Much of the heat this season from fans regarding the Devils play has, rightly, focused on the goaltending and coaching. I’m not here to argue with that. At various points in the season these facets of the game have cost the Devils big time, whether it was the power play for most of 2021, or the goaltending for most of this season. But when things fall apart there is always plenty of blame to go around. Get your torches and pitchforks ready, it’s time go point some fingers.
This is the one I’m most on the fence about. Honestly, Tatar hasn’t been all that bad. At least, he’s been much better than I thought based on my eye test. Not that that’s very difficult, I feel like I forget he’s on the team at least once a game and I still confuse him with Jesper Boqvist because I’m so used to the latter wearing #90. But I almost took him off of this list. The underlying metrics have been positive, as you can see below, and I’ll always trust the data over my own recollection.
So why did I decide to include him anyway? Well, for the same reason that Andreas Johnsson could be called a disappointment last season. Underlying impacts are great for a lot of reasons, but if I’m solely talking about results this season, I think it’s fair to call him a disappointment, even if that’s mainly a product of bad luck, which is not certain. Besides, not everyone’s model is as positive regarding Tatar as Patrick Bacon’s. Evolving hockey lists Tatar with an xGF% of 2.2, which is good for 10th on the roster, certainly not up to his standards. His xGAR/60 rate of 0.237 is the worst of his career outside his first season in the league, where he only played in 9 games. And his GAR value of -0.8 doesn’t paint any rosier of a picture. Dom Luszczyszyn’s GSVA model doesn’t think much of his performance either. As you can see below, Tatar is underperforming in every category. Simply put, Tatar has been underwhelming at best this year in New Jersey.
Kuokkanen was always the third wheel on the Hughes line last year in my mind. He was a nice piece from the Vatanen trade with Carolina back at the 2020 trade deadline and had a solid rookie season last year alongside Sharangovich and the aforementioned Hughes. But while he demonstrated good vision and passing ability that allowed him to keep up on the Devils top line last season, he never really showed the ability to succeed away from the Hughes line. That trend has continued this season, where he’s been relegated to a 4th line role and hasn’t really given the coaching staff much reason to give him more ice time.
I think the case can be made that he’s not being utilized properly by the coaching staff and that his success with Hughes and Sharangovich last season should earn him a look alongside more talented players. Kuokkanen is not your traditional checking line forward by any means. He’s not a physical or speedy player to disrupt the forecheck or buzz around as part of an energy line so he’s miscast in his current role alongside McLeod and Bastian.
This is Kuokkanen’s WOWY data (via naturalstattrick) when playing with and without Jack Hughes last season. He certainly wasn’t a drag on that unit, and even if the coaching staff doesn’t want to break up the Hughes line (which I think is a thing that should happen), there is no reason he couldn’t be given an opportunity with Hischier for a game or two. Regardless, there’s no question he’s been a disappointment this year. Kuokkanen has been one of the worst regulars on the team this season, with a xGAR of -1 and GAR of -0.4. Kuokkanen is under contract for next season, but it’s hard to see him having a long-term future with this team if he doesn’t turn things around this season.
This isn’t something I want to spend much time on. I’ve touched on Ty Smith once recently, and I don’t want it to seem like I’m piling on or beating a dead horse. I really want him to succeed... but I just don’t see it right now. His rookie year saw him demonstrate skill and offensive ability from the blue-line that had GM Tom Fitzgerald call him a core piece of the team, but last season also came with a lot of red flags. This year is tough to fully evaluate. He started out on IR and it’s reasonable to expect someone who hasn’t even played a full NHL season’s worth of games to need some time to get up to speed. But he had time, and far from taking a step forward, Smith looked lost for much of this season. Smith is last on the team in both xGAR and GAR, with values of -4.7 and -3.6, respectively. I would be more understanding if he was at least a net positive offensively, but that isn’t the case. Smith is still young enough that he can turn things around and it’s possible that he hasn’t been fully healthy at all this season, seeing as many players play with nagging injuries and it’s very likely he returned to the line-up the first time less than 100%. Hopefully, when Smith next returns to the line-up he can show more of the talent and skill that made him the 17th overall pick in 2018.
The final player I will touch on today is the Devils big free agent acquisition from last offseason. Hamilton’s season is one of two acts (so far). At the start of the season, Hamilton was fantastic. He more than lived up to my expectations anyway. According to naturalstattrick, during the first couple months of the season he led the team with a CF% north of 57% and was third behind Bratt and Johnsson with an xGF% of 56.32%. Since then? Well he is looking at a CF% of 48.68% and an xGF% of 45.24%, which is bad, just in case you were wondering. This not-so-coincidentally aligns perfectly with the Anaheim game on 11/2, where he played 8:40 of ice time and left the game after the first period. Hamilton almost certainly has been playing through injury since that game, which should alleviate any concerns about his play suddenly dropping off a cliff, if such concerns existed. Still, injuries may provide a reason and excuse poor performances, but that doesn’t make the end result any less disappointing. It’s worth noting that his early season play was so dominant that even with his drop off he is still at an xGAR of 3.5, good for 7th on the team. Hopefully, while Hamilton heals from his recent jaw fracture he can also fully recover from whatever injury was ailing him during the last couple months and he can return to his early season form. Going forward, I still expect him to need a strong defensive partner to mitigate any shortcomings he has in that area, and I really like the idea of trying him out with Siegenthaler.
This has been a very frustrating season so far, and we still have more than half of the games to play. From the first half(ish) of the 2021-22 season, these are the non-goaltenders who stand out to me as disappointments for one reason or another. Do you agree with the names I listed? Would you add any other skaters to the list? Am I being too harsh on anyone? Please leave your comments below and thank you for reading!