Welcome to the Top Ten of the 2020 All About the Jersey Top 25 New Jersey Devils Under 25 list. This is the next-to-last reveal of the whole list, featuring five players that are perceived to be higher than the rest in the system. If the top five are the cream that rises to the top, then these five are behind them.
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.
#10 - Dawson Mercer - Center / Right Winger - Age: 18 - 2020-21 Team: Chicoutimi (QMJHL) - 2019 Rank: N/A - Elite Prospects (EP) Profile
Back in October, I did not expect Dawson Mercer to be available for the New Jersey Devils at the 18th overall pick. I was happy he fell that far and I loved that the Devils swooped in to pick him up. Alex, who wrote up the selection, really liked the selection. Many of you were positive about the pick. And why not? Mercer was very productive in his draft eligible year and was one of four undrafted players on Canada’s gold-medal winning team at the World Junior Championships last season. With Drummondville and Chicoutimi, he showed how he was smart, crafty, and skilled forward. Here’s a short clip from Twitter of Mercer just protecting the puck and keeping a zone entry alive in the face of two defenders. Points are great, but I love little clips like this. It shows that Mercer can do a lot of helpful things that help a team succeed. While thought of as a center, he did play a lot of right wing with Chicoutimi - and that could be his future in the pros. And currently with Team Canada, he has been practicing at left wing. He just turned 19 last month and he is already showing positional versatility. It is an open question of what the future holds for Mercer. Is he a complementary top-six winger? Is he a do-a-lot-of-things-well forward for the top nine? Is he going to be a solid hand at the next level? It remains to be seen, but this high debut ranking shows that a lot of fans - myself included - think he has a bright one. Currently, he is a very exciting prospect to watch. (And if you have 35 minutes or so, delve into Andy Lehoux’s video report of the player. Yes, a post-draft scouting report.)
That is, when he is able to be watched. Mercer and the majority of the QMJHL has been upended by the Coronavirus. The league decided to start their season normally. Mercer got off to quite a good start, but then the pandemic cut that short. Then due to a rise in cases in Quebec, a lot of the teams in Quebec - including Mercer’s Chicoutimi - were postponed. The league decided to house Chicoutimi and six other teams in a bubble environment at the Videotron Centre. However, Mercer is not there as he was called up by Hockey Canada for a larger and longer-than-usual evaluation camp for the World Junior Championships. What this means is that he is practicing and scrimmaging right now instead of playing competitive games. I am confident he will be a part of Canada’s team if only because he was a part of last year’s gold medal squad. I do hope that Chicoutimi and the rest of the QMJHL will have some sort of normal season for players like Mercer to come back to after the WJCs so they can keep playing, keep honing their game, and keep preparing for a future pro hockey.
#9 - Nolan Foote - Left Winger - Age: 19 - Likely 2020-21 Team: Binghamton (AHL) - 2019 Rank: N/A - EP Profile
When the news struck back in February that Blake Coleman was traded, one of the reasons that helped many accept the trade was that Nolan Foote was part of the return. Foote was one of Tampa Bay’s best prospects and, at the time, was the kind of prospect the Devils could have used more of in their pool. Per the linked post about the trade by CJ, Foote is a big-bodied winger who shoots the puck a lot, shoots the puck well, creates plenty of offense, and uses his size well. The big issue for Foote, even back when in his draft year as Jenna profiled him, was his skating. However, that seemed to have improved in an injury-and-Coronavirus shortened WHL 2019-20 season. Per this interview by Randy Miller at NJ.com, Foote played through a “nagging lower body injury” as he put up 15 goals and 33 points in 27 games with Kelowna and two goals and three assists as part of Canada’s gold-medal winning WJC squad. It makes me think what he could have done with a fully healthy 19-year old season. It is what it is.
The skating is something to keep an eye on as he transitions to the pro game. Still, the reasons to be excited are clear. He has a very good shot. His large frame will be an asset in multiple situations in close when it comes to fighting for pucks or space in front of the net. That he captained Kelowna last season is a plus in terms of how he gets along with others. He is a potential scoring winger in a franchise that seemingly always could use another scoring winger or so. And his next step is professional hockey. Foote will turn 20 on November 29 and I am not sure what another season in Kelowna would do for him. I think it makes sense for him to step into the pro game. Combine all of this, and it is easy to see why he enters the Top 25 Under 25 list at #9.
#8 - Jesper Boqvist - Left Winger / Center - Age: 21 - Likely 2020-21 Team: Binghamton / New Jersey? - 2019 Rank: 9 - EP Profile
One of the decisions that the Devils had to make last preseason was to figure out what to do with Jesper Boqvist. New Jersey and Boqvist agreed to an entry level contract on June 2019. However, that contract had a European out-clause if he did not make New Jersey prior to December 1, 2019. So the question became: Do you keep Boqvist in New Jersey or send him back to Brynäs IF of the SHL? He had a good enough preseason to warrant keeping him in New Jersey. And so Boqvist started the season in New Jersey. It did not go particularly well for the young Swedish forward. He did not immediately get into the active roster. While he played in 35 games, they were often in limited minutes. And when he did play, Boqvist’s CF% was a bad 45.28%, his expected goals for percentage was a very low 39.74%, and he put up just four goals, and 41 shots on net across all 35 games. Was he used correctly? Perhaps not. Was he performing well enough on his own to warrant further NHL action? No. After the out-clause passed, Boqvist was demoted to Binghamton of the AHL.
It turned out that AHL demotion showed why anyone should be hopeful for the young forward. Boqvist played 19 games for Binghamton and scored eight goals, put up three assists, and took 41 shots on net. He made an instant impact and was rated very highly in the Q3 rankings by Jeff and The Panel. Clearly, Boqvist showed he was more than able to handle pro hockey at the AHL level. With the pandemic pushing back the 2020-21 season, the Devils opted to loan Boqvist out to Timrå IK of the HockeyAllsvenskan, Sweden’s second division. His loan spell was very productive as Boqvist averaged 14:23 of ice time per game, scored three goals, put up seven assists, and took 23 shots in ten games. The loan ended earlier this month. Clearly, Boqvist showed he could still handle the pro game in Sweden. As poorly as his time went in New Jersey last season, it was his rookie season in North America. That he did so well so quickly in the AHL and he continued to produce during a loan to Sweden are encouraging signs that he has something to prove at the next level. It would be more concerning if he went to the AHL and struggled or if his loan went poorly. Given Boqvist’s positional versatility, he may have an inside track to making the New Jersey roster for 2020-21. The next couple of seasons will go a long way to determine how far Boqvist can go in the NHL. But he will be back in the NHL, and NHL players tend to rank high on this kind of list. Hence, Boqvist is in the Top Ten yet again.
#7 - Pavel Zacha - Center / Left Winger - Age: 23 - 2020-21 Team: New Jersey - 2019 Rank: 7 - EP Profile
There are plenty of candidates for who would be the most frustrating player on the Devils in 2019-20. With respect to this list, the answer is clearly Pavel Zacha. The 23-year old finished up his fourth season of NHL hockey in 2019-20. On the one hand, you could see it as another disappointment. When he was on the ice in 5-on-5, the Devils took a dreadfully low 42.95% of the shooting attempts and a very low 45.81% of all shots on net. The team bled scoring chances (and expected goals against) when Zacha took a shift. And the team still is not sure about keeping him at center or keeping him at left wing. Knowing that a lot of the players drafted after him in 2015 continue to excel adds to the disappointment. On the other hand, there are signs of hope that a solid NHL player exists in Zacha. He continued to be a very good penalty killer. Zacha set a career high in points with 32, an seven point improvement over last season. He even finished tied for fourth on the team in scoring last season, which is good for Zacha and a kind of an indictment of the 2019-20 Devils. There were enough performances down the stretch in 2020 where Zacha seemingly was exerting himself more with his play on the puck. As usual, it was enough to make one want to believe in the player and also wonder where these performances were earlier in his career.
When the Devils hired Lindy Ruff as head coach, Ruff made a big point of it in the press conference about wanting to work with the youth. I hope this includes the 23-year old Zacha. As he will turn 24 in April, he is close to being in that territory of “what you see is what you will get” as a player. But I do think that a veteran coach (or coaches, no offense to Mark Recchi) guiding him and helping make some adjustments to his game can really help Zacha out. He is not going to be an all star or a key player like so many of the players picked after him in 2015. I think it is time for a lot of fans to just accept that and not re-litigate the 2015 draft everytime someone says or writes the name, Zacha. The draft was five years ago. The milk has been spilt. Despite the disappointment, Zacha can certainly be a helpful player among the first three lines in New Jersey as well as on special teams. We know he can be an asset on the penalty kill. His playmaking could lend itself well to a power play. If he could be more assertive on the ice, a bit more selfish with the puck, and give him some stability at 5-on-5 in terms of position and role, then he could provide more than what he has shown so far. It is not a question of whether Zacha is a NHL player. He has played 266 games in the NHL. He is a NHL player. The question is now: what can Zacha and the Devils do to make the best of him in the NHL. Again, as he as a NHL player, he comes in the Top Ten of this list. But he will not go any higher without further improvement - and that time is fleeting.
#6 - Alexander Holtz - Right Winger - Age: 18 - 2020-21 Team: Djurgårdens IF (SHL) - 2019 Rank: N/A - EP Profile
The top pick of the Devils’ 2020 NHL Draft class enters the AAtJ Top 25 Under 25 at sixth overall. While I would have preferred Marco Rossi or Cole Perfetti, I did appreciate that Holtz was selected and I liked the pick. Alexander Holtz is a scoring winger with a fantastic shot and a great offensive game. He arguably had the best shot release in the entire 2020 NHL Draft class. Given that the Devils are seemingly set at center with Hischier and Hughes, going for a winger that can make and finish plays makes all the sense in the world. And Holtz is currently providing further evidence that he was absolutely the right choice at seventh overall.
As of this writing, Holtz has four goals and six assists for Djurgårdens IF in 13 games with 33 shots on net. He is currently tied for 39th in the entire SHL in points and he is second on the team in points - just one behind Sebastian Strandberg. Holtz is frequently in highlight clips on Twitter that get shared that enhance his hype; clips that Brian includes in just about every one of his prospect updates every Tuesday. The last one featured two: Holtz going end to end beating defenders and rocketing a shot off the iron in OT in one, demonstrating his quickness and composure in a overtime situation. The other featured Holtz setting up ex-Devil Jacob Josefson in a 2-on-1 in that same overtime for the win, demonstrating Holtz’ awareness of the situation and how measured he can make a pass in a situation with some pressure. These clips show Holtz working hard to get into space and finding others in space. These clips show Holtz doing more than just gripping and ripping it. And there’s more - they’re already two highlight videos for his current season on Youtube. Yes, two. Not one, two. It’s remarkable and well worth it because it shows more reason to get hyped for Holtz.
Last season, Holtz put up 16 points in 35 SHL games where he averaged 12:53 per game. He is now averaging 16:50 per game in 13 appearances so far and is on track to smash his previous point total from last season. He is not even 19 and he is one of Djurgårdens’ top forwards. He will go to the WJCs and be expected to play a key role for the Swedes. Expect the hype to grow and grow as 2020-21 continues. And at least among those who voted in this list, the hype is very much real as he narrowly missed the Top Five in his AAtJ Top 25 Under 25 debut. Something tells me it will not be long before he gets there.
Alexander Holtz and the fifth ranked person on this list were really close. As you saw in the Holtz section, Brian and Nate put Holtz third on their lists and CJ put him fifth. While the Community Survey had him end up in sixth, he was very close to a fifth-place finish there. You can probably figure out who the top five are based on this and the past posts, but know that Holtz really did come close to debuting in the last post in this series.
As for the other rankings, they were decisive in their order. No one between Zacha, Boqvist, Foote, Mercer, and the eleventh-ranked Kuokkannen were close to each other. Given that Will Butcher, who finished third on last year’s list, Zacha and Boqvist moved up a spot each. While the Community Survey had Kuokkanen ahead of Mercer, they nailed the other four in this group. They also had Boqvist and Foote flipped, but it was not far of a miss. Still, there was not a lot of closeness among final rankings among the non-Holtz players in this group.
The last post for the 2020 AAtJ Top 25 Devils Under 25 list will be next week. It is the other half of the Top Ten. It is the Top Five. Again, by the process of elimination, you can figure out who is in it. You may not get the order. And as an additional tease, there are no new debuting players. Holtz was the highest rated player who was not part of last year’s list. Everyone above him was on it before, so you are familiar with them. You will see how they were ranked 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 10th through 6th? Who in this post do you think is overrated or underrated? What do you think about Mercer, Foote, Boqvist, Zacha, and Holtz in general? Will Boqvist stick in NJ in 2020-21? Will Zacha show any improvement? What will Mercer and Foote even do? And do you think Holtz continue to excel in Sweden? Please leave your answers in the comments. Thank you for reading.