Now that the New Jersey Devils 2020-21 season is officially over, this is the time to talk about all of the team’s members and their contributions both individually, on their respective lines, and within the team overall. The young line of Jack Hughes, Yegor Sharangovich, and Janne Kuokkanen meshed well and was a big help in getting the Devils some points this season once they were next to each other on the ice. Here, we will talk about each member of that line and their “grade” for this season, including both their strengths and weaknesses that have showed throughout.
Jack Hughes: B+
After an underwhelming rookie season, the first overall pick of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft definitely improved his game this year, something that was well-needed. From what was said about the 20-year-old center putting on some extra muscle in the offseason, we definitely saw that in the first half and even beyond in the 2020-21 shortened schedule with his offensive contributions.
Hughes notched up 11 goals and 20 assists this year, a 10 point improvement from last year in five less games. His overall game has looked much more proficient – he looks faster, stronger, and more dedicated. This helped considering he is on the smaller side of league players, so putting that extra work in was essential.
Hughes thrived, centering Devils youngsters Sharangovich and Kuokkanen after head coach Lindy Ruff put them as the first line about midway through the season. The youthfulness of this combination could have been make or break without any veteran experience to help guide them, but it delivered well. That line put up some decent points while together, and Hughes had a few nights with multiple assists that came from it.
It was noticeable that Hughes is much more explosive on the ice, and it is leading to more points for him. Although his offensive game has ranked up overall, his ability to win face-offs did struggle this season. He had the lowest face-off percentage among Devils centers, coming in at about 35.35% on the season.
Hughes did have a hot start to the season before the COVID-19 outbreak a few weeks in. In his first three games, he scored two goals and notched four assists, but after coming back from the break, it seems like it took a bit for those points to start returning. The good thing is that he was decently consistent throughout, and him playing with Sharangovich and Kuokkanen helped as well. It makes sense that it was hard to rebound after being on COVID-19 protocol, and that showed, so an improvement after coming back would have made his game that much better this season.
It is good to hope Hughes’ game will continue on this upward trend when next season rolls around. Overall, there has been quite a bit of improvement from him, and it seems like he is starting to settle into his role with New Jersey more.
Janne Kuokkanen: A-
It was unsure if Kuokkanen would make this team at the beginning of the season, as it could have gone either way. This 23-year-old Finnish winger was probably one of the Devils’ best surprises this season. In his first NHL season, Kuokkanen was able to become a nice complement to the Devils offense while raking up eight goals and 17 assists in the process.
The best part about Kuokkanen’s success this season is that there were really no expectations for him coming into this season. He’s played a few games with the Carolina Hurricanes and had yet to notch an NHL point when he started in New Jersey. For him to keep up, as well as be on the first line alongside Hughes and Sharangovich for the majority of the season, was impressive considering no one really knew what would come from him.
Consistent is the word I keep thinking about when I think Kuokkanen. The Devils could count on him to put his best effort into every shift, where that be as a complement to Hughes and Sharangovich or his play individually. His game did especially thrive on that line though, especially coming from the assists he contributed to either linemates goals.
Kuokkanen had four multiple-point nights this season, one of them being a goal and two assists against the Buffalo Sabres on April 8. He scored in four straight games from March 9-14, three being against the New York Islanders in consecutive games as well, and collected five assists in three straight games from March 21-25.
If he stays with the Devils, next year will be an important one, as we will be able to determine his full potential. Another season like this could mean a promising future for this emerging forward, so it is best to hope this good play will continue. He is definitely a solid fit for New Jersey.
Yegor Sharangovich: B+
This 22-year-old Belarusian was sure to make his mark in his first NHL season. Sharangovich, already having professional hockey experience playing in the KHL in Russia, gave him the one-up on some of the other rookies and was only a benefit to the team.
He put up 16 goals and 14 this season, leading Devils rookies in points and fourth among league rookies with 30. In addition, he also ranked 3rd in points for New Jersey overall, only behind Hughes (31 points) and Pavel Zacha (35 points). Like his linemates, Sharangovich is also quick-footed, and you would always find him hustling to the puck and trying to get chances on each shift, which is why he was able to rake up so many points.
Sharangovich is a part of the offensive force the Devils were in need of this season. In addition to leading the newcomers, he also leads the team in game-winning goals with three, another impressive stat to add to his rookie agenda. While Hughes topped the team with 142 shots, Sharangovich was right there with him in the top three with 114; just behind Miles Wood, who had 127.
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He is definitely someone the Devils are going to want to keep after his performance this season. The versatility of the way he played this year allowed him to work well with the entire team, whether that was his linemates, other forwards, or defenseman he communicated well with. His work ethic was strong, and Sharangovich really benefited this team offensively.
Looking at the Line Overall
As all of these Devils did well this season, Kuokkanen received the highest grade of the three because his strong play went beyond what anyone really expected. Hughes was expected to play better and hope his first season was just him settling into the NHL, and it makes sense that Sharangovich was able to net some points after his prior experience. All three supplemented each other well and made each other’s games better beyond what was thought about. This line worked well and will hopefully continue that same trend should the Devils decide to put them together again next season.