Welcome to the latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. Each day, we will take a look at a new team and examine three of their potential breakout or bounce-back players. These players have the chance to make a serious difference with their teams this upcoming season. These players can be new faces or familiar ones looking to have a strong return to form. Each day we will be looking at a different team! Today we will take a look at the potential 2020-21 New Jersey Devils key players.
2020-21 New Jersey Devils Candidates
When putting together any type of list it is hard to narrow it down to just three. But especially for a list that looks at players that could have a bounce-back or break out year. Now add in the fact it is the Devils there are a lot of players to choose from. However, with that being said let’s get to the list.
First up on the list in the category of having a breakout year is Nikita Gusev. The 2019-20 season was Gusev’s first season in the NHL. While he was a member of the Vegas Golden Knights, he did not see any ice time and was traded to the Devils prior to the start of last season. There was a lot of optimism for him last season considering the numbers he put up in the KHL. And despite a slow start to the season, Gusev finished with 44 points (13 goals and 31 assists) in 66 games.
For a player that was so used to playing in a top-six role in the KHL, to see him on the third line under former head coach John Hynes was a bit strange. The Devils did just trade for the guy, after all, to help with the offence.
However, once the coaching change happened, Gusev’s game took off especially in the second half of the year. Gusev found his way in the NHL. His speed and skill were starting to take over games. And with that, the points began to pile up. His vision on the ice was some of the best the Devils had seen since the days of Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez. Two excellent passers in the team’s history.
Now with a full season under his belt, and knowing what it takes to play in the NHL, look for Gusev to take his game to another level. While Gusev has not played in over nine months, it will be interesting to see if he has to adjust again. But this time it should not take as long as it did in his first year considering he will be playing alongside some talented linemates.
Next up on the list is a player that fits into the bounce back category. That player is defenceman Damon Severson. Severson had one of the worst seasons of his career for the Devils during 2019-20. In 69 games, Severson recorded 31 points (eight goals and 23 assists) and was -20. Now granted his plus/minus was an improvement over the previous season, but his offensive numbers were down.
Severson still has a lot of potential for the Devils. Last season, he was relied upon more and put into situations he had never seen before. Normally, Severson was playing second-pair defence minutes, last season he saw some time on the top pairing with P.K. Subban and that hurt his game. Not to mention, the entire Devils’ defence struggled. But Severson always seemed to be on the ice when the opposition scored.
Heading into this season there are reasons for optimism. The Devils have a new coach in Lindy Ruff. Ruff might put Severson into a position he feels more comfortable handling. The Devils did upgrade their defence with the acquisition of Ryan Murray and the signing of Dmitry Kulikov. These players will definitely take some of the burden off Severson, especially minutes wise. In addition to those players coming on board, Severson does his best work when he is paired with a player who is more of a stay-at-home defenceman.
With Severson more offensive-minded, having more of a stay-at-home guy on the other side will allow Severson to get back to playing his style of game. Look for Severson to get back to the player the Devils expect him to be.
The final player on the list that will go into the breakout category is newly acquired forward Andreas Johnsson. The Devils acquired Johnsson from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the early days of free agency. With the Maple Leafs, Johnsson floated between the second and third line. He was one of the forgotten players on the Maple Leafs as that team was loaded with so much talent.
During an injury-plagued 2019-20 season, Johnsson recorded 21 points (eight goals and 13 assists). This was down from the prior season where he recorded 43 points (20 goals and 23 assists). That effort got him a four-year contract extension worth $3.4 million AAV. Except the salary cap caught up with the Maple Leafs and he had to be dealt.
But one team’s loss is another team’s gain. And the Devils gained a very skilled forward in Andreas Johnsson. He automatically makes the Devils top-six better and gives the Devils depth through at least three lines. The best part is for Johnsson he will either be slotted with Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes when the season starts. Not to mention he will see some power-play time on either the first or second unit.
With Hischier or Hughes as his centres, Johnsson will be able to get back to the point production he had during the 2018-19 season. Johnsson has the ability to be a consistent 20-goal scorer in the league. And being on a young team that is very skilled with only help him. Getting traded was a blessing in disguise for Johnsson, as he will look to get back to his 2018-19 form.
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