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New Jersey Devils Focused on the Back End at the 2022 NHL Draft

The New Jersey Devils went into Montreal with 9 picks and left with five defenseman drafted, two forwards picked, and a goalie prospect, Vitek Vanecek’s rights. This post is a summary of thoughts about what the Devils did now that the 2022 NHL Draft is over.

2022 Upper Deck NHL Draft - Round 2-7
The Devils finished their draft with six players picked who play from the blueline back out of eight.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The main theme of the 2022 NHL Draft for the New Jersey Devils has to be the back end. The Devils went into Montreal with nine picks. They are leaving Montreal with eight picks and the signing rights to goaltender Vitek Vanecek. Five of the eight picks were used to draft defensemen, led by Simon Nemec at second overall. The Devils continued their streak of drafting at least one goaltender since 2015 by taking goaltender Tyler Brennan at 102nd overall. The Devils obtained just two forwards within the last 48 hours and both were late draft selections in the fifth and sixth rounds. Clearly, General Manager Tom Fitzgerald, VP of Amateur of Scouting Paul Castron, Amateur Scouting Chief Scout Mark Dennehy, and the Devils management focused on the back end this year.

Was it a good pair of days at the draft for the Devils? The true answer will be in about five years when these prospects develop into (hopefully) young professionals. Right now, I would say so if only because the Devils addressed their most critical short-term need - goaltending - with the Vanecek trade. Taking the class as a whole, let me put it this way. Last year, I was underwhelmed beyond the Luke Hughes selection. This year, I do not feel as way although I think the Devils perhaps focused too much on the blueline with their picks this year.

For me personally, if I can imagine several players I would have much rather had instead of the player the Devils actually chose, then that usually means I am not a fan of the pick. I do not feel that way with this year’s class. And I really only could rattle off better prospects for the team’s first two selections - two selections that I do not think the Devils did poorly in who they actually took.

When Juraj Slafkovsky was picked first overall, I was really hoping the Devils would take Shane Wright. I think he is the best player in the whole draft. I think his intelligence on the ice combined with his skills will make him a force in the NHL. As much as right-handed defenseman are valued, I would think forwards who can drive play, fill the net, and help their team out in all three zones are more valuable. The Devils did not take Shane Wright, they took Simon Nemec. Whereas I would have preferred Wright, I understand the value of Nemec. He is not some lesser scrub meant to fill some kind of positional need in the pool and, perhaps in the near future, the Devils roster. Nemec played as much internationally as fellow Slovak Slafkovsky; he is excellent at moving the puck up ice and attacking; and he is more than responsible in his own end. Nemec is arguably the best defenseman in the 2022 NHL Draft. That was clearly the Devils’ preference and so they took the best one. I cannot and am not unhappy about that. I respect the pick.

The same goes for the Devils’ second round pick. They ended up moving back nine spots in the second round as a result of the Vanecek trade. As with second overall, there were players I were hoping the Devils could take and they were indeed available. I most wanted the Electric Hawksbill, Gleb Trikozov. His combination of speed, hands, and wrist shot would be wonderful for the Devils to add to their system. Adam Sykora and David Goyette would have been very good picks too. The small but mighty Lane Hutson was even available. The Devils opted for Hutson’s teammate Seamus Casey. Casey is an offensive-minded RHD with quite a bit of potential too. The NHL Network broadcast pointed out how Casey was stuck on PP2 because of how the USNTDP was set up. I immediately thought that the PP quarterback of PP1 was still available in Hutson. But I think Casey, on his own and in a vacuum, at 46th overall was a good selection. He has room to grow and should he meet it, he will provide plenty of value at both ends as a pro. As much as I would have preferred four other players (who all went near the end of the second round), Casey was not a big swing and a miss for New Jersey.

From that point on, the picks were all in the fourth round and onward. It is that point of the draft where any kind of success for the prospect is, well, a successful pick. The Devils kept their three fourth round picks and used them on goaltender Brennan at 102nd overall, defenseman Daniil Orlov at 110th overall, and defenseman Charlie Leddy at 126th overall. This was mostly fine. I think among the three, Leddy was the one I wish the Devils did not make. It was their fourth defenseman in five picks made at the draft. His projection is to be a defensive minded depth defenseman, something the Devils have plenty of in their system. Then again, this is the 126th overall pick. It was not like there was a ton of long shot forwards that were so enticing that the Devils missed out big time in taking.

The forwards finally got on the Devils’ draft board in the fifth and sixth rounds. Czech winger Petr Hauser at 141st overall was the only “big forward” taken among the two the Devils chose. The sixth round selection of Josh Filmon at 166th overall may be the closest the Devils have to a “steal” in the draft. The Swift Current winger finished third on his not-so-good team in scoring, first in shots, and made appearances at both the CHL Top Prospects Game and the World U-18 Championships for Canada. That is a stronger resume than most sixth round selections. Should he fill out his frame - and he does given his listed weight of 157 pounds - he could be another beefy winger in the pool. The Devils ended their day with their fifth defenseman of the draft class selected, the defensive-minded Artem Barabosha at 198th overall. As for these last three picks, again, there is not too much quibbling to be had. Sure, I could dig through the picks made after them and find someone interesting. But this was not like 2021 where I had names off the top of my head that I preferred. In short: This was all fine. Could it have been much better? Maybe. Is it bad? No.

The biggest move of the second day of the draft by the Devils happened about a half-hour before it began. The Devils acquired the rights to Vitek Vanecek for Washington and Washington’s second round pick (46th overall) in exchange for the Devils’ second and third round picks at 37th and 70th overall, respectively. The Capitals did get a pair of fine prospects in Ryan Chesley and Alexander Suzdalev with those picks. The Devils did well to still be in the second round to take Casey (among others), but the critical gain is Vanecek. Vanecek’s overall save percentages in his last two seasons with Washington were lower than his 5-on-5 save percentages, which does bode well for the hope that Vanecek could actually be good. Those lamenting the Devils not having league-average goaltending may actually get it with Vanecek and a healthy Mackenzie Blackwood. It might even be slightly better than average from Vanecek based on his last two seasons. While the Devils would still need to sign the pending RFA, the qualifying offer for Vanecek is quite low ($787,500 per CapFriendly, or 105% of his base salary from last season) and the Devils should be able to sign him to an extension soon after qualifying him. (assuming he needs it, in case Washington already did. I’m not sure.) The Devils absolutely needed to address the goaltending position. Rather than waiting until July 13 and hoping the goaltending market is strong enough to find at least a decent goaltender and hoping that they will not command a stupid amount of money, Fitzgerald went out and addressed it today. More than anything else, this trade helps the Devils be a better team for next season. That is easily worth a 37th overall and 70th overall pick unless Chesley and Suzdalev become all stars or something.

I will also point out that I would have more faith in a Vanecek-Blackwood tandem if Dave Rogalski was not coaching them up next season. If next season is a prove-it season for Blackwood to show what kind of goalie he is, then it should be also one for the coach who will get his eighth different goalie to work with within the last two years. Still, this trade was my favorite move the Devils made at the draft across both days. If you want to be happy about the Devils franchise and the direction it is going in, then this is the one to highlight.

This does bring me to an increasing divide I have noticed among the People Who Matter. There are those who have become understandably unhappy with the team’s constant failings and demand more of Fitzgerald. There are those who think those people whine too much and should be positive for reasons. There are those who are quite critical of the coaching and management decisions (or lack there of). There are those who think those critics are dumb and need to trust them. I think everyone involved needs to play nice or they will not play here any longer. I also think a little understanding of other opinions would go a long way too. Those who think things are great or fine or that Lindy Ruff is good or Tom Fitzgerald is good should accept that the team has been objectively bad for the better part of a decade and it is fair for fans to want better. Those who think things are bad or going to be bad or already wanted Fitzgerald/Ruff fired yesterday ahead of being actually fired in early December 2022 should accept that no games have been played yet in 2022-23 and there is a possibility the team can be competitive for more than six weeks. We’re fans of the Devils. This means we can (and should be) critical when things are/are not done. This means we can (and should be) pleased with moves that work. Again, play nice with each other.

Going back to the draft, I do wonder whether Fitzgerald and his staff are not fans with the defensemen picked in the 2019 NHL Draft. That was when they picked four defensive-minded defensemen between 61st and 118th overall (they traded back a bunch to add these picks) after taking The Big Deal at first overall. That may lead to why they took five defensemen and four RHDs at this year’s draft. It may set them up to go hard in an offensive direction at next year’s draft to account for the dearth from this year’s draft. That said, as much criticism as I’ve given Fitzgerald for overrating size or “grit,” they really did not go all about size with these picks. The five defensemen do have some variety among them; compared to Nikita Okhotiuk, Daniil Misyul, Michael Vukojevic, and Case McCarthy being similar players. I hope it works out as well as possible for Nemec and Casey and maybe there’s something between Orlov, Leddy, and Barashova.

By the way, I was a little surprised at how little the Russian factor was a thing. Sure, plenty of Russians slipped, but 23 were taken overall (fourth in nationality of players picked behind Canada, America, and Sweden), the Devils took two to keep their streak going (Orlov and Barashova), Carolina took four (led by the Gleb Trikozov I wanted at 37 or 46), and others were picked. I was also surprised at how many goalies were taken from the fourth round onward. The Devils essentially started a kind of run on goalies after Brennan was taken (and continued their own streak of goalies taken) as many went in the fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds. I was lastly surprised to see the Ontario Hockey League still lead with 35 picks from that league. I figured it would be less with a “down” year in terms of talent available. As the draft went on, many went back to Ontario for their picks. Interestingly, the Devils were not one of them. They did not draft an OHL player for the first time since 2011. Gary Bettman responded the many boos he received at the start of the draft yesterday as a return to normalcy. So it was normal with Russians, goalies, and OHLers despite the concerns going into the draft for each. (And I appreciated the return to a normal Day 2 of the draft going much faster than the first round.)

I am ultimately OK with how it went for the Devils. If you must make me give it a grade, then a ‘B’ seems appropriate. The Devils did not pick anyone really off the board or anyone that made me wonder if Fitzgerald and his scouts understand what a good prospect is. Asmuch as I wanted other players instead of Nemec or Casey, I think both were good selections on their own. As much as the draft class was heavy on defensemen, especially on right-shooting ones, I can respect their thinking for those picks outside of maybe Leddy. The trade for Vanecek was Fitzgerald’s best move between the two days, and it will be one less need to fill for next Wednesday’s free agency frenzy. If I was underwhelmed after the Hughes pick in 2021, then I am perfectly whelmed with the 2022 NHL Draft. Which is fine with me.

Now, please finish better than fifth from last next season, Devils. Preferably much further ahead than fifth from last.

That is my take and general thoughts about this year’s draft. I want to thank everyone on staff who helped out with prospect profiles for the last two months. I want to thank all of the people and services who follow prospects all year around from the Hlinka-Gretzky tourney to the Draft itself. I want to thank you, the People Who Matter, for spending at least part of your days with us at the 2022 NHL Draft. Please vote in the polls for each player’s post if you have not done so; I will close them at 8 PM ET and use the results to close out the draft coverage with the annual “What You Thought” post. Please feel free to leave your general thoughts about the Devils’ 2022 NHL Draft class and the 2022 NHL Draft in general in the comments. Thank you for reading.