Devils’ Boqvist Needs a Strong Preseason

Since getting drafted in the second round of the 2017 draft, there’s been some hype around Jesper Boqvist. He was highly productive in his post-draft years, especially in his D+2 in 2018-19 with Brynäs IF in the Swedish Hockey league (SHL) when he had 35 points in 51 games as a 20-year-old. There was hope he could contribute to the New Jersey Devils sooner than later, but that was not the case throughout his first two NHL seasons. 

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However, Boqvist showed some life in the second half of the 2021-22 campaign. He finished with 19 points in his final 40 games, had 23 points in 56 games overall — a 34-point pace over 82 games — and was consistently in the lineup instead of being a healthy scratch. 

It was a step in the right direction for Boqvist. There’s no doubt about that. But even with a solid close to last season, he’ll need a strong preseason if he wants to begin 2022-23 as a regular in the Devils’ lineup. Let’s look at why that’s the case. 

What Boqvist Needs to Show During Preseason

For the better part of Boqvist’s first two seasons in the league, he primarily played on the wing. There had been some runs at center, but none of them were consistent stretches. That changed during the second half of last season, as head coach Lindy Ruff played him strictly as a center over his final 40 games. 

The move seemed to pay dividends for Boqvist, as it was the most productive stretch he’s had with the Devils to this point. One of the reasons for the sudden shift in his jump in production was that he was scoring goals from high-danger areas more often. He was also getting to high-danger areas more often, as he had 28 grade A chances over his final 40 games, ranking sixth on the team. 

While that is good news since you want to see a player get to scoring areas more often than not, the volume still wasn’t there from Boqvist. He had just 58 shots on goal in that 40-game stretch, well below two shots on goal per game. He shot just above 17 percent over that span as well, so he will need to increase his shot volume to help him stave off some inevitable shooting regression. 

Jesper Boqvist New Jersey Devils
Pyotr Kochetkov of the Carolina Hurricanes makes a save on Jesper Boqvist of the New Jersey Devils (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That’s what the Devils’ coaching staff and Boqvist should focus on during the preseason over the next two weeks. If he’s to maintain a regular spot in the lineup as a center, he will need to show he can put up points consistently. We know what his strengths are. After Jack Hughes, he was the Devils’ best center in transition during the second half of 2021-22. He was highly efficient in exiting the defensive zone cleanly and entering the offensive zone with possession, but that has to lead to points over a whole season and not in spurts. 

Based on yesterday’s camp scrimmage, the Devils will keep Boqvist at center to start the preseason. With his results to end last season, there’s no arguing with that decision. He was alongside Tomáš Tatar in that scrimmage, and with Fabian Zetterlund just joining the team for camp after dealing with visa issues, I’d bet on him rounding out that line. That should put Boqvist in a position to have a strong preseason. Because after the Devils’ summer, his spot in the lineup is far from a guarantee if he doesn’t show something in exhibition games. 

Boqvist Still Has Competition to Earn Regular Playing Time

Even though Boqvist had a strong close to last season, it didn’t prevent Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald from seeking another potential third-line center during the offseason. On July 13, he acquired Erik Haula from the Boston Bruins in exchange for Pavel Zacha. Haula is coming off a solid season, totaling 18 goals and 44 points in 78 games. He’s been excellent in the faceoff circle over the last three years, with a faceoff percentage of 54.3 percent, likely part of the appeal of acquiring him for Fitzgerald. 

Related: Devils Defense Pairs Worth Testing During the Preseason

Right off the bat, that was a sign that Boqvist would have competition for the third-line center role. Haula has had his ups and downs in his career. But over the last three seasons, he’s been pretty consistent, averaging 18 goals and 41 points per 82 games and 1.81 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five. He gets to high-danger areas often and has a track record of capitalizing on the grade A chances his teammates set up for him. 

Now, just because Haula has the resumé to back up being the team’s third-line center doesn’t mean he’s a lock for the job either. One area where Boqvist seems to have a rather decisive advantage is in transition as a puck-carrier. Haula does not gain the offensive zone with possession all that well, nor are his zone exit rates particularly efficient. There’s more to being a center than excelling at faceoffs, and that’s where Boqvist can stand out if he scores during the preseason. 

Erik Haula New Jersey Devils
Erik Haula with the Boston Bruins (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With that said, it does seem unlikely that the Devils brought in Haula to play a fourth-line role. There’s always the possibility of moving Boqvist back to the wing, but that won’t be easy either. Signing Ondrej Palát in free agency takes up another opening on the wing, and prospects like Zetterlund and Alexander Holtz — the seventh overall pick in 2020 — will be pushing for roster places on the wing in the top-nine. 

One option is to play Boqvist on the wing with Haula and Tatar, something I’ve mentioned a few times in the lead-up to the preseason since Haula will need linemates who can drive a line for him to be most effective. But if Holtz and Zetterlund make the team, that’ll be easier said than done too. And it becomes even more difficult when you also remember that the Devils are starting Dawson Mercer on the wing. 

That’s why Boqvist needs a strong showing whenever he plays over the next two weeks. Since the Devils have a crowded group up front, he’ll need to distinguish himself from the other players competing for top-nine roles whenever he’s in the lineup. Otherwise, he could find himself caught up in a numbers game when Ruff, Fitzgerald, and co. are making final decisions for the opening night roster in a couple of weeks. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, microstats data from Corey Sznajder 

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