One thing you can’t say about the Devils is that they are lacking in young talent, particularly at forward. From budding superstar Jack Hughes, to top end talent in Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt, to up-and-comers such as Dawson Mercer, Alexander Holtz, and Yegor Sharangovich the Devils are steadily putting together a young, talented forward group that has the potential to be one of the best units in the league. And the Devils could potentially bolster this unit even further with the 2nd overall pick in this year’s NHL Entry Draft, either through a trade or by selecting either Slafkovský or Cooley. As you can see below, even with this team finishing as poorly in the standings as they did, they managed to be a top 10 offensive team (9th in goals for, 10th in xGF), in large part due to the talent of the aforementioned players.
Surrounding these six young forwards are veteran Tomas Tatar, along with a still young, but more fully developed group of forwards in Andreas Johnsson, Miles Wood, and Pavel Zacha. I expect at least one of these four to be gone next season, preferably two, but that might be setting my expectations too high. Even if they do trade both Zacha and Johnsson, I expect that at least one of them will be replaced externally.
Then, there is another group of young forwards on the fringe of the roster. Many of whom will be battling in the fall for their spot in the NHL. And with as few as 2-3 line-up spots available for the taking, and that’s assuming no other moves, expect the competition to be fierce. The candidates include McLeod, Bastian, Kuokkanen, Boqvist, Zetterlund, Thompson, and Foote. While McLeod (C) and Bastian (RW) have been mainstays on the 4th line the last couple seasons, given that this team hasn’t exactly enjoyed unparalleled success in their tenure in New Jersey, it’s probably safe to say they aren’t (or at least shouldn’t be) locks for line-up spots on the 2022-23 New Jersey Devils.
Before I go on, I will say that despite feeling that there isn’t a whole lot of difference in terms of value added among this group of players, that’s more a matter of me not being confident in the sample size for several of these players. I have a definite ranking in my head of where I feel these players belong, for example, Bastian and Boqvist have both looked like useful NHLers in 50+ games this year, while Nolan Foote and Tyce Thompson have yet to play in more than a handful of NHL games. On the other hand, if someone from five years in the future time-traveled back to now and told me that the latter two ended up having better careers than the former, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. To me, that’s enough to group them all together.
So, let’s run through this group of players. 23 year-old Jesper Boqvist (C/W) established himself as a capable NHL player this season, something I doubted after his first two NHL campaigns. His countryman, 22 year-old Fabian Zetterlund (RW) similarly showed he can make an impact at the highest level of professional hockey, albeit in a limited sample. Janne Kuokkanen (W) had a disastrous sophomore season with New Jersey and pretty much played his way out of the line-up, but he has another year under contract to show he can be a regular NHLer. Nolan Foote (LW) and Tyce Thompson (RW) are probably the long-shots if you were handicapping this competition, the former due to performance and the latter because he hasn’t really played a whole lot this season due to injury. Depending on how each of these players develop in the coming months, it is very possible that many of them will provide similar value and pretty much be interchangeable. Because of this, it may not matter from our perspective who wins these competitions (although I’ll still likely complain about it) and instead it will be about what characteristics the coaching staff/management feels are most valuable to the team. The good news is this gives the Devils some options because while there are some significant commonalities among these players, they each bring something a little different to the table.
When examining this group of players, one thing I will give the Devils front office some props for (including Ray Shero) is having a plan. I may not always agree with that plan, but it’s nice to know that they have a plan and can execute it effectively. In this case the front office identified specific traits they wanted in their prospects and went out and found those things. I say effectively because we’re talking about some of these players potentially being NHLers instead of the next Connor Chatham. Foote, Thompson, and Zetterlund can all boast a hard, heavy shot. Boqvist and McLeod are excellent skaters, and nearly every player in this group is known for their sigh compete level and all of them have some element of size (Boqvist is pretty average, I suppose) whether that’s vertically, or, in Zetterlund’s case, horizontally.
While many of these players have similar traits, as I said, they do profile differently, which gives the Devils some options, whether that’s for their opening night line-up, or for an injury call-up. Someone like Zetterlund appears capable of playing up and down the line-up and, if anything, appears more comfortable when he’s given more freedom to create offensively. Boqvist, and, if he can turn things around, Janne Kuokkanen offer skill and playmaking, but are not your traditional 4th liners. On the other hand, McLeod is pretty much useful exclusively as a 4th line center to take face-offs (over-rated) and play on the penalty kill. Bastian is useful defensively and on special teams, and is a big physical presence (if you value that sort of thing) but like McLeod has not been as effective when moved up the line-up. Nolan Foote and Tyce Thompson each offer a plus shot but are unproven as of yet. My impression of both from very limited samples over the last couple years is that they struggle to keep up with the NHL pace of play, but if they can figure that out their ceiling seems to be as average 3rd liners, with Foote bringing more physicality to the table, while Thompson may be the better offensive player.
When you finish in 28th place in the league, there needs to be some competition for roster spots, and the Devils appear to have that. Hopefully, at least one or two of the young forwards on the fringe of the Devils roster can establish themselves next training camp and become the next Sharangovich or Mercer, but if nothing else the Devils have some affordable options to fill out their bottom 6.
What do you think about the some of the prospects on the fringe of the Devils roster? Do you have high hopes for any of them in particular? Who do you think makes the cut? Do you agree with my assessment of where these players fit into the Devils line-up in the future? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!