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New Jersey Devils Selected a Very European 2017 NHL Draft Class

At the 2017 NHL Draft, the New Jersey Devils drafted eight European-born players out of eleven picks that are consistent with the fast and attacking in “fast, attacking, and supportive.” This post is a premature review and summary of the Devils’ 2017 draft class.

2017 NHL Draft - Round One
From Nico Hischier at #1 to Yegor Zaitsev at #205, the 2017 Draft Class for the Devils is very European.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils made history when they selected Nico Hischier from the Halifax Mooseheads at first overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Hischier is not just New Jersey’s first ever first overall selection, but he’s also the first ever Swiss player to go #1 in the NHL Draft. It would be a pick that ended up leading a Devils draft class that had a majority of European-born prospects selected.

This is only the third draft with Ray Shero as General Manager and the second for Paul Castron, who is the team’s Director of Amateur Scouting. Last year’s draft class was mostly filled with forwards and included three European-born players: Mikhail Maltsev, Yegor Rykov, and Jesper Bratt. It was be the first time since 2009 (Josefson, Urbom) since the Devils drafted more than one European-born player in a year. Today, the Devils dwarfed last year’s total with eight such players out of their eleven draft picks. Of those eight, five did play in a European league in 2016-17. It’s definitely not the norm for this franchise. It’s definitely a trait that will characterize the 2017 Draft class. There’s more to it than that, so let’s go over what happened at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.

The First Day, Round 1

The Devils had the first selection on Friday evening and selected center Nico Hischier. Hischier was named the best prospect in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he flourished in every situation he was put in last season, and he forced himself into the conversation for the #1 pick. Hischier has very few flaws to his game as he’s a very good skater, he’s excellent on and off the puck, and he could be ready to jump into the NHL as early as this coming season. I was happy with the pick. Readers here were largely happy with the pick. Devils fans on Twitter were happy with the pick. The Devils draft party people were happy with the pick. At first overall, the team should pick the best prospective player for them and Hischier fits that. Obviously, this year’s draft class will largely be viewed as a success based on how successful Hischier becomes. I am confident he will be a great Devil.

What’s also notable was what Ray Shero did not do. He did not move down from #1. He did not trade #1 for some big package. He also didn’t get back into the first round or make a big move prior to the 2017 NHL Draft. He kept to what he had. The picks he had going into Saturday were the picks he went into Saturday with. This is notable because there was plenty of activity right before and on the first day of the draft. Arizona made plenty of shrewd moves. They acquired Niklas Hjalmarsson for Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin; and they sent the 7th overall pick and Anthony DeAngelo for Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta. They became a better team. Jordan Eberle was shipped to the Islanders because Edmonton believes selling low is a good thing. Chicago surprised many by trading a package featuring Artemi Panarin for a package featuring Brandon Saad. Chicago also moved 26th overall to Dallas for Dallas’ 29th overall and 70th overall picks. On the draft day itself, Philadelphia moved Brayden Schenn to St. Louis to get back into the first round at 27th overall, earn a conditional first rounder in 2018, and Jori Lehtera’s terrible contract. While that was bold, Pittsburgh giving St. Louis the 31st overall pick and Oskar Sundqvist for Ryan Reeves and the 51st overall was just confusing for Pittsburgh. Especially given that the Blues took Klim Kostin with the 31st overall pick, a very talented prospect who was undercut by injury this year. With all of the movement, it was easy to feel that the Devils should have done something. But staying pat made sense for what they did do and, most of all, they selected Hischier.

As far as the first round picks themselves go, there were a number of surprises. There were some significant prospects falling within the first round. I expected Gabriel Vilardi to be a top five pick, he fell all the way to Los Angeles at #11. Apparently, skating became a concern of sorts. Defenseman Timothy Llejgren fell all the way to Toronto at #17. Eeli Tolvanen was thought to go somewhere in the middle of the first round; he ended up as the penultimate pick. Kostin falling to #31 was also a surprise; it was hard to get an idea of where he should go. For players to fall, some had to go higher than thought. To that end, the Rangers reached with Lias Andersson at #7 and Filip Chytil at #21. Las Vegas took Erik Brannstrom ahead of Llejgren. Dallas used their higher first rounder to take a goalie: Jake Oettinger. Philly took Morgan Frost with their second first rounder from the Schenn trade. Retrospective reviews may look more kindly on these decisions. Based on my amateur standpoint, these were the reaches and surprises I noticed.

The Second Day, Rounds 2-7

All the same, the Devils went into the second day of the draft with nine picks. they ended the day with ten. They did reach the end of the time limit three times, leading to a timeout for one pick and a trade for another. Thankfully, the Devils were not penalized by losing any picks.

In the second round, the Devils selected Swedish forward Jesper Boqvist of Brynas IF at 36th overall. Boqvist is a quick forward with a very good shot and tantalizing offensive skill set. I liked the pick. The best defensemen available at the start of the second round - Connor Timmins and Nic Hague - were both gone before New Jersey’s pick. And I don’t think there’s an issue to adding another quick forward who has a good shot. With their first pick in the third round, the Devils selected another such player: Swedish winger Fabian Zetterlund of Farjestad at 63rd overall. Zetterlund was a prolific shooter in 2016-17 for the teams he played on. He was a standout on Sweden’s World U-18 Championship team. While his defensive game needs work, the Devils may have a potential sniper in their pipeline now.

At this point, the questions started mounting: when will the Devils draft a defenseman? With so few defensemen prospects in their current system, it seemed odd that they went with forwards with their second and first third round pick. They finally did get a blueliner with their second third round pick. That pick was American defenseman Reilly Walsh of the Proctor Academy at 81st overall. Walsh is an excellent skater and has been good at moving and shooting the puck. He’ll get his chance to work on his game at the next level with Harvard next year. Walsh, of course, was the first non-European player drafted in this class.

The Devils went back to European players for their next four picks. In the fourth round, the Devils chose Russian winger Nikita Popugaev of the Prince George Cougars. Earlier in 2016-17, Popugaev was considered by various scouts and services to be a potential first round selection when he was putting up points like a machine for Moose Jaw. After a trade to Prince George, his production plummeted, his play was more inconsistent, and questions about his effort arose. Combined with some skating and defense issues, he fell really hard in the draft. That said, Popugaev is massive at 6’6”, he’s got a great shot and he has good hands. If the issues can be addressed, then the Devils could have a real find on their hands. As far as finds go, the Devils made an off the board one with their first fifth round selection at 129th overall. They chose 21-year old Swiss goaltender Gilles Senn of HC Davos. Senn was Davos’ starting goaltender last season in both the regular season and tournament play. The big netminder was passed over in three previous drafts; for that alone, this was a surprise. While Senn can jump to the pros right away, the Devils would have to make room for him to make that happen. Of all of the picks today, this is the only one I didn’t really understand or like all that much. The Devils went back to junior hockey with their second fifth rounder at 143rd overall, drafting Slovakian right winger Marian Studenic of the Hamilton Bulldogs. Studenic is considered to be a very good skater with some real explosive offensive talents. He needs to work on being more consistent, particularly when he’s not creating or finishing chances. In the sixth round, the Devils originally had two picks. They used the first one, 160th overall, on Finnish forward Aarne Talvitie. Talvitie was a top player for Espoo Blues’ junior team and represented Finland at the international level. His future is in America, though, as he has committed to Penn State starting in 2018-19. After this selection, a move was made which ended up ending this run on European-born players.

The Devils did not use their second sixth round pick. traded their second sixth round pick, 185th overall, to San Jose for two seventh round selections: 205th and 214th overall. It would be the only deal Shero would make during the draft itself. It was one of the several pick-for-pick deals. The one that people will be talking about now is the big one where Calgary acquired defenseman Travis Hamonic and a conditional fourth round pick for Calgary’s first round pick in 2018, Calgary’s second round pick in 2018, and a conditional second round pick. San Jose used New Jersey’s pick on Alexander Cehmlevski, who would have been a fine pick for the Devils.

Getting back to the Devils, the trade meant the Devils had three seventh round picks. This allowed them to address the fact that they selected one defenseman up until now and their prospect pipeline is lacking in defenders. All three picks would be used on defenders. The first one - the one New Jersey originally owned at 191st overall - was used on Halifax defender, Canadian Jocktan Chainey. Chainey is not just Hischier’s teammate, but he is also one of the youngest prospects in the draft, he was a regular part of Halifax’s power play, and he’s very good at skating. With the 205th overall selection, the Devils chose Russian defenseman Yegor Zaitsev. He’s unrelated to Nikita Zaitsev of Toronto. He’s also a 19-year old defender who split time between the KHL and the minor leagues last season. He’s another puck-moving defenseman, except he can physical and he knows where he needs to be. It’s an intriguing pick this late in the draft. The Devils’ final pick of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft was at 214th overall and they used it on an overaged American defenseman, Matthew Hellickson. Hellickson was with the USNTDP prior to this past season, where he spent it with Sioux City of the USHL. He will be going to Notre Dame next season, which reminds me of how the Devils picked Jeremy Davies from last year.

In Summary

The Devils chose eight European born players out of eleven total selections. That’s not the only common trait among them. With every pick, Brian or I would write up a reaction post summarizing who it was the Devils selected and add any information about the new prospect later. In going through the posts now, I realize that most of these prospects have been found to be very good skaters. Most of these draftees had their speed, acceleration, and mechanics as noted positives. In fact, the only prospect among these eleven where their skating was explicitly stated as an issue was Popugaev, but even in his case, it could be improved upon. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Combined with some of their selections last year (McLeod, Gignac, Bratt), the Devils put a premium on skating and speed in their 2017 draft picks.

Further, after a forward-heavy 2016 draft class, the Devils leaned towards forward again in 2017. The word lean is accurate as the Devils ended up with six forwards out of eleven. That group of six has another common trait: they’re almost all attacking forwards. Hischier, Boqvist, Zetterlund, Popugaev, Studenic, and Talvitie were all praised for their shots and their hands in some way or form. Moreso in the case of Hischier and Zetterlund, who were shot machines in their respective leagues. The only one of the group that didn’t get the designation of being an offensive forward is Talvitie, and that’s mostly because there just isn’t much out there on him. I don’t think this is a coincidence either. With these decisions combined with 2016’s class, the Devils’ system is now filled with plenty of offensive forward prospects. So much so that if a couple don’t make it, then the system isn’t back to being paper thin. I expect the Devils to try to maintain it instead of making it a point of emphasis in next year’s draft.

The use all three seventh round selections on defensemen at least gives the system some much needed quantity. Only Zaitsev among the four is a 19-year old professional; the Devils will have to wait to see if quality bears out among them. With five picks in the first 100 picks of the whole draft, they only used one on a defenseman (Walsh) and that was at 81st overall. While we won’t know who was exactly on the Devils’ draft boards, it’s concerning that a team lacking in high end defensive prospects would pass them over entirely with their first three picks when such players may be available. The need will only continue to grow larger unless today’s picks grow like wildfire or the Devils obtain more defenders who can play big roles to stave off the need. I like who they did pick late. At this moment, though, it looks like the Devils will need to address the serious lack of top-tier defensive prospects in 2018. Don’t be surprised if the Devils continue to seek and sign defenders out of Europe or those who aged out of college or juniors to supplement the system (e.g. Colby Sissons, Michael Kapla, Yaroslav Dablenko).

For the most part, I liked who the Devils drafted. The only one that I didn’t get was the Gilles Senn selection. I didn’t think the Devils needed to draft a goalie. If they wanted to add someone to the system that could be ready a few years from now with a late pick, then that would be fine. But a 4-year overage pro? Even with a fifth round, why? Now I have thought about it for a little bit, I almost have to think someone else on the depth chart isn’t going to stay in New Jersey for very long. Maybe Senn will be a replacement for Appleby or Wedgewood. We’ll see.

Overall, I do like what the Devils did on both days. That first overall pick needed to be a good one and the Devils made it so with Hischier. With their picks after the second round, they loaded their system with prospects who are good skaters to join the likes of McLeod, Speers, Gignac, and Bratt among others. At least five of the six forwards drafted had their shots noted as pluses; that adds to the attacking nature of this year’s class. Even the defensemen they did pick, none of the four would be classified as a big, defensive-minded, offensively-limited defender. Shero has stated that he wants a team that is “fast, attacking, and supportive.” Today’s picks are in line with at least two of those three traits. Sure, we could argue that other players in some spots would have been great. And some fine prospects were left undrafted. But the Devils obtained the best prospect in the draft, they beefed up their forwards considerably, and at least added some bodies on defense.

Lastly, the Devils were very bold to have a very European-born draft class. Again, the Devils have not had a draft class so heavy with players originally from the other side of the pond in a long time. You’d have to go back to the early 2000s for those kinds of classes. That may be more for trivia as more and more European-born players make the move to North America for their careers. Whether it is to go to college or play in the major junior leagues, these young players do this to get more attention from scouts, get acclimated to the North American game and lifestyle early as they can, and work on their skillsets in environments close to what they may experience as a pro in North America. That’s what Hischier did; he earned significant ice time and roles with Halifax and blossomed. That’s what Popugaev intended to do and did so by going to the WHL before his draft year. Studnica made a similar move to get more attention in the OHL. Talvitie is going to college and could decide to go to the USHL in the year before he becomes a Nittany Lion. This has been a trend and what it does is that it diversifies the meaning of what a European player is. The Devils taking this many Europeans on its own is a surprise, but it is not as if they took eight guys who can only know the slower style on the larger rinks. They took players who have or will experienced both among those who haven’t (Boqvist, Zetterlund, Zaitsev) before they go become pros in North America. That makes this class even more interesting to see how they develop. If the picks work out, then we could see the Devils do more like this in future drafts. It’ll definitely make the European scouts happy too.

Your Take

This will be the penultimate post about the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. What’s next for the players? We’ll see most of these guys in development camp later in July. Perhaps some in training camp in the Fall. All the same, they are now a part of this team’s future. What about us? This coming week will be more focused on on free agency as qualifying offers are due soon and July 1 begins the frenzy for unrestricted free agents. I’ll have one more post tomorrow based on your reactions in the posts we wrote for every pick. So go out and vote in those polls and leave comments in case said polls close.

I want to thank in no particular order for this year’s posts about the draft whether it was to help with a profile, providing information for the larger Internet, or being here: Elite Prospects, Youtubers bigwhite06 and NHL Prospects, the Ottawa 67’s for showing some love to this Noel Hoefenmayer profile, Steve Korunianos at The Draft Analyst, Ben Kerr at Last Word on Sports, Jeremy Davis and his team at The Nation Network for having some great profiles, Brock Otten of OHL Prospects, Christopher Ralph and company at The Hockey Writers, DraftSite, Future Considerations, Grant McCagg at Recrutes, Chris Dilks and Jeff Cox at SBN College Hockey, dthomas53 with a FanPost showcasing a shift-by-shift video for Hischier that he put together, Brian for helping out today and doing profiles in rounds with multiple picks, CJ for putting the Nico vs. Nolan roundtable together, the team of Brian, CJ, Mike, Gerard, Alex, and Devin for making prospect profiles this Summer, and most of all - you!

What did you make of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft for the Devils? Did you love it, hate it, like it, dislike it, or not all that sure on it? What was your favorite pick? What was your least favorite pick? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the 2017 NHL Draft now that it is over in the comments. Thank you for reading.

One Final Thought

You and me both, Steve.