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The 2021 AATJ Top 25 Devils Under 25: The First 5 Revealed from 25th to 21st

The time has come for us to start revealing which players made the 2021 AATJ Top 25 New Jersey Devils Under 25 list. This post will reveal which players just made the cut for the final five spots in this year’s edition. It features three forwards, a defenseman, and a goaltender.

New York Islanders v New Jersey Devils
Fabian Zetterlund leads this group of five players on the list. The strong winger already has pro experience in the SHL and AHL. He will likely contend for a spot in New Jersey this season.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Yesterday, John revealed the 26 players that missed out on this year’s Top 25 Under 25 ranking. As we have in previous years, we will reveal which players made our Top 25 in sets of 5, beginning with this post on spots #25 to #21. This group includes three forwards, a defenseman, and a goaltender. One of the forwards has already made his New Jersey Devils debut, another has two AHL seasons under his belt, while the other is a recent draft pick from the 2021 class. The defenseman just completed his first AHL season and the goaltender dominated the USHL last season and is looking to play in the AHL this upcoming season. Let’s take a look at who these players are.

#25 - Samu Salminen - C/LW - Age: 18 - 2021-22 Team: Jokerit U20 (U20 SM-sarja) - 2020 Rank: N/A - Elite Prospects Profile

Making his debut in the top 25 is Samu Salminen, a forward from Helsinki, Finland that the Devils selected in the 3rd round of the 2021 Draft. He is one of two players from the Devils 2021 draft class to make the top 25 and unsurprisingly, beat out the Devils second 1st round pick, Chase Stillman, on this year’s list. The 6’3”, 190 lbs. left handed shot is capable of playing either center or left wing. Salminen has been a star player for Jokerit and Finland at the junior level due to his cerebral playmaking and goal scoring ability. With an April 9, 2003 birthday, Salminen will be entering his age 18 season in 2021-22.

As we can see from his Elite Prospects profile, Salminen has been on the radar as a NHL caliber prospect since the 2017-18 season when he played for Jokerit’s U16 team as a 14 year old. Among U15 players in the U16 SM-sarja Q, his 1.47 points per game rate in 15 games ranked 8th. In the U16 SM-sarja, his 0.67 points per game rate in 18 games ranked tied-16th.

The 2018-19 season would see him take a big step forward for the Jokerit U16 team and make his debut for the U18 team. At the U16 level he improved his points per game rate in the U16 SM-Sarja Q to 2.60 in 15 games and in the U16 SM-Sarja to 3.60 in 5 games. In the playoffs he had 7 goals and 8 assists in 7 games as they won a Silver Medal. He was tied for the playoff lead in goals (7) and was tied for 2nd in points (15). Salminen spent most of the regular season with the U18 team and had 18 goals and 18 assists in 33 games showing off his skills to produce both as a goal scorer and playmaker. Among the U16 players in the league, Salminen’s 1.09 points per game rate ranked 3rd. He had an assist in his only playoff appearance as they won the U18 SM-sarja Championship. Salminen also made his debut for Finland’s U16 team where he had 9 goals and 13 assists across 14 games in various competitions.

Salminen would spend his pre-draft season in 2019-20 splitting time between Jokerit’s U18 and U20 team. He dominated at the U18 level with 8 goals and 15 assists in 7 games. At the U20 level, he was productive with 7 goals and 13 assists in 23 games. Among the 16 U17 players to play at least 20 games, his 0.87 points per game rate ranked 2nd in the league. Salminen also continued his national team career, representing Finland at the U17 World Championship where he had 3 goals and 2 assists in 5 games. Across all competitions that year for Finland’s U17 team, he had 5 goals and 3 assists in 12 games.

Salminen’s draft season of 2020-21 would see him suit up for Jokerit U20 once again, but this time as an alternate captain. He improved on his production with 10 goals and 16 assists in 17 games. He led the team in assists (16) and points (26). His 1.53 points per game rate was one of the top rates in the U20 SM-sarja. He captained Finland at the U18 World Junior Championships and produced 7 goals and 2 assists in 7 games.

Salminen’s development already compares well against the Devils recent forward prospects drafted out of Finland’s junior system. According to Hockey Prospecting, Salminen has a 14% Star Probability (0.70 career Pts/GP) and 53% NHLer Probability (200+ games). Aarne Talvitie, drafted in the 6th round of the 2017 Draft, and a fellow Finnish junior to NCAA prospect, had a 5% Star Probability and 21% NHLer Probability in his draft year. The model now gives him a 0% Star Probability and 20% NHLer Probability. Eetu Pakkila, drafted in the 7th round of the 2018 Draft, had a 4% Star Probability and 19% NHLer Probability in his draft year. The model now gives him a 0% Star Probability and 11% NHLer Probability. The Devils have struggled in their history to get much out of Finnish players. Janne Kuokkanen seems like he may be able to break that trend in the present and perhaps Salminen can do it in the future.

Salminen is going to play for Jokerit U20 in the U20 SM-sarja once again in the 2021-22 season. He’s definitely good enough to turn pro but will be staying at the junior level to keep his college eligibility. He’s set to join the University of Denver in 2022-23 and will likely spend 2-3 seasons there before signing with the Devils. They hold his rights until June 1, 2025.

#24 - Akira Schmid - G - Age: 21 - 2021-22 Team: Utica Comets (AHL) - 2020 Rank: 40 - Elite Prospects Profile

Akira Schmid is a big riser as he jumps from 40th on last year’s list to 24th on this year’s list. This is actually a return to the top 25 for Schmid as he finished 25th on the 2019 list. This isn’t too surprising as Schmid dominated the USHL in 2018-19 and in 2020-21. A dip in form, brought on by a hip injury that eventually required surgery, tanked his 2019-20 season. Schmid is a 6’5”, 205 lbs. goaltender from Bern, Switzerland. The Devils selected him in the 5th round of the 2018 Draft. He came up through the SC Langnau system where he played his junior hockey from 2013-18 across the U15, U17, and U20 levels.

His draft season of 2017-18 saw him go 18-9-3 with a 2.60 GAA for Langnau U20 in Switzerland’s top junior league, the Elite Jr. A. Schmid even made his professional debut by playing in a game for SCL Tigers, Langnau’s top team. He continued to represent Switzerland on the international level at the U18, U19, and U20 levels, though his only game action came at the U18 and U19 levels.

Schmid would then make the jump to North America for the 2018-19 season. A disastrous one game stint with the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes would see him scramble for a new team. He impressed in two NAHL games with the Corpus Christi IceRays and earned a promotion to the USHL’s Omaha Lancers. He would star in that league by going 16-14-2-0 with a 2.18 GAA and a league leading .926 SV%. He led all goaltenders in Goals Saved Above Average with a 31.48 total too. Schmid continued to represent Switzerland and managed to play in 3 games for his country at the U20 WJC.

As mentioned above, a hip injury derailed his 2019-20 season. Omaha eventually traded him to the Sioux City Musketeers where he continued to struggle in limited action. However, Schmid would recover from hip surgery and be the USHL Goaltender of the Year in 2020-21. He went 22-13-1-0 with a league leading 2.01 GAA and league leading .921 SV%. He also lead the league in GSAA with a 35.81 mark. Now, you would expect a 20 year old goaltender in the USHL to dominate so some perspective needs to be maintained. Still, it appears that Schmid is finally healthy and back on track. Now that he has signed his entry-level contract, he figures to compete for playing time in the AHL with the Utica Comets but could also see some ECHL time with the Adirondack Thunder next season. It will be interesting to see how he transitions to the professional game in North America.

#23 - Marian Studenic - RW - Age: 22 - 2021-22 Team: Utica Comets (AHL) - 2020 Rank: 22 - Elite Prospects Profile

Dropping one spot from last year is Marian Studenic. The native of Holic, Slovakia is a 6’1”, 181 lbs. right wing that has shown the ability to excel in transition. The Devils selected Studenic in the 5th round of the 2017 Draft after a solid rookie season in North America with the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs. Prior to that he came up through the HK 36 Skalica system, making his professional debut in the 2014-15 season and spending the bulk of his pre-draft season of 2015-16 with the team in the Slovakian league. In that 2015-16 season, he was the Slovakian Rookie of the Year. Also, prior to coming to North America, he represented Slovakia at the U17 and U18 World Championships.

Getting back to his draft season of 2016-17, Studenic impressed with Hamilton with 18 goals and 12 assists in 58 regular season games which put him 9th on the team in scoring. He was productive for them in the playoffs with 2 goals and 2 assist in 7 games for the Bulldogs. Studenic also represented Slovakia at the U20 WJC. He would follow that up in 2017-18 with 20 goals and 28 assists in 62 regular season games to rank tied-4th on the team in scoring. He would help Hamilton capture the OHL Championship with 3 goals and 12 assists in 21 playoff games. He also put up 2 goals in 4 Memorial Cup games. Studenic once again represented his nation at the U20 WJC.

Studenic would sign with the Devils ahead of hte 2018-19 season and has spent the past 3 seasons with the Binghamton Devils. In 2018-19 he had 13 goals and 15 assists in 64 games for Binghamton. He also had a goal and 4 assists in 7 games for Slovakia at the World Championship. In 2019-20 he put up 9 goals and 8 assists in 37 games for Binghamton. This was a slight increase in his goals per game and points per game rates from his first to second AHL seasons. The 2020-21 season would prove to be a wild ride for Studenic. He opened the season in Slovakia with 6 goals and 9 assists in 25 games for HC Slovan Bratislava. He moved to Binghamton when the AHL season opened up and had 3 goals and 4 assist in 22 games. Most notably, he made 8 appearances for the New Jersey Devils and had a goal and an assist. He also once again represented Slovakia at hte World Championship but was held to an assist in 8 games.

The Devils re-signed the redistricted free agent to a one year contract this offseason. He figures to spend most of the season with Utica in the AHL but has a real chance to earn playing time in New Jersey. He is well suited for a bottom 6 role with his ability to move the puck in transition, play with a physical edge, and provide some secondary offense. I expect him to be in the group of young forwards battling it out for a roster spot in training camp.

#22 - Nikita Okhotiuk - LD - Age: 20 - 2021-22 Team: Utica Comets (AHL) - 2020 Rank: 26 - Elite Prospects Profile

Making his top 25 debut is Nikita Okhotiuk who was 26th last year and 32nd in 2019. The 6’1”, 194 lbs. left-handed defenseman is from Chelyabinsk, Russia. He was a 2nd round selection of the Devils in the 2019 Draft. Okhotiuk is a product of the Traktor Chelyabinsk system where he played his junior hockey which included 19 games in 2016-17 in Russia’s top junior league, the MHL. That season he also represented Russia at the U17 World Championship and U18 World Junior A Challenge. He helped Russia earn a Bronze Medal at the U17 WHC.

Okhotiuk decided to make the jump to North America early by heading over to the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s for his pre-draft season in 2017-18. He played consistently for the team with 5 goals and 6 assists in 53 regular season games. He continued to play for Russia at the U18 level by putting up 2 goals in 5 games at the U18 WJC. He also captined Russia’s U18 entry at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup where he had a goal and 2 assists in 5 games. He was an alternate captain for Russia’s U18 team at the World Junior A Challenge as well.

The 2018-19 season saw Okhotiuk continue to play a bigger role for the 67’s as he appeared in 56 regular season games with 2 goals and 15 assists. He was a crucial part of their defense in their playoff run, playing in 18 games, as they had 3 sweeps in a row before being upset in 6 games for the OHL Championship. The 2019-20 season would see him once again be a premier defender on the OHL’s best team however they wouldn’t get their chance at redemption due to the pandemic. Still, he played in 39 games and was able to showcase a bit more offense with 3 goals and 16 assists.

Okhotiuk signed his entry-level contract with the Devils in December of 2019 so he was able to turn pro and play with Binghamton in the AHL last season. He had 2 goals and 4 assists in 28 games for Binghamton. Those 28 games were the 2nd most of any defender in Binghamton after Reilly Walsh. He did have some growing pains and according to Pick 224 he had an On-Ice EV Goals For% of 32.14% which ranked 5th out the B-Devils 6 regular defenseman. Okhotiuk doesn’t turn 21 until December 4, 2021 so he still has plenty of time left to develop. The Hockey Prospecting model gave him a 20% NHLer Probability in his draft year and it’s currently at 24%. I’m interested in seeing if he can play a bigger role in the AHL this upcoming season in Utica. It’s unlikely he ever produce much offense from the blue line but he has the capability to play a real shutdown, physical style.

#21 - Fabian Zetterlund - RW - Age: 21 - 2021-22 Team: Utica Comets (AHL) - 2020 Rank: 28 - Elite Prospects Profile

Another player that has seen his stock rise in this ranking is Fabian Zetterlund. A 3rd round pick from the 2017 Draft, Zetterlund has moved around this list in recent years. Last year he fell out of the top 25, down to 28th, after being 18th in 2019. The 5’11”, 218 lbs. right wing plays a strong, north-south, physical style. He is from Karlstad, Sweden and came up in the Färjestads BK system. He played junior hockey for Färjestads BK across the U16, U18, and U20 levels stretching from 2013 to 2018. He’s played for Sweden’s U16, U17, U18, and U20 teams, notably winning a U17 WHC Bronze Medal and U20 WJC Silver Medal along the way.

The Devils certainly took notice of Zetterlund in his draft year of 2016-17 when he was nearly a point per game player for Färjestads BK U20 in the J20 SuperElit league, Sweden’s top junior league, with 16 goals and 20 assists in 40 games. At the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, he had a goal and 2 assists in 5 games for Sweden’s U18 team. In the U18 WJC, he had 3 goals and 2 assists in 7 games for Sweden.

In 2017-18, he primarily played for Färjestads BK in the SHL, Sweden’s top league, where he had 3 goals and 4 assists in 35 games. He also had a successful loan stint to the 2nd division, in the Allsvenskan with Timrå IK, with 5 points in 8 games. At the U20 WJC, Zetterlund produced 2 goals in 7 games to win that Silver Medal. The 2018-19 season would see him get more time in the SHL with 2 goals and 2 assists in 16 games while also representing Sweden at the U20 WJC.

In 2019-20, Zetterlund would make the move to North America to play for Binghamton in the AHL. In 46 games he had 8 goals and 11 assists as he acclimated to the AHL. The 2020-21 season would see him take a step forward starting with going on loan to AIK in his native Sweden. The Allsvenskan was allowing players to play on loan unlike the SHL so Zetterlund was able to get in some quality experience in the 2nd division. He had 4 goals and 6 assists in 21 games. This set him up well to start his season in Binghamton when the AHL returned. He finished with 7 goals and 12 assists in 34 games. This saw an increase in his goals per game, assists per game, and points per game rates from his rookie AHL season to his second. According to Pick 224, of the 14 Binghamton forwards to play in 15 or more games, Zetterlund ranked 4th in EV primary points per game (0.29), 2nd in PP primary points per game (0.21), 2nd in primary points per game (0.50), and 2nd in primary points per estimated 60 minutes (1.87).

I think Zetterlund could have the inside track to replace Nathan Bastian on the Devils 4th line next season. He plays a strong, physical game, with a tireless work ethic. He can provide scoring through his effort at even strength and by setting up in front of the net on the power play. He quietly put together a strong season in Binghamton and I’m excited to see if this is the year he makes his mark in New Jersey. If not, then he’ll play some more in Utica and most certainly be a candidate for a call-up once the need arises.

Your Take

Stay tuned as we continue to release these rankings in sets of 5 on a weekly basis. Where you surprised to see Salminen debut in the top 25? What about the jump that Schmid had? Do you expect Zetterlund and Studenic to compete for time in New Jersey this upcoming season? What do you expect from Okhotiuk going forward? Where did you have these players ranked? What do you think about these players and their chances of helping out New Jersey one day? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!