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Has Jesper finally Arrived?

The Devils have a young Swedish forward named Jesper playing the best hockey of his career. Can he keep it up?

New Jersey Devils v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

No, this is not me taking a victory lap for calling Jesper Bratt a core player for the Devils. I’m saving that one for after the season. This is me wondering if the other Jesper B. (Boqvist) has finally arrived as an NHL player. Or are we just watching a flash in the pan for a player who is being given more of an opportunity because the Devils are a bad team.

Boqvist, the 23 year-old Swedish center, was originally drafted 36th overall in the 2nd round of the 2017 NHL draft. He spent a couple seasons developing in the SHL following his draft year before making the transition to North America in the 2019-20 season. While Boqvist managed to appear in 35 NHL games in his D+3 year, he finished with just 4 points (all goals) in his rookie season in New Jersey. In the AHL, he had more success however, with 11 points in 19 games. This has been the pattern for Boqvist in his tenure in North America. Each season he has split time between the AHL and NHL and managed to impress at the AHL level while never really clicking at the highest professional league. This isn’t particularly surprising, most non-first round draft picks take more than a couple years to fully make the jump to the NHL. But for a player known for skill and skating ability, he seemed to show very little of that, even in terms of flashes, in the NHL despite being given more than a cup of coffee in each season.

From my perspective, and full disclaimer that this is my own perception/eye-test from what I recall of his games, Boqvist seemed to be a perimeter player in Sweden, where he had much more time to read the play from the outside. When he came over to North America he was skilled enough to handle the AHL, but he struggled to make decisions with the faster pace of the NHL where defenders close quick. He wasn’t able to take advantage of his speed and skill to make those same plays he could in the AHL or SHL. I’d like to say that all of that changed this year and Boqvist looked like a different player to me from the start of training camp. But to be quite honest, I pretty much gave up on Boqvist after last season and nothing I saw early this season gave me any reason to change my opinion. Maybe that was too harsh and impatient of me. I am willing to admit that I tend to be quick to give up on prospects not named Jacob Josefson that aren’t able to demonstrate any success early on (meaning either on the scoresheet or in the underlying numbers). I’ve revised that to include players who look the part if they’re young enough (Bratt, Hughes, and probably Mercer fall into that category), but Boqvist doesn’t fit these categories. He hasn’t shown any great play-driving ability (consistently a negative CF% and xGF% player) he is definitely not the next John Madden defensively ($), and he’s certainly not putting up big point totals considering he’s currently at a career best 12 points in 27 games. As for the looking the part, well, this recent stretch of games is the first I’ve really seen of him looking anything like a full-time NHLer.

So is Boqvist just a late bloomer who is finally starting to figure out how to play at the NHL level? Or is this just a blip in the radar we’ll have forgotten about 6 months from now?

The first thing I will point out in his defense is that Boqvist is currently fifth among Devils forwards in xEVO (even strength offense) this season (via evolving hockey $). But that probably says more about the Devils than it does about Boqvist. Second, since his insertion back into the line-up on 1/27 against Tampa Bay, Boqvist has easily played the best hockey of his career. In addition to 8 points in 13 games during this stretch, he’s managed a CF% above 50% and is 4th on the team in xGF% at 55.77%. Compare this to the 15 games he played prior where he had a 47.43% CF% and an xGF% south of 40% and I think I can be forgiven for not thinking very highly of the other Jesper prior to a few weeks ago. This still doesn’t really answer my question, because plenty of NHL washouts had good stretches of play, but it is a stark contrast, so it’s worth digging into a little more.

What changed?

Well, my first thought is that in the past he’s been moved around to different positions and last year he spent time at all 3 forward positions, IIRC. I thought I’d see something similar earlier this year but according to naturalstattrick, he’s been pretty much exclusively used at center this season. Certainly the quality of linemates has improved slightly and become more stable as he’s settled in between Tatar and Johnsson as the 3C since late January. There isn’t really another obvious explanation that I can see that isn’t simply crafting a narrative. He could feel more confident in his role in the line-up, it could be that he meshes well with Tatar and Johnsson, or he switched equipment, or got a good pep talk, or a combination of these and 20 other factors. I can say that from my own anecdotal viewings of him, it appears like he’s using his speed to attack more in all facets of the game. Both on the forecheck as well as as a puck-carrier. Both of his points on Monday evening against Vancouver showcase this pretty well.

Regardless of the reason, I think it is promising that his underlying metrics have followed along with his scoring rates. The whole point of analytics is to be able to more accurately predict future behavior in order to make smarter, better-informed decisions; and what these numbers tell us is that Boqvist isn’t just on a hot streak, he’s legit playing good hockey. There’s an obvious sample size caveat here, as even these analytics need a lot more than 13 games of data to be anywhere near reliable at predicting future behavior with any sort of accuracy. I say that because ultimately, I am still skeptical that Boqvist will keep this up and that this is anything more than a stretch of really good hockey for a depth player. I have no qualms about saying I think that the Devils should try to deal him while his value is (probably) as hot as it’s ever been. On the other hand, I’ll also understand if Fitzgerald and co, along with a lot of fans disagree with me. Certainly it’s been nice to have a functional 3rd line for once.

Please leave your comments below and thank you for reading!