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Free Agency Decision #1: What Contracts Do the Devils Give Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen?

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Two-thirds of the Devils year-ending top line are pending RFAs this offseason and are the first assets that need to be tended to. What types of extensions should they receive?

NHL: APR 29 Flyers at Devils Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the waning games of the season, the Devils forward lines looked something like this:

Kuokkanen- Hughes - Sharangovich

Bratt - Hischier - Zacha

Wood - McLeod - Bastian

Maltsev/Boqvist/Foote/Merkley/Johnsson/Dude off the street

One might reasonably make the argument that the Hischier line was treated as the top line to close out the season, but given the tenure of the units and the usage all season long, I think most would likely agree that the “top” line at 5-on-5 play was whatever one Jack Hughes was centering. And for the last ~20 games of the season, that was Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich.

Now, whether or not you believe they added anything to that line rather than just riding Jack’s coattails, the fact that it was an effective top line composed of 2 rookies and a 19-year-old says something about those pieces. The fact that it freed up ALL of Hischier, Bratt, and Zacha to play on the other top-6 line together is an extremely valuable side-effect as well. But the assessment of them individually does come into play when considering what types of contracts to give these players. And, despite the amount of time they played on ice together (they were centered by Zajac before Hughes), it’s informative to separate them for the purposes of this analysis because the results produce two different value landscapes for each skater.

Janne Kuokkanen’s Season

The Devils acquired Janne Kuokkanen (along with a Fredrik Claesson and a pick that would become Nico Daws) in exchange for Sami Vatanen — who was a pending free agent that the Devils would end up re-signing the next season anyway.

So as it turns out, literally anything that we get out of Kuokkanen is found money. But, with Kuokkanen a pending restricted free agent, the circumstances of his acquisition are no longer valuable. What matters is what he’s done with the team.

After joining the Binghamton squad last season, he gave an immediate shot in the arm to an ascending AHL offense with 3 goals and 3 assists in just 4 games. The 22-year-old had clearly outgrown his AHL surroundings and he was an early favorite to be one of the last man on the NHL squad in this, his do-or-die season.

Early in the season, it seemed as though he may not be a long-term starter. He played some with McLeod and Bastian on the energy line, and while his results weren’t terrible, Ruff would eventually sit him for a few games after experimenting with the bottom 6 to find the right fits. Shortly after re-entering the roster, he’d find a regular lineup spot alongside fellow rookie Yegor Sharangovich in a line guided by veteran center Travis Zajac. Around that time, Kuokkanen rattled off a 4-game goal streak to kick off a 10-points-in-10-games stretch. According to MoneyPuck that line was had the 5th best goal share in the NHL among lines with 150+ minutes together (they scored 10 and allowed 3) and the highest in Devils recorded history (since 2008).

Just before trading Zajac, and not wanting to disrupt the chemistry he had built with Sharangovich, Ruff inserted Jack Hughes into Zajac’s spot and the line, predictably, took on the more Hughesian identity — falling in goal share, but becoming the most dominant possession line the post-Lamoriello era. Among lines that played 100+ minutes together, the last time the Devils so shot shares like the 58% these kids had was when Zajac and Jaromir Jagr led the Devils in 2014. And for unblocked shot rates, you have to go back to Elias-Zajac to find a line with 200+ minutes that out-possessed this unit.

Janne’s biggest asset is his flexibility. He was fine in the bottom 6, he was serviceable on the powerplay, and he paired with Yegor to lead two very different lines to historic success. When accounting for the circumstances of his usage, he grades out as essentially the median NHLer be being slightly above average offensively, below average defensively, and a positive in terms of penalty differential and powerplay impact.

Yegor Sharangovich’s Season

While Yegor’s back half of the season was almost entirely shared with Janne, his year was much more of a rocketship in terms of attention. While Janne was expected to compete for a bottom-6 role, and indeed earned one, Yegor went from likely AHLer to top line NHLer over the course of around a month. The cause of this really all boils down to what he did in the offseason. While the NHL was toying around with its season start, Yegor was playing in the KHL and absolutely murdering it. He averaged a goal every 2 games in his 34-game stint as Dinamo Minsk’s alternate captain, becoming the franchises biggest offseason prospect story in the process. And, upon further investigation, there was some evidence for this explosion.

While he was languishing in the bottom 6 first AHL season (17 points in 68 games) and much of his second one. However, in the waning weeks of the season, he teamed up with Hall-acquisition, Nick Merkley, and fan-favorite Brett Seney, to create a formidable production line. After the 2/24 trade deadline revamped the roster, Yegor put up 9 points in the last 7 games. In total, he scored 9 points in his first 27 games of 2019-20, and 16 points in his last 20. He went into the offseason with some momentum and carried into his KHL season, and then into camp where his name always seemed to come up in intra-squad scrimmages.

He was so hot entering the season that he earned a spot on the top line alongside Jack Hughes and Kyle Palmieri (presumably filling in for Jesper Bratt). Early on, it’s not dramatic to say he looked like the most dynmamic player on the team. He drew 3(!) penalties and created 2 high-danger chances (according to NaturalStatTrick) against Boston in the first game of the season and potted this unforgettable game-winning buzzer-beater in the 2nd game of his career. It wouldn’t be all sunshine and rainbows all year of course — he did have droughts, he got benched once, and his impact on shot differential was very poor. But what he does have going for him is a special combination of skills that are difficult-to-impossible to teach.

He is big, he is fast, and he has an excellent shot. The first two are what make his ceiling so tantalizing and what has lead the staff to give him not only heavy 5v5 responsibilities, but also PK duties. However, it’s that last part that I think make him such an essential part of this team’s future.

Take a look at this compilation of Yegor’s 2021 goals.

There are a ton of examples of what makes his shot so special, but for just one instance, take a look at the 2-minute mark of that video. He gets a pretty good feed from Damon Severson to the top of the slot, just beyond an outstretched stick, but he’s still pretty well defended and would have a hard time even getting through to the net let along past the goalie. But his release is so sneaky fast that after just one pair of touches he releases before Riley Sheahan even knows he’s considering it.

And if you’re not impressed by that, I understand. But here’s what’s insane — of the 17 goals he scored this year, according to Evolving-Hockey’s xG model, that benign looking shot was actually the 2nd most dangerous shot attempt of all his goals behind only that Boston game-winner. The Boston goal had a 24% chance of going in, and that feed from Seves had a 17% chance. For comparison, of Janne Kuokkanen’s 8 goals, HALF of them had a 25% or greater of going in when he shot them. Sharangovich’s 17 goals are not impressive just because of the amount of them, but because of how unlikely those shots were to become goals. Most NHL players do not bury those chances. Yegor trailed only Pavel Zacha in goals above expected this season and, unlike Zacha, we don’t have a ton of evidence to suggest he’s not capable of continuing that. He shot 11% in the AHL last year, 18% in the KHL this year, then 14% in the NHL, and he even scored 2 goals on 12 shots (17%) with Belarus in the IIHF World Championship.

I liken what he does with the puck to what Steph Curry does with a basketball. Steph Curry is an excellent shooter, but what makes him so difficult to defend is how quickly he can get a shot off. Yegor has a great wrister, but what makes him especially dangerous is how well he disguises it.

Fans are frequently talking about how we need scorers. It’s a common refrain for explaining Jack Hughes’s low point totals and was part of the reason the Devils selected Alex Holtz with their first pick in 2020. If this is something you believe the team desparately needs, Sharangovich is a player you’ll really want to hold onto. He put up 17 goals in his rookie year with a bad team in a shortened season without a regular spot on the powerplay. If you don’t think he’s capable of a 30-40 goal season, you were not paying close enough attention. But his mediocre 5-on-5 impacts, old-for-a-rookie age, and <60 game sample size likely puts a damper on the projection party a tad.

The Contracts

Before we talk about these contracts, we need to consider some quirks of the CBA that are relevant. For the uninitiated, there is a rule that says that a player becomes an “unrestricted” free agent — a status which makes it much easier for them to sign with another team and/or use that as leverage in negotiations — when they are either 27 years of age (as of July 1) or when they accumulate 7 years of NHL experience. Janne and Yegor are both 23 years old as of this July 1 which means that they can each sign a 3-year contract and still qualify as “restricted” free agents upon the expiration of those deals.

You might, at this point, ask “why wouldn’t the Devils do that?”

In a word: cost control. If you think a player is going to be good for a long time, you want to sign them for that whole interval before their value increases. Let’s say Sharangovich scores 50 goals over the next two seasons — a totally realistic result considering he was on a 24-goal pace this season. The cost to extend him at the end of the contract is going to be substantially more expensive than the cost right now. The bridge deal would get you a discount for the next 2-3 years, but increase his cap hit for years 4-6 relative to the 6-year contract version. So what is more important, that he’s on a good deal for the next 3 years, or the 3 years after? The bridge will make more sense for 2021-2024, but a long-term will make more sense for 2024-2027, if he’s good. This landscape is why some buy into the “Burn the Bridge” philosophy wherein players you believe in are almost always given long-term deals, and players you don’t are likely traded because their value will never be higher than it is now.

But, as of 2021, most (all) NHL GMs do not buy into this philosophy. As such, given that there is just one season of NHL data on both of these players, I’d expect each of them to get a bridge deal that sucks up that last 3 years of their restricted free agency. Due to his goal scoring and higher usage, I expect Sharangovich to get slightly more.

None of the top-end RFAs (Bratt, Zacha, etc.) for the Devils recently have been given over $3M AAV for a bridge deal so I think a 3-year $3M AAV ($9M total) contract for Sharangovich is very reasonable and Kuokkanen feels closer to the Coleman ($1.8M) deal so I’ll say 3 years at $2M AAV.

That’s what I project will happen. As to what I’d personally do? I’d certainly be willing to discuss a longer term deal with Sharangovich assuming the AAV could be kept within reason, but I don’t anticipate that is the route Fitzy will take.

Your Thoughts

What do you guys think of these two players? Would you re-sign either of them to longer than a bridge deal? Do you think one or both of them will struggle to stay in the lineup over the next 2-3 years or beyond? Are either of them long-term key pieces? Would you look to trade either of their rights?

Thanks as always for reading and leave your thoughts in the comments below.