The other night, Nikita Okhotyuk made his NHL debut when the New Jersey Devils were made to look silly by Buffalo. You would be excused if you just saw the box score from the game and said something along the lines of “wow, another horrible showing, what else is new?” and moved on. But thankfully, not all news to come out of that game was atrocious. Almost all of it was, but perhaps the biggest positive was the play of the Russian making his debut with the big club. To see the instant reaction of it, check out what Chris had to say right after the game.
Now, before going into stats, you should understand that on the night, across 15:49 of 5 on 5 play, Nikita had an offensive zone faceoff percentage of 71.43%. He was heavily sheltered. However, that does not automatically imply good stats, you still have to play well and produce attempts and keep the puck in the offensive zone, and he was able to do that, and do it against legit NHL competition, competition that was in the process of winning the game. He ended the night with 17 Corsi attempts for to only 6 against, coming out to a 73.91 CF%. That, of course, is a dominant number. And even better, he was paired with PK Subban most of the time, and both had that 71.43 OZFO%, but Subban only had a 66.67 CF%. Obviously that’s still a good number, but not as good as Nikita’s. Subban was better when he was out there with the rookie, which is pretty awesome.
His numbers from the game look even better when you look at xGF instead of CF. Among all Devils skaters, only Fabian Zetterlund had a better xGF% on Thursday night. Among all defensemen, it isn’t even close. Okhotyuk had a 84.22 xGF%, while the next best defensemen, his pairing partner Subban, was only at 62.04%. So again, between the two who played nearly 15 minutes together at 5 on 5, the rookie making his debut had the better underlying numbers, and by a decent margain. That isn’t to say that Subban was bad, his numbers were excellent, but not as good as Nikita’s were, and that is pretty cool.
Of course, that is only one game, and hopefully we get to see him for a few more games this season to see what he really is. No way anyone can sustain the numbers he put up against Buffalo the other night, especially as he becomes less sheltered. But if he can show competence over several games, and shows that he can potentially be someone the team can count on at the NHL level for years to come, that would be a major development for this franchise. Okhotyuk is only 21 years old at this point, and defensemen usually take longer to develop than forwards do, so he is still really young where his position is concerned. It isn’t like a Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier situation where they could play in the NHL at 18. There are extremely few defenders who can play successfully in the NHL by 21. But if he shows that he has what it takes at the NHL level over these next several games, then wow, that is a huge boon.
Now, you might want to argue the perspective on this. Okhotyuk was drafted decently high, 61st overall in 2019. Teams that are good need to hit on some 2nd rounders as complementary pieces to really sustain success. However, at the same time, this isn’t like the NFL where 2nd rounders are expected to compete immediately and succeed. In fact, most 2nd rounders never become NHL regulars, most are busts. From Dobber Prospects, only around 40 players in any given draft class will go on to play at least 300 NHL games, so there is a very, very low chance that anyone taken after the first round is going to be successful.
Given that knowledge, in the last couple of seasons, if you assumed one second rounder was going to hit for the Devils, you would have put your money on Jesper Boqvist. And he has been given many chances, to the tune of 114 games so far at the NHL level. But even at this point, do you think he gets to 300 games? 300 as a Devil? Debatable, right? I hope he does, I hope he figures it out and becomes a key middle 6 piece, but that is far from certain. But if Okhotyuk is that player? Or if he can also hit alongside Boqvist? That would be two second round picks hitting for this team across 3 draft classes (2017-2019). And considering they did not have a 2nd round pick in 2018, that would be some crazy success in that time frame. Add in, of course, the selections of Hischier in 2017 and Hughes in 2019 and wow, that would be a serious foundation for sustained future success.
And specifically, Okhotyuk is important in that mix as being a defenseman. The Devils did get Ty Smith in 2018, so it isn’t like he would be the only name on defense. And, of course, there is Luke Hughes still to come. But an extra young defenseman to eat minutes and play a solid game for this team would go a very, very long way. After this season, you have Dougie Hamilton signed beyond 2023. That’s it among d-men. Damon Severson, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Ryan Graves all have contracts expiring after the 2022-23 season. Who knows what will happen there, you have to assume Siegenthaler gets brought back no matter what, and Severson has been the workhorse for this blue line for years, but who knows really. Having Okhotyuk in that mix provides a layer of security that would be hugely beneficial. If money is needed elsewhere, you don’t need to sign a big name free agent if you have an up-and-coming d-man who will slot in a middle pairing and do a quality job. It fills a big hole and provides lineup security that is otherwise unknown after next year. And where this franchise is, you have to think that in two years, they need to be competing for a deep playoff run, otherwise something has gone horribly wrong. So having Okhotyuk developing for just that time is simply ideal.
Therefore, if you need a reason to watch the remaining games this season, which I hear you, it isn’t easy to watch this team many nights, I suggest you tune in to check out how Nikita Okhotyuk handles his first games at the NHL level. If he can continue to do well, like he did the other night, it will be a big boost for this franchise’s plans for the future, both short and long term. Hard to understate what another quality, young defenseman does for this lineup.