Not much has gone right for the New Jersey Devils over the last three weeks. They have one regulation win over their 12 previous games, and that came against the Boston Bruins this past Sunday. But if there’s been a bright spot or two, it’s that some of their young players have given them a bit of life.
Two players that have stood out are Mikhail Maltsev and Janne Kuokkanen. Maltsev has four goals in 11 games this season, with two coming in his previous four games. Meanwhile, Kuokkanen has three points in his last two games and has provided what little offense the Devils have been able to generate.
With the Devils’ veteran players struggling to produce, it’s time head coach Lindy Ruff looks to give Kuokkanen and Maltsev the ice time that they’ve shown they deserve.
Kuokkanen, Maltsev Excelling in Limited Roles
How the Devils get past this era of being consistently among the NHL’s basement dwellers will depend on their young players. It’s not going to change things for this season. But players like Kuokkanen and Maltsev performing well could change things heading into the summer and the 2021-22 season.
We’ll start with Kuokkanen, who the Devils acquired as part of the Sami Vatanen trade at the 2020 Trade Deadline. Kuokkanen has nine points in 18 games, a 41-point pace over 82 games. He had gone six games without a point from Feb. 18 to March 7, but things seem to be coming together for him.
Kuokkanen had a goal and an assist that helped sparked the Devils’ furious third-period comeback to earn a point against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night. He also tallied a goal in last night’s 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders.
Kuokkanen has a Corsi-for percentage (CF%) of 51.5 percent and an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 50.4 percent this season. He’s averaging 2.57 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five, ranked first on the team (min. 100 minutes played). So his results at that game state show he might be ready for a bump in his role.
It’s been much of the same for Maltsev as well. He has a CF% of 56.1 percent, ranked second to Jesper Bratt on the team. Meanwhile, his xG% sits at 58.6 percent, ranked first on the team. He may have only played in 11 games, but his results have been quite impressive, to say the least.
While both have been playing well, each offers something different. Maltsev measures 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, and is strong in the faceoff dot but can play on the wing too. He has a good set of hands and has shown he can put the puck in the back of the net. Kuokkanen is an intelligent playmaker and one of the best passers on the team. It shows up in the shot contributions, which Todd Cordell manually tracks every game.
You’ll notice Maltsev’s name in the graph above too. At his best, he’ll have a night like that, but Kuokkanen has a more consistent impact each game. Either way, both players are finding ways to generate offense at a time when goals have been hard to come by. And that should lead to a bump in ice time.
Kuokkanen & Maltsev Deserving of Top-Six Minutes
Finding the right line combinations has been a challenge this season, especially with Nico Hischier missing time due to injuries. Ruff returned to the Andreas Johnsson, Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt trio at the end of last night’s game vs. the Islanders, and it led to a Hughes goal.
Assuming those three remain together heading into tomorrow’s rematch with the Islanders, it should still leave openings in the Devils’ top six for Kuokkanen and Maltsev. One possible combination worth exploring is pairing Maltsev with Pavel Zacha and Kuokkanen on his wings. That’d leave the Devils’ lineup looking like this:
- Johnsson – Hughes – Bratt
- Zacha – Maltsev – Kuokkanen
- Yegor Sharangovich – Travis Zajac – Kyle Palmieri
- Miles Wood – Michael McLeod – Nathan Bastian
Palmieri has been a go-to player for the Devils for the last five years, but it hasn’t clicked for him this season. He has only four goals and 10 points in 22 games and has been taking one too many penalties. Part of his lack of production is because the Devils’ power play has been a trainwreck, but reducing his role at five-on-five might be best.
That’d allow Kuokkanen to move up a line. And with Maltsev playing well at center and Zacha having some of his best games at left wing, it’d make sense to pair them with Kuokkanen. Maltsev and Zacha have shown an ability to score goals this season, making Kuokkanen’s playmaking a potentially good fit for them as a linemate.
At the very least, it’s worth trying out as an experiment. This should be a meritocracy. The Devils’ veterans are struggling to score, and their young players — especially the ones producing — should start getting more significant minutes.
Where the Devils sit in the standings should factor into their decision-making too. They’re 8-12-3 and need an all-time miracle to sniff playoff contention. Their focus should begin shifting with an eye towards the 2021-22 season.
Maltsev and Kuokkanen figure to be part of that effort. They’re both playing well and deserve more than the 11-14 minutes they’re getting each night. With only one win in their last 12 contests, it’s worth elevating their roles and seeing if they can give the Devils’ top six a much-needed spark. If it works, it’s something they can build on for the rest of this season and into the next one.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick