The best way for Jacob Josefson to celebrate his return from injury tonight? I think this might work. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Jacob Josefson came into this season hoping to build on a solid rookie season and establish himself as a solid NHL top six forward. His season has been derailed by two major injuries (broken clavicle, broken wrist) limiting him to 41 regular season games. In a frustrating year, Josefson now returns for the playoffs hoping to give the Devils--and his season--a much needed boost. With only two full practices since returning from a broken wrist, Josefson will be in the lineup tonight in Game 4 vs. the Rangers.
Josefson will likely take a third line center role playing with former linemates David Clarkson and Alexei Ponikarovsky. It seems like years ago but less than two months ago Ponikarovsky/Josefson/Clarkson were dominating other bottom six forwards. Their abilities to have long periods of puck possession in the offensive zone generated scoring opportunities/goals which the Devils need now more than ever after being shut out in two of their last three games.
After the jump I will go through five reasons why I think Josefson's return will have an impact tonight and going forward in the Devils playoff run and talk briefly about Petr Sykora.
Faceoffs: Right now the main grouping of Devils centermen (Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique and Patrik Elias) taking faceoffs are winning faceoffs at a 47.5% rate in the playoffs. That's not a terrible, but individually you see that Zajac has been really good while Henrique and Elias have struggled.
Breaking out the faceoff totals specifically in this series:
|Game 1-3 FO|
Zajac hasn't fared as well in this series as he did vs. Florida/Philadelphia but he is still around that 50% rate. Henrique has improved immensely while Elias continues to struggle.
Josefson hasn't been a wizard in the faceoff circle but in half a season of games this year he has had a faceoff winning percentage of 51% and is certainly step up from Elias/Henrique's 42-44 playoff averages. If he can win faceoffs at a 50% rate and Henrique can stay at his current levels on the second line, the Devils will be the better team in the faceoff circle.
Special Teams Play: During the regular season and the Florida series Ilya Kovalchuk was utilized in the third wave of forwards on the penalty kill. Once he returned from the injury that forced him to sit out a game in the Flyers series the Devils haven't added him back into the rotation, instead they have been using Ponikarovsky for that third wave of forwards. Now, with Josefson's return they can turn back to a player who averaged 1:09 of ice time per game on the penalty kill during the regular season that is a quicker skater, better overall defensive player and much more of a threat to create a shorthanded opportunity. He will also be another option to take shorthanded faceoffs.
Third Line Excellence: Josefson returned from his broken clavicle in mid-January but struggled to get to a regular place in the lineup. Once the Devils started to utilize Josefson on the third line with wingers Clarkson and Ponikarovsky his play improved quickly. In 17 March games Josefson was roughly a +3-4 Corsi player (per-game average) had 2 goals, 5 assists and was a +7. If the month of March was projected out for the entire year Josefson would have had about 9-10 goals, 24 assists with a +33-34 rating.
Henrique Elevated/More Ice Time: The return of Josefson pushes Adam Henrique up to the second line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias. Henrique is currently averaging 13:21 of even-strength and 17:05 total ice time per game which already is within the top six forwards of the Devils. I would expect Henrique to get another minute or minute and a half of even strength time which is good for the Devils and Henrique, especially considering the time will be spent on the ice with Kovalchuk/Elias. Simply put, Henrique is a better option than Sykora on the second line and you are not losing much placing Josefson on the third line in replace of Henrique.
Fresh Legs/Spark: DeBoer captured this sentiment best yesterday, per Tom Gulitti:
"He finished the season very strong," DeBoer said. "The last three, four weeks of the season he was great. Fresh legs this time of year - you’re 15 games into a playoff run – can never hurt. And he’s been an effective guy for us, and we missed him while he was out."
The unfortunate consequence of Josefson's return will be the likely scratch of Petr Sykora. Sykora was one of the 5 Devils who scored more than 20 goals this year and established a solid 2nd line with Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus. That said, Sykora's seen limited production so far in the playoffs (one even strength goal out of two total goals) and his lack of speed certainly wasn't helping him generate many scoring opportunities by himself. Sykora's shot per game output had dropped from 2.07 shots per game in the regular season to 1.4 in the playoffs. It's hard to generate scoring when you are taking 25% less shots per game.
The Elias/Sykora/Zubrus unit had been quiet offensively and the insertion of Josefson in the lineup allows Peter DeBoer to elevate Adam Henrique into the top 6 group of forwards, which may give Elias and Kovalchuk the necessary spark they need in this series.
With Josefson on the 3rd line, the only other option would have been for Sykora to play on the 4th line, which has been working great during the playoffs and did not need to be tinkered with. The Devils are icing a better lineup with Josefson at third line center and Henrique at second line center and keeping the fourth line intact.
When I think of Josefson I always remember Jacque Lemaire's quote from late last season:
"This kid has it. There's no doubt," Lemaire said. "He just turned 20 a couple days ago and he's a good player right now. If you look at his stats, his stats are not that great. But as a hockey player you want him on your team."
"I think it's how he understands the game, where he goes on the ice," Lemaire said. "When he doesn't have the puck, what is he going to do? When he has the puck, what he's doing with the puck. He's quick, strong, he's got good hands. He sees the ice well. So he has a lot of qualities.
Like last year, Josefson didn't have the eye popping stats this season. People have expected a lot out of Josefson as former first round pick (as an aside, Chris Kreider of the Rangers was selected one pick before Josefson) but he does so many other things well on the ice that his impact won't always be on the score sheet.
The Devils might be taking a chance rushing Josefson back so quickly but if he is the player he was in March, the Devils will benefit from a better lineup. Down 2-1 in the series and struggling to score goals the Devils need a boost from someone. Jacob Josefson might just be the guy to do it.
Are you excited about Josefson's return? Will we get the productive Josefson of March or the one that struggled in February? Would you have picked someone else other than Sykora to bench? Thanks for reading and sound off below.