The 2021-22 season will be a big one for the New Jersey Devils as they try to take the next step in their rebuilding process. Expectations are as high as they’ve been in a long while, and plenty of big question marks hover over both the players and the roster as a whole. Will Dougie Hamilton transform the New Jersey defense? Will Jack Hughes finally start to produce consistently? Is the team capable of playing in meaningful games? But before we can answer any of those questions, we must find the solution to the more immediate dilemma: Who will slot into the final top-six forward spot to start the season?
Before you ask, yes, barring any further signings or trades, five of Jersey’s top-six seem to be pretty certain to start the season. Two cornerstones of the franchise, centers Hughes and Nico Hischier, are locked into the top half of the lineup. Winger Jesper Bratt will likely follow Hischier anywhere in the lineup because of their chemistry and skill. Newly signed forward Tomas Tatar is a first-line caliber winger who’s a lock to provide veteran leadership and produce next to one of the Devils’ top-two centers. Lastly, Yegor Sharangovich will likely see some time on Hughes’ right after building a good rapport with him in an excellent 2020-21 season that saw him pot 16 goals. Then, who gets the last winger spot?
Here’s a look at the team’s options from within.
After a long-awaited breakout season in 2020-21, Pavel Zacha just might have worked his way back into the Devils’ long-term plans. The sixth-overall pick in 2015 has never lived up to the hype in Jersey. However, the move from center to winger, where he earned playing time with Hischier and Bratt last season, seemed to make a world of difference.
Despite the shortened season, Zacha scored a career-high 35 points in 50 games in 2020-21, which was on pace for 57 points in a full 82-game campaign. Of those 35 points, 17 were goals, marking the first time Zacha had lit the lamp more than 13 times.
The Devils sorely need finishers. Nobody on the team potted more goals than Zacha last season, and only four Devils finished in double digits. Unless there’s some sort of miraculous development in Alexander Holtz or Nolan Foote’s game, Zacha could be the winger best suited to join the top-six come October.
One of the few bright spots from last season, Janne Kuokkanen became a valuable asset for a Devils team looking for forward depth. The 23-year-old found himself a home on the first line with Hughes and Sharangovich after center Travis Zajac was dealt to the New York Islanders.
No, Kuokkanen didn’t light up the scoresheet as a traditional top-six winger would, but his offensive skill and the chemistry he developed with his linemates was undeniable. Still, he put up 25 points in 50 games, a decent mark for a young player in his first near-full season in the NHL on a struggling team. But did he show enough potential to make the top half of the lineup?
Honestly, the Devils would probably feel a whole lot better about their forward group if Kuokkanen found a home on their third line. That’s not to say he’s a sub-par player, but it’s a real luxury to have a forward of his caliber roaming the bottom-six rather than the top. If he continues to develop his game and the Devils decide that they’d rather roll with chemistry than pure skill, Kuokkanen should again be given a chance to prove he belongs.
Okay, bear with me. We all know Andreas Johnsson had an absolutely dreadful debut season in New Jersey despite the lofty expectations when he came on board. Yeah, he only had five goals and six assists in 50 games, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that the former Toronto Maple Leaf will rebound and be a much more impactful player in his second season with the Devils. In fact, I’ll guarantee it, and so would a friend of mine.
Johnsson wasn’t brought to New Jersey to be a superstar, but you have to think that the team expected him to be a nice complementary piece for the top-six. After all, he’s only two seasons removed from scoring 20 goals and 23 assists as a 24-year-old with the Maple Leafs. Combine that with contracting COVID-19 – and the subsequent aftereffects – and some really poor shooting luck (7.7 shooting percentage), and it’s easy to see a comeback in the cards.
Now, it would be a tad too optimistic to expect Johnsson to return to his 20-goal scoring ways immediately. However, he should again be a very serviceable offensive talent, and given the team’s options, that’ll be enough to compete for a top-six spot.
Honorable Mentions, Thoughts, and a Prediction
Of course, the beautiful thing about hockey – and sports in general – is that anything can happen. While Zacha, Kuokkanen, and Johnsson are the most likely trio to compete for top-six ice time, there’s always a dark horse or two that enters the race. For instance, could Miles Wood have a shot at top-six duties considering his team-leading 17 goals last season and elite speed? Perhaps, but Wood’s production is far more likely to regress to the mean, and that the Devils will find him most useful as a third or fourth-line option.
What about a couple of promising prospects? New Jersey has plans for Holtz to become their top finisher somewhere down the road but he likely needs more experience before he’s handed a spot in the lineup. Dawson Mercer, in all likelihood, will also need some time to develop a bit more. Nonetheless, if either of them really impresses the team before the season begins, he could earn an early promotion. Needless to say, they will be on everyone’s radar.
The season is still two months away, but if a prediction has to be made today, I’d put my money on Zacha filling out the top-six. As I mentioned before, Kuokkanen’s strongest claim for this spot is his chemistry with Sharangovich, but I’m not sure that’s enough to warrant first-line duties. Johnsson, on the other hand, is still a strong candidate for the role, and I wouldn’t be surprised – or disappointed – to see him lining up beside Hughes or Hischier. It’s just that it’s impossible to know how he’ll recover from a really unfortunate 2020-21. Because of that, he may be the biggest question mark on the roster.
According to the above poll, Devils fans seem to agree that Zacha is the most logical choice here. It makes sense considering his contract expires at the end of the season. This would be the final test for a forward who was selected sixth overall and hadn’t shown signs of offensive life until six years into his career. New Jersey should slide him onto the wing with Hischier and Bratt, where he’d be expected to produce consistently to be rewarded with a meaningful extension. At 24 years old, he has this entire season to prove that he belongs in the Devils’ long-term plans.
With a role in the top-six, he would have every tool necessary.
Vincent Velotta is an NYC based freelance journalist who covers the New Jersey Devils for The Hockey Writers. He has covered sports and entertainment for a variety of outlets including the Village Voice, Minute Media, and more.