Throughout the last two weeks, here at All About the Jersey we have discussed different players and their chances of making the 2020-21 lineup at any point during the season. Some have had really good chances, some have only had outside shots. Today, we are going to be looking at someone who, on the surface, might seem to fall into the latter category. However, given the shallow depth on the blue line for the New Jersey Devils, you never know for sure, so let’s dive into Nikita Okhotyuk.
Okhotyuk Up Until This Point
Nikita was originally drafted only a year ago by the Devils, #61 overall in the second round. The 6’1, 194lb Russian defender has been playing in the OHL for the past three seasons after coming over from Russia, where he had played half a season in the MHL. For the Ottawa 67s, he has starred as a defensive defenseman, not known for lighting up the lamp. However, he has produced a steady stream of points for them, producing 19 points in 39 games last season after being drafted, which marked a definitive improvement over the 17 points in 56 games he had during his draft year. The majority of those points are assists, with him having scored only 5 goals across the past two seasons combined. However, he did have 96 shots on goal this season, good for 3rd place among all Ottawa defensemen.
Given that Nikita is still only 19, he could still return to the OHL for another season, or he could also get some AHL time, although I think the former is probably more likely. Ottawa was a stacked team last season, with a 50-11 record before play shut down, and the likes of Marco Rossi and Jack Quinn producing massive points. Going back there would be good for his development, and it would also give him a chance to see how successful, winning hockey is played.
However, we are also here to discuss the potential of him making the NHL roster, so it is good to note that even if he does play some or even most of the season in the OHL, that does not preclude him from coming up to Newark. It would just require the Devils to eat a year of his ELC if he plays enough with the big club (which is very, very unlikely). The biggest probable detriment to his call up would be his age and position. Defensemen traditionally take longer to develop than forwards, and not being a lottery pick, and being only 19, he most likely needs more time to develop. Perhaps years still. However, there are other factors which do give him a chance to see an NHL game or two this year, which I will discuss below.
Who Will Challenge for a Spot Alongside Okhotyuk
As I mentioned above, the Devils blue line at this point in time is not exactly deep. At this point, on the Devils website, here are the following defenders listed on the roster: Will Butcher, Connor Carrick, Fredrik Claesson, Dakota Mermis, Mirco Mueller, Damon Severson, and P.K. Subban. As we know, throughout any given season, more than 7 defenders will see playing time thanks to injuries or quality of play, or both. That gives Okhotyuk a shot at getting playing time at some point in the season just due to sheer depth. And one of those players, Claesson, is a UFA and there is a decently good chance he is not brought back. You remove him, and the only left defenseman that is signed heading into next year is Butcher, as Mueller is a RFA currently. I think there is a good chance Mirco is brought back, but even still, there is already an opening.
Beyond Nikita, at this site we have also discussed Ty Smith and fellow Ottawa 67 player Kevin Bahl potentially making the roster at some point. Now, given his excellent growth and regular rating as the top prospect on the team, you have to think that it is time that Ty Smith gets a regular spot in the lineup. Brian predicts that Smith begins the year in New Jersey and not Binghamton, and I agree. Beyond him, however, Okhotyuk is in a similar boat with anyone else looking to make an impact on the New Jersey roster, although I personally would give Bahl a better chance as of today. Other potential d-men he could be fighting against would be: Colton White or Reilly Walsh, another d-man discussed on this site earlier in the week. There are other names in the system, but in terms of players who have a shot at making the NHL roster at some point, for one reason or another, these guys could be the entire list.
However, I think in reality Okhotyuk’s biggest competition to crack the roster, apart from those already listed on the roster, would be Smith and Bahl. But again, given that there are only 7 d-men listed on the roster currently, and only four of those are signed and one probably isn’t coming back, and injuries always necessitate call-ups at one point or another, the odds of him seeing an NHL game this year, just based on the number of available bodies, are definitely not zero.
Now, the game changer for him would be a free agent signing or a trade to bring in a defender, and specifically a left defenseman. That would change the numbers game, and would make it more difficult for him to crack the lineup at some point. If Fitzgerald signs Mueller and, say, a top 4 LHD gets signed or traded for, that could bury Okhotyuk. At that point, Smith takes the next available call-up spot, or plays immediately and Mueller acts as a 7th D-man. In that scenario, the odds that he gets called up is less, although still possible given any potential injuries. He would probably be the second LHD call up after Bahl, and there is definitely a shot NJ needs him as a body for a game or two with potential injuries. But in reality, the odds are not nearly as good as they would be currently without any signings or trades.
Contract & Waiver Status
Nikita signed his ELC last offseason, but given that he spent the entire season in the OHL, his ELC contract slid a year, and so if he were to play at least 10 NHL games this season, his ELC would begin this season, and one year would be burned. Otherwise, if he does not get called up, I believe his contract can slide again. Assuming I am right about this (I obviously think I am), it provides some incentive for the organization to keep him from playing at least 10 NHL games. If the Devils are not going to be competitive this year, there is little reason to burn an ELC year of someone you hope will improve and crack the lineup on a consistent basis a little bit in the future when the team is better. His situation isn’t like Smith’s, where jumping to the NHL this year could provide him with valuable experience he would not otherwise gain. Smith is better and more developed than Okhotyuk, and therefore the thought is that he would benefit from NHL experience more than the Russian. Smith gaining NHL experience now will help the team get out of its rebuild mode as he improves and adapts to the NHL game. This is less likely to be the case for Okhotyuk, who just needs any playing time to develop, and more likely with players more akin to his ability level, either in the OHL or AHL.
The good news is that Okhotyuk will be waivers-exempt this season, and most likely for the next three years. It takes four years of being signed, or 160 NHL games, to gain waiver eligibility. Nikita still has 3 years or 160 games to go, so no worries there for this season.
All-in-all, the contract situation here does not help or hinder Okhotyuk’s chances of playing in the NHL this season. However, it does most likely prevent him from playing in the NHL for a longer stretch, as there is little reason for him to play more than 9 NHL games this year.
In the end, I think there is an ok chance, if not a great one, of Nikita Okhotyuk playing in the NHL this season. I am defining that as simply playing at least one NHL game, at any point. The reason for this is less because of his ability or play on the ice, but more because of the numbers game that currently exists on NJ’s roster. With only 4 signed defenders for next year currently on the roster, and the unlikely odds that all 3 of the others (Claesson, Mueller, Mermis) get re-signed, there will just be so many opportunities for him to get a chance. Injuries will happen, and spots will open for games here or there, and there is almost no reason not to give Okhotyuk a few games to see what he is capable of. Even if you add Smith to the list of those who are on the NHL roster, and you consider Bahl to have a better chance, and you definitely see Mueller being brought back, that still gives him a chance when injuries or poor play dictate changes to the lineup. Again, it definitely won’t be for a long stretch, and I see zero chance for him to get 10 or more games, but in an 82 game season, there are just so many possibilities for him to be called up for a game or a few games thanks to injuries or what have you.
Now, the big thing to change that would be a trade or a big free agent signing. If Mueller does come back, and Fitzgerald makes a big move to get a LHD, now you’re talking about a much more crowded field in front of him. Butcher, Smith, Mueller, and then that big name signing would all be clogging the spots in front of him. Then, if you have Bahl in front of him too (which I think is likely at this point in time), that’s someone else. At that point, the odds become much less likely, unless the Devils blue line just gets ravaged with injuries this year (still a possibility of course).
Therefore, I have to put Okhotyuk’s odds of seeing NHL ice this season, at any point, as possible, but not amazing. Perhaps +150 in the sportsbook? His play on the ice will dictate some of that of course, and any signings would change that, but for now, given the shallow depth of the current roster, I feel that is appropriate, maybe even a tad generous. Should the team bring in a free agent LHD or trade for one before the season starts, those odds drop to at least +400, maybe worse.