November 31-in-31: New Jersey Devils

Hadi Kalakeche

2020-11-18

Photo courtesy of the New Jersey Devils

 

The 31-in-31 Series is an annual event here at DobberProspects! Every day in November we will be bringing you a complete breakdown of a team’s Draft, and insights into their off-season movements thus far. Following this up in December, we will dive into every team’s prospect depth charts with fantasy insights and implications for the upcoming seasons. Check back often, because we plan on filling your hockey withdrawal needs all off-season long!

 

As the New Jersey Devils approached the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, with three first-rounders in their left pocket and a gaping hole in their right where goal-scoring should be, the focus was obvious: get wingers for Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. 

Wingers who can rip the puck, and keep up with their pace – and if you’re lucky, a top-pair defenseman. Given the depth of the Draft class, we were blessed with this year, the odds of the Devils picking up future essential team pieces in the first round were high.

 

 Draft day

The Devils had accumulated those first-round picks through trading essential pieces of their organization during the 2019-2020 season in Hall and Coleman, stripping their team of what little goal-scoring it had left. There was talk of adding key roster pieces by trading one of those picks, but the Devils hung on to their 7th, 18th, and 20th overall picks in order to select right-wingers Alexander Holtz and Dawson Mercer, and defenseman Shakir Mukhamadullin, respectively. Two scoring wingers who can keep the pace: check. 

 

In Mukhamadullin, the team gets a big, mobile defenseman who activates from the defensive zone efficiently to drive offense  – we will circle back to his game further below.

 

The Russian defenseman was expected to hear his name in the forties according to most rankings, which made this pick confusing. Teams choosing “their guy” and sticking to him was a recurring theme in this first round. Prospects Marco Rossi, Cole Perfetti and Anton Lundell (and later on, Hendrix Lapierre, Connor Zary, Jacob Perreault, and Mavrik Bourque) fell into teams’ laps because teams above them picked the player they wanted or needed, but not the best player available. Yegor Chinakhov better be as good as Columbus seems to think he will be.

 

Day two

The second day of the 2020 NHL Draft seemed to last an eternity; grey hairs grew on the excited prospects’ heads, as they awaited their selections from the comfort of their homes. New Jersey sat out the second round, having traded their pick along with next year’s second-rounder for Nikita Gusev.

 

When the third round came at the turn of the century, the Devils announced their fourth pick of the Draft, with the 84th overall selection: overage goaltender Nico Daws, from the OHL’s Guelph Storm. They added a couple of interesting players with their later picks in Jaromir Pytlik, Ethan Edwards, Artem Shlaine, and Benjamin Baumgartner, clearly content with choosing who was available, instead of moving up or down for specific names. 

 

Then the Devils traded their final pick in this Draft, 192nd overall, for Arizona’s 2021 7th round selection. This pick allows the Devils to spread out their contracts over multiple years and avoid losing prospects from lack of roster space.

 

Post-Draft

By adding Alexander Holtz and Dawson Mercer to their prospect pool, the Devils ensure a decent amount of upside on the right wing; soon they will have two goal-scoring options for the elite playmakers that center their top lines, Holtz especially being precisely the type that thrives with a Jack Hughes or a Nico Hischier. In the meantime, GM Tom Fitzgerald faces what seems to be an impossible task for him; the task of putting a competitive team on the ice using $24 million in cap space. Given the amount of cap room New Jersey had to work with, Devils fans were understandably unimpressed by the lack of trades at the Draft table.

 

The day after the Draft, finally giving in to their fans’ cries for a trade, the Devils benefited from a crashing market to acquire Ryan Murray from the Columbus Blue Jackets for a fifth-round selection in 2021.

 

 

This trade exemplifies the leverage of cap room, especially since the beginning of the pandemic: a team like Columbus, overloaded with defenders, with little cap room in a weak hockey market, giving up a decent player for next to nothing in order to make room for their stars and to alleviate the financial burden of COVID-19 related losses. 

 

This trade is a win for New Jersey as a competitive hockey product, solidifying their back-end as Murray will likely remain in the Devils’ top-four for the 2020-2021 season. However, from a prospect development perspective, it might hinder Ty Smith’s opportunities at the NHL level this upcoming February.

 

Their next move, the day after the Murray trade, was similar in its assistance of a higher-spending team to remain competitive while obtaining a key piece: the Devils sent the promising Joey Anderson to the Toronto Maple Leafs for winger Andreas Johnsson. A former seventh-round pick, Johnsson adds awareness, speed, and secondary scoring to New Jersey’s top-nine on a $3.4 million AAV contract for the next three seasons, and there is no risk in seeing what could happen to him next to Hischier or Hughes. A smart move, trading a “maybe” for a “yes”. 

 

He will also allow prospects such as Boqvist, Zetterlund, and Kuokkanen some room to grow their game and will assist in their transition as they try to develop into regular NHL players. Given New Jersey’s lack of true goal-scoring options on the wings other than Palmieri, trading for an established winger was inevitable.

 

The Devils then signed defender Dmitry Kulikov to a one-year, $1,15 million contract, in order to add depth to their defense core. This is another move that will add to Ty Smith’s hill of obstacles to the NHL as another left-handed blueliner joins the Devils’ depth chart, but Kulikov is a roster addition that will allow New Jersey to try and put a competitive team on the ice for next season.

 

Draft Recap

 

Round One, 7th overall – Alexander Holtz, RW

With a high pick at 7th overall, the Devils had a buffet of proper top-end talent to choose from, with Rossi, Perfetti, Holtz, Askarov, Lundell, and Jarvis all still available. The choice of 6-foot goal-scoring winger Alexander Holtz from Djurgårdens in the Swedish Hockey League was an easy one: he has the best shot in the Draft, and easily becomes their best prospect on the wing.  

 

Holtz first raised eyebrows in the scouting sphere by putting up 30 goals in 38 games in Sweden’s U20 program, at 16 years of age. Now two years older, he shows immense versatility in his scoring chances by utilizing different shots, shooting off either leg and being able to produce both off the rush and during offensive-zone cycles. He is clinical, boasting a 15% shot percentage with 16 points (9 goals) in 35 games in the SHL in 2019-2020, a men’s league in which goals are hard to come by. Prior to his call up to Djurgårdens’ men’s team, he had collected seven goals and two assists in three (!) games against similar-age competition with their U20 SuperElit club.

 

He can wire the puck from anywhere on the ice, although he tests that ability a bit too much by rushing a shot from the blue line instead of looking for better options. His shot motion relies on strength over technique within his forward thrust, and that strength will only grow with proper training and nutrition from some of the best trainers in the world; that is why Holtz is an almost-guaranteed perennial 30+ goal-scorer.

 

 

His skating is decent, and will not require much work to match the pace of the NHL’s top lines. His playmaking is intricate enough to make him a dual-threat offensive winger, and adding weight onto his frame in the next couple of years will surely contribute to his overall game as well, as he learns to separate physically from his man in the offensive zone and create more space for himself.

 

Questions arise when watching Holtz defend – he has a tendency to “disconnect” in his own zone, losing track of passing or skating lanes he should be blocking, or simply drifting away from his man during opposing cycles. Statistically, his team produced much better defensive numbers with him off the ice last season. However, you don’t draft Holtz for his defense – you draft him to take the puck and put it behind the goaltender. And he does that extremely well.

 

Holtz is a right-handed shooter, and as the prime winger in the Devils’ Draft cupboard, a long career of receiving pucks right in his wheelhouse is to be expected, as he develops next to elite playmakers in Hughes and Hischier. Fantasy-wise, he is a top-end pick in leagues with emphasis on goal-scoring, but a mid-first-round pick in multi-category leagues as he does not rack up hits, nor penalty minutes.

 

Holtz is currently furthering his development with Djurgårdens at the Swedish top-level, where he has accumulated four goals and two assists in nine games.

 

Round One, 18th overall – Dawson Mercer, RW/C

Dawson Mercer is one of the closest players to the NHL among all 2020 Draft eligibles – his game is extremely well-rounded, and he processes the game with quickness and efficiency. Mercer’s lack of elite-level skating or playmaking abilities was likely a factor in him slipping to 18th overall, as he projects to be a twenty-goal middle-six winger that coaches will love.

 

 

Mercer will likely spend the next season in the QMJHL with Chicoutimi, but the defensive side of his game is already polished to the point that he wouldn’t need to assume a sheltered role once he reaches the NHL. He reads plays, intercepts passes, closes down on defenders at the blue line, and does it all with great timing. His ability to play efficiently on both the powerplay and penalty kill will definitely accelerate his transition onto NHL ice. 

Mercer’s shooting abilities are mainly driven by his brain rather than his hands – he gets to the low slot for most of his shots, and his goals are much easier to obtain from there. Positionally, the young Newfoundlander seems to flow effortlessly in and out of danger areas in the offensive zone and understands the defensive side of the ice to an extent rivaled only by Anton Lundell among first-round forwards. He possesses above-average shot power and excellent accuracy, with 16.16% of his shots beating the goaltender at even-strength. An impressive metric, even at the QMJHL level.

 

Heatmaps courtesy of Pick224.com

 

Mercer is currently employed as a center in Junior and has six points (four goals) through four games in 2020-2021, but he projects as a winger long-term due to the aforementioned lack of top-end speed or playmaking. 

 

His hands, shot and intelligence should carry him onto a second line as a fifty to sixty point player, or in a complimentary scoring role on a third line with regular twenty goal seasons – similar numbers to Kyle Palmieri would be a realistic projection. As a second-line right-winger playing behind Holtz with either Hughes or Hischier down the line, he could be a player that explodes offensively next to elite talent.

 

 Round One, 20th overall – Shakir Mukhamadullin, LD

With the 20th overall pick, the Devils raised quite a few eyebrows by picking Mukhamadullin, who was thought to be lucky to hear his name in the first half of the second round. 2020’s defense crop was weak, however, leaving little choice for teams seeking help on the blue line. 

 

The Devils could have traded down to obtain him but seemed to prefer picking him at 20th and not taking any chances, which indicates how highly they thought of his draft stock and the likelihood of another team taking him soon after. Given how much time teams had to scout players in-depth before the draft, this pick seems like one that was made informatively, not purely out of need.

 

The best part of Mukhamadullin’s game is his skating – he combines large strides with a fluid motion, accelerating using crossovers and using impressive backward mobility to snuff out opposing breakouts and zone entries in order to stop attacks before they happen. He moves swiftly in all four directions and uses his skating effectively to carry pucks up the ice and away from his own zone.

 

 

His size and reach facilitate his stick checking, which he uses efficiently and intelligently to disrupt wingers on the rush, or to block a passing or shooting lane. His positioning in the offensive zone is astute, but his defensive zone coverage does not make his teammates’ lives easier, as they will sometimes scramble to cover for his missed assignments and aggressive stick-checking.

 

Although he is 6-4, Mukhamadullin cannot and does not rely much on his physicality, which leaves him vulnerable when the opposition is settled in his zone and pushing towards the net. Oftentimes he will bounce off a player when initiating contact and is more likely to fall than to win the puck in a physical battle. 

 

This is an issue that goes beyond Mukhamadullin’s lack of muscle; he initiates contact with awkward body positioning and weight transfers and does not seem to know how to maximize his chances of winning the puck. In that sense, if you were to send 5-9 Marco Rossi and 6-4 Mukhamadullin into the boards for a hundred puck battles, Rossi would likely win 90 or more of them, despite him being both shorter and lighter than the blueliner. If he rectifies this issue, however, Mukhamadullin’s ceiling will double in height.

 

His toolbox is raw, yet quite extensive; he uses it to alleviate opposing pressure as he skates, passes, stickhandles, or shoots his way out of trouble with ease. He has already proven his worth