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The 2020 AATJ Top 25 Devils Under 25: The Top Five

This week is the final five to be revealed from the 2020 All About the Jersey Top 25 New Jersey Devils Under 25 list. The top five features five players, four of whom played for New Jersey last season. Find out where these five ended up in this post.

2020 NHL All-Star - Portraits
Nico Hischier leads this year’s Top 25 Devils Under 25 list yet again.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Welcome to the Top Five of the 2020 All About the Jersey Top 25 New Jersey Devils Under 25 list. This is it. This is the final post for this annual series where the top five players are revealed. If you have been following this year’s posts revealing parts of the list, then you can figure out who the top five are. Maybe not the exact order, but the remaining five players on this list can be determined from the process of elimination.

This is a list of perception, so please be kind in discussing these players and where they ranked in the final 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. Let us get into it.

#5 - Ty Smith - Left-shooting Defenseman - Age: 20 - Likely 2020-21 Team: Binghamton / New Jersey? - 2019 Rank: 5 - Elite Prospects (EP) Profile

The top defenseman on this list for another year running is Ty Smith. I can understand some of the criticisms. How can he be this high on the list if he could not make a really bad 2019-20 Devils team? Jesper Boqvist did it and he ended up eighth on this list. I think that ignores what Smith and Boqvist did last season. It is true that Smith did not make the team out of last year’s training camp. It is also true that Smith was not 100% at that camp. As Smith was 19, he could not play in the AHL. New Jersey’s options were either to let him figure out the NHL game then or go back to major junior hockey and dominate. They chose the latter. That is exactly what Smith did.

Smith absolutely crushed it in major juniors last season. Per Pick224, Smith finished fifth among all defensemen in Canadian major junior hockey in primary points per game, fifth in primary even strength points, and a ridiculously high even strength goal differential of +51 for the fourth highest even strength GF%. He did this while averaging an estimated 22.6 minutes per game, which is one of the few stats where he was not among league leaders in Canadian major junior hockey.

Smith was a leader in other ways. He captained the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League for a second straight season. In 49 games, he put up 19 goals and 40 assists for 59 points to lead Spokane defensemen in scoring. Only three defensemen in the entire league had more production and each of them played at least 14 more games than Smith did. Part of that difference in games played was because Smith represented Canada again at the World Junior Championships. Smith played big minutes and wore an ‘A’ - more leadership - as he led Canada to a Gold medal. His absence from the WHL did not hinder him from winning the Bill Hunter Trophy as the WHL’s Top Defenseman for a second straight season. Smith was also named to the WHL First All-Star Team for a second straight season. The only things Smith did not win last season was CHL Defenseman of the Year (he won it in 2018-19, he was a finalist in 2019-20) and postseason glory through the WHL championship, and the Memorial Cup (both cancelled due to Coronavirus). You could not ask for more from a prospect, let alone a defenseman.

Now that Smith is 20 (he’ll turn 21 in March), he will become a professional. While he shoots left, he can and did play on the right side in major junior hockey. This versatility can only help Smith’s cause to make the New Jersey roster for this coming season. While they added Ryan Murray and Dmitry Kulikov, I do not think he is going to be blocked off from getting a chance in the NHL. Most NHL teams play at least eight or nine defensemen throughout the course of a season due to injuries and performance issues. There will be spots for Smith (and Bahl and Walsh and others) if they show themselves to be ready. Is Smith ready? I think he is and if he was not less than 100% last year, then I think he would have been on the NHL team last season. Instead of trying to figure out the NHL game on a team that cratered from the first game, he shined in the WHL. He’s more than ready to take the next step. Now we just need a season.

#4 - Jesper Bratt - Left Winger / Right Winger - Age: 22 - 2020-21 Team: New Jersey - 2019 Rank: 4 - EP Profile

Jesper Bratt is an established NHL player. That sentence was something that is not at all common for anyone selected in the sixth round of a NHL draft. But Bratt is anything but common. He made the New Jersey roster in 2017-18 with an impressive camp, jumping straight into the NHL from Sweden’s second best pro league, the HockeyAllsvenskan. Bratt has since played in 185 games for the Devils, often on his off-hand at right wing. That is uncommon too. So is the fact that he is usually on the first or second line at that position. Bratt can and has shown some real shining moments over the last three seasons. Bratt is a slick skater with very good hands. His sick shootout move that only worked a few times shows his creativity and bravery. As bad as the Devils were last season, Bratt was far from being part of the problem. If anything, as CJ wrote back in February, he should be part of the core for the rebuild that now Tom Fitzgerald is managing.

Back in July, I did a deep dive into Bratt’s production and performances in his three seasons to figure out what his next contract should be. Bratt is currently a restricted free agent, so he will need a new deal before he can play for New Jersey. I would like to think that once there is some confirmation of when a NHL season will happen, then it would be made. But the post is worth reading to really show his progression as a player. He went from being a rookie that was struggling in 5-on-5 to being one of the better players in that regard on a 2019-20 Devils team that totally sucked at 5-on-5. While he did not break his rookie season mark of 35 points, Bratt was on his way to doing so with 32 points in 60 games before the pandemic ended the season. Even then, Bratt did set a career high in goals with 16. I am not super-convinced he will be able to repeat that soon since he did score 14 even strength goals with an expected goal count of 6.65, but the goals counted all the same. The real growth is in how Bratt established himself in the NHL and still is a part of this team’s top-six barring any other changes to the roster. Bratt is not a young man who just had a fortunate set of occurrences to get into the NHL. He is a young scoring winger in the NHL.

Bratt coming in at fourth is among the appropriate rankings on this year’s Top 25 Devils Under 25 list. While Zacha played in more games in his career and Boqvist made his NHL debut, both Zacha and Boqvist are still not secure in their role. Zacha is definitely a NHL player but where he should play and what he should be expected to do outside of a penalty kill is still up in the air. Boqvist has proven himself in the AHL and SHL (and Allsvenskan) to be a contributor, he still has to prove his worth in the NHL. All others below Bratt on this list have yet to make it to the NHL or stick in the NHL. Bratt is going to play a significant role for the Devils in the coming seasons pending his next contract. That alone should put him ahead of a lot of other players on this list, even if they have more potential (Holtz, Mercer maybe?) or are starting to come through and could play an important role soon (Smith). And so it does. I look forward to Bratt helping New Jersey for the next coming seasons.

#3 - Mackenzie Blackwood - Goaltender - Age: 23 - 2020-21 Team: New Jersey - 2019 Rank: 6 - EP Profile

Goaltending. It is a position that is both greatly important and not so valued despite the importance. Good, even great teams, can be kneecapped by poor goaltending. At the same time, spending boatloads of money on a goaltender often is more trouble than its worth as a bad run of form or a bad season or a goaltender not being as good as they once were means the team has a total anchor on their cap. This leads to a costly buyout (example: Cory Schneider) or a lot of stress and anxiety for the squad (example: Carey Price this season). And given that we do not remember so much from a game, it is easy to just look at a goalie’s save percentage or a score, lament that they did not make enough saves, and get blamed regardless of what happened in the game or what the goalie’s teammates failed to do. As such, they tend to not be the highest paid players on most teams. Yet, despite all of this, a goaltender who performs among the best in the league can be worth their weight in gold. A hot goalie can “steal” games as the team wins by a slim margin. A very good goalie can elevate a bad or mediocre team to making the postseason and even going further. When do we know if a goaltender is good? When they play long enough. How can a goaltender play long enough to be seen as good? When the team thinks they play well enough to earn the minutes. What if the goaltender plays badly? They tend to not play for very long.

So what do we make of Mackenzie Blackwood? Is he actually good? I think so. And given that he is coming in at #3 on this year’s list, I am not alone in thinking that. I also think the New Jersey Devils organization thinks that too. They did sign Corey Crawford, but the 35-year old is not expected to take over. This is Blackwood’s crease until further notice. And there is evidence that Blackwood is actually quite good.

You would not know it from the first month of last season where Blackwood posted an overall save percentage of 87.1% over six appearances. I do not even need to break that down by situation; that’s just terrible. But Blackwood more than rebounded. He soared. Blackwood ended 2019-20 with an overall save percentage of 91.5% in 47 games. It gets better when you look a little closer at it. Natural Stat Trick lists the following for Blackwood in 5-on-5 play: a 92.6% save percentage, a goals saved above average of +8.41, and a high-danger chance save percentage of 87%. Among goalies with at least 1,000 minutes in 5-on-5 play last year, Blackwood ranked among the best goalies in the league in those categories. Adding to that, Blackwood gave up 85 goals in 5-on-5 play last season and his expected goals against was 84.74. This means Blackwood did not have a particularly fortunate season; he did as well as the model expected - which is very, very good. As teams play more 5-on-5 hockey than any other situation, this bodes very well for Blackwood’s future. It is remarkable how well Blackwood did last season, especially when you recall how Blackwood’s was terrible in that first month of the season. Blackwood’s turnaround was huge, it led to him winning team MVP according to the AAtJ writers, and it was one of the few major positives from last season.

I do have to emphasize that Blackwood is more inexperienced than you may think. He did just finish his second NHL season and has a total of 70 games. And even certified veterans have rough spells that can color an entire season. However, the 2019-20 season made it a little more clear that Blackwood is legitimately this good. This is fantastic news for a rebuilding team as the Devils can be set for a while in a position and can focus elsewhere. This is assuming that Blackwood’s third season does not see him suffer. It is a bet, but it seems like a safer one for Fitzgerald to make should both sides come to terms on a long-term contract. And so, Blackwood effectively replaces Will Butcher, who aged out of this exercise, on this year’s Top 25 Devils Under 25.

#2 - Jack Hughes - Center - Age: 19 - 2020-21 Team: New Jersey - 2019 Rank: 2 - EP Profile

The Big Deal returns to #2 on the 2020 All About the Jersey Top 25 Devils Under 25 list. Much has been written, commented, and emoted about Jack Hughes. He was the first overall pick in 2019. Unlike a lot of recent first overall picks, Hughes did not take the NHL by storm. He struggled. We witnessed a good reason why most 18-year old young men do not jump into into the NHL and make an impact. And since he was the first overall pick, there has been no shortage of criticism and concern among Devils fans and others. Especially if you utilize an inherently flawed statistic called GAR, which claims Hughes to be among the worst players in the entire NHL last season.

I find that ridiculous given that Hughes was not even the worst Devil whose name began with the letter ‘J’ last season. No, Hughes did not have a good season. A player with an on-ice CF% of 45.79%, an on-ice SF% of 44.74%, and an on-ice expected goals percentage of 47.27% in 5-on-5 play is not someone who had a good season. And the production of 7 goals and 14 assists is far from enough to not care as much about those poor on-ice rates. However, it is also true that Hughes also had a particularly unlucky season. Hughes scored on just 5.7% of his 123 shots. His individual expected goal count in 5-on-5 play was 8.64, the fifth most on the Devils last season and Hughes scored just two goals. There were plenty of moments where Hughes did everything but have the puck go in the back of the net. It is unlikely that will repeat. As Jack Han noted, the frequency of how he gets touches on the puck is more repeatable and bodes well for his future. The coaching certainly did not help given they were John Hynes, who decided Wayne Simmonds and Miles Wood were somehow appropriate wingers for Hughes for several weeks, and Alain Nasreddine. The point here is that the struggles were not all in Hughes’ control.

Not that Hughes has been complaining about it or anything. From a distance, it appears he has focused on what he could control. Hughes has been beefing up in this extended offseason. He should be much stronger than he was last season whenever we actually have a 2020-21 NHL season. With the experience he did have last season, he will not need to get used to the speed and force of the NHL game. Those who want to see Hughes’ incredible offensive skills honed should be looking forward to Lindy Ruff - NHL coach #3 for Hughes - to make that happen. If there is a coach who can do that, then that’s Ruff. Assuming we have a season at all, there are reasons to be encouraged about Hughes’ second season in the NHL.

I think most of the fans are encouraged. This #2 ranking is evidence of that. While I dropped him to #3 personally, that was more of a reward for Blackwood’s turnaround in my view. And I was not joined by many in that respect. Hughes will be an important part of this team for years to come. I think a lot of fans know that his skills with the puck are very hard to find. A stronger, better prepared, and better coached Hughes could make it clearer to the larger hockey world why Hughes should be called The Big Deal.

#1 - Nico Hischier - Center - Age: 21 - 2020-21 Team: New Jersey - 2019 Rank: 1 - EP Profile

Nico Hischier is number one on this year’s list. This was the only unanimous vote among all the different writers and the community. That alone speaks volume. The many voters fall over the spectrum between valuing current ability and potential ability. Yet, the conclusion remained the same: Nico is Number One. Call him N1co if you’d like. Maybe you would even prefer to call him captain.

This should not exactly be a surprise. Hischier has been the team’s top center since he joined the New Jersey Devils in 2017. Who on this list can actually surpass him? Hughes could in the future. Blackwood might depending on how you value goalies. Even so, #1 centers under the age of 25 are very hard to find let alone someone who did it at age 18.

As we saw with Hughes, a lot of 18-year old players do not just jump into the NHL and make an impact. But Hischier did. Granted, he had a more favorable situation with being in between Kyle Palmier and Taylor Hall, who had a MVP season in 2017-18. But Hischier was not riding coattails. The Swiss pivot showed no fear going to the net and battling for pucks behind the goalline. He backchecked and took his off the puck play seriously. Hischier continued to own the first line center role from his rookie season through today. Can he create his own offense? Yes. Can he help others? It depends a bit on the player, but Bratt, P.K. Subban, and Damon Severson can say yes. Can he play in all situations? Yes. What more could you ask for?

More production? Sure. But that can be said about almost all of the Devils as Hischier’s 14 goals out of 123 shots and 22 assists in 58 games were enough to place him third on the team in scoring. That can certainly improve - especially if the team gets better - and Hischier will have the time to rise with the hopeful tide of talent. Last October, Hischier signed a seven-season contract worth $50.75 million in total. Ray Shero, then the general manager, saw the young center own his role and correctly identified him as someone to build the team around. He locked him up with a substantial contract that Hischier could end up out-performing by the end of it. Fitzgerald is now in charge but he knows that Hischier is a part of the foundation for an organization looking to get back to glory. He knows he has a top center in Hischier to go with a top-six scoring winger in Bratt, a super-talented Hughes, and a very good #1 goalie in Blackwood. There is your young core. And Hischier is the best among those four right now.

Hischier is #1 on this list yet again. And he will be for a few more years to come as Hischier will turn 22 in early January. He loves to hockey, and the Devils fans love that.

Voting Commentary

In terms of the vote itself, the only close call was at the bottom of this group. As mentioned last week, Alexander Holtz narrowly fell behind Ty Smith for fifth. What was surprising to me was how it was not close between Hughes, Blackwood, Bratt, and Smith. I figured others would have joined me in placing Blackwood second for what he accomplished last season. Not many did as all five spots were fairly spaced apart in the voting. The only close call, again, was for fifth place. Given everyone’s ages in this post, we may see this five again next year unless A) Holtz (among others) continues to shine and someone in this group does not and B) someone gets dealt away.

I do not know if you noticed, but the community nailed the Top Five in their exact order. That is a good job by the People Who Matter.

Thank You

I thank all of the writers - Alex, Brian, Nate, Chris, Dan, Devin, and Mike - for their participation in this year’s list. I thank all of the members of the community, the People Who Matter, for voting in this year’s survey for this year’s list.

As for next year’s list, well, I hope it will not be performed in October and presented through to the end of November. I hope it will be earlier than that. I can only hope we return to a normal cycle for the NHL offseason in 2021. Not just for how the time goes, but to get this list back in a more normal time. It will be a challenge as many players will be playing a more different schedule from one another than usual - assuming they even play at all. Unfortunately, it is out of our hands.

I would like to know what your reaction is to the final part of this year’s list. Who are you pleased to see ranked 5th through 1st? Who in this post do you think is overrated or underrated? What do you think about Smith, Bratt, Blackwood, Hughes, and Hischier in general? Please leave your answers in the comments. Thank you for reading.