The New Jersey Devils finished last season with Jack Hughes centering the top line with young wingers Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen. Sharangovich was one of the biggest surprises on the Devils roster. A 5th-round rookie who was decent in the AHL the previous season ended up becoming one of the top goal scorers in the KHL before returning to North America and playing well for the Devils down the stretch. Meanwhile, Kuokkanen went from a huge piece in the Sami Vatanen trade to someone the team actually relied upon.
He is by far the least talked about member of that line. Sharangovich might be the most well-liked member of the Devils right now. His wholesome social media content along with his fiery personality is a great combination to get the fans behind him. Jack Hughes is the team’s star, and that’s likely how it’s going to stay for a long time. Kuokkanen is by far the quietest of the three at least publically.
The Devils signed Tomas Tatar in the offseason, and it had people wondering whose spot he would take in the top six. He could take either of the wing positions next to Nico Hischier, but it seems more likely he will play with Hughes. Hughes needs a finisher, and Tatar is a six-time 20-plus goal scorer.
With Sharangovich still showing his scoring prowess on the international stage, it seems like the consensus is Kuokkanen is going to lose his spot in the top six. He can play center and wing, which would be crucial on the third line that needs to fill both positions. If the Devils put Kuokkanen and Jesper Boqvist on that line, then they will be able to get creative on other lines.
However, Kuokkanen likely wants to stay in the top six. Even if he isn’t on the Hughes line, he’d like to match with one of the top-two centers. The Devils just have Kuokkanen a decent raise this offseason, so he’s signed for the next two years. The Devils can make some long-term plans with Kuokkanen, and if that has to do with the top six, then he needs to build off his scoring last season.
Kuokkanen averaged a little over 40 points per season in three years in the AHL. He needs to come closer to those numbers if he’s going to stick to the top six. Last year, he was averaging about half a point per game. That would equal 41 points over an 82-game season. It would be nice if the points were a little more consistent. He had three points in the first month of the season. He had a three-assist game in February, but then he was shut out in the other three games. Then he had a 10-point March, which really set the tone for the rest of his season.
Of course, some of those points came because he was playing next to Jack Hughes. Kuokkanen does a little bit of everything for the Devils, so that helps, but since he doesn’t play on the penalty kill, it wouldn’t make a ton of sense to have him on the bottom six. He deserves a shot to prove himself in that role.