We know who’ll be the New Jersey Devils’ main catalysts this coming season. Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier will power the offense, while Dougie Hamilton will lead the blue line. Those four can’t do it all, though. They will need the complementary players around them to step up and help put the team in a position to contend for a playoff spot after the trade deadline passes in late February or early March. Let’s look at five players who could be those X-factors.
Sharangovich’s first two NHL seasons were quite similar; slow starts followed by highly successful second halves. That holds for his production as well, as he scored at nearly the same clip in 2021-22 as he did the prior year. Overall, he’s averaged 25 goals and 48 points per 82 games in his two years in the league. But there seems to be another level to his game that remains untapped, and the Devils will need to unlock it in 2022-23.
Plenty of Sharangovich’s success revolved around being a winger to Hughes over the first two seasons of his career, but that changed a bit during the second half of 2021-22. He spent about 140 minutes alongside Hischier, with the two putting up a Corsi percentage (CF%) of 51.06 percent and an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 54.54 percent.
If Sharangovich is to find a niche as a top-six sniper, he’ll need to be able to do it without being tied to Hughes’ hip. He can do so with Hischier because he’s a good fit for Sharangovich as a linemate since he excels at creating chances off the rush and getting the puck to high-danger scoring areas. If he thrives alongside either Hischier and Hughes anywhere in the top-six and cracks the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career, he’ll be one of the team’s X-factors.
Mercer had more than a solid rookie season, finishing with 17 goals and 42 points while playing in all 82 games. The 18th overall pick in the 2020 draft broke into the NHL sooner than expected a season ago but will now have bigger expectations placed on him heading into the new season.
Though Mercer’s underlying numbers were a mixed bag, as you should expect for a 20-year-old rookie, his microstats suggest plenty of good is on the way. His shot and passing data all stood out for a first-year player, and he excelled in transition with zone entries and exits. All of this indicates potential play-driving ability, which is ideal for a center, but it appears he’ll get a chance as a top-six winger to start 2022-23.
Mercer saw plenty of time on the wing alongside Hughes and Sharangovich a season ago. That trio fared well, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they get another run together to start 2022-23. That doesn’t mean Mercer needs to be a 30-goal, 70-point player on Hughes’ wing as a second-year NHLer. But if he can produce around 25 goals and 55 points, which is not an unreasonable ask given how he played as a rookie, it’d go a long way in the Devils forming a top-six that’d give opponents trouble on any night.
A year ago, the Devils’ blue line got dealt a significant blow when Hamilton broke his jaw in early January after an errant puck hit him in the face in a game against the Washington Capitals. The Devils were already out of the playoff picture, but no team wants to lose their star defenseman at any point in a season.
Aside from Hamilton, injuries can happen to anyone. It’s an unavoidable part of the game. That’s why having depth is crucial, and general manager Tom Fitzgerald solidified that depth by acquiring John Marino from the Pittsburgh Penguins in mid-July. Even with a healthy blue line, Marino is an underrated addition. He’s a proven top-four defender who excels in transition and is excellent at defending the rush, one of the Devils’ weaknesses a season ago.
But let’s say injuries pop up again, especially on the right side where Marino plays, he’ll be able to step up and play top-four or even top-pair minutes. If Hamilton misses some time, Marino can fill his spot. The same is true if Damon Severson isn’t available for whatever reason. The Devils haven’t had that kind of defensive depth in years. And when everyone is healthy, they’ll have three top-four capable defenders on the right side of the defense. That’s a good problem for a team to have when trying to improve a goaltending situation that was the worst in the league a season ago.
Palát was arguably the Devils’ marquee acquisition of the offseason. After spending nearly a decade with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he hit free agency for the first time in his career, where the Devils would sign him to a five-year deal worth $6 million annually. He’s coming off three straight Stanley Cup Final appearances with the Lightning and has two rings to show for it. In total, he’s been to four Stanley Cup Finals in his career and will bring a winning pedigree to a young Devils team.
On the ice, Palát should help the Devils improve their scoring. He’s averaged 20 goals and 55 points per 82 games over the last three seasons and 1.89 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five. Not only will he help offensively, but Devils coach Lindy Ruff will likely use Palát in all situations. When looking for goals, he’ll be on the ice. In late-game defensive situations, he’ll be on the ice, especially when defending at 5-on-6. He’ll be the Devils’ Swiss Army Knife of sorts, which means he’ll have plenty of ways to be an X-factor.
Now one of the Devils’ top 10 prospects after an impressive 2021-22, Fabian Zetterlund may be on the cusp of becoming a full-time NHLer. He finished last season with 24 goals and 52 points in 58 games for the Utica Comets in the AHL but also impressed in his NHL stint with the Devils.
In 14 NHL games, he finished with three goals and eight points and put up impressive underlying numbers. Of Devils skaters to log at least 150 minutes at five-on-five last season, Zetterlund finished first in xG% at 61.75 percent and first in points per 60 minutes (2.96). He showed play-driving ability and did not look out of place when he logged minutes alongside Hischier in the top-six. He has a high-end shot and can add a physical element at 5-foot-11, 220 pounds.
Once training camp gets underway in two weeks, Zetterlund will be in a prime position to land a spot with the Devils. His success alongside Hischier, though in a limited sample, suggests he could play anywhere in the top-nine. Eight points in 14 games is a 47-point pace over 82 games. If Zetterlund makes the team and produces at that rate as a full-time NHLer, he could be the team’s ultimate X-factor as a depth scorer who plays a bit all over the lineup.
Devils’ Depth Should Create X-Factors
Will all of these players be X-factors for the Devils? It’s possible, even though it may not be likely. It could very well be someone not listed here too. Having said that, they will need a few other players to step up and help Hughes, Hamilton, Hischier and Bratt. They can’t do it alone, but fortunately, emerging talents such as Mercer, Sharangovich, etc., should be able to rise to the occasion and help the team be competitive as they should in 2022-23. That hasn’t always been the case for the Devils over the last few seasons.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
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