With the NHL Draft coming in less than a week, today is a great day to give an overview of the New Jersey Devils’ prospect pipeline. Or, if this were baseball, their farm system. As the team adds new players to its prospect pool, it is good to know what players are currently in that pool, how those players are doing, and who will be graduating beyond prospect status. In that way, we can more easily determine where the gaps and holes are in the system, and this can give us an idea of what the team might look to target in the draft next week. And I don’t just mean in the first round. Given the team’s poor performance recently, the argument for those picks is more or less just take the best player available, and that makes sense. The organization can use anyone and everyone with talent.
But beyond that, you could see Tom Fitzgerald and the scouting department making picks based on where the needs are in the system. If they feel that there are some quality forwards already tied to the organization in the 18-23 age range, they might try to lean for more defensemen in their later picks. This could also work vice versa, or what have you. You also have to throw goaltenders in there as well. Without a basic knowledge of the pipeline, it would be impossible to determine any of this, but with some information, you could enter the draft a little more informed.
Before we go further, first it would probably be good to define what a prospect is in NHL terms. Sadly, from what I can find, there is no hard definition that is used across the board. Everyone has a slightly different definition and different criteria by which they go by. When we do the AATJ top 25 prospects each year, we just include everyone under 25. However, for this post, that seems to be too broad a definition to me. People are not considering Nico Hischier a prospect, for example. So, I looked around, and a good one that I like and would consider solid is from Josh Bell over at the Hockey Writers. His definition: “a skater is a prospect if he’s played less than 25 games in a campaign (regular season and playoffs combined), less than 50 games total, or reaches age 25 by September 15.” Again, others might use different criteria, but these are pretty solid, and will fit in most situations. It removes people like Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, but for most players not playing in the NHL or on the fringe, it fits.
First up, let’s delve into the forwards, and then move onto defense and then netminders. At the start of each section, I will have a table of the list of players currently in the system, and then I will dive into those players. Information on these players comes mostly from the Devils website, but interestingly enough, that website has not been updated since about December, so it is out of date. Therefore, I have to update the list on my own, mostly using trade data from Cap Friendly. Given how out of date the NJ website is, it is possible I missed someone. If so, feel free to mention them below.
First off, to remind, I used the definition above. So, for example, Brandon Baddock is not on this list as he is already 25. Brett Seney is not on this list as he has played over 50 NHL games in his career, same with Joey Anderson. Jesper Boqvist is also not on this list as he played 35 games in the 2019-20 campaign. I know those last three, Seney, Anderson and Boqvist can definitely still feel like prospects, and quality ones, but I like sticking to that definition, so they’re out for now. Next, where explicitly stated in Elite Prospects, I put the player’s 2020-21 team they’re going to start with, not the 2019-20 team that they ended with. However, not every player has that listed yet, so for some, I left their 2019-20 team.
On this list, one of the biggest potential movers would be Nolan Foote, who was great in the WHL last year. He could see AHL ice and perhaps even the NHL for some games if he keeps improving. Graeme Clarke could also move after playing 3 seasons in the OHL. Otherwise, the team listed is most likely where that player will be this year, assuming they do not end up playing significant time in New Jersey. There are some possibilities for that, Foote if he continues to really improve would be one, and another would be Janne Kuokkanen, who has a real quality shot to play good time in the NHL. However, playing enough up there will remove them from prospect status thanks to the definition I’m using, much like Jack Hughes is not on this list and Boqvist was taken off.
Overall, with everyone included, this group isn’t too bad, but that is mostly thanks to the top. Kuokkanen and Foote really increase the quality of this group. Beyond those two, however, it is definitely hard to peg a surefire NHL player one day. There is some talent and possibilities for sure, players who could see NHL ice at some point this year. Merkley could get some NHL playing time, much like Brett Seney sees a little bit here and there. The coaches might want to give Nathan Bastian a shot, and will definitely continue to give McLeod a shot as a former first rounder. Then, you have those who I kept off the list, Boqvist, Anderson, and Seney. Boqvist hopefully is just a surefire NHLer now, like Hughes, but Seney and Anderson will probably go up and down between Binghamton and Newark this year.
So really, the pool is shallow at forward, fairly strong at the top and weak beyond that. Keeping Boqvist out of the equation, I see two players who have good shots at being NHL regulars in Kuokkanen and Foote. Someone else could surprise, but I don’t know if there are multiple Jesper Bratts coming out of nowhere from this list. It makes sense for the Devils to be using two of their first rounders at forward, if not all three if they feel the players fall the right way. They will also certainly want to continue to pile on with later picks.
The defender pipeline is smaller than the forwards, but rightly so. You only have to fill 6 d-man spots on a team, versus 12 forwards. In fact, I would say there should be more forwards given the number of defenders here. Using my criteria from above, there are only 16 forwards who qualify as prospects, versus 13 defenders. That really means that the Devils’ pipeline is seriously overweight defenders.
The question now becomes if the defenders portion of the pipeline is also of a higher quality than the forwards. Well, right away, we can be near certain that we will be removing Ty Smith from the list very soon. There is a strong chance he starts in New Jersey and remains there. We all hope so, anyway. Behind him, Kevin Bahl has a shot at NHL time, if not this year then perhaps soon after. The same could be said for Reilly Walsh and Colton White. Behind them, Nikita Okhotyuk hopefully improves and can crack the lineup too at some point. Underneath them, the pool becomes less intriguing. The biggest disappointment is perhaps Josh Jacobs, who was pretty highly touted after being drafted in the second round, and many thought he could make it one day. At 24 years old, it just has not clicked yet.
Overall, however, given the names I just mentioned that have NHL potential, I would say that the defense portion of the pipeline is slightly deeper than at forward. At forward, you really only have Kuokkanen and Foote. Here, at least for now, Smith is as close to a surefire hit as you can get, Walsh and White are quality prospects in their own right, and you cannot rule out Okhotyuk yet. I would not go out on a limb and say that it is an amazing pool, especially once Smith is taken off the list, but it is probably a step up over the forward group, especially given the size of it. There would be nothing wrong with targeting defense in the upcoming draft, but if Fitz sees a comparable forward and defender on his board at the same time, he should probably go with the forward first.
The goalie list is short, and also not amazing. Brady has a chance to improve while playing in the NCAA, and at 19, you never know. He could turn into something. For now, however, he is a big unknown. Senn got a couple of games of NHL experience last season, and should hopefully get better playing for Binghamton this year. However, you then have Cormier as mostly an ECHL guy, and Schmid who was still in the USHL last year. For those who are claiming the Devils should draft Askarov, the shallow nature of this group is one of the main reasons why. There just isn’t much here.
However, the key to remember here is that MacKenzie Blackwood is only 23 years old. If he can become the real, true, solid #1 that we all expect and hope he will become, and can maintain that level of excellence, then this pipeline means minimal. Blackwood could be the guy for the next decade plus. In that case, finding a solid backup is not nearly as difficult, and can be done in free agency as much as through development. In fact, I would argue that given Blackwood’s age, the Devils would be better off signing a veteran backup at the moment, one who could also act as a tutor to Blackwood and propel his game forward. In 5 years or so, if Blackwood is solidified in his role, then bringing up a young prospect to get some NHL experience would be a good idea. At this point though, I don’t think that is the move. Therefore, while this prospect group is not great, it also might not matter.
In the end, the overall prospect situation for New Jersey is not amazing by any means. However, with the top players in Smith, Foote, and Kuokkanen, and then a second tier in Walsh and White, it could definitely be worse too. It wasn’t too long ago where the Devils were ranked at or near the bottom of the NHL with their prospect pool. Now, with those top guys, that is no longer true. The Hockey Writers ranked NJ 13th with their prospect pool about a month ago. This seems appropriate, especially if you already consider Boqvist as no longer a prospect. And once Kuokkanen, Foote and Smith graduate, that will get worse without some new names. That is what makes this draft so important for the growth of this franchise. Right now, the prospect pool is decent. But when the top guys, the guys who make it decent, are in Newark, what will happen to the pool? It needs to be reenergized, and this draft needs to do that effectively.
What do you think about the prospect pool ahead of the 2020 NHL Draft? Do you think it is in a good place, or is weak? Where are the areas that need to be addressed next week? Who are some sleeper names that I did not really discuss, that you think could make waves? And again, was there anyone I missed altogether? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.