The time has come to to release the final set of rankings in the 2019 AATJ Top 25 Devils Under 25. This year’s top 5 includes three forwards and two defensemen. Three of these players have already played significant time for the Devils over the past couple of seasons while the other two look to make an impact this upcoming season. It is also highlighted by two former #1 overall picks. Before we reveal the top 5, here is a reminder that you can see all the posts in this series right here. Now, let’s take a look at which players rose to the top of this year’s ranking.
#5 - Ty Smith - D - Age: 19 - 2018-19 Team: Spokane Chiefs (WHL) - 2018 Rank: #7 - Elite Prospects Profile
Ty Smith, the Devils 1st round selection in the 2018 draft, cracked the top 10 in his first year of eligibility last year. Another strong season with Spokane in the WHL has seen his stock rise and as a result he made it into this year’s top 5. The 5’11, 179 lbs. defender is known for his elite skating, vision, and playmaking abilities as one of the most dangerous offensive threats from the back end in junior hockey. The product of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan was a standout player for the local bantam and midget programs from 2013-16. His elite play at those levels earned him the #1 selection in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft where the Spokane Chiefs took him. The 2016-17 season would see Smith further break out by appearing in 66 regular season games for Spokane with 5 goals and 27 assists in his age 16 season. He also captained the Canada Black U17 team at the U17 WHC where he had 2 goals and 2 assists where they took home a Silver Medal and Smith earned All-Star team honors. Smith also played for Canada at the U18 WJC that season where he had an assist in 5 games. In his draft season of 2017-18, Smith further cemented himself as one of the top offensive defenseman in juniors. He was an alternate captain for Canada’s U18 team at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup where he had 3 assists in 5 games as they captured a Gold Medal. Smith also had 14 goals and 59 assists in 69 regular season games for Spokane. In the playoffs he kept up his production with 2 goals and 5 assists in 7 games. His strong play for Spokane earned him WHL (West) First All-Star Team honors and he was named the WHL Scholastic Player for the Year, showing that he excelled off the ice as well. He returned to action for Canada at the U18 WJC where he served as team captain.
Last season saw Smith nearly make the Devils out of training camp. Ultimately, the team felt that his development would be best served by spending more time with Spokane for at least another season. Smith served as co-captain of Spokane and put up another tremendous season in the WHL with 7 goals and 62 assists in 57 regular season games. In the playoffs he had a goal and 8 assists in 15 games while logging a ton of minutes per game across all situations. At the U20 WJC he had 3 assists in 5 games for Canada, further adding more international experience to his game. For his efforts he was named CHL Defenseman of the Year, WHL (West) First All-Star, and WHL Top Defenseman. He also led the WHL in assists with those 62 helpers.
Coming into training camp, many people felt that Smith was likely to make the team. Unfortunately, as of this writing, he hasn’t put together the strongest camp or showing in exhibition games. He still has a few more games and practices to make an impression but he seems to now be on the bubble. The Devils can play Smith in up to 9 NHL games before burning a year off of his ELC. Due to the NHL - CHL agreement and his March 24, 2000 birthday, Smith can only play in New Jersey or the WHL this season. While he is clearly ready for more of a challenge the Devils will want to be careful to not rush him. We know he has the offensive skills to play at the NHL level but with other defensemen ahead of him on the PP depth chart, his opportunities could be limited. While his defensive game figures to improve so he eventually reaches the level of a consistent top 4 defender at the NHL level, it isn’t clear if he can handle that much just yet. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him end up in Spokane to further round out his defensive game this season by playing close to 30 minutes per night. It will be interesting to see how he performs throughout the rest of training camp and possibly in a few NHL games should he crack the roster. Regardless of where he ends up, the future is very bright for Ty Smith.
#4 - Jesper Bratt - LW/RW - Age: 21 - 2018-19 Team: New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2018 Rank: #4 - Elite Prospects Profile
Reclaiming his spot at #4 is the talented Jesper Bratt. A 6th round pick from the 2016 draft, Bratt has managed to become a full time NHL player for the Devils in a short time. The creative winger with slick hands rose through the AIK system in his native Sweden from 2013-17, moving from the junior ranks for the J18 team all the way to the senior team in the second tier Allsvenskan. Bratt notably made an impact for the AIK J20 team in his age 16 season by putting up 17 goals and 23 assists in 39 regular season games in 2014-15. Bratt also was a member of Sweden’s team at the U17 WHC where he had a goal and 3 assists in 6 games as they took home a Bronze Medal. His draft season of 2015-16 would see him put himself on the map by notching 8 goals and 9 assists in 48 games for AIK in Allsvenskan action. That point total led all U18 players. He also represented Sweden twice at the U18 level, first by helping them capture Silver at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup with 3 goals and 2 assists in 5 games. Bratt also had 2 goals and 2 assists in the U18 WJC as Sweden captured Silver. His post draft year in 2016-17 saw Bratt continue to progress with 6 goals and 16 assists in 46 games for AIK. Bratt entered his age 19 season of 2017-18 with over 100 games of professional action between the Allsvenskan regular season and playoffs. With his skill, vision, and playmaking ability, Bratt got off to a strong start in training camp for the Devils and ended up earning a spot. He managed to finish the NHL season with 13 goals and 22 assists in 74 regular season games while averaging 15:15 per game. He did fade down the stretch as he went from 30 points in his first 44 games to 5 points in his last 30 games.
Last season saw Bratt miss time early on due to a broken jaw. While it was a tough season for the team, Bratt did raise his production with 8 goals and 25 assists in 51 games while averaging 15:10 per game. That represented an increase from a 0.47 points per game as a rookie to a 0.65 points per game in his second season as a 20 year old player. With a fully healthy Bratt that is more acclimated to the NHL game, along with more talent on the roster to play with, I expect Bratt to have the best season of his career yet in 2019-20. His versatility means he can play anywhere on the wings in the top 9 and contribute on special teams. He figures to be a great complementary player for a lot of the skilled players the Devils now have up front. Bratt is in the final year of his ELC and will be looking for his next contract as a RFA next summer.
#3 - Will Butcher - D - Age: 24 - 2018-19 Team: New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2018 Rank: #2 - Elite Prospects Profile
Falling back one spot on this year’s ranking is Will Butcher. That has more to do with the Devils adding Jack Hughes than it does Will Butcher though. Butcher was drafted by Colorado in the 5th round of the 2013 draft. At that time, Butcher was wrapping up a two season stint with the US National Team Development Program that saw him standout in league play across the USHL and USDP as well as internationally for the USA U17 and U18 teams. The 2011-12 season saw him earn two medals, a Silver at the U17 WHC, and a Gold at the U18 WJC. He had the most points by a defenseman at the U17’s with 6 assists in 5 5 games. He continued to progress in 2012-13 with a Silver Medal at the U18 WJC where he had 2 goals and 2 assists in 7 games as an alternate captain for his team. Butcher would then go on to play at the University of Denver from 2013-17. He served as an alternate captain his junior season and as captain his senior season. In 158 college games, Butcher had 28 goals and 75 assists to go along with a National Championship in 2016-17. Butcher also competed in two U20 WJC’s putting up 5 points in 5 games in 2014 and a point in 5 games in 2015. After completing his collegiate career and becoming a free agent as a touted prospect after not signing with Colorado, the Devils managed to secure his services in late August of 2017. Butcher quickly made his presence known as a rookie for the Devils in the 2017-18 season by appearing in 81 games and notching 5 goals and 39 assists while averaging 16:04 per game. He continued to produce in the Devils short playoff series that year with a goal and 3 assists in 5 games while averaging 18:09 per game. He was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team for his efforts. Butcher even got invited to compete for the USA team at the World Championships where he had a goal and 2 assists in 10 games and helped them capture a Bronze Medal.
Last season, Butcher saw his production drop as he was given more responsibility defensively. In 78 games he had 4 goals and 26 assists while averaging 19:16 per game. The Devils will look for Butcher to claim a permanent spot in this year’s top 4 as he enters his age 25 season. Butcher is close to entering his prime and is under contract for three more seasons after signing in extension in July. The deal takes Butcher to UFA status after the 2021-22 season. He figures to play an important part in the success of the Devils this upcoming season.
#2 - Jack Hughes - C - Age: 18 - 2018-19 Team: US National Team Development Program (USHL/USDP) - 2018 Rank: N/A - Elite Prospects Profile
The #1 overall pick in the 2019 draft, Jack Hughes, finishes second in our rankings. The center with elite skating, elite skill, and elite vision has all of the tools to become a star in this league. Hughes has longtime been a top prospect and so far has lived up to the hype. He burst onto the scene with 73 points in 33 games for the Toronto Marlboros Minor Midget AAA team in 2016-17 in GTMMHL play. In 80 games overall for the team, he had 58 goals and 101 assists. In 2017-18, Hughes joined the USNTDP where he continued to dominate in all areas of the game while producing insane numbers. In 27 USHL games he had 21 goals and 33 assists. As captain of the U17 team he had 13 goals and 35 assists 24 games. He played 36 times for the U18 team and added 27 goals and 41 assists. He captained the USA team at the U17 WHC and put up 5 goals and 10 assists in 6 games as they won a Gold Medal. He led that tournament in assists and points earning All-Star Team honors. That same season he had 5 goals and 7 assists in 7 games for the USA at the U18 WJC as they won a Silver Medal. He led the way with the most points and was named to the All-Star Team, the Best Forward, and the Most Valuable Player. For all of this, he was named USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year.
Hughes came into last season with the pressure of being regarded as the top player for the 2019 class for a few years now. He lived up to expectations with 12 goals and 36 assists in 24 games of USHL action and 34 goals and 78 assists in 50 games of USDP action for the U18 team. He served as captain for that team both in domestic and international action. Hughes ended up breaking the USNTDP all-time points record with his strong play. At the U18 WJC, Hughes put up an insane 9 goals and 11 assists in 7 games as they won Bronze. He was named to the All-Star Team for leading the tournament in assists and points. Earlier that season, he had 4 assists in 4 games at the U20 WJC as they took home Silver. Hughes would cap off the season with 3 assists for the USA at the World Championships.
Hughes has shown himself well in preseason and appears to be a star in the making. It’s great to think that the Devils could have the center of the ice locked down for the next decade between Hughes and Hischier. It will be interesting to see where Hughes plays this season and how he holds up over the course of a long NHL season. He is 5’10, 170 lbs. but does use his mobility to avoid taking too much damage. Still, it’s still a tough adjustment for any 18 year old to make when coming into the league. I am excited that he figures to have talented players that can work with him on his wings this year with the likes of Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, Nikita Gusev, Jesper Bratt, or perhaps even Jesper Boqvist ready to capitalize on the chances Hughes can create. It should be a ton of fun to watch Hughes and see if he can solidify a top 6 spot already at this point in his career.
#1 - Nico Hischier - RW - Age: 21 - 2018-19 Team: New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2018 Rank: #1 - Elite Prospects Profile
The Devils selected Nico Hischier with the #1 overall pick in the 2017 draft and so far he has been everything they hoped he could be. The native of Brig, Switzerland came up through the EHC Visp system from 2009-14. His strong play, often playing up an age group or two, led to him joining the SC Bern system for the 2014-15 season. Hischier would start to make a name for himself as he put up 28 goals and 33 assists in 22 games for Bern’s U17 team. He made 11 appearances for the U20 team and managed a goal and an assist despite it being his age 16 season. At that season’s U18 WJC he had a goal in 5 games. The 2015-16 season would see him dominate the U20 level with 11 goals and 17 assists in 18 games. He would play in 15 games with a goal for SC Bern in the top flight NLA. In the second tier, he had made 7 appearances on loan to EHC Visp where he had a goal and an assist. Hischier had 2 assists for his country at the U20 WJC that winter. He served as an alternate captain for Switzerland at the U18 WJC where he had a goal and 3 assists in 5 games. His strong play led to him being a top prospect for the CHL Import Draft where the Halifax Mooseheads selected him 6th overall. In 2016-17, he would make the move to North America where he dominated the QMJHL with 38 goals and 48 assists in 57 regular season games. In 6 playoff games he had 3 goals and 4 assists. He earned CHL Rookie of the Year, QMJHL Rookie of the Year, and QMJHL Best Professional Prospect honors for leading the rookies in goals, assists, and points. He once again represented his country at the U20 WJC with 4 goals and 3 assists in 5 games. He also was an alternate captain for the U18 team at the U18 WJC with a goal and 5 assists in 5 games.
Hischier would earn a spot for the Devils right away for the 2017-18 season. In 82 games he had 20 goals and 32 assists while averaging 16:19. He was limited to 69 games in 2018-19 due to some injuries, but managed to be more efficient in his production with 17 goals and 30 assists while averaging 18:06. He’s already shown the high end skill to success immediately at the NHL level and so far has been a solid defensive player. I look forward to seeing Hischier take another step forward in his development, especially now that he’s added more muscle, as a player that can consistently play in any role the team needs. With his work ethic, understanding of the game, and skill, the future is very bright for Hischier. He is in the final year of his ELC and will be due a well deserved raise after this season as a RFA.
I want to thank everyone for contributing to the community portion of the ranking as well as my fellow AATJ writers for their rankings. Now that we have released the top 5, let us know what you think of these players. Where did you have these players ranked? Do you agree or disagree with any of these rankings? What do you expect from each of these players in 2019-20 and beyond? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!