Should New Jersey Devils Push For Fabian Zetterlund Return?

Fabian Zetterlund (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Fabian Zetterlund (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

After a stellar start to the year, many New Jersey Devils fans were clamoring for star Sharks winger Timo Meier at the deadline. After weeks of developing trade ideas, the Devils finally got their man by trading a couple of firsts (one conditional), Andreas Johnsson, prospect Shakir Mukhamadullin, and Fabian Zetterlund. While many saw the trade as a win, giving up on Zetterlund was a tough pill to swallow. With his poor play in San Jose to end the year, could the Devils bring him back?

Unfortunately for him, Zetterlund did not play well at all in San Jose. He had 3 points in 22 games. By all accounts, he was a non-factor on the ice. He shot 0% in those games, so obviously, some level of bad luck is at play. Still, overall he was poor, and his underlying numbers were not pretty either. While San Jose has nothing to gain from letting him go due to his age and prior ability, they have been an unpredictable team, electing to keep Tomas Hertl and Erik Karlsson (though he may get traded soon) and trading Meier away. Perhaps this opens the window for Tom Fitzgerald to swoop in.

An important consideration to look at when discussing additions to a team is how does a player fit? It is possibly the hardest thing to project as almost anything is possible in the game of hockey. Sometimes analytical darlings do not continue that play on other teams. Sometimes players do not fit systems as well as envisioned. The other issue is where might a given player play in a lineup. Are they purely effective playing with top talent or can they drive a line themselves by being playmakers or physical forecheckers? This is an advantage when it comes to Zetterlund.

Zetterlund was very good in New Jersey. His line with Nico and Tatar had a 65.5% XGF and was ranked the 8th-best line in the league. However, the same line and replacing Zetterlund for Mercer essentially lead to identical results, so one could argue that it’s mostly Nico doing the heavy lifting. Nonetheless, Zetterlund having elite results is a good thing, as not everyone can play well in the minutes that Nico is given. Zetterlund’s strengths are also quite rare at his build. He is an underrated passer who also has a cannon of a shot, even if he isn’t the most accurate with it. His forechecking ability is quite good for his level of experience and the extra bit of nastiness/showboating is a welcome addition.

Taking a look at his individual statistics, he was a borderline elite player to start the year, and although that level of play slowed down, he ended his tenure in New Jersey on a pretty high note, especially considering that this is second year in the league.

The other thing Zetterlund solves is the empty space for an effective middle-six option that could be viable in both top-line and bottom-pair minutes. If Tomas Tatar leaves this summer, which is a possibility considering his absence in last-day interviews, the Devils will need a versatile player like Zetterlund to fill that gap. Zetterlund didn’t play a ton of bottom-six minutes last year, but his results in 2021-22 were promising, boasting a 56.7% xGF while playing with Pavel Zacha and Nolan Foote in ~27 minutes.

Another wrinkle to consider is the cap space the Devils have to work with this summer and upcoming summers. With the coming cap crunch in the next few years with Mercer’s and Luke Hughes’ extensions, the Devils are going to need to find cheaper deals that can come in at good on-ice value. They will most likely have Nemec and Holtz on ELCs next year, but having Zetterlund on a cost-effective deal can really help to fit everyone’s extensions. And due to Holtz and Zetterlund’s relationship, perhaps both playing together for a long stretch can provide some comfort for Holtz in the big leagues.

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In conclusion, Zetterlund is a worthwhile gamble for New Jersey to take again. They have familiarity with him and vice versa, so it will be a seamless fit, much like the waiver claim of Nate Bastain last year. He was a good player with the Devils and could provide much-needed middle-six play to support the team in the regular season but more importantly, provide depth in the playoffs.

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