The time has come to release the Top 5 from the 2021 AATJ Top 25 Devils Under 25. This year’s top 5 includes four forwards and a defenseman. All of these players have already made an impact in New Jersey. This group includes two former #1 overall picks, a defenseman that was drafted in the first round, and two late round picks that have defied the odds to make their mark. Before we reveal the top 5, here is a reminder that you can see all the posts in this series right here. Now, let’s take a look at which players rose to the top of this year’s ranking.
Yegor Sharangovich had a breakout rookie season for New Jersey in 2020-21, so it comes as no surprise that he has risen in our annual ranking from 24th in 2020 to 5th in 2021. The native of Minsk, Belarus is capable of playing either wing or center. The Devils drafted the 6’2”, 203 lbs. forward in the 5th round of the 2018 draft. At the time it was a curious selection since he was in his 3rd year of draft eligibility, though it clearly looks like a great pick now. He was coming off of a 2017-18 season that saw him put up 4 goals and 8 assists in 47 games for Dinamo Minsk in the KHL as a 19 year old. He was also becoming a key player for Belarus, serving as an alternate captain at the U20 World Junior Championship where he had 3 goals and 2 assists in 6 games. At the World Championships he had an assist in 7 games.
The Devils were eager to get Sharangovich into the organization and signed him to an entry-level contract before the 2018-19 season. In 2018-19, he played in 68 games for Binghamton in the AHL with 9 goals and 8 assists in a solid but unspectacular debut season. He continued to represent Belarus on the senior level, playing in 5 games with a goal at the Division 1A World Championship. His 2019-20 season would see him spend another year with Binghamton. In 57 games he had 10 goals and 15 assists, improving his points per game rate from 0.25 in 2018-19 to 0.44 in 2019-20. Overall, he finished 6th in scoring for Binghamton with 25 points in what was another solid but not noteworthy season.
The 2020-21 season would see Sharangovich breakout at the KHL and NHL level. While back home waiting for the NHL season to start, Sharangovich joined Dinamo Minsk on loan to stay game ready. He served as an alternate captain and posted 17 goals and 8 assists in 34 games. That strong start allowed him to carry some momentum into the NHL season and he capitalized on it with 16 goals and 14 assists in 54 games. He shot at 14%, averaged 2.11 shots per game, and averaged 16:48 in ice time per game. He mainly played on a line with Jack Hughes centering Janne Kuokkanen and Sharangovich. According to Evolving-Hockey, that trio had a 57.3 Corsi For% and 55.45 Expected Goal For% at 5v5 play. His Evolving-Hockey player card placed his overall impact in the 59th percentile last season with him in the 70th percentile from an offensive perspective and in the 5th percentile from a defensive perspective.
His goal scoring prowess certainly makes him a viable option next to Hughes or Nico Hischier in the Devils top 6 going forward. It will be interesting to see if he can build upon his promising rookie season and be a long term answer on the wing for the Devils. I’m also curious to see if he is utilized more on the power play in his second NHL season since he only averaged 1:00 per game there as a rookie. His even strength defense still has a lot of room for improvement and it will be interesting to see if they keep trying to utilize him on the penalty kill. As a rookie he averaged 1:47 per game on the penalty kill which was 2nd on the team. He earned himself a 2 year contract worth $4,000,000 so the team certainly expects him to continue to progress and be a part of the solution in New Jersey.
#4 - Ty Smith - LD - Age: 21 - 2021-22 Team: New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2020 Rank: 5 - Elite Prospects Profile
The lone defenseman in the top 5 is Ty Smith who is coming off of a promising rookie season with New Jersey. The Devils selected the 5’11”, 179 lbs. defender with the 17th overall pick in the 2018 Draft. A lot of outlets had Smith ranked higher than 17th so the move was met with a lot of praise. The left handed defenseman is from Lloydminster, Saskatchawan and played in the WHL for the Spokane Chiefs from 2016 to 2020. In his WHL career he had 45 goals and 190 assists in 240 regular season games. He earned numerous awards and honors in his junior career, twice being named the WHL Top Defenseman (2018-19 and 2019-20) and earning CHL Defenseman of the Year (2018-19). With Canada’s various junior teams, he earned a U17 WHC Silver Medal and All-Star Team honor, won a Hlinka Gretzky Cup Gold Medal, and a U20 WJC Gold Medal. He also served as Spokane’s captain from 2018 to 2020 and has served as a captain or alternate captain for Canada’s junior teams on five occasions.
In his age 20 season of 2020-21, Smith made the Devils roster and produced immediately. In 48 games he had 2 goals and 21 assists while shooting at 2.9%, averaging 1.44 shots per game, and averaged 20:07 in ice time per game. His main defense partners were Damon Severson and P.K. Subban. With Severson, the duo had a 55.82 Corsi For% and 53.24 Expected Goals For% at 5v5 in 457.38 minutes per Evolving-Hockey. With Subban, the duo had a 52.38 Corsi For% and 46.23 Expected Goals For% at 5v5 in 106.43 minutes per Evolving-Hockey. His Evolving-Hockey player card placed him in the 24th percentile among defenseman, though his offensive impacts were in the 51st percentile while his defensive impacts were in the 10th percentile.
His defensive game, especially at the NHL level, is still a work in progress as you would expect from a 20 year old. His offensive production makes him a very promising player for the team in the present and future. His 23 points last season were tied for the lead among U21 defensemen with Rasmus Dahlin. However, his 0.48 points per game rate ranked 1st among this group. The Hockey Prospecting model is very high on Smith, now giving him a 77% Star Probability (0.45+ career Pts/GP) and 98% NHLer Probability (200+ NHL games). The model now compares his development to Paul Coffey which is amazing company to be with. While turning into a player like Coffey is a tough challenge, it still points to Smith being a very good defenseman that can chip in offensively for a long time at the NHL level. I’m really excited to see what the 2021-22 season will hold for Smith. His development can really help speed up the Devils rebuild.
#3 - Jesper Bratt - LW/RW - Age: 23 - 2021-22 Team: New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2020 Rank: 4 - Elite Prospects Profile
Rising one spot on our annual list is Jesper Bratt. The 5’10”, 185 lbs. wing from Stockholm, Sweden was drafted by the Devils in the 6th round of the 2016 Draft. He was coming off a season that saw him put up 8 goals and 9 assists in 48 games for AIK in the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s 2nd tier of hockey. He improved his production the following season with 6 goals and 16 assists in 46 games for AIK to further improve his stock. The Devils would bring him over ahead of the 2017-18 season and he would end up surprising everyone by making the team as a 19 year old.
Bratt has now spent 4 seasons with New Jersey since debuting in 2017-18. That season he had 13 goals and 22 assists in 74 games. He put up 8 goals and 25 assists in 51 games in 2018-19, 16 goals and 16 assists in 60 games in 2019-20, and 7 goals and 23 assists in 46 games in 2020-21. From a points per game perspective, he has put up 0.47, 0.65, 0.53, and 0.65 rates over those four seasons.
Last year, his age 22 season, Bratt mostly played on a line with Nico Hischier centering Pavel Zacha and Bratt. That trio had a 58.98 Goals For%, 48.87 Corsi For%, and 53.92 Expected Goals For% in 152.12 minutes at 5v5 according to Evolving-Hockey. It’s worth noting that Bratt seemed to improve any line he was on. In 90.25 minutes with Jack Hughes and Andreas Johnsson, the trio had a 80.51 Goals For%, 63.67 Corsi For%, and 66.3 Expected Goals For%. In 64.58 minutes with Hughes and Kyle Palmieri, the trio had a 100 Goals For%, 62.25 Corsi For%, and 54.55 Expected Goals For%. In 56.77 minutes with Miles Wood and Zacha, the trio had a 63.79 Goals For%, 53.26 Corsi For%, and 57.58 Expected Goals For%. Bratt’s player card at Evolving-Hockey placed him in the 70th percentile for forwards last season. His offense was in the 44th percentile but his defense ranked in the 94th percentile. His ability to contribute in a top 6 role at both ends of the ice and on the power play last season made him a valuable player for the Devils.
Over the past three seasons, Bratt has really started to come into his own as a NHL player. His player card at Evolving-Hockey, puts him in the 79th percentile among forwards over the last three seasons. His offensive impact is in the 64th percentile while his defensive impact is in the 88th percentile. Architecte-Hockey, with their new Instat Powered Ratings, puts Bratt’s current passing ability in the 84th percentile and his current transition ability in the 91st percentile. His ability to play either wing, contribute some offense while being defensively responsible, and play on the power play makes him one of the more underrated in today’s game in my opinion. He’s a part of the core group of players for the Devils and will be as important as ever as he enters his age 23 season in 2021-22.
#2 - Nico Hischier - C - Age: 22 - 2021-22 Team: New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2020 Rank: 1 - Elite Prospects Profile
Nico Hischier has been #1 on our list the past three years after debuting at #2 in 2017. He no longer is in the top spot but still remains one of the most important players under 25 in the organization. The Devils drafted the 6’1”, 194 lbs. Swiss center with the top pick in the 2017 Draft. At the time he was coming off of an impressive debut season in North America with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL. In 57 games that season he had 38 goals and 48 assists. He also had an impressive showing at the U20 WJC with 4 goals and 3 assists in 5 games. That strong season led him to becoming the top prospect for the 2017 Draft according to most outlets.
The Devils selected him and he jumped right into the line up in 2017-18, appearing in all 82 games with 20 goals and 32 assists. He centered a line with Taylor Hall and Jesper Bratt, becoming a key part in helping Hall earn his Hart Trophy. He followed up his stellar rookie season with a slight uptick in production in 2018-19, appearing in 69 games with 17 goals and 30 assists. The 2019-20 season would see Hischier take another step in his development by serving as an alternate captain. It wasn’t all positive as he was limited to 58 games with 14 goals and 22 assists.
Last season, Hischier was once again limited by injury, but was named captain before hitting the ice. In 21 games he had 6 goals and 5 assists while centering Bratt and Pavel Zacha. That trio had a 58.98 Goals For%, 48.87 Corsi For%, and 53.92 Expected Goals For% at 5v5 according to Evolving-Hockey. Overall, it seemed like he never really got up to the level that we’ve come to expect from him. His Evolving-Hockey player card for 2020-21 puts him in the 31st percentile among forwards, with his offensive impact being in the 31st percentile and his defensive in the 40th percentile.
Over the past three seasons, his Evolving-Hockey player card has him in the 64th percentile overall, with his offensive impact in the 52nd percentile and his defensive percentile being in the 40th percentile. Things do look a lot better if you remove his 2020-21 season and use the larger sample size of his first three seasons. Going from those seasons, Evolving-Hockey puts Hischier in the 84th percentile with his offensive impact in the 73rd percentile and his defensive impact in the 34th percentile. Architecte-Hockey, using Instat powered ratings, breaks down Hischier’s current ability across shooting, passing, transition, and defense. That data has Hischier in the 79th percentile in shooting, 39th percentile in passing, 73rd percentile in transition, and 33rd percentile in defense. When healthy, Hischier has shown the ability to contribute offensively, especially with his shot and transitional play, and the ability to draw penalties without taking them. I’m expecting big things out of him going forward and it’s even better he can form a 1-2 combo down the middle with Jack Hughes to solidify the Devils top 6 for years to come.
#1 - Jack Hughes - C - Age: 20 - 2021-22 Team: New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2020 Rank: 2 - Elite Prospects Profile
Jack Hughes spent two yeas in the #2 spot on our annual list but has now claimed the top spot on the back off a promising second NHL season. The Devils drafted the 5’11”, 176 lbs. American center with the top selection in the 2019 Draft. At the time, he was coming off of a great draft season and career with the US National Team Development Program. In 2018-19, Hughes posted 34 goals and 78 assists in 50 games for the US National U18 Team while serving as captain. For the USNTDP Juniors, he had 12 goals and 36 assists in 24 games. At the U18 WJC, he captained the American team to a Bronze Medal with 9 goals and 11 assists in 7 games. He was a part of the U20 team at the U20 WJC where they won Silver, posting 4 assists in 4 games. He even made his debut for the US senior team at the World Championships with 3 assists in 7 games.
After all of that success, Hughes jumped straight from the USNTDP to the NHL. While showing flashes of excellence, the transition was always going to be a hard one. In the end he posted 7 goals and 14 assists in 61 games as a rookie in 2019-20. He shot at 5.7%, averaged 2.02 shots per game, and averaged 15:52 in ice time per game. His most common linemates were Kyle Palmieri and Taylor Hall, with the trio posting a 59.18 Goals For%, 55.86 Corsi For%, and 60.25 Expected Goals For% in 108.52 minutes at 5v5 according to Evolving-Hockey. His next most common linemates were Pavel Zacha and Wayne Simmonds, with the trio posting a 48.79 Goals For%, 42.59 Corsi For%, and 41.97 Expected Goals For% in 98.87 minutes. It’s not surprising to see how the differing quality of those linemates led to such different results. His Evolving-Hockey player card reflects that struggle, placing him in the 7th percentile overall with his offensive impact in the 6th percentile and his defensive impact in the 9th percentile. Notably, his ability to contribute on the power play and draw penalties without taking them were areas of his game that stood out alongside his great skating.
With Nico Hischier sidelined for much of the 2020-21 season, Hughes stepped up as the team’s top center. He posted 11 goals and 20 assists in 56 games. He shot at 7.7%, averaged 2.54 shots per game, and 19:04 in ice time per game. He anchored the top line with Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich, with the trio posting a 34.37 Goals For%, 57.3 Corsi For%, and 55.45 Expected Goals For% in 241.1 minutes at 5v5 per Evolving-Hockey. He also had success centering Andreas Johnsson and Kyle Palmieri, with the trio posting a 59.04 Goals For%, 53.29 Corsi For%, and 52.29 Expected Goals For% in 91.63 minutes. As well as centering Johnsson and Jesper Bratt, with the trio posting a 80.51 Goals For%, 63.67 Corsi For%, and 66.3 Expect Goals For% in 90.25 minutes. His Evolving-Hockey player card really showed how much he improved, with him ranking in the 89th percentile overall, 59th percentile from an offensive standpoint, and 95th percentile from a defensive standpoint. The Architecte-Hockey Instat powered ratings measure Hughes’ current ability across shooting, passing, transition, and defense. He’s in the 16th percentile in shooting, in the 97th percentile in passing, in the 100% percentile in transition, and in the 67th percentile in defense.
His ability to already lead a top line and contribute on both ends of the ice in his age 19 season bodes well for his future as a long term #1 center. The Hockey Prospecting model continues to highly rate him, as he has maintained a 99% Star (0.70+ career Pts/GP) and NHLer Probability (200+ NHL games). Now that Hughes has completed his draft+2 season, the model compares him closest to Paul Kariya, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, and John Tavares. The sky is the limit for Hughes and I’m really looking forward to him taking another big step in 2021-22.
I want to thank everyone for contributing to the community portion of the ranking as well as my fellow AATJ writers for their rankings. Now that we have released the top 5, let us know what you think of these players. Where did you have these players ranked? Were there any rankings that you were really surprised by? What do you think about the list? What do you expect from each of these players in 2021-22 and beyond? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!