In a final bit of offseason housekeeping, the New Jersey Devils re-signed restricted free agent Janne Kuokkanen to a two-year deal worth an average annual value of $1.825 million. Kuokkanen, who the team acquired at the 2020 trade deadline, finished this season with 25 points in 50 games — a 41-point pace over 82 games.
After re-signing Yegor Sharangovich late last week, Kuokkanen was the Devils’ lone RFA in need of a new deal. With that taken care of, their roster is mostly set heading into 2021-22, barring another addition through free agency or the trade market. Kuokkanen will likely play a key role on next season’s team, and he’s yet to reach the ceiling of the player he could be. Let’s look at his strengths and weaknesses and where he could fit in next season’s lineup.
Kuokkanen Still Has Room to Grow
Kuokkanen got off to a slow start in 2020-21. He had just six points in his first 16 games and was a healthy scratch on a few occasions. But as the season progressed, he slowly started to find his footing in the NHL. He finished with 19 points over his final 34 games — a 45-point pace over 82 games. He also averaged 1.90 points per 60 minutes during that stretch, ranked fifth on the Devils in five-on-five scoring.
A big reason for Kuokkanen’s spike in production over the second half of the season was due to his linemates, Jack Hughes and Sharangovich. Over his final 34 games, he played almost 225 minutes with those two at five-on-five, and their results were quite impressive. They had a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 57.9 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 54.2 percent when on the ice. And although they were outscored 16-8 as line, it’s because the team’s goaltenders had an .828 save percentage (SV%) when they were on the ice. Had they gotten some saves, there’s a good chance they would’ve had a positive goal differential.
Part of the reason Kuokkanen found success as the season went on is because of his versatility. He can play either left or right wing, which allowed head coach Lindy Ruff to move him around the lineup when he needed to. Kuokkanen is also a crafty playmaker and uses his smarts to set up his linemates for quality scoring chances. That’s the best part of his game and is a reason why he gelled with Hughes and Sharangovich.
If there’s something Kuokkanen needs to improve, it’s his shot and chance generation. He was on pace to finish with 13 goals in an 82 game season, but he fired only 61 shots on goal in 50 games. Overall, his five-on-five shot and chance generation was less than desirable:
|Stat||Rate per 60 Minutes||Team Rank|
|Shots on goal||4.68||19|
The Devils will want Kuokkanen in at least a middle-six role next season, but he’ll have to generate more shots and chances to be consistent enough to maintain that spot. That’s the next step in his development because his playmaking is up to par. If he can become a more aggressive shooter and consistent goal-scoring threat, he should fit in on one of the Devils’ scoring lines.
And there’s good reason to believe Kuokkanen will continue developing on an upward trajectory. His goals above replacement of 3.6 ranked sixth on the team. He was the Devils’ fifth-most efficient five-on-five scorer, and he had no trouble playing on a line with Hughes and Sharangovich. As long as his shot generation improves, the Devils have themselves a budding complementary winger on their hands.
Ruff Will Have Options to Utilize Kuokkanen
Where Kuokkanen fits into next season’s lineup should be pretty interesting. Because the trio of him, Hughes and Sharangovich played so well, it’d be a surprise if Ruff didn’t at least test it out during the preseason and even the early regular season. Add Tomas Tatar to the mix, and the team’s top-nine could resemble something similar to this:
- Sharangovich – Hughes – Kuokkanen
- Tatar – Nico Hischier – Jesper Bratt
- Pavel Zacha – Jesper Boqvist – Andreas Johnsson
Tatar does very much add a new wrinkle to how the Devils assemble their forward lines. He averaged 62 points per 82 games in his three seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and was one of the league’s most efficient five-on-five scorers. You can bet he’s going to play a top-six role. If Zacha shows his 26-goal, 57-point pace last season wasn’t a fluke, then he’ll probably play top-six minutes as well. That could move Kuokkanen down the lineup, but that’s not a bad thing.
If Kuokkanen finds himself on the third line or in a middle-six role, it shows that the Devils have strengthened their depth from a season ago. And if he proves that his final 34 games of the 2020-21 season were legit and that he’s capable of producing at a 40- to 45-point pace, that’s a pretty nice player to have on your third line. Here’s what a similar lineup could look like:
- Tatar – Hughes – Sharangovich
- Zacha – Hischier – Bratt
- Johnsson – Boqvist – Kuokkanen
That lineup may not strike fear in the hearts of the NHL, but it’s a pretty decent group with depth and some scoring ability on each line. Because Kuokkanen could play on either wing in one of the Devils’ top three lines, he helps give them that scoring depth. That’s not something they had much of last season or in any year since they made the playoffs in 2017-18. So that should be a welcomed change for Ruff.
All in all, the Devils have mostly a full roster in place with just weeks until training camp begins. Even after re-signing Kuokkanen, they still have $12,917,765 in cap space. If general manager Tom Fitzgerald wants to make another addition, he has plenty of room to do so. But if re-signing Kuokkanen marks the end of a busy offseason, they should be in good shape heading into 2021-22. He’s on the rise and should only get better from here on out. And that should help a young team take a step forward.
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Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017