While there are always rises and surprises over time among those on the Top 25 New Jersey Devils Under 25 list, the middle of the actual Top 25 is where the more exciting prospects tend to emerge. Some of these players are on the cusp of making it to the NHL. Some of these players are aiming higher than a call-up role or a depth spot in the future. In this year’s Top 25 Devils Under 25 list, the players to be revealed in this post are ones that now-fulltime GM Tom Fitzgerald sought after in one way or another. Whether or not they will hit their futures in 2020-21 remains to be seen, but the middle of this year’s list is far from middling.
This is a list of perception, so please be kind in discussing these players and where they ranked in the second group of five revealed for this year. Remember, all ages are as of October 8, 2020. Lastly, Dan and I will be discussing this on the next Garden State of Hockey if you prefer to hear about these players instead of reading about them.
#15 - Shakir Mukhamadullin - Left-shooting Defenseman - Age: 18 - 2020-21 Team: Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL) - 2019 Rank: N/A - Elite Prospects (EP) Profile
I admittedly was not a fan of Shakir Mukhamadullin at twentieth overall in the 2020 NHL Draft. I am a fan of what Mukhamadullin has been doing so far in 2020-21. Already there is reason to be more positive about the player’s future. The 18-year old defenseman has played only for Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the KHL in 2020-21. While he played 27 games for them last season, he averaged just 3:07 per game. Seriously, he averaged roughly five shifts per game. This season, Mukahamdullin has played in 26 games for Ufa with an average ice time of 13:07 and about 18 shifts per game. He is still on the low end of the roster as his average ice time is ninth out of eleven Ufa defensemen this season. However, he is receiving regular ice time per his game log, with Mukhamadullin having a couple of games with at least 15 minutes per game. Given that the big knock on him ahead of the draft was his defensive awareness and decision making, that he is receiving at least consistent ice time in KHL games is encouraging that he could be making strides in that respect. So is the fact he has been surprisingly productive with two goals, five assists, and 25 shots on net. Only Philip Larsen, Ufa’s top defenseman in ice time, has more points with 10. While Mukhamadullin has been pointless in his last eight games, that’s another plus for his 2020-21 campaign.
There is more to come for Mukhamadullin in 2020-21 at the international level. Russia sent an Under-20 team to the Karjala Cup as a warm-up for the World Junior Championships. Mukahamadullin played the most minutes for Russia as the Russians won the tourney. (Aside: Petr Malina’s Twitter account has a lot of analysis about the performances in the tourney. Mukhamadullin did well as did Gritsyuk.) There’s a good chance he’ll go to the WJCs and be a big presence on the Russian blueline in terms of minutes as well as physical size. Which is excellent to see from any first round draft pick. I’m coming around on the potential myself and so I am pleased to see him ranked fairly high in his first entry in the AAtJ Top 25 Devils Under 25 list.
#14 - Nick Merkley - Right Winger/Center - Age: 23 - 2020-21 Team: Ässät (Liiga - Loan), Binghamton, New Jersey? - 2019 Rank: #N/A - EP Profile
The Devils acquired Nick Merkley from Arizona in the (infamous?) Taylor Hall trade last December. Merkley came into the organization and showed that he is closer to the NHL than his time in Arizona would suggest. He primarily played in Tucson with one appearance in 2017-18 for the Coyotes. Merkley jumped right into Binghamton and showed he can contribute. He was on a top line with Brett Seney and Ben Street and the production just kept coming. Jeff and The Panel were impressed as Merkley put up eight goals and eleven assists in 28 games with Binghamton. More than that, he got a call up to New Jersey. Merkley received a four-game call-up where he was involved in something notable in about every game. He set up Joey Anderson for a score in his first game as a New Jersey Devil; he banged in a rebound in against Columbus in his second game; he unfortunately took a shot to the eye in his third game; and he did well in the run of play against a tough Washington team. It was the kind of call up that made you want to see more of him. I think the Devils have some real hope for him. Out of all of the players the Devils loaned to a European team, Merkley is the only non-European that is currently playing abroad. They did not want him to be idle. Even better, Merkley is making the most of his time with Ässät in the Liiga in Finland. As of this writing, he is tied for third on the team with ten points - four goals and six assists - in fifteen games. That further shows his adaptability as well as the fact he knows doing well in Finland could help his case when training camp opens up for New Jersey.
With Anderson traded and Merkley now being waiver-eligible, the time for Merkley could be now. As Jenna wrote back in September, there were three steps that needed to be met. First, he needed to be signed. Check. Second, he needed to do well in Finland. Ongoing - and check. Third, he needs to not suck in camp. That remains to be seen, but he has a good chance as any of being in the NHL for more than just four games in 2020-21. Hence, he has a fairly high rating in his first Top 25 Devils Under 25. If he can stick around in New Jersey, then it could be even higher and we can start thanking Arizona for including him in the Hall trade.
#13 - Kevin Bahl - Left-shooting Defenseman - Age: 20 - Likely 2020-21 Team: Binghamton - 2019 Rank: #N/A - EP Profile
The main prospect that Ray Shero wanted in that Hall trade was defenseman Kevin Bahl of the Ottawa 67’s. Not content with drafting a bunch of large and physical defensemen in 2019, he wanted the 6’7” tower of power from the best major junior team in 2019-20. He got it. And there are many fans that want to see what he can do at the pro level. Size is clearly a talking point as there are not many 6’7” and 240 pound men in hockey and Bahl is one of them. Further, he played a lot for the 67’s last season. Per Pick224, Bahl was second to Noel Hofenmeyer for the highest estimated ice time on the team. In terms of how well he played in those minutes, I turn to Brock Otten of OHL Prospects. Brock Otten of OHL Prospects noted that he can be quite mobile for a man of his size and stature. Otten noted that he has made a number of improvements in 2019-20 with the ‘67s. For one, Bahl apparently improved his skating as to not get beaten from wide positions as he did in the past with Ottawa. For another, Bahl’s passing and decision making with the puck has been more sound as Otten cited that he was very accurate with his passes. These improvements were apparent in his overall performances as Bahl was named to the OHL’s Second All-Star Team for 2019-20. And Otten noted that his shutdown style of defense was effective for Canada at the WJCs, which shows that he can handle unfamiliar opponents and styles outside of the OHL. These are all encouraging signs for his future. While expecting offense from Bahl may be too high of an expectation, his defensive skills may be enough to secure a role in pro hockey for quite some time.
As the AHL is not going to start any earlier than February 2021, Bahl is expected to join Binghamton if and when they begin their season. He is 20 and there may not be anything left to prove at the major junior level for the massive defender. I think it would be a good step up and I think New Jersey will monitor closely how well he acclimates to pro hockey. While my main concern is that Bahl is a largely one-dimensional player and those players are limited in their general effectiveness. But I think that one dimension does have NHL potential to be effective and, judging by the other votes, so do many Devils fans. As such, he enters the AAtJ Top 25 Devils Under 25 list in a fairly high ranking in his debut.
#12 - Reilly Walsh - Right-shooting Defenseman - Age: 21 - Likely 2020-21 Team: Binghamton - 2019 Rank: #12 - EP Profile
Reilly Walsh was a standout defenseman for Harvard, which has increasingly become a producer of NHL talent. That is impressive given that Harvard does not give out athletic scholarships. In any case, Walsh burst onto the scene with the Crimson with seven goals and 20 points as a freshman. As a sophomore, he turned it up a bit with 12 goals and 31 points in 33 games. His junior season saw a similar amount of production: eight goals and 27 points in 30 games. Only Jack Rathborne put up more points on the Crimson blueline as Walsh finished fifth on the team in scoring. While he was not the first pairing defenseman at Harvard, he played a significant role for Ted Donato’s squad. Walsh played well enough to earn back-to-back All Ivy-League Honorable Mention teams. More than that, the New Jersey Devils were impressed enough with his development to offer him an entry level contract. Walsh signed in August. Back then, I wrote that the COVID-19 pandemic influenced this decision as the Ivy League cancelled Fall sports and Winter sports were unknown. On November 12, the Ivy League cancelled Winter sports. At least Walsh will get a chance to play somewhere in 2020-21.
As he is signed, that will be with Binghamton. It is the more logical place for him to be as he gets used to the pro game. Whereas Bahl is about the defense, Walsh is much more about providing offense. His future could involve handling power play duties as well as providing an offensive element from distance. How Walsh handles defending at NHL (and AHL) speed will go a long way as to determining when we could see him in New Jersey. There are not many offensive-minded defensemen in the Devils’ system, which also helps both Walsh’s future with New Jersey and where he ends up on this list. As it turned out, Walsh was one of the few Devils not to drop due to newcomers entering the list.
#11 - Janne Kuokkanen - Left Winger/Center - Age: 22 - 2020-21 Team: Kärpät (Liiga - Loan), Binghamton, New Jersey? - 2019 Rank: #N/A - EP Profile
Janne Kuokkanen was acquired in February in exchange for Sami Vatanen. Tom Fitzgerald, then an interim GM, must have seen something he liked in him. Kuokkanen has primarily played for Charlotte in the AHL. Despite a very solid rate of production, he could never crack the Carolina lineup. On the surface, he appeared to be a player who just needed a chance. In New Jersey, he could get a real one. He was in the process of getting one as he made his New Jersey Devil debut on March 10, 2020. The pandemic put the NHL on pause on March 11, 2020 and the Devils season, as we know now, was over. That game was hardly notable for Kuokkanen (or for the Devils, they were cooked in a 2-5 loss to Pittsburgh). However, before that, he did continue his AHL production with three goals and three assists in four games with Binghamton shortly after the trade was made. There is reason to think he is on the cusp of breaking through. As such, the Devils wanted to keep him active so he was loaned to Kärpät of Liiga. While he has not been productive with just two goals and two assists, Kuokkanen is averaging 14:27 over 13 games with the club as well as over two shots per game (32 shots so far). Plus, he just scored his first goal since the first game of the season which was surely a relief for him. Hopefully, it is a sign his fortune is turning around before the loan ends.
Even if it does not immediately turn around, Kuokkanen still has the tools to at least get a long look at the NHL level. He skates well. He distributes the puck well. He has a solid work ethic. The fact that he has a career point per game rate of 0.77 in the AHL means he knows how to handle the North American style of play and find success in it. I really think he is a player that needs an opportunity to show what he can do at the NHL level so he can stick around in it. I think Fitzgerald figured that he can provide that opportunity in New Jersey when he acquired him back in February. I think a lot of people do so as well as Kuokkanen’s debut appearance on this list is just outside of the Top 10 on this year’s list. Here’s to hoping he makes it happen in 2020-21.
This group of five players ended up like a sandwich cookie. Like an Oreo. The ends were distinctly a cookie. Kuokkanen finished well ahead of the other four. Mukhamadullin finished well behind the the four in front of him - as well as a good distance from 16th ranked McLeod. But the three in the middle were close together. There was not a lot of separation between Walsh, Bahl, and Merkley. If you prefer to order them differently, then you would not be that far off from the final rankings. I think you can certainly make a case of Merkley ahead of Bahl and Walsh or even Bahl ahead of the other two. It depends on what you prefer and expect in a player.
What is interesting to me is how close the Community Survey has been with the overall Top 25 Under 25 list this year. The survey results nailed Mukhamadullin’s spot and ordered the three in the middle as Bahl, Merkley, and Walsh. Again, not too far off from the final result. I can confirm that the Community Survey only has two players in their Top 25 that did not make the final Top 25 and Kuokkanen is the only one that they named in their Top 10 that did not actually make it in the final Top 10. While not totally perfect, that is pretty close and further reason why I like to see the “Wisdom of the Crowd” in these lists. And so it shall continue.
Next week’s post will be the penultimate post for the 2020 AAtJ Top 25 Devils Under 25 list. It will be first half of the Top 10. The young players in the organization that the People Who Matter, people like you, think are ahead of most of the others in the system. You can probably work out who it is by now. But what will be the order? How will they be viewed? And would you see either of those five as a big surprise? You will all know more next week.
In the meantime, I would like to know what your reaction is to this part of the list. Who are you pleased to see ranked 15th through 11th? Who in this post do you think is overrated or underrated? What do you think about Mukhamadullin, Merkley, Bahl, Walsh, and Kuokkanen in general? Among the five, who do you think has the best chance of making New Jersey in 2020-21? What about beyond next season? Please leave your answers in the comments. Thank you for reading.