It did not seem there was too much the New Jersey Devils could do to improve. With one of the deepest NHL rosters and prospect pools, which they did not have to dip into to acquire Timo Meier at the Trade Deadline, the Devils prioritized keeping their roster intact over the off-season. They re-signed Meier and Jesper Bratt to eight-year extensions, locking down two more core pieces long-term. Also re-signed was Erik Haula, who will look to rebound from an inconsistent season. On top of locking up their key players, the Devils also brought in Tyler Toffoli from Calgary, who was coming off a stunning career-high 73 points at age 30, in exchange for Yegor Sharangovich, who scored 24 goals for New Jersey last year. The Devils also shipped off defensemen Damon Severson and Reilly Walsh to Columbus and Boston respectively. These moves allowed the Devils to prioritize depth adds in Free Agency, signing Chris Tierney & Erik Kallgren as short-term options.
New Jersey did not have a first-round pick in this year’s draft and headed to Nashville looking for impactful players with upside. GM Tom Fitzgerald made the most of his five selections, and the Devils came away with five strong players for their pipelines.
Round Two, 58th Overall – Lenni Hämeenaho, RW
Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald stated in his end-of-season media availability that the Devils’ draft goal was to find players with a high upside, but selecting Finnish Winger Lenni Hämeenaho feels closer to banking on a safe floor. Hämeenaho spent his entire draft-eligible season with Ässät of the Finnish Liiga, making the full-time jump from U20 Hockey to the pros look easy. His nine goals and 21 points in 51 games help showcase his pro-level game. His 0.41 points per game as a draft-eligible actually bests 2022 1st-overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky’s draft-eligible season (0.32). Hämeenaho does not possess the skating and primary scoring ability that Slafkovsky does, but that is encouraging production nonetheless. His game is already tailored to a physical, two-way middle-six role in the NHL, but his skating remains a question mark at the next level and may be the main thing suppressing his NHL upside. Right now, it is easy to look at Hämeenaho as a dependable forward who should become a long-term NHLer in a team’s top-nine.
Round Four, 122nd Overall – Cam Squires, W
Squires was another player with a solid floor and lots of room for improvement. He had a quiet 30-goal campaign for Cape Breton and was one of the team’s top forwards at age 17. Whereas fellow 2023 QMJHL draft-eligibles Ethan Gauthier (Sherbrooke) and Mathieu Cataford (Halifax) played on stronger teams, Squires was a leader on a Cape Breton team that was swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Halifax Mooseheads. Regardless, Squires has shown the ability to be a competitive and intense player on the ice. He has quick hands and strong offensive positioning, always able to put pressure on opposing defenders. His 30 goals were not a fluke; he has a well-rounded offensive game and can set up chances as a goalscorer and playmaker, and has improved on both fronts immensely throughout the year. Squires also possesses good physicality and defensive IQ despite being measured at 165 lbs. He will need to put on some weight but his defensive game already has a strong foundation. He continued to improve as the year went on, and his hard work elevated him to one of the top forwards in the Q.
Round Five, 154th Overall – Chase Cheslock, RHD
It was not the easiest getting a read on Cheslock’s game due to him bouncing around a bit throughout the season. Cheslock split time between high school hockey and the Junior Pro level in both the USHL & NAHL, as well as a cup of coffee with the United States NTDP. Cheslock will likely have more stability with USHL Omaha next season. He is a big-bodied defender who uses his size to his advantage to shut down opponents and dominate along the boards. He is a decent skater for his size at 6-3 and can provide offense, which he did very well at the HS level and will hopefully do so at the USHL level as well. Cheslock is committed to the University of St. Thomas for 2024-25, so he will have a year to develop further in the USHL before making the collegiate jump.
Round Six, 164th Overall – Cole Brown, LW
Cole Brown, much like Cam Squires, was a riser throughout the year. Brown saw his ice time go down with the arrival of Nick Lardis, who revitalized his game after joining the Bulldogs in a trade with Peterborough, but Brown continued to play a stable and productive game for Hamilton throughout the year, putting up 17 goals and 42 points in 60 games for the Bulldogs this past season. Brown is a sturdy two-way forward with a good hockey sense and toughness, although he does not play an overly exciting game. Brown could develop into a reliable bottom-six winger but he needs to work on his creativity and mobility to take him to the next level.
Round Six, 186th Overall – Daniil Karpovich, LHD
Much of what the Devils did in the 2023 NHL Draft was find players with solid NHL profiles with the ability to further their game in terms of upside, and Karpovich may be the best example of that. A big defender at 6-3, Karpovich played an offensive-minded game n Russia’s Junior league, allowing himself to play more of a puck-moving role as opposed to the checking role you would come to expect of a player of Karpovich’s size. Later in the season, he showed more of a willingness to engage physically, showcasing the potential for him to be a legitimate two-way option at the next level. He will have to improve his hockey IQ and patience at the next level, being more calm and collected while on the ice to not force plays unnecessarily. With some refinement to his game, it is easy to see the excitement in a player who can do everything needed on the ice. The Devils could easily have a late-round gem on their hands with the right development.
The Devils largely focused on keeping their roster intact but also made sure to avoid having to engage in bidding wars by acquiring Tyler Toffoli prior to the start of Free Agency. Moving Severson also solved their crowded RHD group, which was a looming issue. These moves allowed the Devils to take chances on players with low-risk contracts for next season. The loss of Ryan Graves will be a tough for New Jersey to overcome, but the imminent arrival of Luke Hughes does lessen the stress there. The departure of Mackenzie Blackwood almost certainly confirms that Akira Schmid has won the backup role for New Jersey next season, with Erik Kallgren as a potential third option. Kallgren showed flashes of talent at the NHL level with the Toronto Maple Leafs but struggled to replicate his growth last season. Kallgren and Nico Daws will likely share the reins in Utica.
LW – Tyler Toffoli (Traded from CGY)
C/W – Kyle Criscuolo (UFA, two-way)
C – Justin Dowling (UFA, two-way)
G – Erik Kallgren (UFA, two-way)
C – Chris Tierney (UFA, two-way)
LW – Jesper Bratt (8 x $63M, $7.875M AAV)
C – Erik Haula (3 x $9.45M, $3.15M AAV)
LW – Timo Meier (8 x 70.4M, $8.8M AAV)
C – Shane Bowers (1 x $775K, two-way)
RW – Nathan Bastian (2 x $2.7M, $1.35M, signed as FA)
C – Michael McLeod (1 x $1.4M, signed as FA)
Entry Level Contracts
LHD – Luke Hughes
LHD – Daniil Musil
G – Tyler Brennan
RHD – Damon Severson (Traded to CBJ)
LHD – Reilly Walsh (Traded to BOS)
G – Mackenzie Blackwood (Traded to SJ)
C – Yegor Sharangovich (Traded to CGY)
C – Jesper Boqvist (Signed with BOS)
LW – Miles Wood (Signed with COL)
LHD – Ryan Graves (Signed with PIT)
The big question for New Jersey will be whether or not their roster can continue to push itself further as a playoff contender. The acquisition of Toffoli was a risky one. He is 30 and hit 70 points for the first time in what could either be an anomaly or a legitimate second gear. If Toffoli can replicate his success for the Devils in 2023-24, that will be a massive boost to a team full of young talents.
In The System
Luke Hughes is almost surely going to be on the Devils’ opening night roster. As well as Hughes, expect 2022 2nd-overall pick Simon Nemec to fight for a spot. Likely Nemec or Miller will get the third-line RHD spot, but Jersey may want to give Nemec some more time to develop in Utica while letting Miller be the stopgap until Nemec is ready, whether this season or next. Akira Schmid will be the likely backup for the Devils next season behind Vitek Vanecek, with Schmid’s strong performances in both the NHL and AHL and with Blackwood in San Jose. Nico Daws will continue to progress too and has already proven himself capable of being the starter for Utica. Tyler Brennan will also be waiting in the WHL but is a few years away. Alexander Holtz will need to take a big leap for the Devils this upcoming season. The 2020 1st rounder has battled with consistency issues but has shown he is too good for the AHL. This needs to be the year he shows he belongs in the NHL. After a fantastic WHL showing with a stint in the AHL as a reward, more eyes will be on Josh Filmon to pick up on where he left off with Swift Current. The 2022 sixth-round pick has taken his game to a new level, proving himself to be one of New Jersey’s most mature prospects at just 19. The undersized Seamus Casey had a strong first season for Michigan and will continue to develop well for the Wolverines. Hameenaho, the Devils first pick in 2023, will likely continue to play in the Finnish Liiga, with the hope being he can replicate his surprise season.
It was a family affair at Devils development camp this year. GM Tom Fitzgerald’s son, Brendan, was invited to camp, along with Cam Recchi, son of former NHLer and former Devils Assistant Coach Mark, and Will Dineen, son of Utica HC Kevin. Xavier Parent was a surprise talent at Development Camp. Once a highly drafted youngster in Quebec’s youth system, the undersized winger was electric throughout camp, showing off some great offensive skill, proving himself to be an interesting underdog. Josh Filmon and Lenni Hameenaho also looked to show improvements in their game. Hameenaho, who’s biggest issue with his skating ability, looked to be improving in that regard, taking time to get faster and more comfortable in his mobility. Jaromir Pytlik showed some good offense, although the 2020 fourth rounder, once a popular name on HFBoards like Parent, has struggled to find himself a consistent place with Kladno of the Czech Men’s league.
Thanks for reading the July 32-in-32 report for Dobber. This is my first story on the Devils for DobberProspects, and hopefully in time I will be able to provide even more coverage throughout all facets of the organization. You will hear from me again soon with more analysis and discussion on New Jersey. You can find me talking about Hockey Prospects (and even Basketball Prospects now!) on Twitter at @AustinReporting.