Every season there are always various storylines to follow when it comes to following the prospects. In today’s post, I want to put forward five things that I am looking forward to following in the upcoming 2021-22 season. Of course, there are more than just the five storylines that I write about below. I have already wrote about what the 2021-22 season could mean for Eetu Pakkila, Jaromir Pytlik, and Benjamin Baumgartner as they try to earn entry-level contracts with the New Jersey Devils. I also wrote about the development of Nikola Pasic and Alexander Holtz and what the upcoming season could mean for them. Gerard also had this post about which prospects we should hope dominate in Utica (AHL) in 2021-22. Here are five storylines that I’m ready to follow and I’d love to hear what other ones you would add in the comments below.
1. LD Luke Hughes and LD Ethan Edwards at Michigan
I am excited to follow the Michigan Wolverines team this season. Not only do they figure to be title contenders but they also will have two Devils prospects on the blue line. By now we are all familiar with the high end talent of Luke Hughes, who the Devils selected 4th overall in the 2021 Draft. The mobile defender who excels in the transition game will make for some entertaining viewing. It will also be intriguing to see how he adjusts to playing against older and stronger players in college. Tracking his development should be interesting, even if he does hit a few bumps in the road, as I think he has what it takes to overcome any challenges quicker than most prospects. Michigan appears to have 5 regular defenseman and 3 depth defenseman returning to their roster from last season. Of course the make up of that group could change if Owen Power turns pro, though I think it’s most likely he’s back for another season of college hockey. Hughes, with his talent, will probably slot in on the 2nd pair. His ability to play on either the left side or right side certainly will help him get plenty of playing time.
I’m also looking forward to getting a better look at where Ethan Edwards is in his development. The Devils drafted the two-way defenseman in the 4th round of the 2020 Draft. He spent last season in the USHL with Sioux City where he finished in the top 10 in scoring among defensemen with 27 points in 51 games. Getting a chance to compete for playing time, likely on the 3rd pair, and then to play against a higher level of competition will give us a better idea of where he stands in his development. I think he’s a real wildcard to surprise a few people and go on to have a successful pro career so I’m looking forward to catching some of his games on the Big 10 network this season.
2. The Return of the OHL for RW Chase Stillman
The Ontario Hockey League makes it’s long awaited return on October 7 with a trio of games. It feels great to have the OHL back as it is such an entertaining and important league in the world of hockey. The return of the league means that Chase Stillman gets to return to the Sudbury Wolves after a season away that saw him dominate the Danish U20 league in an 8 game sample that included 9 goals and 7 assists and excel for Canada at the U18 WJC as they won Gold with 2 goals and 2 assists in 7 games. Sudbury is scheduled to open their season on October 8 against Peterborough.
Stillman wasn’t a popular pick with the 29th overall selection in the 2021 Draft but the Devils certainly liked the combination of skill and grit they saw to take him at that spot. Much will probably be made going forward about whether or not it was a good decision to draft him at that slot but I’m looking forward to seeing what Stillman does from this point forward. Last year made it really hard to get a good grasp on how the Ontario based prospects should be ranked. Stillman could put together an impressive season, show that he has made tangible improvements in his game, and make everyone feel better about him being selected where he was. I’m looking forward to seeing if he can produce consistently, showcase that his offensive skills are translatable to the next level, and continue to show that he will outwork everyone else on the ice every shift. In his pre-draft season in 2019-20, Stillman had 34 points in 58 games so I want him to be close to a point per game player or better this season.
3. Expectations for RD Reilly Walsh’s 2nd Pro Season
Reilly Walsh is the Devils top right handed defenseman prospect. Walsh starred at Harvard for 3 seasons before going pro last year with Binghamton. Known for his offensive game, Walsh appeared in the most games of any Binghamton defensemen (33), had the most goals (5), was tied for most assists (10), had the most points (15), and led in points per game (0.45). To see how he compared against his peers we can use the data from Pick 224. Among the 28 defensemen in the North Division that played in at least 20 games last season, Walsh ranked 17th in EV primary points per game (0.12), 3rd in PP primary points per game (0.15), 9th in primary points per game (0.27), 2nd in PP shots (17), 11th in points per game (0.45), 16th in EV Goals For% (48.08), 4th in Relative EV Goals For% (9.70), 9th in estimated TOI per game (20.67), and 9th in primary points per estimated 60 minutes (0.79).
Essentially, the offensively minded defenseman produced well on the power play but could stand to do a bit more at even strength. That’s not too surprising for a rookie in the AHL. I want to see him continue to play a big role, this year for Utica in the AHL, and take another step offensively at even strength. At the same time, it’s important that he continues to round out his defensive game so he can make that jump to the NHL. He has the chance to really be a top pairing guy for Utica for the bulk of this season. Though with the Devils depth chart, Walsh is just one or two moves way from being called upon should injuries or trades happen. I think he’ll spend most of the season with Utica but get a few games in for New Jersey here and there. I expect him to challenge for a full time roster spot with New Jersey after this season if all goes to plan.
4. Playing Time for G Akira Schmid and G Nico Daws in the AHL and/or ECHL
Another storyline around Utica that will be important to follow is how the goaltending situation shakes out. Nico Daws and Akira Schmid are set to make their AHL debuts this upcoming season but it’s an open competition for playing time. The Devils signed Scott Wedgewood to be the 3rd goalie on the organizational depth chart so he will serve as the first call-up to New Jersey should Mackenzie Blackwood or Jonathan Bernier go down. Wedgewood will also provide the AHL team with a veteran presence in goal as well as a mentor for the Devils goaltending prospects. This means that it’s likely that either Schmid or Daws will partner with Wedgewood in Utica with the other going out to Adirondack in the ECHL.
Akira Schmid is a 6’5”, 205 lbs. goaltender from Switzerland that the Devils selected in the 5th round of the 2018 Draft. The 21 year old is coming off of three seasons in the USHL where he was the top goaltender by SV% in 2018-19 (.926) and in 2020-21 (.921). His 2019-20 season was completely derailed by a hip injury that eventually required surgery. When healthy he showcased himself as well at that level, leading the league in Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) in 2018-19 (31.48) and in 2020-21 (35.81). He’s clearly proven that he’s above junior hockey so it will be interesting to see how he adapts to the pro level. Hopefully he proves that he can get the job done at the next level and that he’s a real NHL prospect.
Competing with Schmid is Nico Daws. A 6’4”, 203 lbs. goaltender from Canada that is a dual citizen of Canada and Germany. The Devils drafted Daws in his draft+1 year in the 3rd round of the 2020 Draft. At the time he was coming off of a breakout season for Guelph in the OHL with a .924 SV% and 44.02 GSAA. Last season, with the OHL not playing, he took advantage of his German citizenship to play in the DEL. This provided him with a good taste of what pro hockey looks like. In 10 games he had a .898 SV% and -2.52 GSAA. While not strong numbers, they were 2nd best among the four U21 goaltenders that played at least 10 games last season. I feel given his OHL experience, the 20 year old has a slight edge over Schmid heading into camp. We’ll have to wait and see what happens but hopefully both goaltenders get enough time wherever it is to keep developing. Whoever ends up in the ECHL is likely to partner with Mareks Mitens, a 23 year old Latvian on an AHL contract that had a solid NCAA career with Lake Superior State from 2017-21.
5. LD Shakir Mukhamadullin and C/RW Zakhar Bardakov in Final Year of KHL Contracts
One thing that caught my attention when looking over the Devils prospect pool and their contract status with their respective clubs is that Shakir Mukhamadullin and Zakhar Baradkov are both in the finaly years of the KHL contracts. Now, I imagine both teams would like to keep these players past the 2021-22 season but this does give these prospects some room to negotiate should they want to make the jump to North America after this season.
Shakir Mukhamadullin is a raw, toolsy defender with a lanky frame at 6’2”, 170 lbs. that he’s still growing into. The 19 year old had a productive season with 3 goals and 7 assists in 39 games last season for Salavat Yulaev Ufa. While most of those points came early on in the season where he had more ice time, he was still the most productive U20 defender in the league from an offensive standpoint. His offensive skills, especially his one-timer, could make him a threat at even strength and on the power play in his career. He still really needs to iron out his defensive game though as he’s prone to mental lapses and bad reads too often. Still, the Devils liked his potential enough to take him with the 20th overall selection in the 2020 Draft. I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to sign him after this season so they can take a more hands on approach to his development.
Zakhar Baradkov was selected by the Devils in his draft+2 year when they took him in the 7th round of the 2021 Draft. Bardakov is known for his high intensity and compete level, so much so that scouts rave about this being a standout feature among all players in the draft. The 20 year old is 6’2”, 198 lbs. and shoots left handed. He’s coming off of a breakout season with 8 goals and 3 assists in 44 games for Vityaz Podolsk in the KHL. He was a role player for Russia at the recent U20 WJC due to his compete level. Bardakov was traded to SKA St. Petersburg and figures to play a 4th line role for the team this season. I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the reason the Devils drafted him was knowing his contract status and that he would only be a season away from coming to North America. It seems possible that they really make an effort to sign him after this season and bring him to Utica. The Devils seem to be targeting players that can provide some grit and physicality to complement the more skilled players in their pool and Bardakov seems to be a player that could make the jump to the NHL quicker than other prospects as a 4th line role player.
Which of these storylines are you most excited to follow this upcoming season? Are there any prospects not mentioned in this post that you think have an interesting story to follow in 2021-22? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!