Tomorrow is the final day for you to vote in the All About the Jersey Top 25 New Jersey Devils Under 25 survey. After tomorrow, the community’s vote will be added with the writer’s votes. Next week we will begin to reveal the whole 2019 AAtJ Top 25 Under 25 starting with those who did not make the top 25. This year’s list will be the largest one yet with a whopping 47 players in the Devils organization under the age of 25. Now is a good time to take a look back at previous lists to go over why the list is what it is, who has been at the top, and who has been on the outside looking in.
Why a Top 25 Under 25?
This was not my idea. The Copper & Blue (Edmonton) and Pension Plan Puppets (Toronto) did this in the past. I liked reading it and I wanted to do it for a Team that Matters like the New Jersey Devils. So I took the idea from them and decided to do a Devils one with the staff in 2012. It is a good offseason activity from multiple standpoints. It is something to ponder and debate. It is Content that fills in time when not much is happening in the NHL. It can also get people excited for the upcoming season as many of the younger players in the system will get their chance in preseason and maybe even make the NHL. It is also a good way of getting a handle on how young the organization is and how much of a role they really do play.
It could be argued why it is a Top 25 Under 25 and not, say, a Top 23 Under 23. While it understood that a player’s peak is likely to be in their early to mid-20s, a lot of players are still growing at those ages. Most prospects are drafted at the age of 18 and they take multiple paths in pro hockey. Not everyone is eligible to come out of major juniors at 20, join the AHL team, and be expected to make a NHL roster in three years or so. Players may graduate or end a year early in college, so they are coming into pro hockey at 22 or 23 (or older). Overage players are picked in drafts so they are starting ahead age-wise. European players may have contractual agreements to fulfill before coming to the NHL. And, most of all, NHL teams may not have the opportunities on their roster to just give spots to young players. The opportunity may not be there until the player is a little older and even then the player may not be ready until they are. The age of 25 allows enough time for prospects of all kind to develop their game as well as work their way up through the system. The exercise is not meant to be a list of developing players anyway. It is to identify who is on the rise and if a player is able to be a NHL regular or even an important player under the age of 25, then that should be lauded.
It is also important to note that 25 is also the youngest possible age for a player to hit unrestricted free agency. In the NHL, UFA status begins when the player turns 27 or they have seven seasons of NHL experience, whichever comes first. Essentially, this is a list of players the team can hold their rights to where it is somewhat relatively easy to keep in the organization. Most players will not hit UFA status when they turn 25, but the top tier young stars like Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes could.
That answers why the list is for under 25 year old players. Why a Top 25? To get a full picture of players who have made it, players who could make it, and players who have a longer shot or need more time or could be just depth. This accounts for those who are not so easily impressive to be top guys, but may have a NHL future. This is a big reason why this is not a list based on solely potential or accomplishments; and why we do not tell you how to vote. It is a good piece of evidence that even if a player does not pan out, they were at least somewhat regarded and there was some reason to be hopeful by the fans who follow the team. Likewise, it is a good piece of evidence to also show that some guys do break out of virtually nowhere and, accordingly, shoot up the list in following years. Most recently, that was Jesper Bratt’s experience. Picking a Top 25 allows a full picture of what the system looked like in the past. For those still unsure how bright the future looks compared to the past, look at the 2012 list. Only three players in the 2012 Top 25 Under 25 were even on the Devils last season and only two made it to the end of last season. What was hoped to be a parts of who could lead on the Devils in the future, ended up to be just two guys after a whole lot of trades, signings (or lack thereof), and others just not making it. The two, by the way, were Blake Coleman (#17 in 2012) and Damon Severson (#13 in 2012). Making the list smaller than 25 undercuts all of this.
Of course, it also makes for a cuter name. The Top 20 Under 25 doesn’t really have the same ring to it.
The Damon Severson Level
Severson should hold a special recognition for the Top 25 Devils Under 25 list. After three format changes (2012 was just the writers, 2013 and 2014 was by a community vote, 2015 introduced the current writer/community hybrid) and massive changes in the organization, Severson is the only Devil to have appeared in the Top 25 for all seven years we have done this list. Severson was well regarded enough as a second round draft pick in 2012 to be a Top 15 Devil and he has grown since. He went from 13th to 10th to 6th and became a mainstay of the Top 5 since 2015. Severson even took the top spot in 2017. The only reason why Severson will not make it eight in a row is because he is now 25. He aged out. He should still be regarded as one of the best prospects and young players the Devils have developed in recent history. The lists definitively reflect that perspective at the time.
Will anyone be able to reach Severson’s mark of seven straight Top 25 appearances? Of course. In fact, Steve Santini could have joined him this year. He would have been eligible for this year as he is 24. While he would not likely have a high ranking, I highly doubt he would crash out of the top 25 after six straight appearances in the top 15. It would not be as impressive as Santini only broke into the top 5 once (#4 in 2017) but it would still be an achievement of sorts. John Quenneville also would have had a chance as he’s 23 and would have had two more years of T25U25 eligibility. He has made it for five years running. Again, he would not likely rank highly but he would have likely hung around. Alas, both Santini and Quenneville were dealt to different teams on June 22.
There are plenty of New Jersey Devils who could still meet or even exceed Severson’s mark. The age mark is based on September 15 of that year. Miles Wood was born on September 13. Provided he is not dealt away, he should make two more Top 25 lists and match Severson in 2021. Wood has had massive rise from outsider status to breaking into the Top 25 in 2014 to taking his first Top 10 appearance in 2017 to getting into the Top 5 in 2018. We shall see if he sticks around at a high level for three more lists. Other safe bets include Pavel Zacha and Mackenzie Blackwood. Each has been in the Top 25 for four straight years. While Zacha may not have turned into the player people hoped for in 2015, he is a NHL player and those players tend to rank well on the list. Blackwood broke out in a good way last season and should he show it was no fluke - and we should hope it was not a fluke - he will be a lock for future lists. While they have not been in the Top 25 for long, expect long streaks for Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, and Jack Hughes (yes, I know he has not made it yet but let us not fool ourselves - he will). The latter two will likely be fighting each other for the #1 spot for the next half-decade.
Lastly, there are some lesser prospects and not-yet-regulars that may stick around to get to Severson’s level in the future. Blake Speers, believe it or not, could make his fifth straight list this year. Should he stay in the organization, he could do it. Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian have been regulars since 2016. They both have a shot. Like Severson before him, Jesper Boqvist was a second round pick in 2017 and was on the list after being drafted at #14. He rose up a few spots last season and he could challenge for a Top 10 spot in 2019. And those are just names I have noticed now. There could be more in the future. Rather, there will be more in the future. I or someone else could be writing a post like this in 2025 and noting who did do it, who did not, and who we have yet to hear from.
Of course, a lot can change very quickly in the NHL. The Top 5 in 2014 were Henrique, Merrill, Larsson, Gelinas, and Boucher. None of those five are in the Devils organization anymore. In fact, the only Top 5 in the past seven Top 25 lists that are still Devils today was last year’s Top 5 of Hischier, Butcher, Severson, Bratt and Wood. Seriously. 2016’s Top 5 included Reid Boucher and Joseph Blandsi. 2017’s Top 5 had Santini in it. I have more faith in the 2018 Top 5 sticking around for a while, but it demonstrates how much things change and how quickly they do change.
The Top One
In terms of who has led this list, Adam Henrique can still take credit for being #1 the most times. He was the leader of the inaugural Top 25 Under 25 list back in 2012 and did it again in 2013 and 2014. And why not? He became an important center after his rookie season and demonstrated more value than the defensemen on the come up. It is easy to see then and even now why he was well-regarded in the early part of this decade.
After Henrique aged out of 2015’s list, the number one spot has been treated like a hot potato. It jumped from Adam Larsson in 2015 to a player clearly his equal worth in a trade, Taylor Hall. Hall was 24 in 2016 so a new #1 would be picked in 2017. It turned out to be Damon Severson edging Nico Hischier. After a very good season from the rookie and demonstrating that he was way better than some jabroni named Nolan, Hischier took first in 2018. However, with Jack Hughes arriving, it is by no means safe that Hischier will hold onto the top spot in 2019 let alone for more than two straight seasons. And since Hischier has proven to be an important player already, it is by no means guaranteed that Hughes will easily dominate the list for the next eights years (although he might). Henrique’s relatively long rule at the top is safe - for now.
About the Outsiders
The bottom end of these lists are also demonstrative of identifying who is not well regarded. In 2012, it was Mauro Jörg, a seventh round draft pick in 2010 that most felt was not going to come to North America and he did not. Since then, the last spot has been occupied by a tough guy. While some fans may still feel fighting has a place in the game, more and more have recognized that the ones with a reputation for it have little future in the organization. Riley Boychuk, acquired in a trade that sent Henrik Tallinder back to Buffalo, took the bottom spot in 2013. Ryan Rehill, a fifth round draft pick in 2014, took it in 2014 and 2015. Brandon Baddock, who was picked in the sixth round in 2014 (yes, two “enforcers” in the same draft class), has finished last on the list for three years running. He could make it four in 2019.
The back end also represents how many players are in the system. A lot more attention is appropriately paid to who has made it in the NHL, who could grow to take a larger role in the NHL, and who has a real NHL future. However, the back end of these lists show how deep the pool really can be. In 2012, there were 39 players and that list missed two tangential to the system at the time. The least amount of U-25 Devils in the system was in 2014 with 35 total players. If you want evidence of Ray Shero “restocking the cupboard,” then note that the U-25 list grew from 35 in 2014 to 38 in 2015, 42 in 2016, 45 in 2017, 40 in 2018, and what will be 47 players in 2019. Even with all of the big deals, Shero and Paul Castron has compiled some large draft classes on top of signing some younger players out of juniors, college, and Europe for hopeful futures. This provides evidence of how much younger the Devils have become on top of having veterans move on.
The Outsiders, the ones who did not make the Top 25, should not be totally dismissed. Typically, most of the non-top picks in draft classes of that year start here. As does prospects who have had a rough season but could do better in the future. A number of players have risen up these lists and have they have risen up in the organization. Miles Wood, for example, was only 31st after he was drafted. He shot up the charts. Jesper Bratt was 37th out of 42 people in 2016 - and shot up the list like a rocket. Brett Seney, who is not on either level, started from modest levels at 31st in 2015, made his first Top 25 last year, and could very will stick around on future lists. Blake Coleman fell out of the Top 25 after a terrible injury in his first pro season. While he aged out of the list by the time he broke through, there is no question he belongs in New Jersey. There will be players who did not make it in 2019 but by no means they should be all totally written off. Should the 2019 list work out like previous lists, most of the 2019 draft class that is not Jack Hughes will probably be in this section. But a couple will most likely move up in 2020 and beyond. And it may be a surprise. There will be prospects that you or I may not expect to be somebody someday but could be somebody we all appreciate and support in a few years. That is the fun of this.
What to Expect for 2019’s List?
Again, tomorrow is the final day for you to vote in the All About the Jersey Top 25 New Jersey Devils Under 25 survey. After then, we will be putting together the list with everyone’s input and it will be revealed over the next few weeks as we enter preseason activities. This will be the largest list we have done so far for the Devils here at AAtJ. I am confident that Jack Hughes will be highly rated. I am also confident that the top of the list will feature more players who have established themselves in the NHL followed by those who are sort of on the outside of the roster followed by AHLers and growing prospects. Since there are 47 players, the Outsiders part of the list will be huge and hopefully in a few years, several players that did not make it in 2019 will rise up to the Top 25 in future years. I will say from my own experience is that there are a lot of different directions the list can go to after the Top 10.
Since this is all an exercise of opinion and perception of the young players in the organization, I will be very interested in seeing how the other writers and readers like you are viewing past draft classes. What do you think of past Top 25 Devils Under 25 lists? What do you expect to see in 2019’s list? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the lists in the comments. Thank you for reading.