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The 2018 AATJ Top 25 Devils Under 25: The Bottom Half of the Top Ten

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The top 10 of the 2018 AATJ Top 25 Under 25 is here! This post covers the bottom half of the top 10, which includes two forwards and three defensemen. Three of these players have NHL experience and it’s possible the other two players could make an impact in New Jersey this season.

2018 NHL Draft - Portraits
Ty Smith, the Devils most recent 1st round pick, makes his debut in the top 10 of our AATJ Top 25 Devils Under 25 Ranking.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

We continue our top 25 New Jersey Devils players under the age of 25 series today. This post will reveal the bottom half of the top 10. This group includes a forward that has shown flashes of becoming a solid top 6 forward in the NHL for New Jersey, a top defenseman prospect, two defensemen that have had varying levels of success in the NHL, and a fast center that will look to break into the line up as a rookie. Let’s take a look at who they are.

#T-9 - Mirco Mueller - D - Age: 23 - 2017-18 Team: New Jersey (NHL) - 2017 Rank: #12 - Elite Prospects Profile

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We start out the top 10 with a tie between Mirco Mueller and Michael McLeod for the 9th spot. We’ll begin by talking about Mueller who was acquired by the Devils in a June 2017 trade with the San Jose Sharks. The native of Winterthur, Switzerland was drafted in the 1st round of the 2013 draft by the Sharks. Prior to the draft, Mueller excelled in the EHC Winterthur system and eventually joined the Kloten Flyers system in the 2010-11 season. He would spend most of that season with the U17 team and the majority of the 2011-12 season with the U20 team. He did manage to earn 7 appearances with the senior team in NLA action. His strong play in the Swiss junior ranks along with his performances for the Swiss junior national teams helped him get selected 11th overall in the 2012 CHL Import Draft by the Everett Silvertips of the WHL. Mueller would put up 11 goals, 47 assists, -9, and 88 PIM in 123 regular season WHL games across 2 seasons with Everett. From 2014-17 Mueller would split his time between the Sharks and their AHL affiliate. He was unable to break into the Sharks line up on a full time basis, putting up 2 goals, 4 assists, -10, 17 PIM, and 15:07 ATOI in 54 regular season games. With Mueller not developing as hoped into the two-way, mobile defenseman they expected when they drafted him, the Sharks decided to move him to New Jersey for draft picks.

Mueller’s Devils debut in the 2017-18 season was limited due to a broken clavicle suffered in a November game against the Chicago Blackhawks. In the 12 games before the injury, he had 2 assists, an even rating, 0 PIM, and 4 shots while averaging 18:26. He was just about as productive in the 15 games post injury with 2 assists, +1, 4 PIM, and 15 shots while averaging 16:22 in a more limited role. He was in and out of the line up in the playoffs but appeared in 3 games. Mueller had his moments that would remind you of why he was once a 1st round pick, but due to some inconsistency had a bit of an up and down season. He is coming off of a World Championship Silver Medal where he was named a Top 3 Player for Switzerland after putting up a goal, 5 assists, +9, and 8 PIM in 10 games. Hopefully he can build off of that performance and stay healthy in 2018-19. There is still an opportunity for him to earn a larger role on the Devils and I am interested in seeing if he can reach a higher level than what he’s shown so far in his young NHL career.

#T-9 - Michael McLeod - C - Age: 20 - 2017-18 Team: Mississauga (OHL) - 2017 Rank: #5 - Elite Prospects Profile

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Michael McLeod falls out of the top 5 but still remains in the top 10 on this year’s list. The native of Mississauga, Ontario was drafted by the Devils 12th overall in the 2016 draft. The 6’2, 195 lbs. right handed center has been an impressive talent from his youth hockey days with the Toronto Marlboros MHA program all the way through his OHL career with Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL. The fast, shifty, playmaking center entered the OHL in the 2014-15 season and put up 12 goals and 17 assists in 63 regular season games. That same season he represented Canada Red U17 at the U17 WHC and put up an assist in 5 games. In 2015-16, McLeod would serve as an Alternate Captain for the Steelheads and had a productive 21 goals and 40 assists in 57 regular season games as well as 9 points in 7 playoff games. He also represented Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament with 2 points in 4 games and Canada U18 with 4 points in 7 games at the U18 WJC. McLeod continued to improve in 2016-17 with 27 goals and 46 assists in 57 regular season games while serving as Captain. He also had a huge role in their playoff campaign with 11 goals and 16 assists in 20 games. He was used sparingly for Canada’s U20 team at the WJC with 3 points in 7 games as they won Silver.

His 2017-18 season didn’t go as planned but he was able to gain valuable experience across the OHL, AHL, and WJC. A preseason knee injury while with New Jersey sidelined McLeod until mid-November. He was able to use his experience being around the Devils veterans to learn about the professional game. He eventually returned to Mississauga to put up 16 goals and 28 assists in 38 games, once again serving as Captain. They were bounced out of the playoffs early but McLeod did his part with 6 goals and 4 assists in 6 games. He once again was used sparingly for Canada’s U20 team at the WJC but had 4 points in 7 games as they won Gold. He wrapped up his season with 6 appearances for Binghamton in the AHL with an assist. Earlier this summer I interviewed Brock Otten of OHL Prospects to get a better understanding of where McLeod stands at this point of his development. While he mentions that offensive aspects of McLeod’s game haven’t developed to the high standard many hoped when he entered the league, he did note that McLeod figures to be a solid #3 center at the NHL level. Otten also highlighted McLeod’s penalty killing abilities as a skill that could make him valuable at the NHL level. There will certainly be an opportunity for McLeod to win a spot on the roster and it will be interesting to see if he can get a spot on 3rd or 4th line to start out. Otherwise some time to develop in Binghamton could be in the cards for the young center.

#8 - Steve Santini - D - Age: 23 - 2017-18 Team: New Jersey (NHL), Binghamton (AHL) - 2017 Rank: #4 - Elite Prospects Profile

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Steve Santini is another player falling out of the top 5 but remaining in the top 10 for this year’s list. The 6’2, 205 lbs. from Bronxville, New York was drafted by the Devils in the 2nd round of the 2013 draft. The physical defender is a product of the US National Team Developmental Program where he was a standout player from 2011-13 while also representing the US U17 and U18 teams at the World Championships. He helped the team capture a U17 WHC Silver Medal and U18 WJC Silver Medal where he was named the tournament’s Best Defenseman and a Top 3 Player on Team. He would spend three seasons at Boston College from 2013-16 where he was a top defender in Hockey East. Not known for much of an offensive game, he managed 5 goals and 30 assists in 98 NCAA games. Santini also represented the US U20 team at the WJC in 2014 with a goal in 5 games and missed out on the 2015 tournament due to a wrist injury. Following his junior season of college, Santini played one game for New Jersey at the end of the 2015-16 season and appeared in 10 games for the US World Championship team. The 2016-17 season would see Santini split time between New Jersey and Albany (AHL). With Albany he appeared in 20 regular season games with 2 assists, +4, and 35 PIM. In 4 playoff games he had 2 assists and -1. In 38 games with New Jersey he put up 2 goals, 5 assists, -6, and 14 PIM while averaging 16:05 per game.

The 2017-18 season was a bit of a tough, bizarre campaign for the young defender. In 27 games with Binghamton (AHL) he had 3 goals, 3 assists, -3, and 8 PIM. While with New Jersey he had 2 goals, 8 assists, an even rating, and 21 PIM while averaging 20:16 per game. The strange thing about this past season was Santini found himself in and out of the line up, but while in it, facing tough zone starts and competition. He seemed to either be watching the game from the press box or suiting up on the top pair with Andy Greene. It will be interesting to see if he is able to use this tough experience to take his game to the next level. He’s another player that could very well play himself into a meaningful role on the Devils roster and I think a lot of fans will want to see if he can live up to his potential as a mobile, shutdown defender.

#7 - Ty Smith - D - Age: 18 - 2017-18 Team: Spokane (WHL) - 2017 Rank: N/A - Elite Prospects Profile

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Making his debut in the top 10 is the Devils most recent 1st round selection, Ty Smith. The two-way, offensively gifted defenseman is from Lloydminster, Saskatchewan and is listed at 5’11, 177 lbs. He played his youth hockey for Lloydminster MHA and the Delta Hockey Academy where he dominated the bantam and midget levels. Smith even earned a 2 game call-up to the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL, who drafted him 1st overall in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft, in January of 2016. He managed 2 assists over those 2 games as a 15 year old. In his rookie WHL season of 2016-17, Smith put up 5 goals, 27 assists, -12, and 22 PIM in 66 games. He also did well on the international stage that season serving as Captain of Canada Black U17 at the U17 WHC with 5 points in 6 games to earn a Silver Medal and All-Star Team honors. He even made the Canada U18 team for the U18 WJC and had an assist in 5 games.

Last season was another busy but productive year for Smith as he put up 14 goals, 59 assists, +44, and 30 PIM in 69 regular season games for Spokane. That was enough for him to finish 2nd among scoring for defensemen in the entire league. Smith also managed to have 7 points in 7 playoff games. He served as Captain of the Canada U18 team at the U18 WJC but was held to no points, +2, and 4 PIM in 5 games. Earlier that season he was an Alternate Captain of Canada’s entry at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament with 3 assists in 5 games as the team won Gold. Smith is an intelligent defenseman with excellent skating which allows him to break down the opposition through all three zones. His skill on the puck makes him an exciting prospect and welcome addition to the Devils prospect pool. In his prime he should be a top 4 defender with the ability to QB the PP and put up tons of offense. Smith is able to use his vision to anticipate the play defensively and is able to recover the puck and move it out of the defensive zone efficiently which makes him a balanced defenseman. It remains to be seen if the already signed player will return to Spokane for another season of junior hockey or if he will win a spot with New Jersey in camp. Either way, it shouldn’t be long until we see Smith in the NHL.

#6 - Pavel Zacha - LW - Age: 21 - 2017-18 Team: New Jersey (NHL) - 2017 Rank: #3 - Elite Prospects Profile

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Another player falling from last year’s top 5 but remaining in the top 10 is Pavel Zacha. The Devils made the forward the 6th overall pick in the 2015 draft. The native of Brno, Czech Republic has filled out his 6’3 frame and weighs 210 lbs. He starred on the Czech junior circuit from 2009-14 at both the club and international level. He even spent the majority of the 2013-14 season playing for Bili Tygri Liberec in the Czech Extraliga at 16 years old with 8 points in 38 games. That same season he had a fruitful loan spell at HC Benatky nad Jizerou in the second division with 9 points in 12 games. In U18 WJC action he had 3 goals and 2 assists in 7 games as the Czech team won a Silver Medal. He even suited up for the U20 team at the WJC but was held off the scoresheet. The Sarnia Sting of the OHL made him the top overall pick in the 2014 CHL Import Draft and brought him over for the 2014-15 season. He would put up 16 goals and 18 assists in 37 regular season games for Sarnia as a rookie. He also added 3 points in 5 playoff games. This would lead to him being named to the OHL First All-Rookie Team. He also saw more success at the international level with 5 goals in 5 games at the U18 WJC and 2 points in 5 games at the U20 WJC. That U18 performance saw him named as a Top 3 Player on Team. The 2015-16 season saw him serve as an Alternate Captain for Sarnia and put up 28 goals, 36 assists, and 97 PIM in 51 regular season games to showcase his skill and edge. He had 6 goals and 7 assists in 7 playoff games as Sarnia was bounced early. He would make his NHL debut that spring with a 2 assists game. He also made his AHL debut where he had a goal and 2 assists in 3 regular season games and 3 points in 5 playoff games. Earlier that season he was an Alternate Captain for the Czech U20 WJC team but had an assist in 3 games. The 2016-17 season saw Zacha crack New Jersey’s line up and put up 8 goals, 16 assists, -17, and 19 PIM in 70 games while averaging 14:18 per game.

Last season he had 8 goals, 17 assists, -3, and 30 PIM in 69 games with an average ice time of 14:22. He was held scoreless in 5 playoff games. Zacha is a playmaking forward with a physical edge that is capable of playing a two-way game. He hasn’t been able to showcase his offensive game, especially his shot, at the NHL level just yet. That is something that he’s spoken about as an area of his game he looks to improve upon this season. Zacha won’t turn 22 until April so he’s still quite young and already has 140 regular season NHL games under his belt. Hopefully he can take that next step offensively and solidify a top 6 role on this year’s Devils team.

Your Take

Which of these players did you have in your top 10? Do you agree or disagree with any of these rankings? What do you expect from each of these players in 2018-19 and beyond? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!