Evaluating the Devils’ Internal Options to Fill Spots at Forward

Evaluating the Devils’ Internal Options to Fill Spots at Forward

Following yesterday’s signing of Dmitry Kulikov, it appears that the New Jersey Devils might not be totally done in unrestricted free agency. However, at this point of the offseason, I would not be expecting Tom Fitzgerald to make many more moves aside from re-signing his remaining restricted free agents and signing a couple contracts for Binghamton. With 39 contracts as of now and only MacKenzie Blackwood, Jesper Bratt, and Colton White awaiting contracts, Fitzgerald can afford to acquire more players.

But instead of looking for what remains of the unrestricted free agents or suggesting any trade targets, today we’re going to take a look at who within the Devils’ organization would best fit on the roster in the 2021 season. With the Devils’ current NHL roster, they have the following spots to fill:

  • Third line RW
  • Fourth line RW
  • LW, unknown line (depending on where Miles Wood and Andreas Johnsson play, assuming Jesper Bratt plays in the top six regardless)
  • Three extra skaters, one or two of which will be forwards

With that said:

Yegor Sharangovich has played two seasons with the Binghamton Devils, and is currently on loan in the Kontinental Hockey League with Dinamo Minsk. Here’s a look at how he’s improved over the past three years.





HockeyDB

Not only is Sharangovich scoring goals at a great clip in the KHL on his loan, he is doing it in a top forward role for his team. According to the KHL website, Sharangovich has three even strength goals, two power play goals, and one shorthanded goal. He’s taken 45 shots in 16 games – nearly three a game. While his average ice time was only 12:38 per game in 2017-18, he is now playing an average of 18:46 per game. His newfound aggression on the ice is really paying off for him in the KHL.

While I might have scoffed a couple months ago at the idea of him playing in the NHL in 2021, Yegor Sharangovich seems to be showing off how much he’s grown as a player on his loan.

The biggest barrier to Sharangovich making the Devils’ roster right now is that he is a center. The Devils are pretty much set at center, with Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Pavel Zacha, and Travis Zajac. For the Devils to have Sharangovich on the roster, one of the latter three would have to move to wing, or Sharangovich would have to. In this instance, I think that the Devils should play him at wing on a line with Travis Zajac. In the absence of Blake Coleman, Lindy Ruff will need to find a new player for Zajac’s wing who can take the puck up the ice and rip off a shot past the goaltender. Miles Wood might be good at getting the puck up the ice, but he certainly is not good at shooting – Sharangovich might therefore be a good option for the right wing on that line. Sharangovich’s AHL stats might be underwhelming, but the KHL is no joke and he is thriving there right now.

The Finnish Liiga’s Karpat is under quarantine until tomorrow due to a player testing positive for coronavirus last week. Therefore, Janne Kuokkanen has only played five regular season games and one preseason game on loan so far.





HockeyDB

From what I’ve seen, Kuokkanen has been playing left wing on Karpat’s bottom six. It’s good that Kuokkanen is playing in one of the best European leagues right now, as it will give him a leg up on other Binghamton Devils when training camp eventually starts for the 2021 season. This highlight is from the preseason, in which he had a goal and an assist:

According to the Liiga website, Janne Kuokkanen has been playing an average of 13:09 per game with Karpat, and his one regular season goal has come from eight shots. I was hoping that Kuokkanen might get some more ice time overseas, but perhaps that will change since he’s played more games – and he did not get to play for most of the preseason.

If Janne Kuokkanen makes the Devils roster in 2021, there are a couple ways that Lindy Ruff could use him. If Ruff wants to make the bottom of the lineup more skilled and experienced, he can use Kuokkanen in the top six so someone like Andreas Johnsson can drop down to the third line. Otherwise, I’d expect to see Kuokkanen on the left of either Jack Hughes or Pavel Zacha on the third line.

Like Janne Kuokkanen, Nick Merkley is currently playing in the Finnish Liiga. After a rough start to his season, in which he had 25 penalty minutes, an ejection, and zero points through four games, Nick Merkley has come alive for Asset Pori.





HockeyDB

After the impression Merkley made in New Jersey last season, I think fans would generally be happy to see him back with the team even if his AHL numbers have been stagnant. In the Liiga, Merkley is playing an average of 15:29 per game and has registered 20 shots on goal. A look at his game log reveals that Merkley has gone from playing 8:02 in his first game (in which he was ejected for a headshot) to playing 15:12, 19:28, 18:31, and 19:29 in his last four games, in which he has scored all six of his points.

I do not think that Nick Merkley has much more to learn in the AHL, and for that reason I think he should be a lock to start the season in New Jersey. If he continues scoring the way he has for Assat, then he will already be on a roll by the time the Devils’ season starts. If Yegor Sharangovich ends up a fourth line winger with Miles Wood, then I would expect Nick Merkley to play right wing on the third line – either with Zacha or Hughes.

Michael McLeod might be on his last legs in the New Jersey Devils organization. With the number of draft picks that the Devils will have to sign, and the influx of college players like Tyce Thompson and Aarne Talvitie over the next year or two – McLeod needs to make a statement with the upcoming season.





HockeyDB

What’s working in McLeod’s favor for the upcoming season is that players are certain to get injured, and the Devils are an extremely thin team in the NHL. When McLeod gets onto the ice, he needs to be aggressive and force the issue offensively. He needs to show that his step back in the AHL this past season is not a true representation of his ability. Fortunately, in his 33 career NHL games, McLeod has not been that bad on the whole, even with his paltry production. From Evolving-Hockey:





Evolving-Hockey

While his GF/60 and xGF/60 impact improved in 2019-20, it is too small a sample size to consider on its own. Regardless, McLeod’s impacts (or near-lack thereof) show that he can at least exist in the NHL, and we should probably see him for a good chunk of games this season. However, if he is not playing on one of the NHL lines regularly, he could start the season in Binghamton due to him not being waiver eligible.

Waiver eligibility is exactly what Nathan Bastian has going for himself. If Bastian is sent down to the AHL during the 2021 season, he will be on the waiver wire. As a former second round pick who has steadily improved in the AHL over the past three years, exposing him might not be a good idea.





HockeyDB

Nathan Bastian is a great option as the 13th forward for a few reasons. First, he is big – and would immediately be one of the biggest forwards on the roster. Second, he is skilled with the puck in front of the net, and is not bad on either end of the ice. This will allow Lindy Ruff to insert a big forward for games against teams who have a size advantage on the Devils without resorting to players of the offensive caliber that John Hynes gave minutes to last season. Bastian will turn 23 this season, and given his rise in AHL production I think he’d be a fine extra forward for the time being.

This might be a controversial take, but I do not see a good reason to start Jesper Boqvist in the NHL in 2021. His AHL production last year in his 19 games was too inconsistent, and I’d like to see him have more mastery at that level before giving him another AHL shot. He is currently on loan for Timra IK of the HockeyAllsvenskan – Sweden’s second highest league. Unfortunately, the Swedish Hockey League has not been taking players on loan because they want their players to finish the season with them.





HockeyDB

Still, Boqvist is making the most of his opportunity in Sweden right now. When the Devils’ training camp starts, he might even look good enough to make people think he should start on the NHL roster. I think that would be a bad idea no matter what. He just did not have a good time in the NHL last year:





Evolving-Hockey

I would like to see Jesper Boqvist playing on a top Binghamton line to start the year, if only because of how out-of-place he looked in the NHL last season. He has the skill and the ability to be a good NHL player, but I think he needs to get into a groove on North American ice before Tom Fitzgerald decides to bring him back to the big club.

I see Brett Seney as one of those AHL bubble guys. He might rack up points in a lesser league, but no matter how good he gets there I still doubt his ability to make it work in the NHL. There is no doubt in my mind, though, that his AHL production will get him a look as a fourth liner and penalty killer in training camp.





HockeyDB

However, the Devils should not give him 50+ games ever again unless he corrects his issues with generating shots in the offensive zone. From HockeyViz:





HockeyViz

As an undersized forward, Brett Seney needs to learn how to be smart enough with and off the puck to generate scoring chances. He is not exactly the best skater out there, and while he can be tenacious enough – he has not been crafty enough to make it work in the NHL. I would not be too angry if he were an injury call-up, but only after Bastian, McLeod, and Boqvist get chances to play.

I have nothing against Fabian Zetterlund as a prospect. As a third round pick in 2017, he’s shown the ability to adjust to the North American game effectively, and he’s been playing against top competition in the past with his three seasons of playing at least in part in the SHL.





HockeyDB

It’s unfortunate that Zetterlund missed so many games in 2018-19 (he played parts of previous seasons in the J20 SuperElit and eight games in HockeyAllsvenskan in 2017-18). A bigger SHL sample size would have made his growth easier to substantiate. Regardless, I think that Zetterlund would benefit most from another season in the AHL. And while he is definitely physically ready for the NHL – he is listed at 5’11” and 218 pounds – he could stand to get more experience with Binghamton. If he, like Sharangovich, were given the chance to play in a European league on loan, perhaps he would be making some noise for himself. However, no such loan has surfaced, and Zetterlund will be as out-of-practice as many other players whenever training camp begins.

Fortunately for Mikhail Maltsev, he has been given a loan opportunity with his old KHL club, SKA St. Petersburg. Unfortunately for Mikhail Maltsev, he has barely seen any playing time. For reference, they have played 20 games:





HockeyDB

This is not totally surprising. St. Petersburg is still one of the best teams in the KHL. Still, it’s good that Maltsev is at least skating and keeping sharp considering the volatility of the NHL’s schedule. Maltsev has also played in the VHL in previous years, with 34 points in 56 games from 2017 to 2019. If he had been loaned there, he would be getting on the ice more often. Since he was not, I think it would be in the best interest of the Devils to start him in Binghamton. That is, of course, unless he does this in every NHL preseason game he plays.

Marian Studenic is currently on loan with HC Slovan Bratislava of the Tipos Extraliga in Slovakia. And he is currently on a roll there.





HockeyDB

It needs to be said that the Slovakian league is not on par with leagues like the SHL, Finnish Liiga, or KHL. It should be seen as being in the lower end of a second tier of European hockey leagues (with leagues like the Austrian league and the German DEL). Still, it’s nice to see Studenic thrive there for a bit.

But why start him in the AHL? Due to his stagnation in the AHL between his first and second seasons, I think Studenic should be given a chance to prove himself more in Binghamton before being given an NHL shot. Of the prospects in this article, I think Studenic is probably the furthest from being ready to contribute to the NHL. I’d like to see him stay healthy with Binghamton with top six minutes, and I want to see him translate the scoring prowess he’s been displaying in the Slovakian league to the AHL. If he were to make the NHL, I don’t think he’d be a fit on the fourth line – as he’d likely be playing with Miles Wood on the other side. I think Travis Zajac needs a more stable physical presence (since Wood falls all over the place), and players like Sharangovich, Bastian, or even Zetterlund might be better for that in the span of the 2021 season.

Who in the organization would you like to see get the most chances with the Devils in 2021? Do you agree with what I’ve said about the respective players? Do you think I’m wrong about either Boqvist or Seney? Do you think the Devils are gambling too much by filling so many roster spots with this crop of players? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Credit to HockeyDB for stats, Evolving-Hockey for RAPM charts, and HockeyViz for isolated charts.

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