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The 2021 AATJ Top 25 Devils Under 25: The Reveal of 10th to 6th

It’s time to reveal the first set of players in our top 10 for the 2021 AATJ Top 25 Under 25 ranking. This group consists of three players that have already contributed to New Jersey, another one that could make his debut this season, and a prospect with a lot of upside for the future.

Boston Bruins v New Jersey Devils
Janne Kuokkanen’s breakout 2020-21 season sees him crack into the top 10 on our annual Top 25 Under 25 list.
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

We continue our Top 25 Under 25 series today by revealing the players that make up the bottom of the top 10. This group includes three forwards, a defenseman, and a goaltender. Two of the forwards and the goaltender are already regular players for New Jersey. The other forward has already played pro hockey and is likely to make his debut for New Jersey this season. The defenseman is a prospect with a ton of potential that should contribute a lot to one of the top college hockey programs in the country this season. Let’s take a look at who these players are.

#10 - Alexander Holtz - RW - Age: 19 - 2021-22 Team: Utica Comets (AHL) - 2020 Rank: 6 - Elite Prospects Profile

Slipping 4 spots from his initial ranking is Alexander Holtz, the goal scoring wing that the Devils selected with the 7th overall pick in the 2020 Draft. The 6’0”, 194 lbs. right wing from Saltsjö-Boo, Sweden has been one of the best NHL prospects to come out of Sweden in recent years due to his NHL ready, high-end shot. He’s excelled at the junior level for both Djurgårdens IF and Sweden. He often led the junior leagues in Sweden in goals and points. He’s helped Sweden’s junior teams earn a Hlinka Gretzky Cup Silver Medal, U17 WHC Bronze Medal, U18 WJC Gold Medal, and U20 WJC Bronze Medal.

Holtz made his pro debut for Djurgårdens IF with 3 SHL games in his pre-draft season of 2018-19. That was his age 17 season and he dominated the J20 SuperElit league with 30 goals and 17 assists in 38 games. Those 30 goals lead the J20 SuperElit league. That would set him up for a big draft year where he would make the most of his first full season of SHL play. In 2019-20, he had 9 goals and 7 assists in 35 games for Djurgårdens IF. He would lead all U18 players in the SHL in goals, assists, and points that season. That strong season would lead to him be described this way by Elite Prospects ahead of the 2020 Draft:

His shot is as good as it gets, and it makes him a threat to score from anywhere in the offensive zone. Holtz is a pure sniper as currently constructed, and he has the potential to be a first-line finisher with triggerman utility on the power play. He’s a special, special talent, and if he can refine that talent, then there’s no telling where it might take him.

The 2020-21 season would be tougher for Holtz as he put up 7 goals and 11 assists in 40 games for Djurgårdens IF. I took a closer look at Holtz’s season a few weeks ago by using the stats and visualizations from Better Than a Monkey. I concluded that while it was a down year from a production standpoint, he did do good things from a possession standpoint, continued to impact games on a meaningful basis, did better as a playmaker, and utilized more ice in the offensive zone. The Devils were able to get a closer look at him when he came over to Binghamton at the end of the season. In 10 AHL games, he had a goal and 2 assists as he made the adjustment to North America.

Holtz could be well suited to spend another season with Djurgårdens IF though I think the Devils will look to split his age 20 season between New Jersey and Utica in 2021-22. I think he’ll spend most of it with Utica and then be a full time player for the Devils in 2022-23. While other areas of his game aren’t exceptional, his shot will give him a great chance to earn a spot alongside Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier in training camp. The Hockey Prospecting model has his Star Probability (0.70+ career Pts/GP for forwards) at 23% now, down from 32% in his draft season. It has his NHLer Probability (200+ games) at 85% now, up from 82% in his draft season.

#9 - Luke Hughes - LD - Age: 18 - 2021-22 Team: University of Michigan (NCAA) - 2020 Rank: N/A - Elite Prospects Profile

Luke Hughes makes his debut on our annual list in a big way by finishing in the Top 10. The Devils selected Jack’s younger brother with the 4th overall selection in the 2021 Draft. The 6’2”, 185 lbs. defenseman just turned 18 years old five days ago. He’s been a stand out player in the US National Team Development Program due to his excellent skating ability that makes him a two-way threat. While he is a left handed shot, he is capable of playing on either side which further extends his value. For additional background information, here is the prospect profile I wrote about Hughes back in June and here is John’s post about the selection from draft night.

As we can see from his Elite Prospects page, Hughes has been on the radar as a top NHL prospect for a few seasons now. In 2018-19, his age 15 season, Hughes led defenseman and was 4th overall in scoring among skaters with 83 points in 71 games while playing for Little Caesars 15U AAA in the 15U AAA league. He would spend his pre-draft season of 2019-20 with the USNTDP. He put up 7 goals and 21 assists in 48 USDP games with the US National U17 Team. With the USNTDP Junior team in the USHL, he had 4 goals and 9 assists in 28 games. That season he would help the USA U17 team to a Silver Medal in the U17 WHC with a goal and 3 assists in 6 games.

Last season, Hughes had an impressive draft year that saw him put up 6 goals and 28 assists in 38 USDP games with the US National U18 Team. In 18 USHL games with the USNTDP Juniors, he had 4 goals and 11 assists. Unfortunately, his season was cut short in March when he had to have surgery to repair a foot tendon lacerated by a skate cut. Still, he played enough to earn status as a top prospect for the 2021 Draft and was described so by Elite Prospects:

Hughes starts with the perfect skating posture, settling comfortably into his stride as he darts around the ice. His skating habits are pretty stellar, too. Hughes collects the puck in-stride, skates through his passes, and weaponizes movement to draw opposing defenders to his orbit, creating space for his teammates. He’s always looking to create advantages with the puck on his stick.

Hughes is set to play for a powerhouse University of Michigan team in 2021-22 that sees their top players returning to go alongside their recruiting class. His ability to play on either side, transition the puck, and be a two-way threat should help him find plenty of playing time. This will be his age 18 season so he’s going to have a good challenge ahead of him in terms of playing older, more seasoned players at this level. Overall, it looks like he will spend a season or two with Michigan before turning pro. The Hockey Prospecting model seems to like his chances of becoming an impact player giving him a 7% Star Probability (0.45+ career Pts/GP for defensemen) and 62% NHLer Probability.

#8 - Janne Kuokkanen - LW - Age: 23- 2021-22 Team: New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2020 Rank: 11 - Elite Prospects Profile

One of the big risers on our list, for good reason too, is Janne Kuokkanen. Originally a 2nd round draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2016, the Devils acquired the 6’1”, 194 lbs. left wing in the Sami Vatanen trade in February of 2020. At the time, Kuokkanen was coming off of his 3rd AHL season in the Hurricanes organization with the Charlotte Checkers. He proved himself to be a really solid producer at that level, seeing his points per game go from 0.67 in 2017-18 to 0.79 in 2018-19 to 0.81 in 2019-20. In 160 games with the Checkers, Kuokkanen had 35 goals and 85 assists for a 0.75 Pts/GP rate. Kuokkanen found it difficult to crack the Hurricanes line up and just made 11 appearances with no points and average ice time of 10:58 from 2017 to 2019. The trade to the Devils in 2020 would help Kuokkanen take the next step in his career. He managed to make a positive impression by putting up 3 goals and 3 assists in 4 games with Binghamton and earned a call up to New Jersey for a game before the shutdown.

Last season would prove to be a breakthrough campaign for Kuokkanen. He started the year with Kärpät in Liiga in his native Finland to stay ready for the NHL season. In 16 games with Kärpät he had 3 goals and 7 assists. He returned to New Jersey for the NHL season and had a fine year. In 50 games with New Jersey he had 8 goals and 17 assists while playing mostly with Yegor Sharangovich and Jack Hughes. According to Evolving Hockey, that trio had a 57.3 Corsi For% and 55.45 Expected Goals For% when together at 5v5. Overall, he averaged 14:46 per game. Kuokkanen also showed some versatility by being able to play in a more physical role on a line with Nathan Bastian and Michael McLeod at times. His player card over at Evolving Hockey notes that his offensive impact was in the 55th percentile with him making a difference at even strength and on the power play. His ability to draw penalties without taking them is another positive aspect of his game.

Kuokkanen is set to be a regular once again for New Jersey going forward. His versatility and offensive skills could see him play in a variety of roles. He seems to have a real shot to once again be a top 6 wing for the team but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him moved throughout the line up as needed. Kuokkanen isn’t a star player but figures to be a nice core piece for the Devils to build around as they continue to reshape the roster.

#7 - Pavel Zacha - C/LW - Age: 24 - 2021-22 Team: New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2020 Rank: 7 - Elite Prospects Profile

Maintaining his spot from last year is Pavel Zacha. The 6’3”, 209 lbs. forward from Brno, Czech Republic is already over 300 games into his Devils career since the team made him the 6th overall selection in the 2015 Draft. Zacha has been a regular in the New Jersey line up since the 2016-17 season when he put up 8 goals and 16 assists in 70 games. Zacha hasn’t produced as much offense as you would like from a player capable of playing either left wing or center that was drafted so early. He went from a 0.34 Pts/GP rate in his rookie season of 2016-17 to 0.36 in 2017-18 to 0.41 in 2018-19 to 0.49 in 2019-20.

Last season, his age 23 year, Zacha had the most productive season of his career. In 50 games he had 17 goals and 18 assists while averaging 17:09 per game. Those 17 goals, 35 points, and 17:09 average ice time per game were career highs. He mostly played with Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier last season but also had some time on a line with Bratt and Miles Wood. The trio of Zacha, Hischier, and Bratt had a 58.98 Goals For%, 48.87 Corsi For%, and 53.92 Expected Goals For% at 5v5 according to Evolving Hockey. The trio of Zacha, Bratt, and Wood hada 63.79 Goals For%, 53.26 Corsi For%, and 57.58 Expected Goals For% in a smaller sample. His Evolving Hockey player card from last season has his offensive impacts in the 79th percentile but his defensive impacts just in the 5th percentile. Still, that offensive outburst was enough to keep Zacha in the top 10 of our annual list.

While Zacha’s production was an asset last year, it’s important to note that he shot at 16.5% in 2020-21 after shooting at 9.4% from 2016-20. It will be interesting to see if he has actually turned a corner and can contribute offensively for this team going forward. His defensive game hasn’t developed but the hope is he can settle in somewhere on the 2nd or 3rd line, likely on the wing, and be a part of the young core for this team. It would be a welcome bonus if he finds a way to improve defensively and be a solid contributor on the penalty kill.

#6 - Mackenzie Blackwood - G - Age: 24 - 2021-22 Team: New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2020 Rank: 3 - Elite Prospects Profile

Mackenzie Blackwood finds himself just outside of the Top 5 after finishing 3rd last year. The Devils drafted the 6’4”, 225 lbs. goaltender from Thunder Bay, Ontario in the 2nd round of the 2015 Draft. He was a standout goaltender at the OHL level with a .910 career SV% in 139 games. He turned pro for his age 20 season in 2016-17 where he had a .907 SV% in 36 games for Albany (AHL). The following season his game took a step back as he had an .882 SV% in 32 games with Binghamton (AHL) and even saw himself demoted to the ECHL for 5 games with Adirondack.

The 2018-19 season would see Blackwood start to turn things around and build some momentum. In 20 games with Binghamton he had a .902 SV%. More importantly, he put up a .918 SV% in 23 games with New Jersey, showcasing that he could be a long term answer in goal for the organization. According to Hockey Reference, Blackwood had a 66.7 Quality Start% and was worth 5.3 Goals Saved Above Average. He followed that up with another solid season in 2019-20 where he had a .915 SV%, 51.2 Quality Start%, and was worth 7.3 Goals Saved Above Average in 47 games.

Last season was a bit of a down year for Blackwood, hence his slight drop in the rankings. He had a .902 SV%, 51.4 Quality Start%, and was worth a negative 6.4 Goals Saved Above Average. He had just as many Really Bad Starts (10) in 2020-21 as he did the previous two seasons combined. It is important to remember that he had to battle a lot of adversity last season. The surprising retirement of Corey Crawford meant that Blackwood would have to shoulder a lot more playing time than originally planned. He also had to overcome a significant case of COVID-19 and struggled when he returned. It ended up being a perfect storm to disrupt the progress he had been making.

Blackwood should be in line for a big rebound season in 2021-22. He now has a capable partner in goal in Jonathan Bernier to help shoulder some of the workload. The additions of Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves on the blue line should really be a big boost for a defensive group that has struggled for some time now. According to Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement, Blackwood ranks tied-26th out of 114 goaltenders with a 26.1 GAR over the past three seasons. He will turn 25 on December 9 so now is the time for him to really cement his place in the organization long term.

Your Take

Stay tuned as next week, I will reveal which players finished in the Top 5 of this year’s list. Now back to the above players, which of these players did you have in your top 10? What do you expect from each of these players in 2021-22? How do you view each of these players long term fit with the Devils? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!