As of August 9, General Manager Tom Fitzgerald has re-signed the last remaining restricted free agent among the New Jersey Devils. At least, the last one who will actually play for the Devils; Gilles Senn will be with HC Davos. The Devils announced on their website this afternoon that they have re-signed forward Janne Kuokkanen to a two-season contract worth a total of $3.65 million. Kuokkanen will be paid $1.6 million for 2021-22 and $2.05 million in the following season for a cap hit of $1.85 million. He will be a restricted free agent eligible for arbitration at the end of this contract in 2023.
When the Devils announced they re-signed Yegor Sharangovich four days ago, I guessed that Kuokkanen would get around the same amount. He did. A little less money, which I can understand as he did produce less than Sharangovich in 2021. But it is the same kind of deal. Kuokkanen has received a two-season “bridge” deal to show what he can do. Should Kuokkanen thrive, then he will get paid handsomely in two seasons. If not, then the Devils are not stuck with an extensive and/or expensive contract that they would have trouble moving on from.
The Devils acquired Kuokkanen back in February 2020 for Sami Vatanen. Kuokkanen would make his Devils debut on March 10, 2020. He did not do much in that one game, and it did not matter as the league shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12. During the 2020 portion of the 2020-21 season, Kuokkanen went on loan to Liiga to play with Kärpät. He had a fine spell, but not nearly as impressive as what Sharangovich was doing in Minsk. However, in training camp, it became apparent that both he and Sharangovich pushing hard to play for New Jersey instead of Binghamton. They did. After a few weeks, Kuokkanen started finding the scoresheet and finding shifts with Jack Hughes.
Kuokkanen to Hughes’ left and Sharangovich to Hughes’ right made for one of the few bright spots for the Devils in most games. They constantly pushed play forward and gave the opposition plenty of time in their own end of the rink. Hughes’ edgework, reads, and hustle made him electric. Sharangovich stood out for his shot and how he could “get lost” on offense. Kuokkanen was more subtle in his contributions. At first glance, it did not seem he did much. Until you notice he was consistently supporting the cycles and attacks that went on. Until you noticed he occupied spaces to warrant attention from the opposition that helped keep the other two going. Until you noticed Kuokkanen’s name also appearing on the scoresheet with Hughes and Sharangovich. The Finnish winger completed the trio to be the closest thing to a consistently effective line.
You can see it in some of the underlying numbers. Kuokkanen finished ahead of the median among team forwards in 5-on-5 on-ice rates per Natural Stat Trick. When you look at common teammates, Kuokkanen worked quite well in the run of play with Sharangovich and Hughes - and Sharangovich without Kuokkanen was not pretty. The 5-on-5 play is crucial to Kuokkanen’s accomplishments last season as 6 of his 8 goals and 20 of his 25 points last season came in 5-on-5 play. Only Sharangovich had more points in the most common situation in hockey on the Devils last season and he only had one more point than Kuokkanen. This is all to state that Kuokkanen had a fine rookie season as a top-six left winger for the Devils. He has earned this new deal, which is also friendly to the team’s overall cap.
What does the future hold for Kuokkanen? That remains to be seen. There are a few questions I wonder about Kuokkanen. Is he a top-six caliber winger for the long-term? Can he contribute more on special teams? Can he perform with Nico Hischier if the coaches opt for Tomas Tatar to play with Hughes? Or with a different center entirely? What could Kuokkanen do in a full 82-game season as the 50 games he played last season were the most he ever played in the NHL? And how soon can he establish himself as the best Finnish forward in Devils history (he’s got the inside track on that, unless you’re the world’s biggest Tuomo Ruutu fan)? To that end, I think the two-season deal is appropriate as those answers will start to appear after more games. Better to do that then hope they are right through a longer and more lucrative extension.
With this signing, the Devils may be quiet for the next few weeks. They have no other RFAs to re-sign. It remains to be seen whether the Devils will add someone - like a bottom-six center - or make a deal happen. It is possible as the Devils still have just under $13 million in cap space and only 42 players under contract. Yet, this could be it in terms of offseason activities if nothing is really worth making a move in Fitzgerald’s eyes. There may be a rookie camp or some such since the Acadie-Bathurst Titan congratulated Zach Biggar for being invited to one. I do not know if this is the camp that will start on September 15 or something earlier for something like the Prospect Challenge. Camp is only a little over a month away so the wait for action will not be too long.
I do like the Kuokkanen contract similar to how I liked the Sharangovich contract. I hope the 23-year old winger continues to grow in New Jersey and puts himself in a position to earn more money as that would mean he is helping the Devils. I do not anticipate anyone among The People Who Matter being against this news. I still want to read your take on this announcement. What do you think of Kuokkanen’s new contract? Do you think this is fair for the player and the team? Do you think Kuokkanen will over-perform this contract in the next two seasons? What do you expect from him in this coming season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Kuokkanen being re-signed in the comments. Thank you for reading.