Most of the time, I have a larger point or something to dig into when I write about my favorite hockey team, the New Jersey Devils. This time is a bit different. I am throwing up my hands and saying, “I don’t get it.” It is honest. Unfulfilling, but honest. It is also worthy of detail because of how I got to this point of confusion. I have alluded to it in other posts and comments. It is time to dive into the confusion and remain somewhat confused about the usage of Yegor Sharangovich on the 2022-23 New Jersey Devils.
Who is Yegor Sharangovich Again?
I think starting with where Sharangovich came from as a Devil makes sense. It also highlights why his usage this season is confusing. Sharangovich was drafted as an overage prospect in the 2018 NHL Draft in the fifth round. The left-shooting center and winger hailed from Belarus and played for Dinamo Minsk in the KHL. As he was 20 years old at the draft, European, and out of contract, the Devils signed him to an Entry Level Contract in July 2018. He went right to the AHL affiliate, Binghamton, for two seasons and did not produce a whole lot.
The pandemic-shortened 2020-21 campaign saw several players go back to Europe to keep playing. Sharangovich was loaned back to Dinamo Minsk and proceeded to glow up. He put up an impressive 17 goals and 25 points in 34 games to be among league leading scorers when he was there. Sharangovich was playing big minutes in a boosted KHL. One wondered if he would get a chance to make the New Jersey roster when the NHL season resumed in 2021. He absolutely did. After 16 goals and 30 points in 54 games, it appeared the Devils found another late-round gem. His ELC was up, so GM Tom Fitzgerald signed him to a bridge deal worth $4 million over two seasons.
Sharangovich has since been in the NHL, only playing for Belarus’ national team outside of the Devils. He had a woeful start in 2021-22, but rebounded big time to put up 24 goals and 46 points in 76 games. This season would be a crucial one as it is the second and final season of his current contract. It has been a struggle, though. Sharangovich has found himself outside of the top six, away from Jack Hughes, and one has to wonder why. Lindy Ruff has been his head coach for all three seasons he has been in the NHL. Fitzgerald was an assistant GM when he was drafted and the GM when Sharangovich broke through. Yet, he has been receiving less ice time than Miles Wood. I do not get it. Let us go into some data to sort this out.
Sharangovich’s Usage in the NHL
Sharangovich’s ice time has absolutely dropped in 2022-23 compared with his last two seasons. Here is a chart breaking it down by situation. (Note: For this post, I collected the data prior to the back-to-back set in Detroit and against St. Louis. Short of Sharangovich scoring a bunch against St. Louis, this will not impact the points made in this post.)
While there is still about a half of season left to play, it is clear that Sharangovich has fallen out of favor with the coaching staff somehow. He went from playing a significant amount in total to averaging two fewer minutes, something more akin to a depth forward. His even strength ice time has been reduced by about two minutes per game. Sharangovich’s power play time went from being on a secondary unit to not being on a unit at all. The only increase is in Sharangovich’s shorthanded ice time - which has not made up for the decreases elsewhere.
I understand that Andrew Brunette and Ryan McGill replaced Mark Recchi and Alain Nasreddine for this season. Yet, as I understand it, those two are not in charge of the minutes, especially at even strength. Ruff is still the boss. If Sharangovich is receiving fewer minutes, then Ruff feels he is not worthy of additional minutes.
To be fair, there have been some roster developments between 2021-22 and 2022-23 that would impact Sharangovich’s spot. Ahead of the season, one could have thought that Ondrej Palat could be a reason. However, Palat has missed so much of this season that he is not a factor at the moment. When he returns, it will be one more obstacle for Sharangovich to receive more minutes. Still, there are only four roster spots for a top-six winger available. Jesper Bratt had one locked up. Dawson Mercer has been primarily used as a winger this season. Tomas Tatar has been very good in 5-on-5 and productive alongside Nico Hischier for a change. Erik Haula has been seen to take draws for Jack Hughes and shift to wing after the faceoff. There is your Palat-less four and Sharangovich is not one of them.
However, I am not quite comfortable with leaving it there. There have been games, particularly in December when the team was slumping, where Mercer was dropped from the top-six. Fabian Zetterlund had some games where he at least started next to Hischier. Bratt has shifted between Hughes and Hischier, so it is not like Ruff has had Tatar-Hischier-Bratt set in stone. But instead of giving Sharangovich an opportunity, he was more likely to be the victim of a shortened bench. Consider his most common teammates at 5-on-5 this season per Natural Stat Trick.
I wrote back in August that Sharangovich may ultimately be a complementary winger. While he has had some time with Hughes this season, it has not been enough to say he has been given the chance he had in the last two seasons next to Hughes. It is a big drop off to go from #86 to #70 Jesper Boqvist. To be fair, the combination has not been bad at all. An xGF% of over 50% with a teammate is good; one closer to 60% is great. Related to that, it appears Sharangovich was even better when Mercer was demoted to a lower line; a big improvement over 2021-22. Yet, it is clear that Sharangovich not getting the time he used to have with Hughes is a drop off. It supports that Sharangovich has been relegated to a bottom-six forward position.
By the way, Sharangovich’s time with Ryan Graves or John Marino (who just finished outside of the top five) has went rather poorly as per expected goals. It may be that Sharangovich benefits when playing with a defensive pairing that is meant to do more than just defend. Something that is seen with his time with Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler (who has often been with a more offensive defender), or Damon Severson (yes, he’s below 50% in 2021 but it is a far cry better than his time with P.K. Subban). It is something to keep in mind if/when Marino returns.
It is clear that Sharangovich’s ice time has been cut. What makes this confusing is that it is not that Sharangovich has been any worse on the ice.
Sharangovich’s 5-on-5 Performances in the NHL
Sharangovich broke into the NHL and stayed in the NHL in large part of being a productive winger. He has remained as such even with less ice time this season compared with his last two. As of January 3, 2023, here is Sharangovich’s counting stats and his rate stats.
Despite a recent goal-drought and a reduction in ice time, Sharangovich is scoring goals at a rate similar to last season and producing points on par with the last two seasons he has had in the NHL. He is firing shots on net at a rate just below last season; he has generated more scoring and high-danger scoring chances himself than in his past two seasons; and he has continued to beat the expected goals model. This is a player who is still generating offense even with being kept away from Jack Hughes from the past two seasons and averaging more than two fewer minutes per game. Sure, he had a goal drought of 10 games that was broken in the win over Florida. That was when most of the team was - and for some players, still are - slumping on offense.
This makes it more confusing to me that Sharangovich did not receive a chance to move up in the roster or get more power play time. Even with a lull in goal scoring, Sharangovich’s production rates have been about where they were for the last two seasons. That he has generated more chances is even a positive improvement. Ruff surely knew that Sharangovich next to, say, Jack Hughes could be productive. He saw it in the past two seasons. This would not have 100% guaranteed a smaller winless streak or more goals scored, but it was something worth trying as it could have helped. Likewise, Ruff could have just given Sharangovich and his linemates more minutes. It was not as if the Michael McLeod-centered line was generating much along with the other units at the time.
Furthermore, it is not as if Sharangovich’s presence on the ice has been a problem either. Here are his on-ice rates in 5-on-5 play for the last three seasons.
I can agree that Sharangovich is playing softer minutes than he did in the previous two. Shifts with Hughes are likely going to draw stiffer competition than shifts with Boqvist. I do not think that is a controversial thought. Still, Sharangovich has never been a drain on the Devils in 5-on-5 play. Rates of offense when Sharangovich has been on the ice this season have been good even with lesser teammates and fewer minutes. Almost entirely better than what they were in 2021-22 except for Corsi and shot rates. The on-ice percentages have been well above 50% across the board, a big jump from a dismal 2021 Devils season.
Again, as with the production, I look at this and scratch my head as far as what the coaching staff wants from Sharangovich. He is producing at rates not that much different than last season. On the ice, he is far from hindering the Devils’ play in 5-on-5. Even if you think Sharangovich is just a complementary winger, these are still quite good rates and ones that warrant regular ice time. Sharangovich is doing this mostly away form Hughes and other top-six forwards. It speaks well to how he is performing even with less ice time and presumably weaker competition. Why was he not given a chance to play up with them when the opportunity was there to shake things up in December? Given that he is producing, why not have him on the secondary power play unit than Haula’s two-goal-and-counting season? Why is he still having games with less ice time than Miles Wood? I do not get it.
Sharangovich’s Shorthanded Performances in the NHL
What I also do not get is Sharangovich’s increase in shorthanded ice time. If we look at his on-ice rates in shorthanded ice time relative to other Devils forwards (I used 30 minutes as a cut-off), then Sharangovich does not rate well at all. Especially in this season. Check it out:
Sure, he is getting more ice time this season and his higher rates may be a result of facing more primary power play units. Still, when Sharangovich is killing a penalty, the opposition’s power play is performing better and scoring more goals compared with other Devils forwards. These numbers suggest that Sharangovich should not be averaging over two minutes per game on a PK. If anything, they suggest that he really should not be on a penalty kill. The stats were relatively OK in 2021 but he was among the worst among qualified Devils forwards since then. From attempts allowed to expected goals to high-danger chances allowed to actual goals, Sharangovich is seeing the most against compared with Nico Hischier, Mercer, McLeod, Haula, and Nathan Bastian - who is currently injured. This is not good. And it is not as if Sharangovich’s shorthanded on-ice rate stats rank well among forwards in the NHL. I feel confident in stating that Sharangovich may not be so good at killing calls.
I can agree that the Devils coaches putting Sharangovich on penalty killing duty is a sign that they think he can handle situations in his own zone well enough. I can agree that they would not put defensively questionable players on a penalty killing unit. I understand that the Devils’ penalty kill is quite successful as a team relative to the NHL this season. I cannot agree that Sharangovich is all that good at killing penalties. The data in the chart supports that. To that end, it confuses me that Sharangovich plays regularly on the PK much less than he has received more time on it compared with last season.
Mind you, these are all counting stats and rate stats. Writing this up, I tried to think about what else could have led to Sharangovich losing some kind of favor with the coaching staff. Everyone makes mistakes in hockey, but Sharangovich has not committed massive errors like Damon Severson, MacKenzie Blackwood, or others. It cannot be penalties. Sharangovich has just eight penalty minutes, all minor penalties; and he has drawn four. It is not as if Sharangovich is playing with a significant injury; he continues to get games.
The best I can think of is Sharangovich has a low on-ice PDO. The Devils have shot at 6.73% and the goalies have stopped 90.11% of all shots when Sharangovich takes a shift in 5-on-5 hockey. It could be that the coaches think Sharangovich has something to do with that. When the team needs goals and needs to give up fewer goals, perhaps they see Sharangovich as part of the issue. I do not fully agree if that is how they are seeing it. It is not Sharangovich’s job to stop pucks. It is not Sharangovich’s fault his teammates are putting in more pucks. He’s shooting at 10% himself in 5-on-5 play, which is in line with past seasons of 10.42% and 11.94%. Furthermore, Sharangovich is not the very worst in either on-ice stat. Erik Haula has a worse on-ice save percentage (90.05%) and he continues to get prime minutes with the Devils’ best player in 5-on-5. A low on-ice shooting percentage for the team did not keep Nathan Bastian (6.09%) or Brendan Smith (6.19%) from getting minutes. Then again, Sharangovich would not be the first player to be treated differently by a coach than what the facts and figures show.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
I am left back to where I was when I first pondered this question. Why is Sharangovich being used this way? I don’t get it. It is to the player’s credit that his rates of production has not dropped all that much despite a reduction in ice time and not playing with as talented teammates as in past seasons. It is also to Sharangovich’s credit that his on-ice rates in 5-on-5 have remained strong despite the drop in the lineup. However, this all points to me wondering why he is not receiving more ice time given his contributions. (And if you think Sharangovich could be doing more, then consider that he may need more than 10-11 minutes to actually do more.) Especially when the team was slumping and looking for something to spark the team’s offense beyond whatever Jack Hughes was doing most nights. Especially as the team’s secondary power play unit is bereft of offense.
If he was producing less or getting beaten more often in 5-on-5 or making a lot of notable errors like penalties and goal-costing turnovers, then I would understand this drop in the forward lineup. Likewise, if Tatar, Haula, and Mercer were performing that so much better than Sharangovich, then I would get it too. Neither has happened. So what is the deal? Is there something Sharangovich is or is not doing that I am missing and Ruff & Co. have not?
Even if this is all some kind of long game to make Sharangovich’s third contract not cost so much, then that seems to me like cutting off the nose (potential success) to spite the face (cap and roster management). There is no guarantee that the 24-year old Sharangovich, a player drafted by the Devils and his current contract given by the current GM, is going to play like this for the future. With other wingers also coming out of contract after this season, it is in the Devils’ best interest to know whether Sharangovich is someone they should want to keep around beyond a short term. I can understand wanting to see how he plays away from Hughes as part of that. But I do not understand why this means Sharangovich has to average two fewer minutes per game in total; get next to no power play time despite a second unit containing Wood and Haula; have Jesper Boqvist be his most common teammate; limit his ice time such that that McLeod’s line plays more at even strength; have him effectively benched when Boqvist or Alexander Holtz are subject to a bench-shortening; and have him play as much on the penalty kill when the stats show that he may not be so good at killing penalties. It is as if the coaches want to turn Sharangovich into a third-line grinder/hard-working type of winger (think Jay Pandolfo) despite the evidence showing that, no, he is a secondary scoring player who needs some minutes to actually do some scoring and push play forward. And he has not been bad at all despite the cut in ice time and role.
I do not get it. I do not get what the Devils are doing with Yegor Sharangovich this season.
Maybe there is something more obvious I am missing. Maybe there is something more (or less) that Sharangovich can do. Maybe the coaches want something entirely different than what Sharangovich provides. Maybe Ruff & Co. are just missing the mark on Sharangovich despite Ruff coaching him in the prior two seasons. What do you think? What’s your take on Sharangovich’s usage as a Devil this season? Please leave your answers and other Sharangovich-related thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.