Heading into the 2020-21 season, the New Jersey Devils have a trio of European based prospects attempting to prove themselves so they can earn an Entry-Level Contract (ELC) with the team. These players are currently unsigned by the organization and will need to sign by June 1, 2022 to remain with the Devils. This post will take a look at where Eetu Pakkila, Jaromir Pytlik, and Benjamin Baumgartner are at in their development, what the 2021-22 season could hold for them, and what their chances of earning a contract are.
We’ll start off with the player that has been affiliated with the Devils for the longest time out of these three. That player is Eetu Pakkila who was drafted in the 7th round of the 2018 Draft by the Devils. The left wing currently is listed at 6’0”, 172 lbs. and is a product of the Karpat system in Finland. He was known in his draft year for his skating, work ethic, and good hands. Those traits allowed him to be one of the better goal scorers at the junior level in Finland.
In his draft season of 2017-18, he finished 8th in goals in the league, trailing top scorer and fellow Devils prospect Aarne Talvitie who had 34 goals. In Pakkila’s draft+1 season of 2018-19, he led the league with 38 goals, 10 more than the 2nd place finisher, though in 7 more games. Lighting up the U20 SM-liiga is notable but for a prospect with NHL aspirations, it’s something they need to be doing to stay on the radar. It’s worth noting that he didn’t play in any major tournaments for Finland’s U20 team over those two seasons, getting into 15 games and posting just 2 goals and 3 assists over those games.
The 2019-20 season was a chance for Pakkila to really showcase where he was at in his development as he moved to Ilves to play in Liiga against men. He finished an up and down season with 6 goals and 5 assists for 11 points in 39 games. Among the 59 U21 players in Liiga that season that played in 15 or more games, Pakkila’s 0.28 points per game rate ranked 23rd. Ilves was a good team, finishing in 4th place when the league shutdown, so Pakkila had to fight hard for ice time. He did have more success that season on loan with KOOVEE in Mestis, the 2nd division of Finnish hockey. In 18 games he was productive with 5 goals and 9 assists for 14 points. Among the 41 U21 players in Mestis that season that played in 15 or more games, his 0.78 points per game rate ranked 4th.
Marco Bombino of Finnish Junior Hockey had this to say in November of 2019 about Pakkila’s play in Mestis:
Offense has really started to come along which has boosted his confidence. Skating stands out, he’s already one of the fastest players on the team. His defensive game has gotten steadily better, he reads the game and the effort is consistent as he does not quit on plays. His recent play suggests that he may well be on the cusp of a call-up to the Liiga. Because of his skating, hockey sense and puck skills, all of which are above average, I think Päkkilä could eventually develop into a reliable, multifaceted middle-six NHL winger.
By the end of the 2019-20 season, it was apparent that Pakkila was a step between Liiga and Mestis at this point in his career.
This past season saw Pakkila show a bit more improvement from a production standpoint. He remained on the roster the entire season, putting up 5 goals and 12 assists for 17 points in 49 games. While his goals per game rate decreased slightly by 0.05, his assists per game rate went up by 0.11 as well as his points per game rate by 0.07. Of the 103 U22 players to play in 15 or more games in Liiga last season, Pakkila’s 0.35 points per game rate ranked 26th. If there was one big positive, albeit in a small sample, it was his production in the playoffs. On an 8th seeded Ilves team, Pakkila had 2 goals and 2 assists for 4 points in 5 playoff games. He finished tied-5th in scoring among U22 players in the playoffs and his 0.80 points per game rate led the way.
Overall, Pakkila has shown enough that he can be a player at the top level in Finland. He is a solid producer compared to his peer group but not a top player among them. That doesn’t necessarily bode well for his NHL prospects. As we can see from Hockey Prospecting, Pakkila hasn’t improved his stock since his draft year:
Now, that’s not to say that we should completely right off Pakkila. It was always going to be a battle for a 7th rounder to make it and he still has a chance. The 2021-22 season will be critical for him. He’ll need to show that he is improving and deserves a contract in what is a crowded group of young forwards vying for roster spots, whether in New Jersey’s bottom 6 or in the AHL with Utica. The best way for Pakkila to do this is by earning a top 6 role with Ilves in the coming Liiga season.
According to Elite Prospects, Ilves has 18 forwards in contention for roster spots. Last season the team had 14 forwards that played in at least 20 games. Of those 14 forwards, the only players that appear to be returning, with team scoring rank in (), are: C/LW Eemeli Suomi (1), C/LW Panu Mieho (7), LW Miro Nalli (9), RW Joona Ikonen (10), F Antti Saarela (12), and C Joni Ikonen (14). Pakkila was 8th last year on the team in scoring for comparison. That right there shows that there will be top 6 spots opening up as the team isn’t returning there 2nd through 6th scorers from last season.
Of the new additions, Pakkila will receive competition from fellow wingers, Joonas Oden and Albin Grewe. This doesn’t take into account some of the centers or right wing players they signed. Oden, 21, is a right handed shot that is listed as capable on either wing. He had 6 goals and 13 assists for 19 points in 45 games with KooKoo in Liiga last season. Grewe, 20, is a left handed shot that is also listed as capable on either wing. The Detroit Red Wings prospect had 3 goals and 3 assists for 6 points in 39 games with Djurgardens in the Swedish Hockey League last season. He also had 2 assists in 11 American Hockey League games with Grand Rapids. The bottom line is it will be on Pakkila to showcase that his skating, hands, defense, and shot are NHL quality and deserve a contract. The Devils prospect system has improved both in quality and depth over recent seasons so Pakkila really needs to make sure he stands out with a strong season in Liiga. He is signed with Ilves through the 2023-24 season so he does have that to fall back on should he not join the Devils organization. Of the three prospects in this post, I think he will have the hardest time earning an ELC but that’s more a reflection of what I expect out of Pytlik and Baumgartner, than a criticism of Pakkila’s game.
Next we move on to Jaromir Pytlik who was selected by the Devils in the 4th round of the 2020 Draft. The right handed shooting center is listed at 6’3”, 201 lbs. Pytlik is from the Czech Republic where he came up through the youth, junior, and professional ranks before joining the Sault Ste. Marie Greyounds in the Ontario Hockey League during his pre-draft season of 2018-19.
Pytlik impressed scouts in Brock Otten’s midseason poll over at OHL Prospects in his draft year of 2019-20 for his “fantastic release” and his “ability to take over a shift with his strength on the puck.” He also earned praise as “a very intelligent player and “his attention to detail on defence is as important to him as offence.”
The Elite Prospects report on him gave off a great review of his game:
Pytlik is the quintessential all-around player. Particular amongst his notable attributes are skating, puck control, and finishing. He can break away in an offensive area and create a lot of scoring opportunities. Overall, he has excellent hockey sense. As a result of his speed and strong physical skill, he can make some tough one-on-one moves and often out-muscle defenders.
Pytlik proved at the OHL level he could play either center or wing and be an effective penalty killer. That season he was very effective from a production standpoint for the Greyhounds with 22 goals and 28 assists for 50 points in 56 games to finish 5th on the team in scoring. He even represented the Czech Republic at the World Junior Championship that year with an assist in 5 games.
Last season was a tough one for Pytlik due to OHL not getting started and injury. He managed to play in 4 games for 2nd division Czech club HC Stadion Litomerice in preparation for the WJC. At the WJC he had an assist in the opening game for the Czech Republic before going down with an injury and missing the rest of the tournament. If you factor in pre-tournament games, including his appearance in the WJC, Pytlik had 3 goals and 6 assists for 9 points in 5 games for the Czech U20 team. When he was on the ice, he was productive but it was hard to get a read on any progress Pytlik made in his draft+1 year.
Hockey Prospecting seemed to like Pytlik in his draft year though (ignore the draft+1 comparables). As you can see from the image below, they gave him a 15% Star Probability and 48% NHLer Probability. His comparables feature a handful of NHL players too. Not bad for a two-way forward picked in the middle of the draft.
Pytlik will turn 20 in late September and is set to play for KalPa in Liiga next season. This will be a great test to see where he’s at in his development by playing in a top European league. KalPa finished 5th last season so he’s joining a solid team.
According to Elite Prospects, they have 17 forwards vying for roster spots. KalPa used 18 forwards last season but will be returning without their top 3 scorers from last season. The team did bring in 4 other forwards besides Pytlik, a mix of veterans like C Jaakko Rissanen, LW Tuomas, Kiiskinen, and C Matti Jarvinen along with fellow youngster RW Kasper Simontaival, a prospect of the Los Angeles Kings. It appears that Pytlik will have a chance to compete for a bottom 6 role in his rookie season. His versatility to play center or wing should help him carve out a spot. I really like his chances of putting together a solid season and earning a contract with the Devils. Regardless, Pytlik is signed with KalPa through the 2022-23 season so he did do well to provide himself with a fallback option.
Finally, we move on to Benjamin Baumgartner who was drafted by the Devils in the 6th round of the 2020 Draft. The left handed shooting center from Austria is listed at 5’9”, 165 lbs. and has been playing professional in the Switzerland top flight league, the National League since the 2018-19 season. The small forward flew under the radar in his draft year of 2017-18 as a point per game player in the Swiss U20 league for HC Davos.
In his draft+1 season of 2018-19, he started to get more on the radar of NHL scouts. He put up 26 points in 23 games for HC Davos U20 in junior play. He also made his professional debut for HC Davos in the NL with a goal and 3 assists for 4 points in 20 games. He went on loan to HCB Ticino Rockets of the 2nd tier Swiss League where he had a goal and 2 assists for 3 points in 8 games. He was solid in the relegation playoff for HC Davos that year with 5 goals and 3 assists for 8 points in 11 games. On top of this he made his debut for Austria’s senior national team at the World Championships.
The 2019-20 season would prove to be his breakout season. He had 7 goals and 20 assists for 27 points in 37 games for HC Davos. This led all U20 players in the league by a wide margin, as the 2nd place scorer had 16 less points despite playing in 6 more games. Baumgartner also continued to excel for Austria in 2nd tier competitions, posting 5 goals and 6 assists for 11 points in 5 games of the U20 WJC Division 1A competition as they took home Gold and won promotion. Scouts took notice too as Elite Prospects had this to say about Baumgartner:
There’s a lot of offensive skill packed into Baumgartner’s meager frame. He’s consistently displayed a high level of skill at every turn. He’s a competent handler on both forehand & backhand. The combination of a dexterous set of hands, technically sound passing, and high-end vision make Baumgartner a threat whenever he’s on the puck.
Also, here’s what Scouching had to say about Baumgartner, who he ranked 71st, prior to the 2020 Draft last October:
I just really like Benjamin Baumgartner. He’s so much fun with his agility, offensive positioning, and aggression with the puck. He played in the NLA, and was one of the best generators of high danger shot attempts in all my tracking this year.
The Devils clearly liked what they saw from Baumgartner and decided to take a chance on him in the late rounds despite him being a draft+2 player. The Hockey Prospecting model liked Baumgartner a lot too as you can see from the image below:
Wouldn’t it be nice if he became a player like his 2nd closest comparable? Regardless, despite a down year in 2020-21, Baumgartner has a chance of becoming a NHL player. Going back to his most recent season, it’s no secret Baumgartner struggled and eventually found himself on the 4th line, even barely playing some nights. His goals per game rate went down slightly by 0.02, but his assists per game rate was down by 0.18, and his points per game rate was down by 0.02. As you can see above, it did hinder his probabilities of becoming a NHL player in the model. Still, it’s important to remember that the pandemic interrupted the Swiss season numerous times. Perhaps that could explain his lack of progress.
Seeking a new contract and environment, Baumgartner has made the move to Lausanne HC of the NL for the upcoming season. He signed a deal that takes him through the 2024-25 season so he is set in a good spot no matter what happens with him and the Devils. Baumgartner turned 21 years old in April so now is really the time for him to show if he is on course to become a NHL player. According to Elite Prospects, Lausanne has 12 forwards on the roster at the moment. Only 2 of their top 6 scorers remain from last year so there should be plenty of chances for him to earn top 6 minutes. The team only brought in 3 other forwards besides Baumgartner including C Jason Fuchs, LW Fabio Arnold who is up from the 2nd division, and AHL/KHL vet C Phil Varone. I think Baumgartner has what it takes to put together a good season and earn that contract from the Devils. I think he’s in a good situation at his new club where he is facing just enough competition for minutes but should be able to earn a top 6 role on his own due to his two-way skills.
How do you view Pakkila, Pytlik, and Baumgartner as prospects? Do you expect any of these players to make an impact in New Jersey in the future? What do you expect from them in the 2020-21 season? Which of these prospects do you expect to earn an Entry-Level Contract? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!