The New Jersey Devils went into the 2020 NHL Draft with former assistant GM and now current GM Tom Fitzgerald and three picks in the first round. They ended the day with Fitzgerald announcing all three of those picks. This is who they came away with; the links go to our initial reactions for each pick:
Seventh Overall: Djurgårdens IF (SHL) right winger Alexander Holtz
Eighteenth Overall: Chicoutimi (QMJHL) center Dawson Mercer
Twentieth Overall: Salavat Yulaev Ufa defenseman Shakir Mukhamadullin
My current reaction as to how the Devils on the first day of the 2020 NHL Draft is that they did well for two out of three first round picks.
The One That Wasn’t So Good
Let me go over the one that I think was not good: the Mukhamadullin pick. It is not so much that he is this awful defenseman. He is not like Jeremie Poirier, who is someone I really think should be converted to forward given his on-ice decision making. He is not like Tyler Kleven, who is really just a big dude who plays one-way, which is on defense. The Devils could have done worse. After all, Mukhamadullin is 6’4”, he’s 18, he has 14 appearances with Ufa in the KHL with six points, sixteen shots, and an average of 13 minutes per game. He could grow and develop, I suppose.
That is all well and good, but I still think the Devils could have done so much better than reaching for Mukhamadullin at twentieth overall. Rankings and mock drafts are far from the be-all and end-all of where a player should be picked; but when so many project someone to be a late second or third round pick, one has to question when they end up as a first rounder. Even in a draft class where the last ten picks in the first round may not be significantly better than the first twenty in the second round.
There is an argument to be made that this could possibly work out. His current play in the KHL could be a sign that he is truly developing into someone with a real NHL Future and the Devils’ scouts were convinced of that in the past few weeks. An 18-year old defenseman with six points in 14 games with limited ice time is a positive sign that he may have an offensive game. He is a project and the Devils, who have a bunch of defensemen in their pool, can afford to take a chance on a project. Plus, he’s big and who doesn’t like their defensemen big at 6’4”?
My problem is that all of this could be applied to other defensemen who were available with the Devils’ third pick in the first round. If the Devils wanted a project of a defenseman project who plays in Europe and stands at 6’4” at age 18 who is playing in a men’s professional league, then William Wallinder could have been the pick. Wallinder also skates well, has some offensive potential, and can grow into his frame as he gets experience with MODO Hockey in the Allsvenskan. It would not have been that outstanding of a reach as what the Devils did. Other defensemen could have been had to fit other types. Justin Barron - who went at 25 to Colorado - was thought to have a real good skill set but a blood clot cut short an already shortened 2019-20 campaign. If the Devils wanted a no-frills defender with a potential leadership role, Ryan O’Rourke was also available. If they did not want Wallinder and still wanted a European-based defender, Helge Grans and Topi Niemela were also options. There were a number of defenders that could have been a lot less surprising and a lot less risky than taking Mukhamadullin at twentieth overall. I am not a huge fan of any of these defensemen, so I would have preferred the forwards that were available. Still, this was not the best possible pick for the Devils to make. And after seeing Calgary trade down twice - once before the Devils pick and again later - I cannot buy that it was not an option for the Devils for them to take. It still would have been a reach but picking up an extra pick along the way would have been a plus.
What I really do not get about the pick is the purpose. The Devils drafted a bunch of a big-bodied defensemen with limited offensive potential last season. They added Kevin Bahl back in December. What need in the prospect pool does this pick meet? What purpose does it serve? I’m sure some are pleased at seeing Steve Kournianos’ report - which had the player at 67th on his rankings, so he isn’t that big on him - but where’s the potential here? If the pick was made for current needs, then that is just not smart. Per Elite Prospects, Mukhamadullin is signed through 2021-22. He is not coming to New Jersey anytime soon, so that cannot be it. Does the team have so little faith in Bahl, Okhotyuk, Vukojevich, Misyul, and McCarthy that they needed another big body on the back end in their system? If the answer is yes for some reason, I still do not understand why the Devils would pass up on Wallinder to take Mukhamadullin.
I want to be wrong in the future and have Mukhamadullin become a solid contributor in the future. I do. At the end of the day, I want all picks to work. However, if I have to rationalize this much to defend a pick, then it is not a very good pick given what we know. I will be happy to be wrong in the future if it turns out this way. At the least, it was not the worst pick in the first round - thank you Columbus for that.
Now that is out of the way, let us get to some praise.
The Two That Were So Good
By no means did the Devils ruin their first round or their draft with the high-risk reach of Mukhamadullin. When you have three first round picks, you want to be able to get very good prospects with them. I am confident that Tom Fitzgerald, Paul Castron, and the team did so with their first two picks.
At seventh overall, my concern was that the Devils were either going to reach for the goaltender Yaroslav Askarov, reach for the second best prospect on the Ottawa 67’s in Jack Quinn, or take Jamie Drysdale or Jake Sanderson because they were defensemen. Thanks to Ottawa and Anaheim, the defensemen were off the board. This meant that the choice came down to those two I did not want and three I did: Marco Rossi, Cole Perfetti, and Alexander Holtz.
I would have preferred Rossi or Perfetti on the basis that they are more of a complete package of a high-end forward prospect. However, I do like the Holtz pick. While picking for need is not a great idea, the fit is an asset in this case. Over and over we see teams pay a lot to get players that produced a lot in the past - recent or otherwise. The cheapest way to get productive players would be to draft them. The Devils have added all kinds of skaters into their system over the last few years. However, they have lacked someone who was seriously projected to be a goal scorer at the NHL level. A true sniper, if you will. Holtz is definitely that kind of player. He is thought to have the best shot in the entire draft class. He is good enough to play at the pro level in Sweden already. His passing skills are a bit underrated. There is some refinement to be had with his game, particularly with where he shoots the puck and his skating mechanics. But those are addressable issues. His kind of release and accuracy is rare.
Even with these flaws, it is not uncommon to see projections that he could be a solid 20 to 30 or more goal per season kind of winger. The Devils, who have been lacking for offense in some capacity for the better part of the last twenty years, could really use a prospect with that kind of upside. They have him in Holtz. There is a thought that Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes will need a great finisher on their wings to really boost their production and contributions to the team. That player could be Holtz in the future. It is fun to already think about how the plays will go. There will be a bit of a wait as Holtz’ contract ends in 2021-22 as per Elite Prospects, but his skillset is absolutely worth the wait. I do question whether we will regret the Devils passing on Rossi and Perfetti in the future. But if Holtz does become a significant goal scorer in his early twenties, I do not think there will be many complaints.
The Dawson Mercer pick was a great one just by virtue of where it was made. I did not see much chatter or many mocks where Mercer would be available for the Devils at this point of the first round. It seemed like he was set to be picked somewhere between tenth and sixteenth. In a way, he fell to the Devils at eighteen and he was too good of a prospect to pass up on to take, say, Braden Schneider.
There is plenty to be impressed by Mercer. For starters, he put up 64 points in 68 games as a rookie in the QMJHL in the season prior to his draft eligible one. Per Pick 224, his 24 even strength goals in 2018-19 were as many as Holtz in the SuperElit league and only behind Lafreniere’s 27, Perfetti’s 30, and Holloway’s 32 in Junior A. While he did not match his point totals in 2019-20, he was on pace to do so with a remarkable 24 goals and 50 points in 42 games split betwen Drummondville and Chicoutimi. Mercer also joined Byfield and Lafreniere as the only draft eligible players to make Canada’s World Junior Championship team. While Byfield and Mercer did not play much, that Team Canada thought well enough of their skills to be named to the roster ahead of other draft eligible players and even players who were drafted is very telling. It tells me that Mercer’s game is quite good.
From what I can tell, that is really the best thing about Mercer. He does a lot of things well. The NBC SN broadcast talked a ton about his versatility. That he could play wing or center. That he could play both ways. That he could play on both special teams. There is a lot of character to go with the skill and so he is a player that teams can really like in the future. He is also very smart to go with his solid hands and vision on the ice. While Holtz may have a superior shot and overall expectation of being a scorer, Mercer is at the least a very solid hand at forward. You cannot go wrong with having several players like Mercer in your system either.
If there is a knock on Mercer at all, it is his skating mechanics. Namely, his skating his stride is seen as not as good as it could be. This was pointed out in this prospect profile by Justin Blades at Habs Eyes on the Prize. That may seem minor, but it could be an issue that could limit him at the professional level. However, few prospects are good to go as-is and I think mechanics, like anything else, can be worked on. If successful, then the Devils will have another solid NHL contributor to look forward playing in Newark one day. That is what you want to see out of first round picks; players who are expected to appear in the NHL and expected to do well. Whereas Mukhamadullin was a big, big reach, Mercer falling to 18th overall was a fortunate situation and Fitzgerald, Castron, and the Devils smartly picked up Mercer.
In summary: I liked the Holtz pick. I loved the Mercer pick. I did not like the Mukhamahadullin pick. In my view, the Devils hit on two out of three in the first round. Again, I hope I can look back on this in years and realize I was wrong that it was three out of three. We shall see.
What Does This Mean for Tomorrow?
Your guess is as good as mine. It is not like all three first round selections have a lot in common other than being 18-year old hockey players. It is not like all three players are great at the same things. I question whether Fitzgerald is using position or player type as part of Best Player Available. Even so, there is no common thread in the draft class so far. The Devils did not pick up any extra selections, so they enter tomorrow with the same six picks they had going into day two yesterday. How those six picks go may go a long way to determine if the Devils have a theme with their selections like they have had in the last few drafts.
Tomorrow could be a very busy day. Not only does the second day of the draft go much faster than the first round, but qualifying offers are due to be submitted to the league by 5 PM tomorrow. Given all of the rumors and speculation regarding who is and who is not going to qualified, that could drive some trade activity or make Friday an even bigger day for news. Whether or not it will involve the Devils remains to be seen.
General 2020 NHL Draft First Round Thoughts
As I watched and reacted to the broadcast here at All About the Jersey and on Twitter, I figure this is a good place as any to place other non-Devils thoughts I had about the draft experience.
- First, Gary Bettman looks really tired. I do not blame him. The whole Return to Play format and its negotiations must have been endless. And while that was happening, I am sure he was involved in ensuring the format of his draft, setting up free agency, and dealing with all kinds of preliminary discussions for 2020-21. All while hoping and praying there would be no Coronavirus cases in either bubble. It would age anyone. I give Bettman a lot of credit for still getting in front of the camera and making the pick announcements to each team from the NHL Studios in Secaucus, New Jersey.
- Second, Bettman announced that the NHL and NHLPA are targeting January 1, 2021 for a start date for the 2020-21 season. That is easy to say - and incredibly hard to do with a lot of moving parts and issues that the NHL or the union has no control over. I wish the NHL and the PA a lot of luck to have something resembling a season for 2020-21. But I will believe that date when we see it happen.
- Despite this being a virtual draft, the first round still took over three hours. I am not saying everything needed to be quick, but every team just about used their five minutes. Even Our Hated Rivals took all five minutes to announce Alexis Lafreniere, the most obvious pick in the whole draft. Toronto even went over their five minutes. On camera, Bettman told them to either make their pick or take a timeout. What this meant is that it was a long watch with a lot of commentary and stories to go over and, in some cases, over again.
- That said, I did appreciate some of the creativity of the picks being made. Ottawa having Alex Trebek give a Jeopardy-style announcement for Tim Stutzle at third overall was easily the best. Anaheim fans all saying the pick was in at sixth overall was nice. Winnipeg having Crystal Hawerchuk announce Cole Perfetti at tenth overall was nice. The last pick from San Jose for Ozzy Weisblatt had the manager use sign language as Weisblatt’s mother is deaf, which was a nice touch. I wish there was a little more of that, but they were good touches.
- The top three went as expected, with Lafreniere going to Our Hated Rivals, Quinton Byfield and his sweet white jacket getting confetti’ed by his family when Los Angeles took him, and what appeared to be a cafeteria going mild when Tim Stutzle was picked by Ottawa.
- There was not a lot of movement within the first round. Only Calgary traded down twice, picking up an extra third round pick with each move. They eventually took Connor Zary at twenty-fifth overall, who could have been their pick at nineteenth. It was clever to get Zary and two more picks for tomorrow in the process.
- Your definition of what a big surprise will guide you as to which was the first one of the 2020 NHL Draft. Perhaps it was Jake Sanderson going to Ottawa at fifth overall and being the first defenseman selected. Perhaps it was Jack Quinn being taken at eighth overall by Buffalo ahead of both Rossi and Perfetti. Perhaps it was seeing goaltender Yaroslav Askarov, the most hyped goalie prospect in recent memory, ultimately go to Nashville at eleventh, one spot ahead of where Spencer Knight did last year. Perhaps it was the Devils’ pick of Mukhamadullin - which would be my choice. The following pick was definitely worse.
- At twenty-first overall, the Columbus Blue Jackets took Yegor Chinakhov. Here is a fun fact: This is his second draft. He was eligible last year and was passed over by everyone. Now, overage draft picks are not uncommon. Overage draft picks in the first round, especially with this year’s draft class, is absolutely uncommon. While Chinakhov may be the best overage prospect in 2020, there is a reason they tend to go in later rounds. With the first-time draft eligibles, they have another season to grow to hit their potential - a crucial year for development. Chinakhov will not have that. Columbus could have selected a lot of 17/18-year old players such as Jacob Perreault, Zary, Tyson Foerster, Jake Neighbours, Justin Barron, John-Jason Peterka, Noel Gunler, Mavrik Bourque, Ridly Greig, William Wallinder, and so many others instead. Taking Chinakhov was absolutely stunning. Even the broadcast crew of Bob McKenzie, Craig Button, and Pierre McGuire had a tough time trying to be positive about this one. To me, this was the worst pick in the first round.
- Hendrix Lapierre was talked up a lot about the health issues and how he did so well in his recent return to the QMJHL. He went right after Mukhamadullin and Chinakhov to Washington - whom traded with Calgary to move up to take him. Good luck, Caps.
- It was annoying to have Lafreniere interviewed right before the Devils’ first pick. This was made up by having a short interview with Holtz on the broadcast. I give Holtz a ton of credit for doing this as it was roughly 2 AM in Sweden when it was done. Get some sleep, young Devil; you’ve earned it.
- Outside of Mukhamadullin, Chinakhov, and Calgary trading down twice, there was not a lot of movement or total shocks in this draft. Sure, Quinn over Rossi is not what I would have done but it was not totally out of left field. There is no Arthur Kaliyev or Bobby Brink where one wonders why they fell out of the first round. The best of the rest is, who, John-Jason Peterka, who was not a guaranteed first rounder anyway? There will be talent to be had on day two, but I do not think anyone is available that should have totally been picked this evening.
- In terms of who was picked at a larger level, only two Americans went in the first round this year. Despite the dominance of the Chicago Steel in the USHL, it was not as strong of a season for the USNTDP after the astonishingly good 2019-20 squad. I would not worry. More Americans will go tomorrow and the 2020-21 USNTDP will likely have more Americans go in the first round next year. It could have been worse: only one Finnish player was picked in the first round and no Czechs went in the first round at all.
- In contrast, the OHL had a big come back. After a down 2019-20, five of the first ten picks came out of the ‘O’ and two more were picked later in the first. The QMJHL and WHL were also well represented with five and six picks, respectively. The Canadian major juniors are always a big part of the NHL development process and their three leagues were a big part of this year’s first round.
- I know the NBC SN broadcast tends to use TSN talent for these events, but I would like some different voices in the future. I will never say a bad thing about Bob McKenzie. But as much as I appreciate Craig Button’s candor, I do not think he added a ton to this broadcast. And after hearing him in so many games with not a lot of contribution, I did not need three-plus hours of McGuire. The NHL and the Draft is big in Canada. Surely there is someone TSN can hire who can be a bit bolder or brasher to liven things up without having three people say a lot of the same things for each player.
One thing is for sure - you are all the People Who Matter. As of this summary, there are under 900 comments in the first day open post, and plenty of activity on the site in the run up to this day and on this day itself. Thank you for reading the site and bearing with us through what is traditionally an active day where posts have to go up fast and we want to have something of value to say.
Again, Day Two is tomorrow and it will go through the second to seventh rounds. The picks will be made more quickly. There could be more movement as free agency is right around the corner. We will do our best to have posts up in a timely manner. Please vote in the polls by tomorrow evening for your reactions to each pick. Hopefully, there will be more good picks than bad ones tomorrow. I ultimately think that is what happened in the first round today based on what we know. Thank you again for reading. Go Devils.