Later this week, Brian will begin to reveal the results of this year’s Top 25 New Jersey Devils Under 25 list. This year’s list, like the past few years, features input from you as well as the other writers at All About the Jersey. This will be the sixth Top 25 Devils Under 25 list at this very site, currently known as All About the Jersey and formerly known as In Lou We Trust. I figure today is a good day as any to quickly look back at the past five years of this offseason ranking of the Devils’ young players.
The first thing that I took away from this list is that, if nothing else, the Devils’ issues with respect to drafting were really apparent from 2012 through 2015. Just look at the top tens. Sure, there are notable hits like Adam Henrique, Adam Larsson, and the larger “we” were correct in Damon Severson’s ascent. But the top ten also often featured Jon Merrill, Jacob Josefson, Reid Boucher, Alexander Urbom, Eric Gelinas, and Stefan Matteau. While most of those players were NHL regulars, they were never significant players or even good players. All of those players played in the NHL for at least a little bit, but Urbom, Matteau, and Boucher did not and have not stuck in the NHL. We only went on what we knew then and there was plenty of hope that Merrill, Josefson, Gelinas, etc. would be solid players. That a top ten or a top five ranking went to a third-liner forward or third-pairing defenseman at best speaks of how the Devils’ issues at the draft caught up to them. My hope is that the draft classes of 2015, 2016, and 2017 will provide more prospects with not just higher upsides but more talent to meet those upsides.
The second thing that I took away from this list is that being a NHL player, even on a third-line/fourth-line or third-pairing, will give you a higher rank than most. While top draft picks like John Quenneville, Michael McLeod, and Pavel Zacha certainly received respectable rankings after being drafted (ditto for second rounders like Steve Santini, Josh Jacobs, and Mackenzie Blackwood), the top ten being filled with the likes of Merrill, Gelinas, Josefson, and such speaks to that. That’s OK. I can respect and even agree that someone expected to be in the NHL should be considered to be higher up in a ranking of young players than a minor league player or junior/college player who will likely not make it into the NHL just yet. For what it is worth, the rankings do appear to reward good seasons even in the non-NHL level. It does explain some big jumps in the rankings for Myles Bell, Raman Hrabarenka, and Graham Black to name a few. We can say they were reaches in retrospect, but at the time, there was at least a basis for the hype. Even then, being with New Jersey or expected to make New Jersey often gave young players a higher value than those who may have had more potential at that time. Therefore, I fully expect a higher ranking for Miles Wood in this year’s list.
The third thing that I took away from this list is that there is a lot of movement in the system. I highlighted in red players that are still in the organization. The 2012 list has only six players that are still with the Devils: Henrique, Scott Wedgewood, Severson, Keith Kinkaid, Blake Pietila, and Blake Coleman. Only three of these players are set for the NHL; although all six at least have put on a New Jersey uniform for a bit in their careers. That’s it. There were even departures from that group in 2016-17 (Boucher and Scarlett) and in this offseason (Merrill, Josefson, and Helgeson). Eight players that made the most recent list in 2016 are out of the organization entirely. In addition to those mentioned, Alex Kerfoot did not sign with the team after finishing his college career, Brandon Gormley was traded, Beau Bennett was left to free agency, Vojtech Mozik is going to the KHL, and Devante Smith-Pelly was bought out. Other than Beau Bennett, I do not think many of those eight will be missed in 2017. As such, new players will fill in the gaps. The point remains: expect departures among young players in addition to arrivals. Do not expect everyone on the 2017 list to still be with the Devils by the time this list happens in 2018.
The fourth thing I took away from this list is that the Devils have increasingly sought out young players under Ray Shero. While most of the Top 25 lists from the past five years are dominated by Devils draft picks, Shero has acquired younger players with value. For example, 2015 featured Kyle Palmieri, John Moore, Sergey Kalinin, and Joseph Blandisi. All four were within the top 20 of that year’s list and all of them were brought in by Shero. This list grew in 2016: Shero traded for Beau Bennett and Taylor Hall; he swapped Stefan Matteau for Smith-Pelly (a U-25 for a U-25 deal); Vojtech Mozik was another European professional signed by Shero; and Shero also added Brandon Gormley for depth. While most of those names are now gone, it is evidence that Shero has been trying to bring in younger professionals to supplant the system instead of just relying on only the drafted players. These players have been recognized as being more likely to contribute right away and, as such, they have been mostly ranked. To that end, I look forward to seeing how others value Yaroslav Dablenko, Michael Kapla, and Mirco Mueller in this year’s list.
The fifth thing I took away from this list is that I have become a fan of a Top 25 Under 25 ranking. I appreciate that it involves the just-drafted prospects, prospects who have been in the system for a bit, and young professional players. It may not be the most even of playing fields, but it is a good challenge to think about how highly one thinks of a player given where they stand. It is something that Shero and his staff have to do as well. When they are considering a potential trade or identifying who to sign for a new deal, they almost have to compare the players in their system. They have to weigh a player’s potential to others on top of what they have done and how likely they believe they will meet that potential. There is not a hard-and-fast rule for doing this as the criteria can change from player to player, situation to situation. That’s a big reason why when the survey is set up for you all to provide your rankings, I just tell you to rank them. However you value them is how you value them. There is not a definitive “right” way to do it and that is one of the larger lessons to be taken away from this. Besides, there is no downside here. If a ranking looks bad on this site in retrospect, nothing of consequence happens. It is not like we are Shero or members of his staff who will have a hand in making tangible decisions that affect the team we love: the New Jersey Devils.
Those were my five takeaways from looking back at the past five years of Top 25 Devils Under 25 lists. As a last note, I’ll give you a take away that I only know from putting that table together. The 2017 list will be the largest one yet with 45 young players. And that list could become larger very soon if the Devils do win the Will Butcher and Blaine Byron sweepstakes and sign both former college players. I look forward to what the results of this year’s list will be. What were your takeaways from the past five years of Top 25 Devils Under 25 lists? Who do you remember the most fondly or the least fondly? Who was really the most overrated or underrated? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about these lists in the comments. Thank you for reading.