The 2020-21 National Hockey League season is a bit more than halfway over, and the New Jersey Devils stand seventh in the MassMutual East Division – 12 points ahead of the Buffalo Sabres and six points behind the Philadelphia Flyers. With 31 games played and 25 to go, the final push to the postseason is quickly approaching as the team goes through ups and downs with being able to win games and deliver. We looked back on the Devils, who highly contributed, on both offense and defense, in the first half.
Offense: Janne Kuokkanen, Miles Wood, Pavel Zacha and Jack Hughes
The Devils have won four of their last six, and Janne Kuokkanen has been a big part in not just that but his entire first full season. In 25 games played, the Finnish winger has five goals and 11 assists, tied for third in points with Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt. He leads the team in plus/minus with a plus-6 and falls second in shooting percentage, right behind captain Nico Hischier with 16.1%. He’s scored three goals against the New York Islanders and has three multi-point games, one being a three-assist night against the New York Rangers on Feb. 16.
Kuokkanen had a bit of a slow start, but as the season has progressed, he’s proved his worth with this team. Every game, he seems to be improving, not to mention he works really well with linemates Yegor Sharangovich and Travis Zajac. This line has produced a lot of points and only helps to improve his game more. Being noticeable every shift is important, and Kuokkanen makes the most of every single one he has, making him one of the best for New Jersey so far.
Speaking of younger players, Hughes has had quite the sophomore season. The Devils were looking for some more out of their 2020 first overall pick, and they got it. He’s been a big help in raking up points this season with seven goals and nine assists, tied for third on the team in points. His face-offs have not been the best at just under 34%, but his explosive play has made up for it. He has been stepping up and using his speed with smart, quick plays to get past every Devils opponent, something needed to create more scoring chances and ultimately rake up more points. He put up a three-point night on Jan. 19 against the Rangers with a goal and two assists and also has multiple points in three games. All I can say is that overall, Hughes is looking much better, and his play in this first half has been speedy and persistent.
Switching gears to some forwards that have a few seasons under their belt, Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha have been some of the Devils’ best since this season started. Wood might be seventh on the Devils in points, but his explosiveness on the ice is unreal. He has nine goals and four assists so far, three of which are power-play goals and two of which are game-winners. The goals he has been scoring are important ones, and his speed is a huge factor in that. Wood is always on top of the play and always dedicated to it. His persistence leaves him pushing for scoring chances every chance he gets, and it’s turning into a significant season for him.
Moving on to Zacha, he leads the team with 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) and scored the game-winning goal on both Feb. 18 against the Boston Bruins and Feb. 25 against Buffalo. Where he’s really been good is face-offs, where he ranks second behind Hischier with 50.96%. Zacha’s been making some really clutch plays and is always on top of everything. He is having an incredible season at 23-years-old and has been a big part of the Devils’ wins in the first half. Zacha and Wood, both with a few years in the NHL, are now stepping up and shining to provide some leadership and points to this team.
Defense: Ty Smith and Damon Severson
These two defensemen have both been good individually and as a defensive pair. Ty Smith himself is having an outstanding rookie season as he is in the running for the Calder Trophy. He has been nothing but great at getting shots to the net from the point and raked up a ton of points in the process. With 18 points, he has two goals and leads the Devils in assists with 16, only one point behind Zacha’s leading 19 points.
Smith has four power-play points, one of which was a goal against the Sabres on Jan. 30. His other goal came against Boston on the 14th of that same month, which was New Jersey’s first game and his first career one. He started the season strong with a five-game point streak (one goal, five assists) and has continued to show he is becoming accustomed to the league as the season goes on. He’s currently on a three-game assist streak with four, continuing to rake up the points and help out the Devils defensively. It might be safe to say we can expect more from Smith as they push for the playoffs.
Severson works really well with Smith, and when they are on the ice together, it looks even better. At 26-years-old and with a few seasons in the league, he is able to give 21-year-old Smith some advice and mentoring on the ice, and I think that contributes to how well they play with each other. Severson’s also been able to notch two goals and 10 assists in the process to contribute to the team. Them together, as well as separately, have made their mark on the ice and have been a big help in the Devils wins this season as well, something that hopefully continues into the second half of the season.
The Push For Playoffs
As the second half of the season is well underway, these Devils are going to be key in what comes next for this team and how the standings are going to become the postseason. They have a solid group that is continuing to improve, but New Jersey keeps going from a group of good games to going into a rut – a lot of back-and-forths. While they have the foundation they need and prepare for their second game in two nights in Washington D.C., we will see how players like Kuokkanen, Wood, and Smith perform now to try to move up in the standings; but for now, they have helped in every aspect of the Devils success as forwards and defenseman who have made their mark on the first half of the season.
Sam is currently Managing Editor, and used to be Sports Editor, of The Montclarion, Montclair State University’s student-run multimedia newspaper. She’ll be earning her Sports Media and Journalism degree from there in Spring 2021. A hockey fan since she was a young girl, she covers the Montclair State men’s team as well as the Metropolitan Riveters and New Jersey Devils for The Hockey Writers.