The Fragile Start to Jacob Josefson's NHL Career

Jacob Josefson got tougher situations and tougher minutes in 2013, yet he needs to stick around more to showcase his non-offensive talents. - Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Spor

Jacob Josefson is entering his fourth season as a NHL player and yet he's only played 91 games. I explain how he's done in his fragile start with the New Jersey Devils and why his spot is safer in the lineup than other bottom six forwards.

Jacob Josefson is a curious player within the New Jersey Devils organization. He's one of the younger players on the team at the age of 22. Not so young that we don't know what he can do, but young enough to think he'll improve as a player to some degree. He's a center who has appeared for three seasons under three different coaches. He hasn't been all that productive in the NHL with only six goals and sixteen assists in his career. He was touted to be a future two-way center, leaning towards the defensive side of the puck and that can be sort of seen in his play. However, he's most known for being injured.

Josefson has only played 91 games in New Jersey. In 2010-11, he was called up not long into the season but hurt his hand at the end of October. He recovered and was sent back down to the AHL. Josefson was called back up in February and played regularly through March and April of a lost season. It was enough for one to think the Devils have plenty of hope in a then-20 year old rookie. Sure enough, Josefson made the team but later in that first month of the season, Josefson collided into the end boards hard and broke his clavicle. He would return in February, play limited minutes until March when he really got more responsibilities and ice time, and then broke his wrist before the playoffs would begin. Josefson did return to the Devils' Cup run for six games; again, a sign that the coaches must have liked what he can do. Still, a reputation for injuries was formed in that second season. Josefson didn't get injured much in 2013. He had a sore foot early on, but he was really sidelined by the coach and was even sent down to "get back his confidence." Josefson would return to the lineup for the last few games of the season in April.

Basically, it's been a rough three years and I wouldn't blame some fans for wondering what the big deal is with Josefson. He really hasn't shown to be a scorer. Not only has he never scored more than ten points in a season, he only has 88 shots on net - just under a shot per game. In 2013, he only scored once, earned two assists, and twenty shots on net. He's got a point-per-game rate below 0.25. Unless he breaks out rather soon, it doesn't appear he'll become a significantly productive player. That said, he does being something to the table; it's just not easily apparent in the box score. Let's start with his underlying numbers at even strength from Behind the Net:

SEASON GP TOI/60 Corsi Rel QoC Corsi On On-Ice Sh% On-Ice Sv% PDO OZS % OZF %
2010-2011 28 11.36 -0.550 0.19 7.80 943 1021 58.6 48.6
2011-2012 41 10.56 -0.600 5.96 8.29 971 1053 55.1 51.5
2013 22 10.17 -0.196 1.07 5.00 852 902 43.8 54.8

In all three seasons, Josefson hasn't played a whole lot at evens; but in this past season, Peter DeBoer used him in a completely new way. In his two earlier seasons, he was sheltered as one may expect for a young forward still trying to establish himself at the next level. He played against weak competition (Corsi Rel QoC) and got plenty of offensive zone starts (OZS%) along with limited minutes. Josefson also benefited from good luck as per his PDO. Sure, he had a positive on-ice Corsi rate, but it's not all that praiseworthy because of it. But in 2013, DeBoer definitely gave Josefson a challenge at times. The 5-on-5 ice time went down a bit but he his level of competition increased and he started the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone. In that light, his modest on-ice Corsi rate is actually better than where it was ranked on the 2013 Devils. His offensive zone finish percentage also improved so there's some sign that he can get the puck going in the right direction. Josefson's luck, like much of the team's in this past season, stunk. Throw in the errors that aren't exactly uncommon from young players with that along with getting tougher on-ice situations, and it's no wonder his "confidence" seemed shot. He didn't drown with tougher play but perhaps it was too much, too soon? More appropriate usage should help him out.

On top of all this, consider who he's played with in those 5-on-5 situations over the past three seasons. The With or Without You charts at Hockey Analysis list the most common teammates by ice time. In 2010-11, those forwards were few and far between but David Clarkson, Mattias Tedenby and Ilya Kovalchuk (double-shifted?) led as Josefson's common teammates. Possession was OK with the first two, but not so much for Kovalchuk and Josefson - both were better apart. In 2011-12, Clarkson and Alexei Ponikarovsky led in common minutes with Josefson and the Corsi percentage was great (above 57%) together. Josefson really got going in March 2012 after the Devils got Ponikarovsky and Clarkson unsurprisingly had no issue firing away when those two got him the puck. You can see how his minutes and number of shifts per game jumped in that month compared to February in his game log at NHL.com. It wasn't a coincidence. In this recent 2013 season, Josefson's most common forwards only played a little more of a quarter of his ice time with him and they were Dainius Zubrus and Ilya Kovalchuk. That's likely from those first few games. While the possession was OK, it not as great as he was when with Clarkson and Ponikarovsky from the prior season. He was moved around a lot in the lineup and combined with his own struggles, he didn't really fit in the overall picture nearly as well. He couldn't settle with any one or two fellow forwards. It's still early in his career, but it all suggests to me that Josefson may be more useful when playing with possession wingers, aggressive both along the boards and at firing the puck. He can help those players get stops at the other end and compliment them going forward. This also further suggests his usage in 2013 was not at all ideal.

SEASON GP ES TOI/G PP TOI/G SH TOI/G TOI/G
2010-2011 28 11:27 1:45 0:01 13:14
2011-2012 41 10:46 0:09 1:09 12:05
2013 22 10:27 0:44 1:46 12:58

Ice time is a quick and dirty way to identify how a coach rates a player. Based on these per-game averages at NHL.com, Josefson hasn't played a lot so they haven't been so reliant on him. However, that shorthanded ice time per game average is a sign of a different level of confidence. Josefson may have had a higher ice time per game average in his first season, but remember that season was essentially lost and there was nothing to lose by a few extra shifts. He also got power play time, where he only earned three assists. That went away in 2011-12 and 2013, but Josefson became a regular on the penalty kill. He certainly had his low points on the PK in 2013, but who didn't on a team that really ate it in the first half of last season? The ice time further confirms that the coaches want to keep Josefson in a limited role, like you'd see someone on a third line. But the rising average of PK ice time is further evidence that they have liked what he does on defense in general.

Ultimately, that's the path Josefson is on and I would guess that's what he'll become. He's definitely a good, smooth skater with good vision and skills to play off the puck. But his awareness away from the puck is his best asset and that lends himself well to a more defensive role. Short of a breakthrough, he's not going to be a top scorer; he'll be that solid defensive-minded forward (two-way is his ceiling, I suppose). Someone a team needs for stops, support someone who isn't so strong defensively, and so forth. I think he'll improve on his attacking skills; but it's just that most players demonstrate whether or not they're scorers quickly. Josefson really hasn't. The thing is that he's shown enough in other areas (off the puck, the penalty kill, etc.) to stick around.

Could he be better? Of course he can. (His PDO likely won't crater again too, at least, I hope it won't.) But what's telling is that even after he was injured for a significant amount of time, he was brought back to New Jersey and perform - even in some playoff games, the sort of time where players don't get minutes just to get minutes. He'll presumably get at least a little better even though he's been through years of development already. That all said, Josefson has already been in the NHL more often than the AHL even with injuries and his "lost confidence" in the last three seasons. That alone the Devils think he's already good enough for this level even if it's in a limited spot. That's something that can't be said about other prospects or fringe roster players in the system. And last season saw some changes to that spot with tougher zone starts and competition. He didn't utterly fail all things considered then; though I think he shouldn't be used to that extreme right away. It's all why I think his spot on the New Jersey Devils is likely safer than others.

One final thought about Josefson and his injuries. He's really been unfortunate with them. The majority of injuries in hockey, if not sport, are accidental. Josefson didn't plan on losing control and going face first into the endboards. He didn't expect to get his wrist broken in a routine collision. He certainly didn't ask for any of these injuries. Not only did he lose time from being injured, but also practices too. When he was cleared to play, he had to be worked back into the lineup each time; trying to catch up to his previous form. That takes time and activity. When fans remark about how he needs to be healthy, I don't think it's solely a criticism. It's also a lament because it has prevented him from helping the team. At the same time, a full season would likely make it far more apparent as to why he's a NHL-quality player right now even with some meager basic numbers. Maybe 2013-14 will be that season where he not only plays at least half of a regular season, but entirely with the top-nine forwards such that he's at this level for good.

Will you think he sticks around in 2013-14? How many games do you think he'll play and how much do you think he will play? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Josefson in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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