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Puckpedia: New Jersey Devils to Buy Out Janne Kuokkanen

NHL contract and salary cap resource site PuckPedia reported this morning that the New Jersey Devils are going to buy out Janne Kuokkanen. This post goes into why they would do such a thing.

Detroit Red Wings v New Jersey Devils
Janne Kuokkanen is getting bought out.
Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/NHLI via Getty Images

CapFriendly is not the only source of salary cap and contract information in the NHL. PuckPedia has a lot of the same resources. And, like CapFriendly, they can break some news. This morning, PuckPedia tweeted out that the New Jersey Devils are going to buy out winger Janne Kuokkanen.

PuckPedia’s tweet breaks down the cap impact of a buyout. Kuokkanen’s cap hit was $1.825 million and had a base salary of $1.95 million with a $100,000 signing bonus for 2022-23. The buyout reduces Kuokkanen’s cap hit to the low six figures. The Devils will save $1.625 million in the buyout for this coming season. They will have a dead cap hit of $325,000 next season, which is not much at all.

It is easy to look at this and grouse about how the Devils owners are being cheap. It would also be incorrect given that Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Dougie Hamilton each have contracts worth $50-60 million. Not to mention that the Devils will be spending much more than $2 million to retain their qualified RFAs. And there is a real possibility the Devils spend some significant sums of money on Wednesday. Much more than $1.95 million. No, I think this move was less about the money and more about the roster space.

Let us not forget that Kuokkanen had a really bad 2021-22 season. Look at the forward rate stats at Natural Stat Trick. When he was on the ice in 5-on-5 hockey, he averaged just over 12 minutes per game and the Devils put up 48.9% of the shooting attempts (CF%), just below 46.4% of the expected goals (xGF%), and actually scored roughly 42.2% of all goals (GF%). In other words, opposing players did quite well against the Devils when Kuokkanen took to the ice. Very few regulars put up worse rates. In terms of production, Kuokkanen put up six goals, 17 points, and 64 shots in 57 games. That is fewer goals and points from his 50 games in 2021 where he played mostly with Jack Hughes and Yegor Sharangovich. Kuokkanen’s performances saw him drop in the lineup and it was apparent he really needed those two more than they needed him. It was such a poor campaign that this coming season was going to be important for him to establish himself. It was the last year of his current contract and there is a plethora of forwards coming in. The Devils opted to not even have that happen.

Kuokkanen just turned 24 and while there may be some reasonable hope of a comeback, what would that even look like? To be a solid hand alongside Hughes and Sharangovich making and finishing plays? To hope something “clicks” with a different combination in the bottom six after a season full of changes at that part of the lineup? This buyout suggests that the Devils feel that whatever rebound season Kuokkanen could have, it may not be all that significant. They may as well let someone else have the opportunity to step up into the New Jersey lineup.

The Devils have plenty of people who could compete for a job in training camp later this year. As it is, the Devils have nine forwards signed for 2022-23. Re-signing all of their RFAs would add another six forwards (Bratt, Wood, Zacha, Boqvist, Zetterlund, Thompson). That’s 15 forwards on the books without even including signed players in Utica or any potential UFA signings the Devils could make from tomorrow onward. That is a number that includes Jesper Boqvist, Fabian Zetterlund, and Tyce Thompson who will have a real shot to making New Jersey and will have to battle for it. That count of 15 does not include Alexander Holtz, who is striving to make the NHL team this season; Nolan Foote, who has had a few call ups over the last two seasons; or Graeme Clarke, who could show something yet in the future. Again, this does not include anyone they may sign tomorrow. The Devils do need to improve at the wing position (among other areas) and have some opportunities for the not-quite-so-young group of forwards coming up. To do that, they need to make roster space.

Buying out Kuokkanen accomplishes that task. It opens up at least one spot, likely at wing. Someone like Zetterlund or even Thompson could backfill Kuokkanen’s contributions and even improve upon them if the idea is to keep the spot in the bottom six. If there are top-six implications, then Holtz may get a shot or it could go to a pending UFA signing. The Devils have a little more room at forward with this buyout and it cost them very little to do it. I really do think that is the driver of this decision. Besides, $1.625 million in savings is not much when the minimum salary is a little less than that and the Devils have over $25 million in cap space they can use.

It is a bit sad to see Kuokkanen go. He was one of the main returns from the Sami Vatanen trade a few years back. He had a real chance of being the first Finnish Devil to make an impact possibly more than, well, Vatanen. I thought he meshed well enough with Hughes and Sharangovich in 2021 to warrant a solid career in Newark. But that second season was that bad and his struggles to contribute away from those two really made him not as necessary to keep around. Better that the Devils cut ties now than hope for a better third season, I suppose. I wish Kuokkanen the best.

What do you make of the Devils buying out Kuokkanen? Who do you think will take his spot in the lineup? Does it make it more, less, or no difference in likelihood that the Devils splash some cash for a winger tomorrow? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Kuokkanen in the comments. Thank you for reading.