During the 2019-20 season, his first as a pro, Jesper Boqvist may have spent more time on the proverbial elevator going up to the NHL and down to the AHL than he did on the ice. This past season, there was only one short stint in the AHL and the 22-year-old spent the majority of the 56-game shortened 2020-21 season in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils.
“Compared to last year, I felt way more comfortable and feel like I belong more. I felt good in the 7-8 games with Bingo and really gained some confidence in myself,” Boqvist said. “I felt good since then and feel like I haven’t had too many bad games. Definitely more comfortable and that I belong (here) more.”
Confidence is crucial at this elite level, no question about it. You have to believe you belong, and it helps to have a coaching staff that believes in you. For whatever reason, maybe that wasn’t the case with the previous coaching staff. That’s circumstantial though, and the current staff was intent on playing young players to see what they have ‘under the hood’ as GM Tom Fitzgerald likes to say. But during this past season under the guidance of Head Coach Lindy Ruff and his staff, there’s no question that Boqvist looked like a different player.
It could have been circumstance – with the team one of the youngest in the league after trading away most of its graybeards – and players like Boqvist benefitting from the extra ice-time.“The coaching staff has been great with that (not sitting me if I make a mistake) and will show me some video clips or talk me through things, it feels good (to have their confidence),” Boqvist told THW towards the end of the season.
“You look at a lot of our young guys who have spent some time in the AHL this season, including (Janne) Kuokkanen, and it’s never a straight line to get to the NHL,” explained Ruff. “When you look at our young guys, it’s still a hard road to get there and to be a difference-maker. The opportunity that they have been presented with this season is the opportunity any young player would want – to be able to make a difference inside of a game. (Tonight) Boston was battling for playoff position, it wasn’t a game that they were taking lightly. They played well and we were able to battle back and get a big win.”
This past season other rookies put up better numbers, no doubt, and that’s what at the end of the day players are judged upon for better or worse. Boqvist put up seven points (4g-3a) in 28 games after four points (all goals) in 35 games the prior season. In 8 games this season with the AHL’s Binghamton Devils he had seven points (2g-5a).
“He’s been able to get in on those two or three opportunities inside of a game and has scored three big goals for us,” said Ruff after a game in early May. “I think those last three (goals he scored) have really changed momentum or helped us win games. His skating is one thing that helps him get into the right spots. In the second period tonight he created an opportunity where he almost walked in alone down the left side, He’s a guy that knows where to go and can create his own opportunities.”
As he heads into a very important off-season there is plenty still to work on if Boqvist wants to be considered a regular in the NHL lineup. “Everything,” he honestly replied when asked what he thinks he needs to work on this off-season. “Get stronger, be even more comfortable in battles, make more plays, face-offs, be able to beat guys 1-on-1. I want to work on my shot, score more goals. Just everything.”
At 22-years-old, he’s not wrong. This season was nice, but he expects more of himself, as does the team. He hasn’t even come close to peaking physically, and he has shown enough flashes that if he can find that consistency – he could be an 82-game per season player.
“It was obviously a different year, but personally I felt way better than (I did) last year,” Boqvist said at his end-of-season media availability. “I feel like I was more involved, more comfortable playing here and I felt like I kept getting better, made some strides. This is a big summer for me; hopefully, I can take even bigger strides next year.”
He’s now home in Sweden for his summer training and workouts, likely returning to New Jersey ahead of September’s training camp. Because he made his NHL debut in the 2019-20 season, Boqvist does not have to be protected and is exempt from the Seattle Kraken’s expansion draft.
“Every one of us young guys here has played big roles before we got here, so we’re comfortable if we are given bigger roles – which we had this past season,” added Boqvist. “It’s a lot of fun to do that, to have that responsibility here too.”
“When I was recalled (from the AHL) this season, that first game in Washington I had some good chances and that was the game where I felt like I belonged here,” he said. “Obviously there are ups and downs (in a season) but that was the game for sure where I felt my self-confidence grow.”
Boqvist More Boom Than Bust
The physical tools are there, now the mentality is also there for Boqvist. The self-doubt, the questioning have been erased. There is a reason why the Devils selected him 36th overall (2nd Rd) in the 2017 NHL Draft. He will take what he worked on during the last off-season and apply it, even more, this off-season. Whether it’s shooting pucks off the ice before heading back onto the ice or doing more intense cardio off the ice before heading back into the rinks of Sweden – he knows what he needs to do to keep growing his all-around game.
“I learned to not doubt myself and I learned a lot about myself this season and how to handle things,” Boqvist told THW. “I’m not where I want to be at yet – when I am there, my confidence will be at an all-time high for sure.”
He mentioned the staff again, and how much of a help they were to his development and growth in this wacky and weird season. “A lot,” Boqvist replied when asked how much of an influence they’ve had on him. “We’ll watch my mistakes on video the day after a game and talk through it off the ice or on the ice at practice – what to do and what to not do in certain situations. They have all been great with that. It helps me a lot, for sure.”
Boqvist was peaking when the season ended, and although it felt good at the time there is much work to be done still as far as he is concerned. “As I’ve said, I’m not really where I want to be at yet but the last handful of games was a stride in the right direction for me.”
The Devils are hoping that those games can be a springboard of sorts and that his next step is an even bigger one, where Boqvist locks himself into a role within their top-9 forwards.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.