When the New Jersey Devils signed Jesper Boqvist to his entry-level contract last June, there was hope he’d be one of the missing pieces needed for a return to the playoffs. Of course, that’s not how things went for both him and the team.
Boqvist finished the 2019-20 season with only four goals and no assists in 35 NHL games. Meanwhile, the Devils sputtered to the NHL’s basement for a second consecutive season. Although he had a rough rookie campaign, there’s no reason to panic over one of the team’s top prospects. Here’s a look back at his 2019-20 and what may be next for the 21-year-old Swede.
Boqvist’s Role May Have Added to Struggles
The Devils were fortunate to land Boqvist in the second round of the 2017 Entry Draft, as most scouts had him pegged as a first-round talent, which he proved in the following years. In his draft-plus-1 season, he had 13 points in 23 games for Brynas IF in the SHL (Sweden), although he missed a good chunk of the season due to an injury. He returned to full health in 2018-19 and took a noticeable step forward, with 35 points in 51 games as a 20-year old in the SHL.
That jump in production showed the Devils he made enough progress to sign him to his ELC. And why wouldn’t it? He was a 20-year old producing among men in one of the best pro hockey leagues outside the NHL. The hope was he’d be able to contribute in the NHL right away, even if in a bottom-six role, but his start proved to be more difficult than anticipated.
There’s always bumps in the road for young players like Boqvist. He finished the season with a Corsi share (CF%) of 45.28% and expected goals share (xGF%) of 39.74% at five-on-five. His goals above replacement (GAR), which shows how many goals he added to his team relative to a replacement-level player, was minus-6.2 at all strengths, second-worst on the team to P.K. Subban.
It was a struggle for Boqvist this season; there’s no question about it. With that said, his role and usage may not have helped. His most common linemates this season were Kevin Rooney and John Hayden. As a line, the Devils had a 41.25% CF% and 35.66% xGF% with them on the ice, granted it was in a small sample size of 46:16 minutes.
But there are a couple of other line combinations where Boqvist didn’t look out of place. In 46:04 minutes with Jack Hughes, the former first overall pick, and Wayne Simmonds, the Devils had a 63.51 CF% and 57.55 xGF% at five-on-five. That’s where he arguably looked his best this season, but there is another combo he fared well with too.
When Boqvist was with Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri, the trio had a 57.97% CF% and 52.08 xGF% in 36 minutes at five-on-five. These may all be incredibly small sample sizes, but the point is usage and role in the lineup matter. And Boqvist seemed to fare much better with players closer to his skill set, like Hughes or Hischier, than Rooney and Hayden.
What’s Next for Boqvist
If the Devils are going to get more out of Boqvist in 2020-21, they’ll have to put him in better situations than they did this past season. They did the right thing by demoting him to the AHL after the NHL All-Star break. Confidence goes a long way for any professional athlete, especially for a rookie, and he seemed to be shaken by the rough start. But he appeared to build his confidence back up in the AHL, where he had eight goals and three assists in 19 games for the Binghamton Devils.
Whether that means he can jump back into the NHL right out of training camp remains to be seen. But there’ll be a spot for Boqvist on the Devils’ roster if he earns it. As it stands, they’ll need at least one middle-six left-winger who can produce offense going into next season.
The two centers Boqvist played best with were Hischier and Hughes. If paired with Hughes, it’d make a lot of sense to have Palmieri round out that line. Boqvist and Hughes are both playmakers, so having Palmieri’s shooting talent alongside them seems like an ideal fit. He’s also an underrated defensive winger, and that could help make up for some of Boqvist and Hughes’ defensive weaknesses.
It’s easy to see the appeal of having Hischier and Boqvist together, but top-line minutes right out of the gate is going from one extreme to another. The more likely scenario would be Boqvist sliding into a third-line role with Pavel Zacha, Travis Zajac, Joey Anderson, or Nick Merkley. Boqvist played a bit with Merkley and Anderson in the AHL, and each has enough offensive upside and skill to make him a fit as a linemate.
If Boqvist can’t crack a second or third-line role out of camp, it’d be best for him to start 2020-21 in the AHL. He did not play well when on the fourth line, and his skill set doesn’t suit what most teams ask their fourth-liners to do. It’s also important for him to keep gaining confidence, and playing top-line minutes in the AHL is better for a young player than only getting 9-10 minutes per game in the NHL. He’s still one of their top prospects despite his struggles, so putting him in positions to succeed is how they’ll get him to become a valuable NHL contributor sooner than later.
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