December 31-in-31: New Jersey Devils

Hadi Kalakeche

2020-12-18

Welcome to the December 2020 edition of the DobberProspects 31-in-31 Series! This month, we will be diving into the depth of each organization, looking at their recent graduates, risers, fallers, and top 20 prospects. 

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As was detailed in last month’s article, the Devils are at the crescent of their rebuild, turning the corner quicker and quicker with each draft crop. Their additions in the offseason will encourage at least a reasonable amount of competitiveness from the organization while allowing just enough room to breathe for their young stars’ hopes of consistent NHL ice-time. Most notably, the Devils solidified their back end by acquiring Ryan Murray and Dmitry Kulikov, as well as adding Andreas Johnsson on the wing, who can play up and down the lineup and is a shoo-in for at least 15 goals in a full season. The additions of Murray and Johnsson are especially useful, as they are both in their mid-twenties and could very well offer North of five years of service to New Jersey, as their youth group grows around them.

The team now looks toward yet another season full of question marks, with a ton of roster turmoil and multiple possible young graduates that could make the difference between another lottery year and reaching the playoffs for only the second time since Adam Henrique sent them to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014. 

Moments like these are what make new fans. New season ticket holders, seat-fillers, $9 beer drinkers, and $300 jersey-wearers. The ownership knows this and understands how vital the playoffs are in creating lasting memories for a dedicated fanbase. We will know quite soon if their offseason spending will garner any short-term gain for the organization.

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Graduating Players

Ty Smith, D

After MacKenzie Blackwood’s full-time debut in 2018, and Jack Hughes’ in 2019, why not a defenseman for 2020? Realistically, the WHL graduate will likely see some AHL action for a half-season before making the jump, in order to plug the minor holes that remain in his game, but should get a taste of the NHL at some point this upcoming season.

The adjustment between Junior hockey and the highest levels of professional competition will be noticeable; there will be growing pains, major inconsistencies, and the odd muffin. Patience becomes essential when developing a potential top-two blueliner, who can quarterback a powerplay and eat minutes against top opposition.

With the right defensive partner, Smith could be given an offensive, puck-carrying role sooner than later; a third-line role alongside Connor Carrick or Will Butcher is not out of the question, although he would have to push either one of them or the freshly acquired Kulikov, into the seventh defenseman slot. Highly unlikely, although he would be a fascinating injury call-up if a Devils blueliner were to fall in action.

Watch for him to put up average numbers in the AHL for the first half of the season, as he adapts gradually to pro hockey. If he picks it up in the second half, expect him in a Devils jersey before the end of the 2020-2021 campaign. New Jersey will need to play their cards right to cash in on Smith’s high potential.

Nolan Foote, LW

By now, word of Foote’s deadly shot has gotten around; his teammates in the net at the 2019 World Juniors marveled at the weight with which he shoots the puck, and a year of growth and training will only have added to that threat. The 2019 first-rounder has immense goal-scoring potential if the rest of his game catches up and if his injuries do not follow him into his promising future.

Foote has unfortunately been sidelined for most of his WHL 2019-2020 season with an undisclosed lower-body injury, which did not help with his need to improve his skating mechanism. However, his ability to get free and rip the puck past a hopeless goaltender should see him score goals at the professional level. He will likely report to Binghamton when the AHL season starts in February, although he could end up with the Devils before the end of June if he impresses.

Kevin Bahl, D

Great things have been expected of Bahl, ever since he was part of the trade that sent Taylor Hall to Arizona. The blueliner was the Coyotes’ 55th overall pick in 2018 and has completed his three years with the Ottawa 67’s. In his senior season, he was statistically around seventh to tenth in his draft class across both offensive and defensive metrics, despite being on one of the strongest teams in the league, and playing 21 minutes a game.

The 6-7, 240 pound, OHL graduate will be a (literally) massive addition to Binghamton’s blue line and will get a taste of professional hockey as he fights for ice-time. His frame and reach are obvious advantages, which he uses more often than not to his benefit along the boards and defending the rush. 

His skating is surprisingly fluid and allows him to get into position quickly. He can skate himself out of place, however, and does tend to dump the puck often on zone exits. The AHL will be a good barometer of what is to be expected of Bahl, and coaching staff have all the time they need to ease him into the waters.

Nikita Okhotyuk, D

Okhotyuk was Bahl’s teammate with the Ottawa 67’s, and it is fitting that they both will be graduating to the AHL synchronically.  Okhotyuk’s game is much more balanced than Bahl’s, but he shows nothing really flashy. He keeps it simple, dumps the puck out, boxes out the opposition one-on-one, and protects the front of the net. He did have a poor offensive development curve, as most defensive OHL graduates with an NHL future will collect at least 0.7 points per game in their final year, while Okhotyuk only managed a meager 0.49. He did have injury issues and lower ice-time, but the latter cannot be justified as one of the oldest players on your team. He will need to separate himself from the pack by leaning on his strengths to become a utility player in higher leagues.

Risers

Yegor Sharangovich, C

COVID-19 has made things much worse for many people, but Sharangovich has been lucky enough to benefit from the pandemic by going back home to play near his family. As a result, the Belarusian center is currently the youngest captain in the KHL at 22 years old, merit he recently acquired by leading his hometown Dinamo with 17 goals and 7 assists after 32 games.

Not bad for a fifth-rounder from Minsk, take?

Sharangovich’s playmaking is not inadequate by any measure, but he will need to scan the ice more with his eyes to read the play as he cycles or retrieves pucks. His finishing, on the other hand, is currently red-hot, with an 18% shooting percentage against men in possibly the second-best league in the world. 

However, this is on larger ice with more time to make plays, with top-six and powerplay responsibilities, in an environment where he can communicate flawlessly with teammates and staff in his native city. Given that his 2019-2020 shooting percentage of 11% was the highest he had managed in his career, it is safe to say that a return to Earth is inevitable. Still, to score at a 45 goal pace over an 82-game schedule requires astute finishing, and a 20-goal performance in the NHL is not as far away as initially thought for the former fifth-round pick. 

His skating is impressive for a 6-2, 200-pound player, and he bullies his way past trouble along the boards and in front of the net. His decision-making must improve for everything to come together, but the Devils have a surprisingly decent goal-scoring prospect on their hands.

Arseni Gritsyuk, LW

The 5-10 winger has impressive board-play awareness and a sneaky shot, which combine for a deadly combination in tight. His skating could use some fine-tuning and he tends to work himself out of position at times, but his play is indicative of a player who can face older opposition and succeed. He has gone from an MHL regular to splitting time between the VHL (six points in eight games) and the KHL, where he unsurprisingly struggled to obtain ice-time under old-school coaching. 

Gritsyuk is currently at the Russian World Junior selection camp, where he will try to make a name for himself and turn enough heads to earn some additional ice-time at his return to Omsk. His play being suited to older competition, it is possible he will thrive with adequate developmental support and ice-time in North America. He will need some development in the AHL before he is ready, but he might be able to earn a sneakily decent NHL career.

Jesper Boqvist, C/LW

Although the team’s 2017 second-round pick played most of his games with New Jersey last season, he is included as a riser because his usage in the NHL was not adequate. He had more top-six ice-time and better teammates in his 19 AHL games than he had in his 35 NHL games, which is why he finished with four NHL goals as his only points that season.

However, Boqvist has been applying himself in the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second division, earning 10 points in 13 games with Timrå during his COVID-19 conditioning stint. He impressed with his play as well, remaining a consistent offensive threat in the opponent’s zone and finding teammates with ease and quickness. He played some games on the left-wing and some at center, looking equally competent in both positions.

As he fights for ice-time with the Devils next season, the coaching staff should keep in mind what type of player they have on their hands: a dynamic, offensive play-driver, who needs skilled linemates to finish the plays he creates. 

Boqvist will hope to earn his coaches’ trust and claw his way into the top six. if he does so, either Hughes and Hischier are together on the top line, or he is playing as a winger; there is no chance that he pushes the two former first-overall picks down the center depth chart. All things considered, Boqvist is a player who should earn a permanent roster spot next year. 

Fallers

Nikita Popugayev, LW/RW

The 6-6 Russian forward was New Jersey’s 98th overall pick in 2017; Popugayev had initially shown promise, as he was taking a step forward in his development with every passing year, and earning more and more KHL games. When he arrived on US soil to play with Binghamton in 2018-2019 and collected five points in seventeen games, it seemed he would earn a bottom-six spot in the AHL this season and continue taking steps forward in earning ice-time. However, he spent all of 2019-2020 with the Adirondack Thunder in the ECHL and is currently still struggling back in Russia with Dynamo Moskva – only two assists in ten games.

This type of step back in development does not show promise, as even before this freefall Popugayev had only demonstrated bottom-six upside. The list of fourth-round picks that do not see an NHL game is very long, and the Russian giant might just be another name in that list.

Colton White, D

When White clawed himself into three NHL games in 2018-2019, after putting up 30 points in 70 games for Binghamton, it was expected of him to continue progressing and push for a roster spot the next year on a porous and injury-prone New Jersey blue line. He did triple his career game tally with six in 2019-2020, but that is still far from decent NHL time; he also saw much less AHL action with 41 games. At 23 years old, White’s chances of becoming a regular contributor are dimming, but defensemen can sometimes break out in their mid-twenties – hopefully, more is to come from him.

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Organizational Depth Chart (Combination of NHL readiness and upside)

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Jesper Boqvist Michael McLeod Alexander Holtz
Nolan Foote Yegor Sharangovich Dawson Mercer
Janne Kuokkanen Tyce Thompson Graeme Clarke
Arseni Gritsyuk Benjamin Baumgartner Nick Merkley
Brett Seney Aarne Talvitie Fabian Zetterlund
Nikola Pasic Patrick Moynihan Marian Studenic
Eetu Päkkilä Jaromir Pytlik Nathan Bastian
Mikhail Maltsev Nate Schnarr Mikhail Maltsev

 

Left Defense Right Defense
Ty Smith Reilly Walsh
Shakir Mukhamadullin Case McCarthy
Daniil Misyul David Quenneville
Kevin Bahl Josh Jacobs
Michael Vukojevic  
Nikita Okhotyuk  
Ethan Edwards  
Yegor Zaitsev  

 

Goaltenders
Nico Daws
Gilles Senn
Cole Brady
Akira Schmid

 

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Top 20 Fantasy Prospects

This section is intended to paint a picture of the New Jersey Devils’ prospects whose current trajectory projects them making the most positive fantasy impact at the time that they reach the NHL. Arrival date and NHL certainty have been taken into consideration. However, a player’s potential upside is the most important factor in determining this list. 

  1. Alexander Holtz, RW
  2. Ty Smith, LD
  3. Dawson Mercer, RW
  4. Jesper Boqvist, C/LW
  5. Nolan Foote, LW
  6. Shakir Mukhamadullin, LD
  7. Graeme Clarke, RW
  8. Janne Kuokkanen, LW
  9. Yegor Sharangovich, C/RW
  10. Daniil Misyul, LD/RD
  11. Kevin Bahl, LD
  12. Aarne Talvitie, C
  13. Arseni Gritsyuk, LW
  14. Tyce Thompson, C
  15. Michael McLeod, C
  16. Reilly Walsh, RD
  17. Michael Vukojevic, LD
  18. Fabian Zetterlund, RW/LW
  19. Jaromir Pytlik, C   
  20.  Benjamin Baumgartner, C

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Hadi Kalakeche

Follow me on Twitter @HadiK_Scouting

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