Yesterday kicked off training camp, with players taking to the podium for media day. A few New Jersey Devils players, namely Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt and Miles Wood, had some interesting comments about where they are heading into the 2021-22 season. We’ll go over the highlights and what they could mean for a team seeking a fresh start.
Plus, a look at the Winnipeg Jets releasing Sami Niku and why the Devils should consider giving him a look as a free agent. Let’s dive into some early training camp musings.
Jack Hughes Ready to Pop
Hughes will be one of the biggest storylines to follow this season. How far the Devils go likely depends on how well he does. Per Hughes himself, he knows his game is ready to hit another level after improving from his rookie to sophomore seasons.
“I know my game is going to pop (to another level) again this year.” “I’m obviously very confident in myself. I know I’m going to have a big year.”Via Amanda Stein of newjerseydevils.com
You wouldn’t think Hughes is ready to break out by looking at his counting totals from 2020-21. He finished with 31 points in 56 games — a 45-point pace over 82 games. Hughes may seem overconfident by saying what he did, but if we’re honest, he has every right to feel the way he does. A closer look at what he did last season, and all signs point to a breakout.
Hughes led the Devils in Corsi for percentage (CF%) at 55.1 percent, and was second in expected goals percentage (xG%) at 54.2 percent for players with a minimum of 10 games played. He was the Devils’ most valuable player, with a goals above replacement (GAR) of 9.6 and wins above replacement (WAR) of 1.7. Hughes showed high-end play-driving ability last season and was a zone-entry machine in transition, which suited him well in Ruff’s system. Overall, he had a significant positive impact at even strength in 2020-21:
It’s hard to pinpoint what Hughes’ point totals will look like by the end of the season. Saying he’ll be a point-per-game player may be a bit of a stretch, but 65-70 points? I don’t see why not. He’s going to play with some skill, perhaps with Yegor Sharangovich and Tomáš Tatar, who the Devils signed as a free agent. He should be the focal point of their first power play unit, too, so he’s going to have opportunities to score. Based on how he fared in 2020-21 and with an improved team, he should be able to cash in on more points.
Bratt Looking to Improve His Shot
During his media availability yesterday, Bratt mentioned he’s been working with a shooting coach three times a week over the last five weeks, per Amanda Stein. He emphasized it’s something he really wants to improve. And if we take a closer looking at his shooting success over the last few seasons, it’s not hard to see why.
It’s not that Bratt’s a bad shooter, per se, but his shooting percentages have been all over the place in his first four NHL seasons. Here’s how his overall and five-on-five shooting percentages stack up since he made his NHL debut in 2017-18:
|Season||5-on-5 SH%||Overall SH%|
Clearly there have been some wild swings in Bratt’s shooting percentage over that stretch. He’s been on both sides of unsustainable shooting — too high in 2019-20 and too low in 2020-21, specifically at five-on-five. He’s likely somewhere in the middle of those two numbers, and improving his shot may help him find that middle ground.
The thing is that even with Bratt’s wild shooting swings, he’s averaged 46 points per 82 games for his career. He was on pace for 53 points in 2020-21 had it been a regular 82-game schedule, and that’s with him only having been on pace for 13 goals. He’s one of the Devils’ best two-way wingers and can drive play. He’s a craft playmaker, so if he can improve his shot and become a 20-goal scorer, he should secure his spot as a top-six winger. That’d be a big help for a team whose scoring depth is still a bit of a question mark.
Wood Looking to Build Off 2020-21 Strides
Wood had a strong 2017-18 when the Devils last made the playoffs, totaling 19 goals in 76 games. Since then, he had been searching for some consistency. While it’s too early to say he’s become one of their more consistent players, his 2020-21 campaign sure indicates he’s on the right track. He finished with 17 goals in 55 games — a 25-goal pace over 82 games — which would’ve easily been a career-high. Part of that, as he states, is due to head coach Lindy Ruff’s system.
You probably wouldn’t have guessed it by looking at the Devils’ record last season, but there was a significant change in style of play compared to Ruff’s predecessor, John Hynes. Ruff implemented an up-tempo, rush-based system that catered to the team’s better skaters, as Wood is.
Not only did Wood’s counting totals increase, but there was an across-the-board improvement in his on-ice results. His CF% went up from 43.5 percent in 2019-20 to 49.1 percent last season, while his xG% saw an even more dramatic uptick, from 43.86 percent to 51.35 percent. And his defensive impact also improved substantially between the two seasons:
Wood isn’t likely to play high up the lineup, but he will be a crucial part of the Devils’ bottom six. He gelled with Michael McLeod last season and will probably get a look with him again once preseason games begin. Like Wood, McLeod is a high-end skater and has shown he has some scoring potential. He’s a good fit for Wood as a linemate and should help him maintain the progress he made in 2020-21.
Niku Worth a Gamble
Once a top prospect for the Jets, Niku and the team decided to mutually part ways after terminating his contract. He’s now an unrestricted free agent and looking for a new home. He finished his time with the Jets with 10 points and 54 games and was never able to crack their lineup consistently.
Niku had a great first season on North American ice in 2017-18, totaling 54 points in 76 games for the Manitoba Moose, the Jets’ AHL affiliate. For the most part, his AHL numbers were quite good — he had 12 points in 20 games in 2018-19 and followed it up with 14 points in 18 contests a season later. But for whatever reason, it never clicked for him in the NHL. So what went wrong when the Jets would call him up?
Jack Han (@JhanHockey on Twitter) recently posted a Twitter thread on how to ruin a player like Niku. I’m not posting the whole series of tweets in this article, but you can read it here. In short, the Jets tried to turn Niku into a defenseman that he’s not. It’s clear he has offensive upside based on his AHL production, but that can result in some turnovers. So the Jets likely asked him to simplify his game, and instead of doing the things he does well (skating, creating offense, transitioning the puck), he became a defensive defenseman who struggled to get out of his own end. That’s the gist of Han’s thread.
We talked about how Wood and Hughes excelled in Ruff’s system, but defensemen have fared well too. Ty Smith had a solid rookie season in 2020-21, and P.K. Subban found some new life after the worst season of his career in 2019-20. A puck-moving defender like Dougie Hamilton, who the Devils signed in free agency this offseason, should thrive in Ruff’s system, as should long-time Devil Damon Severson.
Niku obviously needs a change of scenery, but he also needs a coach who’ll play him to his strengths. Ruff’s system needs puck-moving defenders for it to be most successful. Niku’s best assets are his puck-moving ability and transition game, and Ruff probably isn’t going to coach that out of him. He’s a reclamation project and will need time in the AHL to re-sort his game. But Niku is only 24 years old, and the Devils don’t have many high-end defense prospects after Luke Hughes. He’s probably worth taking a flyer on, and if they can help him turn his game around, he could be a long-term solution as an offensive-minded, third-pair defender.
That wraps up this edition of Devils news and notes. Make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers, as we’ll have plenty of Devils and NHL coverage with training camps underway.
* * *
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