After taking two players from the Ottawa ‘67s, the New Jersey Devils went back to the Ontatio Hockey League and picked a player from a different squad. From the Kitchener Rangers, the Devils selected defenseman Michael Vukojevic at 82nd overall in the third round.
Who is Michael Vukojevic?
According to Elite Prospects, Vukojevic is from Oakville, Ontario, Canada and he was born on June 8, 2001, which means he recently turned 18. Vukojevic stands at 6’3” and 212 pounds already. Size is definitely not a concern. He is also a left-shooting defenseman who just completed his second season with Kitchener. He started off 2017-18 with Green Bay of the USHL, but he made the move to major junior hockey in that season and played 24 games with the Rangers. In this past season, Vukojevic played in all 68 games with Kitchener. His performances were good enough to warrant being named to Canada’s U-18 team at the World U-18 Championships earlier this year. I think it is fair to say this was a very good season for him, capped off by having his name called in June at the 2019 NHL Draft.
With 29 points in 2018-19, I took a closer look at his stat line. According to the OHL website, Vukojevic’s 29 points put him tied for 35th among all OHL defenseman last season. Most of them were in assists as Vukojevic racked up 26 helpers. He was not shy about shooting the puck as he had 100 shots for a rate of 1.47 shots per game. He also led all of Kitchener’s defensemen in points and seventh among all skaters. That’s not bad at all. Let’s look at Prospect-Stats, which has more filters and information. Among defensemen under the age of 18 and a half years (basically, draft eligible players and some drafted from last year), Vukojevic finished tied for 11th with 29 points (Liam Ross, Nathan Staios, and Jack York were the others with 29) and tied for 12 with 16 primary points (goals and primary assists; he was tied with Ross and Vladislav Kolyachonok). The player page for Vukojevic’s 2018-19 season at Prospect-Stats lists him with first-pairing level rates for assists per game, primary assists per game, and points per game. Most impressively, Prospect-Stats estimates him near the top of theOHL in estimated ice time per game - which suggests Vukojevic played a ton of minutes for Kitchener.
The larger point is that Vukojevic was not a player devoid of offensive production and he was not just a member of the blueline. He was one of their leaders on defense.
What Others Say About Michael Vukojevic
I will be adding more information about Vukojevic as I obtain it. Picks are being made so stay tuned to this page. As the Devils selected another player from the OHL, I turn to Brock Otten to see what he wrote about them. Vukojevic finished 13th on his final Top 50 OHL Prospects list on his site, OHL Prospects. This is what Otten wrote about the defender:
I thought Vukojevic had a very good U18’s for team Canada, where he took on a shut down role for the 4th place Canadians. This raised him a bit in my year end rankings because I think it showed how far his mobility has come on the big ice. He’ll never be a blazing skater moving forward and it will limit his offensive potential at the NHL level. But his lateral and backwards mobility has really improved, as has his understanding of gap control and how to utilize his reach and size. At 6’3, 200lbs, Vukojevic will eventually develop into a physical beast in his own end. He can be one mean customer and his intensity level near the crease and along the wall, makes him such a difficult player to win one on one battles against. I also think that Vukojevic’s first pass and decision making with the puck have greatly improved over the course of this season. Turnovers were an issue at times early on, but much less so later in the year. He really has adapted well. Like Okhotyuk ranked before him, Vukojevic likely does not possess the highest potential of defenders available. But you would be hard pressed to find a more reliable defender in his own end, who also possesses leadership capabilities who could be a long time NHL defender and penalty killer. Few players in this top 50 played as much for their OHL team as Vukojevic did this year, if any.
I think the brief comparison to Okhotyuk is somewhat fitting. While both players like to be physical and they both have seemingly limited upsides, Vukojevic was more productive last season with three goals and 26 assists. Also, his play earned him a spot to play in an international tournament on what is usually a very competitive Canada team. Additionally, Vukojevic is a bit bigger - not that Okhotyuk is small but as Otten noted, Vukojevic is on pace to become a large and possibly in charge physical force. Those differences aside, I get it and I think I agree with it at a first glance. I am a little surprised the Devils picked someone who may have some issues with his skating since that has been the type of prospect the Devils have aimed for in the past four years. However, it may be more of an issue of speed than ability.
Ben Kerr of Last Word on Sports - Hockey did not do a full profile for Vukojevic. However, he did rate him high enough on his top 90 - specifically, 86th - to warrant a short opinion on the player. Here is what Kerr wrote about the defenseman:
Vukojevic is best known for his defensive game. He is solid in his own zone, with the size to play a physical game and clear the front of the net. He reads the play well and is rarely out of position. Vukojevic uses his long stick to cut down passing lanes, especially while killing penalties. His skating ability allows him to play a solid two-way game, especially his strong lateral mobility. He has a decent slap shot but must work on getting it through traffic and on the net. He also shows a good first pass out of the zone. Vukojevic improved offensively this past season, putting up 29 points in 68 games.
This definitely aligns with what Otten wrote. The shot being an issue is different and it is not a huge surprise. He scored all of three goals last season (a shooting percentage of 3%) and his 2018-19 player page at Prospect-Stats shows that he almost exclusively shoots from the left point. If his slapshot is not that good or his decision on when and how to shoot it is not that good, then it is an issue. That said, Kerr praises his defensive game similar to what Otten wrote and that makes me feel more confident that Vukojevic knows what he’s doing in his own end. Seeing that Kerr liked his lateral movement and did not criticize his skating also makes me feel a little bit better about the pick.
A Little Video
Similar to Okhotyuk, the OHL has put this profile video for Michael Vukojevic. It is not much but there is not much from 2018-19 for Vukojevic that is online and in a video format:
A Quick Take
I intend to learn more about the player and my opinion may change. For where the Devils were picking in the draft, I’m more comfortable with a safer pick like Vukojevic. I would have preferred someone with more offensive talent and flash given the earlier selection of Okhotyuk. Even a riskier pick like Anttoni Honka, who ended up being selected at 83rd overall, would have been more interesting. That said, in the middle of the third round, I can respect what the Devils did here. Vukojevic has some work to do but I do understand that he can handle his business on defense, he already plays a large role on his team, and he has an offensive game. That offense may not translate so well to the next level, but there is evidence that he has contributed in that end of the rink too. So I kind of like the pick and I may even like it more than Okhotyuk. All the same, I do hope Vukojevic can grow as a player.
That is my quick take. I would like to know your initial reaction. Please leave it in the comments and vote in our poll. Thank you for reading.
The Devils drafted Michael Vukojevic at 82nd Overall. What do you think of the pick?
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