The Devils were in a very big and very important spot coming into this year’s entry draft. They were tied for most picks (a whopping ten in 7 rounds), one of which being the first overall pick. This would be the Devils second time in three years selecting first overall, and it was a pick with both huge talent and tantalizing options, as was much of the higher rounds of the draft prospect pool. However, the excellent position the Devils found themselves in come Friday evening at the start of the draft could not be taken lightly—the Devils organization had been effectively put on watch at the end of a catastrophic season by 2018 MVP and team superstar Taylor Hall, who will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this year and has made it clear he will only consider re-signing in New Jersey if moves are made and talent added. Ray Shero, it seems, got the message loud and clear.
Fans were upset about Shero’s quiet off-season last summer, and as deals went down and players were moved prior to the draft, many were getting anxious this would be another summer with little action. Major free agent players were re-signed (Erik Karlsson) or traded with strict team location preferences (Jacob Trouba, Patrick Marleau) but Shero had much more up his sleeve.
The Devils started off a sure-to-be-great weekend by drafting USNDP center Jack Hughes, the projected first overall and an incredibly talented addition to the roster. Saturday morning rolled around with the promise of some excitement in the form of draft picks and potential trades, and Shero more than delivered.
About half an hour before the second day of the 2019 draft was scheduled to begin, the news was broken that Shero had acquired Norris-winning defenseman and 3x All-Star PK Subban from the Nashville Predators in exchange for RHD Steven Santini, recently signed LHD prospect Jeremy Davies, the 34th overall pick in the 2019 draft, and a 2nd round pick in the 2020 draft. Within the hour, it was confirmed that Shero had brokered yet another trade, though this time less of a blockbuster but still well-received by fans— 2014 1st round pick John Quenneville, who had been unable to break the NHL ice consistently, was traded to Chicago in exchange for John Hayden, a 2013 1st round pick with some NHL experience but like Quenneville has not been able to put up a performance appropriate for his potential. A change of scenery for both, a one for one trade while always makes Devils fans smile, and an All-Star first pairing defensemen made it on New Jersey’s roster before the Devils even made their first pick of the day. Not a bad start to the second day of the entry draft.
Shero bounced some picks around the draft throughout the day, trading the 55th overall pick for an 82nd and 91st—the 91st he would later swap for the 118th and 129th. The Devils arrived in Vancouver with ten picks. Shero sent one to Nashville, then turned another pick into three and overall drafted 11 players.
1st overall of course was the one and only Jack Hughes. Hughes has the hockey sense, the instincts and creativity, the skating and agility, the puck control, and the shot to be a world class player. Devils Scouting Director Paul Castron described the factors that made Hughes the consensus #1 pick: “His offensive skills, the dynamic game that he plays. He’s a dominating player on the ice and he makes players around him better.” Devils GM Ray Shero says of Hughes, “He can be a star... He thinks the game at such a high level—his skating, his instincts, you know the will to win.” For what it’s worth, Hughes seems to have the same type of opinion on Ray Shero. “He’s a beauty!” Hughes said of Shero when asked his impression of his new GM. I won’t drag on the summary with descriptions of Hughes here— we could be here all night and we have lot’s more action to cover! Check out Brian’s profile of Hughes and the AAtJ Draft Pick Announcement for more info on our next big star player.
After the excitement of drafting Jack Hughes and trading for PK Subban, it was time to go back to the quieter side of drafting prospects. After trading their 34th and 55th, Shero chose his first player of the day with the 61st overall pick and went with Ottawa 67s blueliner Nikita Okhotyuk, a left-handed shot with big potential. Okhotyuk is an aggressive shutdown defenseman with a flair for the physical. When asked his favorite NHL defenseman and who he models his style after, Okhotyuk replied without hesitation- “Kronwall”. Okhotyuk is not a high scoring defenseman and offensive play is not his game, but what he does on defense he does unquestionably well. OHL Writer Dominic Tiano says of Okhotyuk:
There is no questioning his determination, drive and work ethic. His body is already almost filled out. He’s a very good skater with excellent edgework. His mobility is excellent in any direction... He has a very active stick, keeps his gaps tight, rides people out along the wall, battles hard in front of his goal, is one of the better open ice hitters in the league and is a superb shot blocker – OHL coaches recognized that ability in the annual Coaches Poll.
With the selection of Okhotyuk in the second round, Ray Shero set the tone for the direction he was taking this 2019 draft class in. Following Okhotyuk, at 70th overall came another left-handed Russian defender: Daniil Misyal. Misyal has some height on Okhotyuk but hasn’t quite filled out to his 6’3” frame, and doesn’t play the physical style of his Russia U18 teammate. Misyal is more of a puck moving defenseman with offensive upside and exceedingly smooth skating who’s preferred NHL comparable is not Kronwall or Phaneuf but Erik Karlsson. Misyal’s skills and potential upside have Draftsite writer Bill Placzek giddy in his profile:
Tall lean attacking defenseman who is fluid on his pins, very patience and fearless in his carries down low. Fits in the definition of a new age attacker who picks his spots and activates into the mix, looking at the best option while carrying strong with puck, causing coverage problems while keeps moving before passing or shooting. Displays a hard point shot, solid set-ups and smart offensive vision and activation. I am sure there are negatives we can cobble from his defensive end work, but is difficult to not be excited at the the prospect’s playmaking and scoring abilities. The cherry on top the cake is he is more than willing to drop the gloves and has a strong right hand too. Did I say he is still playing in Russia?
Misyal does have three more years on his contract in the KHL, which will allow him time to develop and work out the kinks in any potential defensive cobbles before joining the Devils when both parties are ready. In the meantime, Shero will continue to stockpile 2019 draft class prospects.
For his third trick, I mean pick, of the night, Ray Shero opted for a forward this time in another Ottawa 67s player, right winger Graeme Clarke. Clarke is your perfect example of an excellent second or third round pick— super talented, tons of potential upside with just one or two flaws that keep them from going among the first rounders. For Clarke, that flaw is his skating ability. He’s got a blistering shot, good offensive creativity and puck handling abilities, but his skating undeniably needs improvement. Fortunately, it already is improving—Clarke has been putting notable effort into improving his skating which has already shown in a cleaner and stronger stride and better first step. There is still room for improvement, but it’s clear it can be done and his work ethic and desire to improve are extremely encouraging in a prospect. Even more encouraging in an offensive prospect are quotes like these from Hockey Prophets Brian Fogarty:
Everything is a scoring chance for him. Takes the puck hard to the center, changes angle, wrists one up to the top left corner...
Slick hands and moves, turns his back to fake a change of direction then makes a nice pass to the slot. Later in the same shift, he dangles through traffic and beats the netminder with a sequence of moves.
Clarke’s game revolves around his offensive abilities and scoring drive. As noted, in this game he tried to turn every touch of the puck into a potential scoring chance, either by passing or stickhandling into a shooting space. His maneuverability and puckhandling allows him to slip into space to get a shot away, and if he fails to create that opening, he has the skill to move the puck to a linemate, but when he does he wants the puck right back. Did not look selfish at all, just purposeful and confident.
Clarke’s release has been compared to Arthur Kaliyev’s, who went 33rd overall and was projected to be even higher. In essence, Shero may have found Kaliyev’s shot, with the rest of a highly skilled offensive game built in and and impressive work ethic to back it all up, packaged into the 80th overall pick.
Almost immediately following Clarke’s pick at 80 came Shero again to the podium to call the 82nd overall pick, which would be LHD Michael Vukojevic from the Kitchener Rangers. Vukojevic classifies himself as more of a tough defender than an offensive producer—”a little nasty, someone players don’t like to play against.”— which scouts seem to agree with, though many note that the offensive instincts are in there as well. Vukojevic’s rookie season in Kitchener came with a bit more offensive feist and faster growth than this past season, but the capabilities to continue to develop those instincts and the confidence to use them are definitely there in this prospect. The Hockey Writers’ Joseph Aleong talks Vukojevic’s potential:
Vukojevic opened eyes with his advanced size and strength as an OHL rookie, using his skating ability to lock down the opposing team off the rush and transition the play back towards the offensive end. His play in the playoffs, in particular, gave fans a reason to look forward to his growth in his draft year...
Vukojevic doesn’t have the same upwards momentum that he did when he first joined the Rangers towards the end of last season, but he still showed advanced awareness for his age and the potential to add more offense to his already developed defensive game in the next couple of seasons. Any team seeking a shutdown defender with good size and skating ability could look to Vukojevic in the third to fifth rounds of the draft.
Ray Shero snapped this high ceiling prospect up in the later half of the third round.
To kick off the fourth round at 96th overall, Ray and the Devils called overager center Tyce Thompson to the stage, making this NHL bloodliner’s third NHL draft year a success. Thompson is the son of former NHL and AHL player Brent Thompson, who now coaches the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Thompson’s older brother Tage Thompson was drafted in 2016 by the Buffalo Sabres. Tyce, who unlike his brother was skipped over in the draft his first two years of eligibility, chose to use the adversity as a motivator- “Obviously, you want to be drafted. You can look at it a couple ways, you can pout, but I decided to go to Providence. I felt like I had something to prove. I think the year went well personally and that helped me to be here, where I am today.” Playing the previous year for the USHL allowed him to grow in both strength and confidence, and another year of experience at Providence College has built a much better player than was present at the draft two years ago. Draftsite’s Bill Placzek had some impressive praise for his new style of play: “This brother is still small, but fast and has a high compete level. Plays far larger than his 150lbs frame, more like his giant brother. Always on flight disrupting the opposition’s flow, creating turnovers. May be a late bloomer in terms of both play and size.”
Thompson was followed up with another defender, this time USNDP player Case McCarthy. Shero continued his wave of defensemen with offensive potential in this confident blueliner. “I’m a two-way defenseman. I take pride in my own end. I’m a physical player—you have to know where I am on the ice at all times. I’m able to hurt you offensively with my passing ability, and I have a big shot from the point,” said McCarthy when asked about his style and skillset. When asked about the rich history of physical defenders on New Jersey’s benches, McCarthy laughed and immediately referenced Scott Stevens’ legendary hit on Paul Kariya in the 2003 Stanley Cup Final. McCarthy knows the roots of the team he’s gotten into, and it seems he’s more than ready to play to them. Don’t be fooled by his availability at 118th overall— McCarthy’s draft ranking is a victim of the absolutely stacked defense in the US program. As Placzek puts it-
The USANDTProgram has now  such high levels of excellence that each draft year sees more than a squad’s worth of worthy defenders being drafted. This year is no different with this young man who ranks behind as the third best. Has good size, excellence feet and terrific all-around skills and offensive capabilities. Poised with good size and hands. Seemed to out-shine the rest of the highly regarded US defenders in the Five Nations Tourney last August.
After seemingly unending rounds of D-men, Shero pulled the trigger on a goalie prospect at the 127th pick— 6’5” Janesville Jets netminder Cole Brady. Brady seems to be a (figuratively speaking) small fish in a pool of big goaltender potential, so there’s not much in the scouting world to use to analyze this pick. Brady has summarized his own style as that of a “positional goaltender” who is a “calm skater in net” and is both willing and able to use his full size and athleticism when needed. His 2.79 GAA and .912SV% for this season are respectable numbers albeit a bit off for the AHL—though the 5 shut-outs and questionable 1 game showing in the 2018 OJHL playoffs last year (EliteProspects lists his stats for that one game as a .500 SV% and a 57.14 GAA, which is definitely inaccurate and also statistically impossible, so we don’t really know what happened but we do know he only played one game) suggests a history of relatively streaky performance that may both explain why others stayed away from this prospect and also why Shero has opted to take the risk on him.
For the second time this draft, Shero would turn around and draft another player just one pick later. At 129th overall the Devils drafted Russian left winger Arseni Gritsyuk, a speedy skater with smooth hands, a shoot-first attitude and quick release. A smaller winger, Gritsyuk has mastered the art of eluding his opponents where possible, but has absolutely no problem getting physical with them either. Bill Placzek has a good profile on this Devils pick that checks all the right boxes for my a favorite kind of wing:
Elusive and tight edged little left winger with speed and top end stick handling savvy while at top gear. Slippery with tight spins and quick stop/starts. Doesn’t allow defenders to corral him, and persists after absorbing big hit. Out-hustles defenders to loose pucks in the offensive zone, and will come into to a scrum as the odd man and stays on the periphery to steal the biscuit as it [trickles] out. Dangerous off the rush and can beat defenders one on one. Displays a short stick handle in tight space and will stutter step the goalie before taking the shot. His quick stop/starts while carrying the puck help him create separation. Gets a ton of chances for his line and himself with his high energy and effort and is fearless in the greasy areas.
Ray Shero was in his element here in the later rounds, picking up absolute steals in players that were never expected to be available this late. Shero earned himself some extra favor with first overall pick Jack Hughes when he picked up fellow USNDP center Patrick Moynihan at 158th overall. Moynihan (who AAtJ profiled last month) is a highly popular prospect in nearly all channels— the Moynihan to New Jersey pick was one of the most widely agreed-upon moves of the draft—more than Hughes’ pick himself— and he’s also one of the most popular players in the USNDP locker room. Teammates of Moynihan’s have raved about his general utility as a player and overall work ethic, calling him the most underrated player on the team. Scouts agree— Mike Morealle said of Moynihan after the pick “ultimate team guy, blocks shots, is versatile and has a killer instinct. He’s also got a real good touch around the net”. Moynihan is committed to Providence College, where he will play next season with fellow draft pick Tyce Thompson.
Rounding off a day of deals and steals, Shero finished up the draft for the Devils at 189th overall by selecting Swedish forward Nikola Pasic. Pasic was projected to go as high as the second round, more likely in the third of fourth, but somehow found his way down to the Devils in the seventh and final round. Pasic’s potential is somewhat hard to analyze given his experience is mostly at the youth/junior level, but skill is skill at the end of the day and Pasic definitely has it. Swedish scout Christoffer Hedlund gave a brief profile on Pasic after the pick:
#189 Nikola Pasic #NJDevils— Christoffer Hedlund (@ChrHedlund) June 22, 2019
Flashy two-way player that has a good motor. Intense forechecker that often wins the puck up high, decent shot with a deceptive release and above-average playmaking skills. Can make creative plays, has soft hands and quick feet, good 1-on-1-player.
And with that, another draft year was in the books folks. In draft day trades we unloaded two players who were not meeting their potential with us in exchange for a potential bottom six power forward and a Norris caliber defenseman. Shero and the Devils have brought 11 new prospects to New Jersey including a stockpile of large and stubborn blueliners, some highly talented forwards, and a one-two punch of USNDP centers Moynihan and Hughes that will bring some serious stability and skill to the Devils locker room for a threatening future roster.
For individual coverage of each pick as they were made check out the reaction posts here. Be sure to vote in the polls on each pick on their posts and leave your thoughts on this year’s draft adventures in the comments below. As always, thanks for reading!