Things are going pretty well for the New Jersey Devils right now. They haven’t lost in almost a month, they’ve opened up a sizable lead in the Metropolitan Division, their stars look like stars, and everyone is feeling pretty good about the state of affairs for this team. It’s not even just locally, the league is positively buzzing about what the Devils are doing right now after years of toiling in the league’s cellar. The Devils are not only playing a winning brand of hockey, they are playing an extremely entertaining one as well. There is a long way to go in the season, but during this snapshot in time, the vibes probably haven’t been this good in New Jersey since May of 2012.
Many players are deserving of praise right now on the Devils, from the captain on down to the fourth liners, but today I want to put a quick spotlight on the rookie winger that has worked his way into a spot as a mainstay on the team’s top line, Fabian Zetterlund. John wrote a few weeks back about how the Devils should be icing Zetterlund every night if they want a boost and, sure enough, Zetterlund has come in and shown that he can be an impact player while playing important minutes.
Zetterlund is succeeding in a number of ways out on the ice, and he’s been this noticeable while pretty much only playing at 5-on-5 right now for Lindy Ruff’s squad. His point output is strong, particularly for a rookie who has received minimal power play time, and his underlying impacts are all looking great so far in his young career. Zetterlund has offensive chops, but he is definitely more than that. He is an irritant and a bulldog on the forecheck and he’s difficult to move off pucks due to his, uh, stature. Put it all together and Zetterlund brings exactly the type of element that people have so frequently clamored for on the Devils’ roster.
The samples are not huge at this point, and it’s tough to play in a much more favorable environment than the current red-hot iteration of the Devils, but despite that, Zetterlund is providing results that are tough to argue with. If we look below at his isolated expected goals impacts from Hockey Viz and his regularized adjusted plus minus (RAPM) from Evolving Hockey, we can see a player that is having unambiguously good effects on his team in both directions:
The Devils lost their home opener versus Detroit with Zetterlund in the lineup (though he played well and had a beautiful primary assist on a Miles Wood goal). Regardless of the strong performance in spite of the team results, Zetterlund sat for the next four games. It may have just been a product of a tight roster and a staff feeling around for what worked, but it felt like a little bit of a tough shake that Zetterlund found himself a spectator after an unambiguously good performance. The Devils would partially right the ship in his absence at the team level, and Zetterlund would eventually get another crack in the lineup, again against Detroit, with the Devils trying to bounce back from a tough 6-3 loss to the Caps where loose play and sloppy mistakes did them in.
That was 12 games ago, which, for those keeping score at home, ended up being the first in a winning streak that continues to this day. Now, Zetterlund may not be the one magic ingredient creating the Devils best stretch of hockey in two decades, but it’s hard to argue that the beefy Swede has not pressed things in the right direction here in New Jersey. He has looked absolutely at home on the top line, with the line of him, Nico Hischier, and Tomas Tatar absolutely pounding opponents at 5v5, to the tune of 70% of the expected goals and 89% of the actual goals since the line’s assembly. A guy like Zetterlund, who was a “maybe” to even make the roster in the first place, helping power an overwhelming first line is the kind of performance that can take a roster that looks good on paper and move it to being a potentially dominant one. To wit, having Jesper Bratt AND Jack Hughes available to use on your second line quickly makes a team a very problematic matchup for opponents.
On top of all the beep-boop numbers talk, Zetterlund is just a damn fun player to watch on top of everything else. He’s fast, he is very unafraid to let a shot rip when it’s there, he’s also a pretty good passer, and he has the kind of motor that makes him an extraordinary pain in the ass to opposing teams in general. It’s also no secret that Zetterlund is built like a brick [expletive]house, and we got a fun little example of how he’s not exactly the easiest object to move on the ice from poor Travis Hamonic on Saturday (see below).
Zetterlund barely has to notice a guy to bully him, and he does all of this while taking very few penalties. He has a lot of the forechecking and rush ability of a Miles Wood but the restraint and wherewithal of, well, not Miles Wood, so he can frequently be in the mix all over the ice without finding himself in the penalty box. That’s not necessarily a slam on Miles Wood, who’s been quite good in his own right so far, but it’s part of why Zetterlund works on the top line in a way that Wood never really has.
Put it all together, and the Devils seem to have found themselves a very strong contributor in Zetterlund going forward. This was the type of player I think the Devils were hoping they’d get when the grabbed Zetterlund in the third round in 2017. He had knee injury that derailed most of his 2018-19 season and interrupted his development, but he has showed continuous progress as a prospect over the past few seasons, and we seem to be seeing the culmination now.
Zetterlund was labeled a “competitive prick” by Tom Fitzgerald a couple years back in this Athletic profile and given the way he mixes that attitude with a pretty well-rounded skillset, it’s easy to see how he has quickly carved out a role on a team that has been a bit light on guys who do a good job pissing off their opponents. If Zetterlund can continue to raise the bar with his play, he will be a big problem for whoever stands across the ice from the Devils on any given night going forward.