the team, but that isn’t the point either. In his top line role, he has been productive, and is helping the group push play up the ice, not simply just along for the ride. If you really want to see a positive chart, however, check out the same data from Cordell after the last game against New York, where that top line crushed it in shot attempts, and Kuokkanen was a major driver along with Hughes.
In a season that has been disappointing for many reasons, the growth of Janne Kuokkanen from a young player just making the team out of camp in a fourth line capacity to someone who has played fairly well in a top line role alongside the team’s future superstar in Jack Hughes has been a huge boon for this team. The Devils traded for him hoping he would be an NHL contributor eventually, and it seemed possible, but I am not sure that anyone expected it to happen this soon, and in a top 6 capacity like he has been playing in recently. And perhaps the greatest part of it all is that Tom Fitzgerald gave up literally nothing to get him on this team. How can you beat that?