Things are going pretty well for the New Jersey Devils right now. They haven’t lost in almost a month, they’ve built a sizable lead in the Metropolitan Division, their stars look like stars and everyone feels pretty comfortable about where things are for this team. It’s not even just local, the league is raving positively about what the Devils are up to after years of toiling in the league basement. Not only do the Devils play successful hockey, they also play a highly entertaining one. The season still has a long way to go, but during this snapshot, New Jersey’s mood has probably not been this good since May 2012.
Plenty of players are worthy of praise at the Devils right now, from captain to fourth liner, but today I want to briefly spotlight the rookie winger who has carved his place as a mainstay at the top of the line, Fabian Zetterlund. John wrote a couple of weeks ago about how the Devils should ice Zetterlund every night if they want a boost and indeed Zetterlund has come in and shown he can be an impactful player while playing crucial minutes.
Zetterlund is successful on the ice in many ways and he’s been so notable while he’s pretty much just playing 5v5 for Lindy Ruff’s squad at the moment. His point performance is strong, especially for a rookie who received minimal power play time, and his underlying effects are all looking great in his young career so far. Zetterlund has offensive chops, but he’s definitely more than that. He’s a nuisance and a bulldog on precheck, and he’s, uh, hard to move away from pucks because of his, uh, stature. Taken together, Zetterlund brings exactly the kind of element that people have been asking for so often in the Devils roster.
The samples aren’t huge at this point and it’s difficult to play in a much more benign environment than the current cutting-edge version of the Devils, but even so, Zetterlund delivers results that are hard to argue with. If we look below at his isolated impact on Hockey Viz Expected Goals and his Adjusted Adjusted Plus Minus (RAPM) from Evolving Hockey, we can see one player clearly having good impact on his team both ways:
The Devils lost their home game to Detroit with Zetterlund in the lineup (although he played well and had a nice first assist on a Miles Wood goal). Despite the strong performance despite the team results, Zetterlund prevailed for the next four games. It might just have been the result of a tight squad and a sense of staff of what was working, but it felt like a bit tough for Zetterlund to find a spectator after a clearly good performance. The Devils would partially correct ship at the team level in his absence, and Zetterlund would eventually get another crack in the lineup, again against Detroit, with the Devils looking to bounce back from a tough 6-3 loss to the Caps, where loose play took place and sloppy mistakes finished them off.
That was 12 games ago, which for those scoring at home was the first in a winning streak that continues to this day. Well, Zetterlund might not be the only magical ingredient that created the Devils’ best hockey streak in two decades, but it’s hard to argue that the beefy Swede didn’t kick things in the right direction here in New Jersey. He has felt absolutely at home on the top line with the line of him, Nico Hischier and Tomas Tatar absolutely beating opponents 5v5 with the tune of 70% expected goals and 89% actual goals since the lineup of the line . A guy like Zetterlund, who was a “maybe” to even make the squad and helps bolster an overwhelming front line, is the kind of accomplishment that elevates a squad that looks good on paper a potentially dominant can do one. Having Jesper Bratt AND Jack Hughes available on the second row quickly makes a team a very problematic matchup for opponents.
In addition to all the talk about beep-boop numbers, Zetterlund is just one hell of a fun player to watch on top of. He’s fast, he’s not afraid to take a shot when he’s there, he’s also a pretty good passer, and he’s got the kind of engine that makes him an exceptional pain in the neck for opposing teams in general. It’s also no secret that Zetterlund is built like a brick [expletive]House, and we got a fun little example of how he’s not exactly the easiest object to move around on the ice from poor Travis Hamonic on Saturday (see below).
Zetterlund hardly ever notices a guy bullying him and he does it all while taking very few penalties. He has a lot of Miles Wood’s forechecking and haste ability, but the restraint and wherewithal of, well, not Miles Wood, so he can often be all over the ice in the mix without finding himself in the penalty box . It’s not necessarily a blow to Miles Wood, who’s been pretty good so far, but it’s one of the reasons Zetterlund is working at the top in a way Wood never really did.
All together, and the Devils seem to have made a very strong contribution in Zetterlund going forward. This was the kind of player I think the Devils were hoping for when they grabbed Zetterlund in the third round in 2017. He had a knee injury that sidelined most of his 2018/19 season and halted his development, but he has shown consistent progress as a prospect in recent seasons and we seem to be seeing the pinnacle now.
Zetterlund was dubbed a “competitive jerk” by Tom Fitzgerald on this Athletic profile a few years back, and given the way he mixes that attitude with a fairly well-rounded skillset, it’s easy to see how quickly he’s changing earned a role on a team That was a bit easy for guys who are good at pissing off their opponents. If Zetterlund can continue to raise the bar with his game, he’ll be a huge problem for anyone facing the Devils any night.