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The 2019 AATJ Top 25 Devils Under 25: Entering the Top 20 (#20 - #16)

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It is now time to reveal the next group of players on our Top 25 Under 25 list. This group of five forwards includes those that just made the inside of the top 20 on this year’s ranking.

Buffalo Sabres v New Jersey Devils
Michael McLeod fell out of the top 10 but still remains in the top 20 of our ranking.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Top 25 Under 25 ranking continues today with those players that just made it into the top 20. This group of five forwards includes a new addition to the organization, three players that spent most of last season with Binghamton, and a Swedish prospect that is set to make his North American debut this upcoming season. Three of the four players in this group that were in the organization last season saw their stock go up, while the other player saw his stock fall from a top 10 ranking last year. Let’s take a look at who these players are.

#20 - Brandon Gignac - C - Age: 21 - 2018-19 Teams: Binghamton Devils (AHL), New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2018 Rank: #31 - Elite Prospects Profile

Climbing back into the top 25 after one year out of it is Brandon Gignac. The speedy, center with playmaking abilities was drafted by the Devils in the 3rd round of the 2016 draft out of Shawinigan in the QMJHL. He was nearly a point per game player in his draft season of 2015-16 with 61 points in 67 regular season games and 16 points in 20 playoff games. He would improve upon that in his post-draft season with 62 points in 59 regular season games and 4 points in 6 playoff games while serving as an alternate captain for the Cataractes. He would even make a 2 game cameo appearance for the Albany Devils to get a quick taste of the AHL game at the end of the 2016-17 season. That season would help him earn a ranking of 23rd on our 2017 list. The 2017-18 season would be his first professional season but he was limited to just 3 points in 21 games with the Binghamton Devils as an ACL injury would shut him down for the rest of the season. All of that lost time would see him fall to 31st on last year’s ranking.

Gignac entered last season with a lot of promise but also a fair amount of questions. We never really got to see him perform up to his level in his injury shortened 2017-18. He would get himself back on the prospect map by finishing with 12 goals and 24 assists for Binghamton in 66 games. Overall, the center would finish 3rd in assists and points for Binghamton last season. His performance would even earn him a one game call up to New Jersey so the Devils could get a closer look at him. Jeff’s Binghamton Devils 4th quarter report mentioned that Gignac still possessed his playmaking abilities and speed and that he could use a bit more muscle on his frame. He will turn 22 in November and figures to spend most of this upcoming season with Binghamton. I don’t expect him to see much time in New Jersey this year but he’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for as he could be a wildcard in training camp to force the Devils into thinking about him when they finalize their roster. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him earn a call up or two if/when injuries occur.

#19 - John Hayden - RW - Age: 24 - 2018-19 Team: Chicago Blackhawks (NHL) - 2018 Rank: N/A - Elite Prospects Profile

Finishing in the top 20 in his first and only year of eligibility for our list is John Hayden. The newcomer to the Devils organization was acquired when the team traded former 1st round pick John Quenneville to the Chicago Blackhawks for the 6’3, 223 lbs. winger. It became clear last season that Quenneville was never going to fit into the Devils plans going forward so the team opted to take a chance on Hayden, a veteran of 113 regular season NHL games as someone who could beef up their bottom 6 and provide some depth. Over his NHL career he has 8 goals and 14 assists in those 113 games while averaging 10:07 per game. He was originally selected in the 3rd round of the 2013 draft by the Blackhawks out of the US National Team Development Program. He would go on to play 4 year with Yale from 2013-17 in college hockey with 91 points in 127 games. Hayden would even serve as team captain in his senior season of 2016-17. Later that season he would make his debut for the Blackhawks with a goal and 3 assists in 12 regular season games and managed to get into one playoff game. The 2017-18 season would see him manage 4 goals and 9 assists in 47 NHL games. He would also see the only AHL action of his career thus far with 5 goals and 12 assists in 24 regular season games with Rockford while also adding 3 goals in 13 playoff games with the team.

Last season, Hayden would spend the entire year with the Blackhawks where he put up 3 goals and 2 assists in 54 games while averaging 9:10 per game. As John mentioned in this post at the time of the trade, Hayden was a 4th liner with not so great underlying metrics for the Blackhawks. Hopefully a change of scenery and a fresh start with the Devils can help him reach another level to his game. I would think the Devils would be really happy if he could be a reliable 4th liner that could provide a physical presence while adding in the odd goal here and there. He is under contract for this season and will still be a restricted free agent after it. Hopefully he can carve out a role with the Devils going forward.

#18 - Fabian Zetterlund - RW - Age: 20 - 2018-19 Team: Färjestad BK (SHL) - 2018 Rank: #20 - Elite Prospects Profile

Continuing to steadily climb up our rankings from 25th in 2017 to 20th in 2018 and now 18th in 2019 is the intriguing RW Fabian Zetterlund. The former 3rd round pick from the 2017 draft is set to make his North American debut for the Binghamton Devils this season after signing his three-year entry level contract this past spring. If you haven’t yet, check out Jeff’s post from yesterday that goes over Zetterlund’s past and how he could be a difference maker for Binghamton this upcoming season. The 5’11, 198 lbs. Zetterlund plays like a tank and is known for his “North-South” style. He’s a tenacious competitor who is willing to go to the dirty areas, often used in front of the net for Sweden’s junior teams on their PP’s, to win puck battles and create chances. So far in his career he has shown solid offensive skills though their are some concerns about his skating especially after multiple knee injuries and a surgery.

Zetterlund has shown improvement since his draft season in 2016-17 where he put up 36 points in 40 games for the Färjestad BK J20 team in SuperElit action. He even appeared in 14 SHL games for the senior team that season. On the international level that season he had 5 points in 7 games in the U18 WJC for Sweden team. In 2017-18 he would spend most of the season with the Färjestad BK team in the SHL with 3 goals and 4 assists in 35 games in a limited role while adding 2 points in 6 playoff games. He also had an 8 game loan stint with Timrå IK in the Allsvensken (2nd tier) where he had a strong 5 points in 8 games. He also continued to show that he had moved on from the junior level after putting up 5 goals and an assist in 5 SuperElit game. In 7 U20 WJC games he had 2 goals as Sweden captured a Silver Medal. Last season saw him limited to 16 SHL games due to the knee injuries but he managed 2 goals and 2 assists. He battled his knee ailment in the U20 WJC and was held off the scoresheet in 5 games. He turned 20 years old at the end of August is has already shown himself ready for the pro game after playing in 80 pro games in Sweden. I expect him to make a rather seamless transition over to the AHL due to his pro experience in Sweden and the fact he already plays a physical, gritty game. We’ll have to see how he has recovered from the knee surgery but if healthy, I think he can contribute right away for Binghamton and work his way into a spot with New Jersey within a year or two.

#17 - Marian Studenic - LW/RW - Age: 20 - 2018-19 Team: Binghamton Devils (AHL) - 2018 Rank: #22 - Elite Prospects Profile

Another prospect seeing a steady rise up our Top 25 Under 25 rankings is Marian Studenic who finished 32nd in 2017 and 22nd in 2018. The 5th round pick in the 2017 draft has put together an impressive, if underrated past few seasons. In 2016-17 he put up 18 goals and 12 assists in 58 regular season games for Hamilton in the OHL. He also contributed in their only playoff series that season with 2 goals and 2 assists in 7 games. Not bad for a player new to North America. He also represented Slovakia at the U20 WJC. In 2017-18 he excelled in a 2nd/3rd line role on a deep Hamilton team, putting up 20 goals and 28 assists in 62 regular season games and 3 goals and 12 assists in 21 playoff games as they won the OHL Championship. He added 2 goals in 4 Memorial Cup games for the Bulldogs. Those numbers may not pop off the page but I can say from watching the majority of Hamilton’s games that season that Studenic would’ve put up even more points had he had more ice time. Instead he was deployed in that middle 6 role where he was able to play on either wing, kill penalties often, play on a secondary PP unit, and seamlessly transition the puck out of his defensive zone and into the offensive zone while retaining possession for his team. He even showcased a bit of a physical edge when he had the defensive coverage to go for a big hit. That season also saw him once again represent Slovakia at the U20 WJC.

Last season saw Studenic turn pro with Binghamton for his age 20 season. Overall, he put up a strong rookie campaign with 13 goals and 15 assists in 64 games. As Jeff’s 4th quarter grades note, he got off to a hot start with 20 points in his first 30 games before finishing with 8 points in his last 34 games. It seems that fatigue and perhaps a minor injury may have slowed him down towards the end of the season. Hopefully he can earn more minutes with Binghamton this season and help further develop his game while getting the team back to the playoffs. Studenic had the chance to represent Slovakia at the senior level at the World Championships last spring and put up a goal and 4 assists. I really think he can be a NHL player eventually and I look forward to him continuing to take the next step in his evolution as a player this upcoming season. He’ll turn 21 in late October and still has time left to develop even more.

#16 - Michael McLeod - C - Age: 21 - 2018-19 Teams: Binghamton Devils (AHL), New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2018 Rank: #9 - Elite Prospects Profile

While other players climb on these rankings, some have fallen. Michael McLeod finished 5th in 2017 and tied for 9th in 2018. After another season that saw some of the prospect shine come off the former 12th overall pick from the 2016 draft, he now finishes just outside of the top 15. The former OHL standout and two-time captain of the Mississauga Steelheads put up 76 goals and 131 assists in 215 regular season games and 20 goals and 26 assists in 33 playoff games from 2014-18 as an high end skating center with great vision and playmaking skills in the OHL. He helped Canada to a U20 WJC Silver Medal in 2017 with 3 points in 7 games and a Gold Medal in 2018 with 4 points in 7 games in a reduced role both times.

In his first pro season last year, McLeod had 6 goals and 27 assists in 55 games for Binghamton. That assist total was good enough for the team lead despite it being his age 20 season and him not spending the full season with the team. He managed to appear in 21 NHL games for New Jersey with 3 assists, 21 shots, 53.0 FO%, and average ice time of 12:12. Despite his dynamic skill and puckhandling ability, it seems like he is more destined to be a solid 2nd/3rd liner than 1st liner like many hoped when he was drafted. While that isn’t as exciting as what many felt his potential once was, the fact the Devils have Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes to lock down the top 2 center spots for years to come makes McLeod’s ceiling easier to accept. Plus the emergence of other young talent like Jesper Bratt and perhaps even Jesper Boqvist should take some of the pressure off of McLeod. I’m hoping he can show that he can be an above average AHL player in his age 21 season this year and develop into that solid 3rd line center for the Devils eventually that can play responsible from a defensive standpoint and help add some secondary scoring.

Your Take

Stay tuned as we continue to release these rankings in sets of 5 on a weekly basis. Where did you have these players ranked? Do any of these rankings surprise you? What are your thoughts on McLeod falling out of the top 10? Which of these players do you expect to make a meaningful contribution in New Jersey in the future? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!