Last week I revealed the players that just missed out on the 2018 AATJ Top 25 Devils Under 25. This post will focus on the bottom 5 players in this year’s rankings. This group includes three players from last year’s Binghamton Devils team, a player coming off of an OHL Championship, and a recent draft pick that is set to make the jump from the KHL to AHL. Let’s take a look at who they are.
#25 - Michael Kapla - D - Age: 23 - 2017-18 Team: Binghamton Devils (AHL) - 2017 Rank: #20 - Elite Prospects Profile
Falling 5 spots from last year’s list but remaining in the top 25 is Binghamton Devils defenseman Michael Kapla. The 6’0, 200 lbs. defender was signed out of UMass Lowell on March 28, 2017 after a stellar collegiate career. Kapla made 152 apperances for the River Hawks from 2013-17, with 17 goals, 75 assists, +49, and 102 PIM. He earned Hockey East All-Rookie Team honors in 2013-14 and Hockey East Second All-Star Team, All-Tournament Team, and Championship honors in 2016-17. In addition to being a steady, two-way defender for the River Hawks, he served as captain in both his junior and senior seasons. Upon being signed by New Jersey he was given a 5 game taste of the NHL at the end of the 2016-17 season to gauge where he was at.
Last season as a rookie for Binghamton, he appeared in 63 games with 5 goals, 16 assists, -10, and 22 PIM. In Jeff’s Binghamton Devils’ 4th Quarter Grades & Evaluations which use a panel to judge the players, Kapla finished the season with a C- grade. While that may not seem great, it was noted by Alicia that Kapla showed improvement throughout the season and earned Rookie of the Year honors for this group. Given that the Devils brass recalled Kapla as a “Black Ace” to skate with the team in practice during the playoffs, it seems that they agree that he improved as the year progressed.
It will be interesting to see what the 2018-19 season brings for Kapla. The Devils defensive group is by no means settled and a strong training camp could push Kapla into a roster spot. Regardless, it’s more likely he starts in Binghamton and I’m interested in seeing how new Binghamton Devils coach Mark Dennehy deploys Kapla. Dennehy will be familiar with Kapla from coaching against him for 4 years in Hockey East.
#24 - Yegor Sharangovich - C - Age: 20 - 2017-18 Team: Dinamo Minsk (KHL) - 2017 Rank: N/A - Elite Prospects Profile
Making his debut and doing so in the top 25 is center Yegor Sharangovich, selected by the Devils in the 5th round of the 2018 draft. The Devils opted to take 6’2, 187 lbs. Belarusian forward despite him just turning 20 years old prior to the draft. What made them comfortable doing this was his impressive 2017-18 season at the KHL and international level. In league play, Sharangovich played in 47 games for Dinamo Minsk with 4 goals, 8 assists, -5, 12 PIM, and 12:38 ATOI. According to EliteProspects, Sharangovich finished 2nd among U20 players in scoring in the KHL. He also had 3 goals and 2 assists in 6 games for Belarus at the WJC while serving as an alternate captain. The Draft Analyst had plenty of praise for Sharangovich back in January:
A big, rangy center with very good speed and an excellent shot, Sharangovich logged the most ice time among forwards and played in every conceivable situation, to include the penalty kill. He plays with his head up, and his quick feet, specifically pivoting and edges, are obvious during lengthy cycles.
One of the advantages to taking a double overage prospect in the draft is you can get them into your system faster. Sharangovich is already signed to an entry level contract and is set to continue his professional career with Binghamton in 2018-19. It will be interesting to see how he makes the transition from the KHL to the AHL but find himself as a bottom 6 option for the NJ Devils within the next year or so depending on how his development goes.
#23 - Nathan Bastian - RW - Age: 20 - 2017-18 Team: Binghamton Devils (AHL) - 2017 Rank: #17 - Elite Prospects Profile
Falling out of the top 20 after finishing 18th in 2016 and 17th in 2017 is Nathan Bastian. The 6’4, 205 lbs. right wing was selected by the Devils in the 2nd round of the 2016 draft after a strong second season with the Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL that saw him put up 59 points in 64 games. As it has become well documented, a lot of his success in Mississagua came with fellow Devils prospect Michael McLeod on his line. Bastian struggled in 2016-17 with just 45 points in 58 games for the Steelheads in regular season action, in what turned out to be his final OHL season. Part of that struggle was due to playing away from McLeod while another part was trying to play center which is his not his best position. Back in the summer of 2017, Brock Otten noted in our interview with him that Bastian’s skating, physical game, and shot still hasn’t developed as hoped.
With a December birthdate, he opted to turn pro the 2017-18 season with Binghamton. In what was a big year of adjustments for the large winger, he put up 10 goals and 8 assists in 68 games for the Binghamton Devils. In Jeff’s Binghamton Devils’ 4th Quarter Grades & Evaluations, Bastian finished with a C grade. Jeff noted that Bastian improved as the season progressed and could use some improvement with his grit and defensive play. I hope Bastian can take his experience from the 2017-18 season and continue to find ways to improve his all-around game. Sometimes the offensive side of the game can come later for players with larger frames so he’s certainly a prospect worth keeping an eye out on.
#22 - Marian Studenic - LW/RW - Age: 19 - 2017-18 Team: Hamilton Bulldogs (OHL) - 2017 Rank: #32 - Elite Prospects Profile
Marian Studenic makes the jump from 32nd on last year’s list to 22nd on this year’s. The 6’1, 170 lbs. forward from Slovakia was selected by the Devils in the 5th round of the 2017 draft. That was after a succesful rookie season in the OHL that saw him put up 18 goals and 12 assists in 58 regular season games for Hamilton in 2016-17. He also played for Slovakia at the WJC. This past season was a big success from him as he helped Hamilton capture an OHL Championship. In 62 regular season games he had 20 goals and 28 assists along with a +24 and just 14 PIM. In 21 OHL playoff games he had 3 goals and 12 assists with a +19 and 12 PIM. Studenic also managed to score 2 goals in the Memorial Cup and was once again on Slovakia’s WJC team.
Studenic has shown versatility to his game with the ability to play on either wing, be an effective penalty killer, and even contribute on a secondary PP unit. He’s at his best in transition with his effective zone exits and entries. Though not a big player, he’s even capable of throwing a big, clean hit to make a defensive stop. In our most recent interview with Brock Otten of OHL Prospects, he noted that Studenic showed enough to be a potential NHL player due to his effective three zone play. Otten thinks that Studenic is well suited to break into Binghamton’s bottom 6 for this upcoming season and be an asset on the penalty kill. While I think Studenic’s upside, especially offensively is limited as pro, his transition and defensive game could help him carve out a role as a solid bottom 6 forward at the NHL level. Having watched him a lot last season, I’m intrigued to see how he develops these next few seasons.
#21 - Mackenzie Blackwood - G - Age: 21 - 2017-18 Team: Binghamton Devils (AHL) - 2017 Rank: #10 - Elite Prospects Profile
Mackenzie Blackwood retains a top 25 ranking but has fallen quite a bit from his 12th ranking in 2016 and 10th ranking in 2017. The 6’4, 215 lbs. netminder was one of the top goaltending prospects when the Devils selected him in the 2nd round of the 2015 draft. At the time he was coming off of a solid second OHL season that saw him put up a .906 SV% in 51 regular season games. The following season he was a top goaltender in the league with a .921 SV% in 43 regular season games and .915 SV% in 13 playoff games. That saw him be named to the OHL First All-Star Team and as OHL Goaltender of the Year. Blackwood turned 20 in December of 2016 and opted to turn pro for the 2016-17 season. He had an up and down season with a 17-14-4 record and 2.55 GAA and .907 SV% in 36 regular season games. In the playoff he managed a .928 SV% as Albany was eliminated in the opening round.
This past season he struggled to secure regular playing time with Binghamton due to sub-par performances. In 32 games he went 7-17-6 with a 3.41 GAA and .882 SV%. While his AHL season was a big disappointment for a prospect of his caliber, his brief ECHL stint this past season will hopefully be something for him to build off of. In 5 regular season games split between 2 in January and 3 in April, Blackwood went 2-1-0-1 with a 2.48 GAA and .920 SV%. He was even better in the playoffs with a 3-1 record in 5 games with a 1.00 GAA and .964 SV%. Blackwood is coming up on his age 22 season and will be battling for playing time once again in Binghamton. He’s still young enough and possesses great athleticism to still have some upside as a prospect. Hopefully he can get his goaltending skills to catch up to his athleticism to help take his game to the next level. This will be an absolutely crucial year for Blackwood to get himself back on the prospect map.
We will continue to release these rankings in sets of five on a weekly basis. As we reveal more, you’ll probably be able to guess where some players finished as the list narrows. Once again it was interesting to see how the list changed this year after a busy 2017-18 season that saw various players take steps forward while a few went the other way. As you wait for the next set of five, tell me what you think about the players ranked in this post. Do you agree or disagree with their rankings? Which of these players do you think can be an asset at the NHL level? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!