It’s time for another edition of New Jersey Devils news and rumors, as they appear to be setting the table for the trade deadline. Yesterday afternoon, they placed forward Nikita Gusev on waivers. He has just five points in 20 games and seems to have fallen out of favor with head coach Lindy Ruff.
We’ll also take a look at Tyce Thompson, who joined the team for his first practice after signing an entry-level deal last week. Plus, we’ll go over the Devils’ latest line combinations and check in on how Dawson Mercer is doing in the QMJHL.
Gusev Not Fitting in Ruff’s System
Though it may seem like a surprising move, the Devils placing Gusev on waivers shouldn’t be much of a shock. He got off to a slow start last season and recovered, but he hasn’t been able to find his game after a slow start this season.
Gusev has a goals above replacement (GAR) of minus-6.3 and a wins above replacement (WAR) of minus-1.1 through 20 games. That’s a stark difference from 2019-20, when he posted a GAR of 5.4 and a WAR of 1. His offensive impact at even strength and on the power play has also fallen off considerably from where he was a year ago:
While it hasn’t worked out for Gusev this season, he’s shown he can play in the NHL. He was arguably the Devils’ best player during the second half of 2019-20. He was one of the most efficient five-on-five scorers in the league and finished with 44 points in 66 games — a 55-point pace over 82 games. The change to a speedy, rush-based system seems to have hurt him due to his poor skating ability. If the Devils can find a fit where his skating won’t hurt him, they’d be wise to trade him.
And the possibility of a trade remains, even though he’s on waivers. As NHL.com writer Tom Gulitti pointed out yesterday, the Devils could be putting Gusev on waivers to increase his trade value, assuming he goes unclaimed. What this does is allow a team to place him on their taxi squad until they find the cap space to fit him in (his cap hit is $4.5 million).
It also helps that the Devils have the ability to retain salary. They’re not going to get a lot for Gusev in a trade, but it seems they’re doing what they can to maximize his value as much as possible. And if the right team comes calling, he should be able to help for a playoff push.
Thompson Takes Part in First NHL Practice
Thompson has had quite the upward trajectory since the Devils drafted him in the fourth round of the 2019 Draft. He finished his D+1 draft season with 44 points in 34 games for Providence College in the NCAA. His production fell a bit this season, but he still managed 25 points in 25 games and was Providence’s top scorer.
Though he wasn’t a high draft pick, Thompson developed his offensive toolkit with Providence and has the potential to fit in on a scoring line one day. But for now, he’s ready to play wherever Ruff decides to place him.
“I feel like whatever role they put me in here I can play,” Thompson told Sam Kasan of newjerseydevils.com. “I think a lot of that is attributed to my play at Providence. Over the three years that I was there I played up and down the lineup, PK, power play and in a lot of different situations. I have that familiarity with all of those instances. Whatever the coaches and team needs from me to win I’ll be able to do.”
The Devils aren’t going to throw Thompson into the lion’s den, so don’t expect him in the lineup against the Washington Capitals tonight or even Sunday afternoon. But his debut isn’t too far away, and how he fares could provide a glimpse into where he may fit in the Devils’ 2021-22 roster.
New Lines Could Benefit Johnsson
The Devils closed their six-game road trip with some new line combinations in their top six. Ruff decided to take it a step further during practice yesterday and mixed up the bottom six as well.
The top six remains the same as Tuesday night. But moving up the lineup is Andreas Johnsson, while Mikhail Maltsev appears to be returning after being a healthy scratch for the last few games.
Johnsson has struggled in his first season with the Devils. He has only eight points in 34 games and just two across his last 14 games while averaging 11:16 of ice time over that stretch.
There’s no doubt Johnsson has had some rough outings this season. With that said, he hasn’t been a complete wash. He has Corsi For percentage (CF%) of 53.9 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 52.3 percent at five-on-five. He averaged 45 points per 82 games in his previous two seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He’s not going to produce like that playing on the fourth line, so it’s worth giving him a shot in the top nine again.
If he excels back in that position, Johnsson could be a good fit on a line with Pavel Zacha at left wing and Nico Hischier at center once Hischier returns from his injury in the next week or so. But he needs to seize this opportunity first. And the Devils need him to because he figures to be part of their future moving forward.
Mercer Lighting Up the QMJHL
The Devils drafted Mercer with the 18th pick at the 2020 Draft, and he looks to be turning into a steal. He has three hat tricks this season and is up to 19 goals in 22 games. He also has 17 assists, bringing his point total up to 36.
Mercer can play either center or right wing, but given the Devils’ roster, it’s a good bet he finds himself on the wing when he makes the NHL. And that’s probably for the best too. The Devils need some finishing talent alongside either Hischier or Jack Hughes, and Mercer is showing he can put the puck in the back of the net for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens in the QMJHL. He won’t be playing in the NHL this season, but it doesn’t appear he’s too far away either.
That wraps up this edition of Devils news and rumors. With the trade deadline just 10 days away, make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest NHL and Devils coverage.
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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