The Top 25 Under 25 ranking continues today with those players that just made it into the top 20. This group of 2 forwards and 3 defensemen features players that have varying degrees of experience with New Jersey at the NHL level. One of these players is already a regular for the Devils while the others are looking to break through from the AHL. The 3 defensemen have climbed the rankings slightly compared to last year while the forwards have seen a decent drop in their rankings. Let’s take a look at who these players are.
#20 - Nikita Okhotiuk - LD - Age: 21 - 2022-23 Team: Utica Comets (AHL) - 2021 Rank: 22 - Elite Prospects Profile
Jumping up 2 spots on this year’s ranking is a physical defenseman, Nikita Okhotiuk. The Devils drafted the 6’1”, 194 lbs. defender in the 2nd round of the 2019 Draft. At that time, he was coming off a successful 2nd season with the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) in 2018-19. He played in 56 regular season games with 2 goals and 15 assists as Ottawa finished with the best record in the league. He also played in 18 playoff games during the playoff run that saw them sweep 3 straight series before being upset in 6 games in the OHL Finals. Okhotiuk would return to Ottawa for the 2019-20 season and added a bit more offense to his game with 3 goals and 16 assists in 39 games. Of course, the pandemic would shut the league down but it’s worth noting that Ottawa was once again the top team in the league and Okhotiuk played a big part in that. Okhotiuk would turn pro for the 2020-21 season with Binghamton in the American Hockey League (AHL), appearing in 28 games with 2 goals and 4 assists.
Last season saw Okhtoiuk further adjust to the professional game with Utica in the AHL as well as make his debut with New Jersey. In 63 regular season games with Utica, he had 3 goals and 9 assists, and 68 penalty minutes for one of the top teams in the league. He mostly played a depth role at even strength but was effective on the penalty kill for the team. According to his On-Ice numbers from AHL Tracker, his 30.4 Goals For% and 13.8 Relative GF% led all Utica defensemen. These were among the better metrics for defensemen who regularly played on the PK in the league. Okhotiuk earned 5 games with New Jersey, adding a goal and an assist, while averaging 15:05 per game.
Okhotiuk will turn 22 years old on December 4, 2022. He still has 2 more years left on his entry-level contract and seems likely to spend most of his 2022-23 season with Utica. His potential at the NHL level seems to be that of a physical, stay-at-home defenseman that looks to take care of his end of the rink. With that style of play, he does seem to have an outside shot of making the Devils roster out of training camp, though he will face plenty of competition from a similar player such as Kevin Bahl or a completely different style of player in Reilly Walsh. At this point in his career, playing more minutes at even strength for Utica could be the right move for his development. We will have to see how he performs this season and if he can force his way onto New Jersey’s roster at some point.
#19 - Nolan Foote - LW - Age: 21 - 2022-23 Team: Utica Comets (AHL) - 2021 Rank: 13 - Elite Prospects Profile
Dropping 6 spots from last year’s ranking is left wing, Nolan Foote. The Devils acquired the 6’4”, 201 lbs. forward in the Blake Coleman trade in February of 2020 from the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was a 1st round pick, 27th overall, in the 2019 Draft. The son of longtime NHLer Adam Foote has long been a highly regarded prospect due to his power forward style game and goal-scoring ability. His draft season of 2018-19 saw him lead all first-year draft-eligible prospects in the Western Hockey League (WHL) in goals with 36 in 66 games for the Kelowna Rockets (along with Moose Jaw’s Brayden Tracey). Foote would return to Kelowna for the 2019-20 season, serving as team captain, but injuries and the pandemic limited him to just 27 games. He was effective when healthy, posting 15 goals and 18 assists. He also played well for Canada at the U20 World Junior Championship (WJC) with 3 goals and 2 assists in 7 games as they won a Gold Medal. Foote turned pro for the 2020-21 season with Binghamton in the AHL. Once again he was limited, playing in just 24 games, but did manage to put up 7 goals and 10 assists. He even earned 6 games with New Jersey in the NHL, scoring his first NHL goal and assist, while averaging 9:41 per game.
Last season, Foote played in 55 regular season games with Utica in the AHL, posting 14 goals and 18 assists. According to AHL Tracker, Foote had the best On-Ice Goals For% of 63.3% at even strength among regular forwards for Utica so good things did happen when he was on the ice. Foote shot at 15.22% last season and averaged just 1.67 shots per game. I’m not surprised to see that he scored at such a high percentage given his shot is NHL caliber but I would like to see him be more active in getting shots on goal. He was also productive in 5 playoff games with a goal and 2 assists. Across 7 games with New Jersey, he had 3 goals and an assist while averaging 10:22 per game.
Foote will turn 22 years old on November 29, 2022, and still has 2 years remaining on his entry-level contract. The 2022-23 season should give us a good idea of his chances of carving out a career at the NHL level. Foote has the frame that allows him to play a pro-style power-forward game. His shot is already ready for the NHL level. Foote’s biggest issue is his below-average skating which could hold him back from becoming more than a good AHL-level player. I’m curious to see if he’s been able to improve that this offseason and if he can have a strong training camp to impress the Devils. I expect him to play in Utica’s top 6 to start the season but if he produces, then he’ll earn a shot at a full-time role with the Devils.
#18 - Kevin Bahl - LD - Age: 22 - 2022-23 Team: Utica Comets (AHL) - 2021 Rank: 19 - Elite Prospects Profile
Kevin Bahl jumps up one spot from last year’s ranking. The 6’6”, 229 lbs. defenseman was acquired by the Devils in the Taylor Hall trade with the Arizona Coyotes back in December of 2019. The Coyotes had drafted Bahl in the 2nd round of the 2018 Draft from the Ottawa 67’s in the OHL. His draft season of 2017-18 saw him post 18 points in 58 regular season games with Ottawa as well as 76 penalty minutes. Bahl played for Canada’s U18 team at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament and helped the team win a Gold Medal. He also played for Canada at the U18 WJC where he had 3 points in 5 games. His game took another step in 2018-19 for Ottawa as he had 6 goals and 28 assists in 68 games along with 87 penalty minutes. In their playoff run, he had 11 points in 15 games before they were upset in the OHL Finals. The 2019-20 season would see Bahl cap off his OHL career with 6 goals, 25 assists, and 83 penalty minutes in 54 games. He also helped Canada win the U20 WJC that season.
Bahl would turn pro for the 2020-21 season, spending most of it with Binghamton in the AHL but also getting a taste of the NHL. In 27 AHL games, he had 5 points and was disciplined with just 12 penalty minutes. He played 7 games with the Devils, had 2 assists, and averaged 16:55 per game. Last season would see Bahl have a similar split between the AHL and NHL levels. In 54 games with Utica, he had 16 points and 52 penalty minutes, as a key member of their defensive unit. At the NHL level, he played in 17 games with 4 points, 10 penalty minutes, and averaged 15:45.
Bahl is entering his age 22 season and third year as a professional. It is also the final season of his entry-level contract so he’ll be looking to make an impact in New Jersey this season. He figures to be in the mix of defensemen in training camp that tries to earn a spot. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if he does spend a little bit more time with Utica, at least at the beginning of the season. Bahl profiles as a 3rd pairing defenseman that can use his large frame to play a tough, physical style in his zone. Though his skating isn’t great he does have decent mobility for a player of his stature. Should New Jersey want to add more physicality to their blue line, then I think Bahl would be the first in line among the Utica defenders to come up and make an impact.
Falling 5 spots in his final year of eligibility is Michael McLeod. The 6’2”, 187 lbs. center hasn’t lived up to the expectations the Devils had of him when they selected him 12th overall in the 2016 Draft. After a solid OHL career with Mississauga that saw him captain the team from 2016-18, McLeod would turn pro in 2018. In parts of 4 NHL seasons, McLeod has produced just 15 goals and 25 assists in 162 games for 0.25 points per game rate. He’s done this while averaging 13:06 per game primarily as a 4th line center with decent defensive impacts at both even strength and on the penalty kill.
Last season, McLeod set career highs in games (77), assists (14), and points (20). According to Evolving-Hockey, his defense ranked in the 81st percentile among forwards. Unfortunately, his offensive game still hasn’t come around at the NHL level and he took a few too many penalties last season (52 penalty minutes). At this point, it seems that he is who he is at this level and won’t develop further. He’ll be hoping to have an impressive season as he’s in the final season of his contract though he will be a restricted free agent. McLeod will want to prove that he can be a part of the core moving forward and get a raise over his current salary. The Devils can count on him to be a solid 4th-line center defensively that can use his speed on the penalty kill. Hopefully, he can take a bit more of a step offensively but I won’t hold my breath.
#16 - Reilly Walsh - RD - Age: 23 - 2022-23 Team: Utica Comets (AHL) - 2021 Rank: 17 - Elite Prospects Profile
Just missing out on a top 15 spot, but still moving up in our rankings, is Reilly Walsh. The 6’0”, 185 lbs. offensive defenseman was drafted by the Devils in the 3rd round of the 2017 Draft. At the time he was coming off of a productive draft season that saw him excel in prep hockey in New Hampshire and gain experience with the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League (USHL). He then spent the next 3 seasons as a key player for Harvard in the NCAA, appearing in 96 games and posting 27 goals and 51 assists for 0.81 points per game rate. He was set to return to Harvard for his senior season but the pandemic changed his plans and he turned pro for the 2020-21 season with Binghamton in the AHL. He was solid as a rookie with 5 goals and 10 assists in 33 games.
Last season, Walsh took his game to another level with Utica in the AHL, appearing in 70 games with 9 goals and 34 assists. Among AHL defensemen he finished tied-7th in assists, 6th in points, and tied-11th in points per game (0.61). Among U23 defensemen he was 2nd in points and was tied-3rd in points per game. According to Pick224, among Utica’s 7 primary defensemen, Walsh led the team in primary points per game (0.31), EV primary points per game (0.19), and was 2nd in PP primary points per game (0.13). Walsh earned a one-game call-up to the NHL where he had an assist to start his career with New Jersey.
Walsh is entering his age 23 season and will be looking to break through to the NHL level. I do suspect he will start the season with Utica but a strong camp could force his way onto New Jersey’s roster. Unlike Okhotiuk or Bahl, Walsh brings a strong offensive element to the ice and is a right-handed shot. If the Devils want more offense from their blue line then Walsh figures to get a solid look at some point this season. He is entering the final season of his entry-level contract and will look to take the next step in 2022-23.
Rankings & Your Take
For full disclosure, here is how everyone ranked the players in this post:
Stay tuned as we continue to release these rankings in sets of 5 every week. Where did you have these players ranked? What do you think of the development of the AHL-based players in this group? Which of these players do you expect to make an impact with New Jersey in both the short and long term? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!