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The Devils’ Depth at Wing Hinges on Bouncebacks and Breakouts

The Devils did some minor shuffling of their forward group and added Ondrej Palat this offseason, but they will still be in a position to rely on players who disappointed in 2021-22 to step up and provide depth this coming season.

New Jersey Devils v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NHLI via Getty Images

This summer, free agency and the trade market were all about big talent on the wings. The Devils were linked with a number of top players at the position, including Kevin Fiala, Alex DeBrincat, Johnny Gaudreau, and Matthew Tkachuk. They did not end up landing anyone from that group, ending up with someone more in the “solid top six guy” category with Ondrej Palat being their biggest acquisition. Palat is a good player with championship pedigree, but the Devils adding only him means that their depth on the wings could be a hindrance heading into the coming season.

The Devils can assemble a strong-enough top six with the players they have in the fold right now but beyond that things get a bit dicier quickly. The top four wingers are likely to shake out with Palat, Jesper Bratt, Yegor Sharangovich, and Dawson Mercer filling the spots in some fashion to begin the season; a potentially solid group to flank Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, even if it relies on some continued progress from Mercer and Sharangovich. Who does that leave to fill in behind them, though? A mixture of rookies, disappointing veterans, and grinders. The likely group to fill things out on the wings includes:

  • Tomas Tatar
  • Andreas Johnsson
  • Alexander Holtz
  • Miles Wood
  • Nathan Bastian
  • Jesper Boqvist
  • Fabian Zetterlund

Some other players who will start at the AHL level like Nolan Foote, Tyce Thompson, and Graeme Clarke could also conceivably figure in, but a big leap in performance plus some substantial injury carnage probably has to occur for them to feature significantly.

With a healthy roster, this probably amounts to a decent enough group to populate an NHL bottom six. However, if (when) injuries start to arise further up the roster, the Devils will be relying on improved performances from at least some of the players in this group to plug any holes in the top six and keep the bottom six churning effectively. I think the above group can be more-or-less split into two subgroups, one that can conceivably fit into a top-six under the right circumstances and another that should only be getting big minutes if the roster is wrecked by injuries. The latter group consists of Wood, Bastian, Boqvist, and (if he makes the roster) Zetterlund. The former, though, is a key group for the Devils this season. For the Devils to succeed in an 82-game season, they are probably going to need some significant contributions from at least one or two from the Tatar/Johnsson/Holtz group in 2022-23.

Of course, the past couple seasons, to varying extents, have been a bit bumpy for everyone in that group. Alexander Holtz is, of course, a guy that the Devils hope matures into a long-term goal-scoring option for the team but he struggled to get a foothold in the NHL in his handful of appearances with the big club in 2021-22. He did well enough at the AHL level, putting up about a point per game and 0.5 goals per game in 52 games in Utica, but he will need to take a leap to be a major NHL factor this coming season. The other two players in the group, though, Tatar and Johnsson, are players who have had success in the NHL and who were brought in in the past two offseasons to ostensibly be top-six contributors.

It has, of course, not worked out that way for either to this point. In a lot of ideal scenarios for this offseason that included landing a bigger target at wing, people were targeting the Tatar and Johnsson contracts as ones the team should offload and for pretty good reason; neither has really lived up to expectations in New Jersey. Johnsson is now on his third season in New Jersey, with his first being a rough campaign where he managed only 11 points in 50 games, despite some theoretically promising underlying numbers. He came blazing out of the gate in 2021-22, putting up nine goals and 18 points in his opening 20 games. It wouldn’t last, with Johnsson putting up just four more goals and 17 more total points over his final 51 games of the season.

Tatar, meanwhile, never even really got off the ground in his opening season in New Jersey, being largely invisible in year one of what was hoped to be a productive two-year contract for the Devils. He plodded along to the tune of 15 goals and 15 assists over a 76-game campaign. Tatar’s season was largely devoid of memorable games (he had just three multi-point nights) or notably effective stretches of play. Even Tatar’s underlying numbers show a player who could best be described as “there” on most nights. Tatar failed to move the needle at all, and his anonymity certainly contributed to a thoroughly disappointing 2021-22 for the Devils.

-0% offensive xG impact, -2% defensive xG impact
Tatar xG impacts 2021-22

In this offseason, all three of the above-described players have been floated in potential trade scenarios, in Holtz’s case as part of a bigger package to bring back an established top talent, or for Tatar/Johnsson, as a salary dump to make way for other contracts. As it stands, it looks like everyone is staying put in New Jersey for now, meaning that the quality of depth on the wings is reliant on this group. For Holtz, he didn’t stick in the NHL last season but he did take a promising step with a strong season as a 19/20-year-old rookie. Plus, the fact that he (likely intentionally) only got 9 NHL games means that his entry-level contract was able to slide another year. Another step is certainly conceivable and perhaps expected from him.

As for the two disappointing prior summer acquisitions, for better or worse they remain in New Jersey heading into 2022-23. If Johnsson and Tatar can play at the levels originally expected/hoped from them when they arrived in Newark, they could provide a big boost to the outlook of this team. If the two of them can create some chemistry with the probable third-line center, Erik Haula, they could become an asset to the team as a stable veteran third line to back up the top six. The problem with these types of “ifs” is that they must be treated more like a bonus than an expectation. There are enough positives to sift out of some of the underlying numbers and things like Johnsson’s red hot October/November last year to not write off the possibility that they could provide strong depth for the Devils in 2022-23, but as we’ve been conditioned by the past several seasons, it is tough to be in a position to be relying on bounceback performances to power positive results. Barring any further maneuvering, though, that appears to be the position the Devils will find themselves in this season.