Today is the final installment of the 2017 AATJ Top 25 Devils Under 25. This year's top 5 includes two players from last year's top 5, the NHL's latest #1 overall pick, a defenseman that could be a building block for the organization, and a highly skilled playmaking center. Before we reveal the top 5, here is a reminder that you can see all the posts in this series right here. Now, let's take a look at which players rose to the top of this year's ranking.
#5 - Michael McLeod - C - Age: 19 - 2016-17 Team: Mississauga (OHL) - 2016 Rank: #10 - Elite Prospects Profile
Breaking into the top 5 on this year's list is Michael McLeod after an impressive 2016-17 season for Mississauga in the OHL. The fast, playmaking center stands at 6'2, 195 lbs. and was the Devils 1st round pick in the 2016 draft. In 3 OHL seasons he has put up 60 goals and 103 assists in 177 regular season games. While serving as captain last season, he broke out in the second half and finished the year with 27 goals and 46 assists in 57 regular season games. He was big for the Steelheads in the playoffs as well with 11 goals and 16 assists in 20 games. McLeod has represented Canada at the U17, U18, and U20 levels, winning a Silver Medal in the most recent WJC where he impressed in a very limited role with 2 goals and an assist in 7 games. McLeod is a candidate to make the Devils roster out of training camp, but a case could be made that another year in the OHL to further play big minutes will give him the best chance to round out his game. After all, he doesn't turn 20 until February 3. Regardless of where McLeod plays this upcoming season, he'll be a fun player to watch. His game revolves around his high-end skating ability, especially as he carves up defenses skating the puck through all 3 zones. He's able to reach top speed almost effortlessly and is able to open up the ice for his teammates to get scoring opportunities. His passing ability is an asset and his shot has continued to improve on a year to year basis. McLeod's also capable of playing in his own end and at the junior level has been trusted to play in all situations. It will be interesting to see if he ends up with the Devils or Steelheads. A trip back to the OHL would open him up to play a very important role on Canada's WJC entry this winter.
#4 - Steve Santini - D - Age: 22 - 2016-17 Team: New Jersey/Albany (NHL/AHL) - 2016 Rank: #7 - Elite Prospects Profile
Rising up 3 spots to secure a top 5 finish on this year's list is dependable defenseman Steve Santini. The 6'2, 207 lbs. product of the USNTDP will be entering his second season as a professional. Prior to that he spent 3 seasons at Boston College from 2013-16, appearing in 98 games with 5 goals, 30 assists, +48, and 122 PIM on his record. He was consistently a minutes eater for BC playing at even strength and on the penalty kill, quickly earning himself a reputation as a solid defensive defenseman that can move the puck with a smart first pass out of his zone. Last season he split time between Albany (20 games) and New Jersey (38 games). At the NHL level he averaged 16:05 per game and was able to showcase his physical, tough brand of hockey. Santini doesn't offer much in the offensive zone, but his mobility, vision, and passing ability make him an asset in his own end. I'd expect him to cement a full time role with New Jersey this season and I think he can be a guy that's a part of the new core they can build around.j
#3 - Pavel Zacha - LW - Age: 20 - 2016-17 Team: New Jersey (NHL) - 2016 Rank: #2 - Elite Prospects Profile
Pavel Zacha retains a spot in the top 5 after an up and down rookie season with the Devils. The 6'3, 210 lbs. forward was the Devils 1st round pick in the 2015 draft. The native of the Czech Republic came up through the junior ranks with Bili Tygri Liberec and also has extensive international experience. He came over to North America to play for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL in 2014-15 and put up 16 goals and 18 assists in 37 regular season games. He followed that up in 2015-16 with 28 goals and 36 assists in 51 regular season games. He had an impressive playoff run that year with 6 goals and 7 assists in 7 playoff games. Last season for the Devils he finished with 8 goals and 16 assists in 70 games while averaging 14:18 a night. Arbitrary end points but to show how his production picked up later in the year, he had just 7 points and 38 shots in his opening 37 games, then had 17 points and 37 shots in his next 28 games, and then went scoreless with 8 shots in his final 5 games. Most rookies are going to have growing pains and slumps, so hopefully Zacha can find more consistency in his game this season. With Travis Zajac out to start the season, Zacha will have a chance to prove himself as a center, though his size, strength, and skill also make him a threat attacking down the wing. He doesn't turn 21 until April 6 so he's still quite young and some patience will need to be required. The fact he already has a year of NHL experience under his belt is a big plus and hopefully he can take lessons learned from last season to hit the ground running this season.
#2 - Nico Hischier - C - Age: 18 - 2016-17 Team: Halifax (QMJHL) - 2016 Rank: N/A - Elite Prospects Profile
Almosting debuting at #1 on our list is the most recent top pick of the NHL Draft, Nico Hischier. The 6'1, 179 lbs. center will bring much excitement to the Devils this upcoming season and will look to instantly take on a big role right out of the gate. The Swiss international came up through the EHC Visp and SC Bern junior systems in his home country. He even made 15 appearances in the NLA (Swiss top flight) for SC Bern in 2015-16. Like Zacha he also has a ton of international experience at the junior level over the years and earned a reputation for being the guy that would put the whole team on his back to win games. Also, like Zacha he decided to make the move to North America in his draft year. Hischier spent 2016-17 with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL, putting up 38 goals and 48 assists in 57 regular season games as well as 3 goals and 4 assists in 6 playoff games. He won numerous honors last season at the club and country level, notably QMJHL Rookie of the Year, Best Professional Prospect, and Offensive Rookie of the Year. He was also named a top 3 player on the Swiss U18 WJC and U20 WJC teams. Hischier's game revolves around his high hockey IQ and vision which allows him to play the game at a higher level than his peers as well as make his teammates a lot better. His skating, passing, shot, and compete level have all been widely praised for being strengths. He's also defensively responsible and capable of playing in all situations. The only knock against him is something that is said about all 18 years olds, he'll need some time to fill out his frame with muscle which could then lead to him taking his game to another level against older, stronger NHL competitors. I can't wait to see how his first season with the Devils plays out.
#1 - Damon Severson - D - Age: 23 - 2016-17 Team: New Jersey (NHL) - 2016 Rank: #3 - Elite Prospects Profile
Claiming the top spot is standout defender Damon Severson. The 23 year old, 6'2, 205 lbs. defenseman has been developing nicely since the Devils selected him in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft. He's established himself as a key player for the Devils present and future. Severson came from the strong Kelowna Rockets program in the WHL where he spent 4 seasons from 2010-14. Over those seasons he kept improving his two-way game with more responsibility in his own zone and increased offensive production. His final WHL season saw him put up 15 goals and 46 assists in 64 regular season games and 4 goals and 14 assists in 14 playoff games. He has now spent 3 seasons with the Devils and despite some growing pains as he adjust to the NHL, he's started to arguably become the Devils most important defender. In 203 NHL games he has 9 goals and 60 assists with an average ice time of 19:59. He's proven himself versatile in all roles and as a play driver at even strength thanks to his vision, skating, and passing ability. He's also not afraid to jump into the rush and make aggressive plays in the offensive zone to create scoring chances which is something the Devils desperately need more of from their blue line. The Devils locked down Severson to a six year contract recently which shows how highly they value him. With a lot of question marks on the back end for the Devils, Severson will look to become their go to guy to get the job done this season. I hope he can continue on the nice developmental path he's been on.
I want to thank everyone for contributing to the community portion of the ranking as well as my fellow AATJ writers for their rankings. How do you feel about this group of players for our AATJ top five? Where did you have these guys ranked?