Devils’ Fabian Zetterlund Proving He Belongs in Lineup

When the New Jersey Devils announced Ondrej Palát would be out indefinitely after needing groin surgery, it was a tough pill to swallow. He was their top free-agent signing this summer, and the expectation was for him to contribute to the team’s top-six and help them finally take the step forward they’ve been expecting for quite some time. 

Fortunately for the Devils, they haven’t missed a step since Palát came out of the lineup after Oct. 24. That’s thanks to 23-year-old winger Fabian Zetterlund, who’s gone from starting the season as a healthy scratch to playing on the first line alongside Nico Hischier and Tomáš Tatar. 

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In 10 games, Zetterlund has totaled three goals and six points — a 25-goal, 49-point pace over 82 games. Not only are his counting totals solid, but his underlying numbers are among some of the best in the NHL. Let’s look at what the rookie winger has provided the Devils since entering the lineup for Palát a few weeks ago. 

Zetterlund Picking up Where He Left Off

Zetterlund isn’t getting his first taste of action with the Devils this season. With them being clearly out of the playoff picture after New Year’s Day a season ago, they eventually called up Zetterlund to big the club in April after a short stint earlier in the year in November. He closed out the 2021-22 campaign in New Jersey and put up eight points in 10 games in April. When including his call-up in November, it came to eight points in 14 games for the year. 

Even when adding his four games from November, Zetterlund’s five-on-five numbers in 2021-22 were quite impressive. He finished with a 61.75 expected goals percentage (xG%) and led the team in five-on-five scoring, averaging 2.96 points per 60 minutes (min. 150 minutes logged). His overall production came out to a 47-point pace over 82 games, similar to where he is to start this season. 

Fabian Zetterlund New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils winger Fabian Zetterlund (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

And perhaps in what was a sign of things to come, Zetterlund posted strong numbers playing alongside Hischier. It was a small sample size — a touch less than 50 minutes — but Hischier and Zetterlund had a 60.87 xG% as linemates. The Devils outscored their opponents 6-1 with them on the ice together and had a 9-4 advantage in high-danger chances. 

All of that has seemingly carried over to the start of 2022-23, as Zetterlund has been one of the Devils’ best five-on-five players. His 66.99 xG% is fourth among Devils skaters, just behind Palát, Tatar and Jesper Bratt. He’s averaging 1.91 points/60, a more sustainable rate than a season ago but still one you’d expect from a top-six winger. 

Not only are Zetterlund’s on-ice metrics among some of the best on the Devils, but his xG% ranks first among rookie forwards league-wide, placing him ahead of names such as Jack Quinn, Matty Beniers, and J.J. Peterka. When including all forwards, he ranks fifth (there are four Devils in the top five) and is ahead of big names such as Matthew Tkachuk, Jack Eichel and Patrice Bergeron. Of course, this does not mean Zetterlund is a better player than Tkachuk, Eichel, or Bergeron. Not even close, but his impact on the Devils early on has been impressive:

Fabian Zetterlund New Jersey Devils
Fabian Zetterlund’s impact through 10 games of the 2022-23 season

Notably, it’s not just offensively where Zetterlund is excelling too. On the left side of the chart are his even-strength impacts. The two right columns are two defensive metrics — xG and Corsi (shot attempts) against per 60 minutes — and they show he’s having quite a positive impact defensively. That, in turn, has helped him mesh well with what’s been a dominant line combination at five-on-five. 

Zetterlund Is a Part of One of the NHL’s Best Lines

Part of why the Devils are riding a nine-game winning streak heading into tonight’s tilt against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre in Montreal is because of the line of Tatar, Hischier and Zetterlund. Hischier’s phenomenal start is a significant part of why the Devils are crushing teams at five-on-five with this trio on the ice. But make no mistake, Zetterlund is playing his role too. 

Of line combinations to log at least 50 minutes together this season, the trio of Tatar, Hischier and Zetterlund ranks first in xG% at an even 75 percent (via Money Puck). That places them just ahead of the Jason Zucker, Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust line and the Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe line. 

Related: Devils’ Prospect Report: Hughes, Nemec, Okhotiuk & More

What makes the Hischier unit so dominant is all three players are two-way forces that bring different elements to the game. For example, Tatar excels at playmaking and creating off the rush, while Hischier does just about everything at a high level. Zetterlund skates well and can create off the cycle and the rush, and he adds a high-end shooting threat. 

One instance would be his first tally of the 2022-23 campaign against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Oct. 30 in a 7-1 win. The play started on the rush, with Zetterlund firing a one-timer that Blue Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzlikins kicked back out to Zetterlund with his pad. He’d then get the puck behind the net to Hischier, who, after some work of his own, got the puck back to Zetterlund in the slot for another one-timer that he’d bury: 

There are probably quite a few more goals in Zetterlund’s future too. After Miles Wood and Jack Hughes, he’s averaging the third-most shots on goal per 60 minutes at five-on-five on the Devils. He also ranks fourth in high-danger chances per 60, so the quality opportunities are there. 

As mentioned, Zetterlund’s had a positive impact defensively too. He’s been one of the Devils’ best shot-suppressing forwards, but he also does little things that don’t necessarily show up on the score sheet or an advanced stats site. That can be by keeping an active stick and breaking up the opponent’s rush in the neutral zone, something he did well in a game against the Calgary Flames on Nov. 6. Or it can be his workman-like mentality in his own end. Two-way play like that is why he has fit in seamlessly with Hischier and Tatar, and it’s part of why Zetterlund has played so well early on. 

Zetterlund Has a Role, No Matter What

Palát’s return to the lineup is still at least a month away, and likely a bit more given the 8-10 week timeline. Where Zetterlund will end up in line combinations will be interesting, especially if the current configuration continues to dominate. But even if head coach Lindy Ruff ultimately decides to move him off Hischier’s wing once Palát returns, I don’t anticipate a dropoff in his play. His start this season has essentially been a carryover from 2021-22, so his performance doesn’t seem to be a fluke. At a 25-goal, 49-point pace, he could at least put himself in Calder Trophy conversations at season’s end if that production continues or ticks up. He has a role as a top-nine winger moving forward, whatever the circumstances may be.

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick