As we approach the NHL’s draft lottery this week and the organization in flux, generally speaking, now seems like as good a time as ever to take a look back at the track record of the current amateur scouting department led up by Paul Castron. Castron was hired as director of amateur scouting in the summer of 2015 after Ray Shero had removed the longtime head of the department, David Conte, following the 2015 entry draft. Castron came over from the Blue Jackets, where he had served as their director of scouting since the summer of 2006. The replacement of Conte was largely celebrated by fans at the time, as the previous decade of drafting for the Devils had been, in a word, poor. A smattering of decent NHLers were produced by the Conte scouting department over its final 10 years, but few true impact players, and the organization suffered for it.
With Castron now (assuming he remains in his position) entering his fifth draft in New Jersey, he is starting to assemble his own resume to praise/criticize for Devils fans. With a shift in organizational philosophy, he has had more chances in each of these drafts than his predecessor did (not to mention a pair of first-overall picks), but generally speaking, the early returns a looking generally better than a lot of the drafts in Conte’s final years. Let’s take a run through each of Castron’s drafts to determine how they look now in 2020.
Number of Picks: 9
- 12th overall (R1) — Michael McLeod
- 41st overall (R2) — Nathan Bastian
- 73rd overall (R3) — Joey Anderson
- 80th overall (R3) — Brandon Gignac
- 102nd overall (R4) — Mikhail Maltsev
- 105th overall (R4) — Evan Cormier
- 132nd overall (R5) — Yegor Rykov
- 162nd overall (R6) — Jesper Bratt
- 192nd overall (R7) — Jeremy Davies
Notable Hits: This is weird draft to look at because the results are somewhat upside-down. Jesper Bratt is the obvious home run here, as he looks like a top-six caliber player found way down in the sixth round. Rykov and Davies are both no longer with the organization, but were both pretty good picks as well, as they were both flipped as parts of packages for NHLers — though one of those trades was a dud (Michael Grabner) and the other certainly has not gone as hoped so far (PK Subban). Neither will be a top-pair stud, but both look to have decent chances at being regular NHLers, which is very good for where they were selected.
Notable Misses: Here’s the flip side of the upside-down draft. The Devils top two selections both look like fringe NHLers (if that) at this point. Michael McLeod went backwards in productivity in Binghamton this past season and has now had two unsuccessful visits to the NHL (still goalless in 33 games). He may be headed toward the full-on bust category if he can’t get his game turned around soon. The clock is ticking on Nathan Bastian as well, though he had a much more convincing cup of coffee in the NHL in 2018-19 and out-produced his fellow Mississauga alum this year, particularly as a goal-scorer, in Binghamton. There may be an NHL life for Bastian as a 4th-line banger who can score some goals, but that’s probably it.
Verdict: While a nebulous front office situation in 2015 means the fanbase continues to bicker over which former Devils GM gets blame for Zacha and credit for Blackwood from that draft, Paul Castron was helpfully not anywhere in the picture until after that point, giving us a clean starting point for his tenure at the 2016 draft.
There are a couple ways to look at this draft but, overall, I think you have to call it a pretty decent one for Castron and Co. McLeod looks like a miss right now, but he at least doesn’t have the murderer’s row of elite NHL talent that got drafted behind him like Zacha did in 2015. The selection of Jesper Bratt in the 6th is a dynamite one, as he is the 8th-leading NHL scorer of his class despite being selected 162nd. Joey Anderson’s development has been uneven, but he appeared to be rounding into something resembling NHL form in 2019-20, giving the Devils another possible success story here. All told, from a scouting perspective, there’s still a chance that, by my count, as many as seven players from this draft could end up having more than a cup of coffee in the NHL (Bratt, Anderson, McLeod, Bastian, Rykov, Davies, and maybe Maltsev). The ceiling on the top two is definitely a disappointment, but overall the scouting job seems solid.
Number of Picks: 11
- 1st overall (R1) — Nico Hischier
- 36th overall (R2) — Jesper Boqvist
- 63rd overall (R3) — Fabian Zetterlund
- 81st overall (R3) — Reilly Walsh
- 98th overall (R4) — Nikita Popugaev
- 129th overall (R5) — Gilles Senn
- 143rd overall (R5) — Marian Studenic
- 160th overall (R6) — Aarne Talvitie
- 191st overall (R7) — Jocktan Chainey
- 205th overall (R7) — Yegor Zaitsev
- 214th overall (R7) — Matthew Hellickson
Notable Hits: As far as sure things from this draft at this point, it’s Nico and that’s it, but there are definitely others with a chance to have some impact. Reilly Walsh has developed well at Harvard and could be a good piece for the Devils if he doesn’t bolt in free agency next summer. Talvite also appeared to be on track to make an impact as a late-rounder, but a catastrophic knee injury at 2018-19 World Juniors followed by a step back this season have his future a little more up in the air now. Boqvist was expected to be a contributor coming out of last preseason but had a very disappointing rookie campaign, with four goals and a confounding zero assists in 35 games. Still, it’s clear some good picks were made here.
Notable Misses: Boqvist looked like a near-lock to have substantial NHL impact coming into this season, but a pretty disastrous first season in North America now has some doubt swirling for the second-rounder. Popugaev was thought of as a potential steal at the time but has largely been a dud. Chainey was just a seventh rounder, but he did end up unsigned by the team.
Verdict: As we get closer to current day, it’ll be tougher to make a concrete assessment of the job Castron did in terms of results. Eleven picks means the scouting department had a lot of chances at this draft, but I think they generally made solid selections here. Early returns show that Nico over Nolan was a wise choice and there is definitely a solid amount of talent from this draft. With Boqvist now a bit more of a question mark after a bad opening season and with a player like Talvitie partially derailed by injury, the final results of this draft are much more up in the air. There could still be a few NHLers here but it’s hard to say how much of an impact anyone outside of Hischier will have. And while Castron gets credit for seemingly picking right at first overall, it’s also not the biggest accomplishment for a scouting staff to get a good player with the first pick. Another decent draft but far from a home run at this point.
Number of Picks: 6
- 17th overall (R1) — Ty Smith
- 110th overall (R4) — Xavier Bernard
- 136th overall (R5) — Akira Schmid
- 141st overall (R5) — Yegor Sharangovich
- 172nd overall (R6) — Mitchell Hoelscher
- 203rd overall (R7) — Eetu Pakkila
Notable Hits: I don’t know that anyone qualifies as a hit yet from this draft (no one has played an NHL game after all), but Ty Smith does look to be on track to be a solid NHLer at some point, now with back-to-back WHL defenseman of the year awards (plus a CHL defenseman of the year award in 2018-19) in his pocket after somewhat surprisingly landing back in junior last fall. Akira Schmid had an adventurous route to the USHL in 2018-19 but had a great season once he got there. An injury-marred 2019-20 has slowed down his development a lot, though. Other than that, there isn’t too much else right now.
Notable Misses: Xavier Bernard and Mitchell Hoelscher both went unsigned by the Devils this June, meaning that two of the six selections from this draft are already out of the organization. Hoelscher might have been a little bit of a surprise on that front, as he did have a bit of a breakout season in his second post-draft year, but his ceiling was likely a depth player anyway.
Verdict: Castron had a lot less to work with in this draft than the previous two with the Devils moving some of their picks in the summer before and at the deadline, so it’s hard to ding him from potentially not getting too much out of it. Eetu Pakkilla may have a longshot chance at becoming something as does Schmid if he can re-find his form, but Smith is pretty much the guy here (not unexpected since he was the only selection in the top 100). Again, it’s tough to evaluate drafts the closer you get to present day, but I’d call this one “okay” for the scouting staff.
Number of Picks: 11
- 1st overall (R1) — Jack Hughes
- 61st overall (R2) — Nikita Okhotyuk
- 70th overall (R3) — Daniil Misyul
- 80th overall (R3) — Graeme Clarke
- 82nd overall (R3) — Michael Vukojevic
- 96th overall (R4) — Tyce Thompson
- 118th overall (R4) — Case McCarthy
- 127th overall (R5) — Cole Brady
- 129th overall (R5) — Arseni Gritsyuk
- 158th overall (R6) — Patrick Moynihan
- 189th overall (R7) — Nikola Pasic
Notable Hits: We’re only a year removed from this draft so calling anyone a hit or a miss is tough to do at this point, but we can still make some assessments. Hughes is the big prize here, and despite a disappointing rookie season, he’s still likely to be a very good NHLer. He ended up being the only pick in the top 50 after the Subban trade, but the Devils had a boatload of picks from the end of round two onward. Some look like inspired selections, with Tyce Thompson having a major breakout season at Providence in the NCAA, Arseni Gritsyuk looking strong in Russia, and Nikola Pasic having a great season as a 19-year old in the Allsvenskan (second-tier pro in Sweden).
Notable Misses: As with hits, it’s tough to really call anyone a miss just yet. The four defensemen they selected in rounds two through four (Okhoytuk, Misyul, Vukojevic, and McCarthy) put up predictably paltry scoring numbers, but they also clearly weren’t drafted to contribute much on offense at the next level.
Verdict: There was a notable shift in strategy for the Devils that saw them grab a number of grittier defenseman types in rounds two, three, and four. They bet big on needing more hard-to-play-againstitude, which, sure, but the modern NHL has moved away from big hitting and pure stay-at-home defending toward needing more ability to quickly and efficiently move the puck. The Devils, to their credit, generally took guys who were still at least described as good skaters with strong mobility, but the change in approach was notable and was met with some raised eyebrows.
This is a difficult draft to fully assess at this point overall, as Hughes disappointed but was also superior to his top-two counterpart Kaapo Kakko, who rated out as perhaps the worst 5v5 forward in the league by some metrics. The strategy shift in the mid-rounds to stay-at-home defenseman types is not one I’m much of a fan of, but we’ll see how it goes over the next few years. It’s also not out of the realm of possibility that Castron was given a directive to focus on a certain type of player, but that’s pure speculation at this point. Plus, some of the later round selections could end up being gems based on early returns. Tyce Thompson finished third in the NCAA in scoring this year and Pasic led in U20 scoring in Allsvenskan. Overall, it ends up a mixed bag at this point, though we’ll see how it shakes out in a few years.
The Overall Verdict
I think to this point, Paul Castron has done a mostly decent job as director of scouting. He’s been the beneficiary of a lot more draft capital the than his predecessor but he’s also made a lot of solid picks and mostly avoided the no-chancers that often dotted the Devils’ pre-2015 drafts. If I were making the decisions at this point, I think I would be inclined to keep him around, at least for the time being. He has avoided a full-on catastrophe in any draft akin to 2014 or 2006, and has a few that could still turn out multiple legitimate NHLers.
The thing about assessing Castron’s time, though is that he has only had several years here, which can make assessing the job done a little bit more difficult. It’s a copout to say you can’t assess the job at all, though, and I think more often than not, the selections have been solid. It remains to be seen how many of them fully pan out in the pros, but I think most of the picks are defensible. This isn’t to say I think Castron has done such an amazing job that he should be untouchable, but I think he’s done well enough in the job at this point that, again, if I were the one making the decisions, I would keep him around. Your mileage (and the mileage of whoever ends up the next permanent GM) may vary.