The New Jersey Devils may have a lot of work to do during the offseason; however, they have found a lot of key young players to help develop their rebuild. Obviously, having two decent former first overall draft picks in Nico Hischier (2017) and Jack Hughes (2019) certainly has its benefits. But the Devils have been able to find some diamonds in the rough within their organization. Meaning that they were able to capitalize on players that either fell below other teams’ radar or got lucky with their development and potential.
Clearly, with Hischier and Hughes being selected first overall in their respective draft classes, they were obviously anticipated to have good careers. Currently, Hughes is breaking out in his sophomore year campaign, while Hischier’s production value always seems to get halted due to various injuries.
Nonetheless, he’s still the head captain of the organization and the young tandem of him and Hughes is certainly exciting. However, sometimes the best production doesn’t always come from the highly anticipated player, and sometimes it can be found in the least likely contributor. This statement can be deemed true for rookies Ty Smith and Yegor Sharangovich, as both respective players were not particularly high draft selections and weren’t expected to be so well known amongst the MassMutual East Division rookies.
However, another young x-factor on the roster was also able to help shapeshift the rebuild. Finnish left winger, Janne Kuokkanen, was another surprising pick up for New Jersey and has worked his way up to the Devils’ top line. Kuokkanen’s production can sometimes go unnoticed by the more casual fan; however, Devils fans certainly appreciate his contribution and effort.
He is fifth on the team in terms of assists (17) and sixth in points (24). Similar to his fellow rookie teammate, Sharangovich, Kuokkanen had to earn his time on the ice. Kuokkanen’s professional journey began in his native homeland of Finland, in which he played for a Jr. A team called the Oulun Karpat (2014-2016). His second year with the franchise was his best as he was able to tally up 53 points (22 goals, 31 assists) in 47 games played for their U20 program. In that same season, he was also able to help Team Finland win gold at the U18 World Juniors Cup (WJC).
He appeared in seven games and tallied seven points (three goals, four assists). During his tenure of playing with Finland teams, he participated in three different leagues: Jr. A, Liiga, and Mestis. His production obviously sparked some interest from professional North American teams. He was drafted over the summer by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2016 at 43rd overall.
He instead elected to play with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). He was able to put together a nice run in the OHL in which we able to rack up an impressive 62 points (26 goals, 36 assists) in 60 games played which also carried over into their respective playoff. He appeared in 14 games and was able to put up 16 points (10 goals, six assists).
Scouts were saying that Kuokkanen was a “fluid skater, who keeps his head up, and is always looking to make a play…and he also works hard to retrieve loose pucks” (Futureconsideration.ca, 2016). Once Kuokkanen reached the AHL, he made an immediate impact for the Charlotte Checkers (affiliate of the Hurricanes) in which he was named an AHL all-star and won the Calder Cup Champion during the 2018-2019 season. He was later traded to the New Jersey Devils in the Sami Vatanen deal on Feb 24, 2020.
Making an Impact for the Future
Even though he had a couple of NHL appearances between the Hurricanes and Devils, this season will obviously be considered his official rookie year. There wasn’t a whole lot of expectation for Kuokkanen due to him be considered more as a “filler player” due to the Devils missing key players, including Bratt, Vatanen, and Hischier to begin the year. But as the year progressed, Kuokkanen flashed some of the potential that he demonstrated in Finland and the AHL. He was able to score his first career goal on Jan 30 against the Buffalo Sabres.
Kuokkanen was also able to dish out three assists in the Devils’ first game back from their COVID-19 suspension on Feb. 16 in the upset win over the New York Rangers. After multiple trips to the taxi squad, Kuokkanen has certainly solidified his position as being a part of this Devils rebuild and is a big x-factor going forward. The “Kid Line” of him, Hughes, and Sharangovich will be fun to watch.
Trey Matthews is currently the play-by-play announcer for the hockey programs at Adrian College. Interestingly, he is also one of the only full-time black hockey play-by-play announcers in the entire country. He has been featured in USA Today, USCHO, & others for his line of work. In addition to that, he’s also the host of a podcast show called Locked On Devils. He first began writing for his high school’s paper at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School & Academy. Aside from hockey, he also covers the Los Angeles Lakers (NBA) for Belly Up Sports.