The time has come to release the Top 5 from the 2022 AATJ Top 25 Devils Under 25. This group includes four forwards and a defenseman. These four forwards are important players for New Jersey and a part of their long-term core. The defenseman is a college hockey star player and will likely jump to the NHL in 2023-24. Let’s take a look at who these players are.
An impressive rookie season last year for the Devils sees Dawson Mercer earn a top 5 ranking. The 6’0”, 181 lbs. forward capable of playing center or right wing was drafted by the Devils in the 1st round of the 2020 Draft. At that time, he was coming off of a 2019-20 season that saw him produce 24 goals and 36 assists in 42 games between Drummondville and Chicoutimi in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). Those 60 points ranked 4th among first-time draft-eligible players in the QMJHL and his 1.43 points per game rate ranked 3rd among that group. Mercer was also a member of Canada’s Gold Medal-winning U20 team at the 2020 U20 World Junior Championship (WJC). He would spend the 2020-21 season with Chicoutimi, serving as an alternate captain, and posting 19 goals and 17 assists in 23 regular season games as well as 6 goals and 11 assists in 9 playoff games. His 1.57 points per game rate ranked 4th among all QMJHL players that season. His performance that season earned him numerous honors including QMJHL First All-Star Team, QMJHL Best Defensive Forward, and QMJHL Most Sportsmanlike Player. He represented Canada at the 2021 U20 WJC where he had 2 goals and 4 assists in 7 games as they won a Silver Medal.
Last season, Mercer played in every game for New Jersey. As a rookie in his age 20 season, Mercer was solid with 17 goals and 25 assists. Those 42 points ranked 8th among U21 players in the NHL last season. Evolving Hockey had his offensive impact ranked in the 53rd percentile among all players. Mercer spent most of his 5v5 time (201 minutes) at right wing on a line with Yegor Sharangovich and Jack Hughes. He also had success centering Jesper Bratt and Andreas Johnsson (170 minutes) as well as Tomas Tatar and Johnsson (116 minutes) as the team’s 3rd line center. His line with Johnsson and Bratt had success in 35 games together according to Evolving Hockey with a 59.21 Goals For% (GF%), 52.81 Corsi For% (CF%), and 59.69 Expected Goals For% (59.69).
The future is bright for Mercer as he’s set to enter his age 21 season. He’s already proven he can provide secondary scoring at the NHL level and should only get better as he gets more experience. His defensive game should improve as he gets stronger and more comfortable with the level. As a rookie, he proved he could handle centering the 3rd line or jumping up into the top 6 as a right wing. This versatility should help the Devils going forward as they can either pack an impressive 1-2-3 punch down the middle of Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Mercer or try to bolster their top 6 with all of those players in it. Ondrej Palat and Sharangovich should have the top 6 left wing roles on lock and Bratt one of the right wing spots. Mercer will face competition for a top 6 right wing spot with Alexander Holtz, Johnsson, and Tatar. I expect Holtz to get a significant look at that spot so I think it’s more likely Mercer is utilized as the 3rd line center going forward. Hopefully, he can build off of his strong rookie season.
#4 - Luke Hughes - LD - Age: 19 - 2022-23 Team: University of Michigan (NCAA) - 2021 Rank: 9 - Elite Prospects Profile
Jumping into the top 5 and even earning a 1st place vote is a talented defenseman, Luke Hughes. Elite Prospects list Hughes at 6’2”, 183 lbs. though his profile on Michigan’s roster now has him at 190 lbs. The Devils drafted Hughes with the 4th overall pick in the 2021 Draft. His draft season of 2020-21, saw Hughes star for the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP) with 6 goals and 28 assists in 38 games for the U18 team. Overall, his 0.90 points per game rate ranked 5th in USNTDP history among defensemen that played in at least 30 games in a season.
Hughes was born on September 9, 2003, which made him one of the youngest players available in the 2021 Draft class. This also meant he had plenty of runway left to go in terms of his development, even compared to players in his same class. Last season, Hughes starred for Michigan in the NCAA as a freshman with 17 goals and 22 assists in 41 games. He led all defensemen in goals and points. Over the past 10 NCAA seasons, among U19 defensemen, Hughes’ 0.95 points per game rate ranked 3rd, just behind Adam Fox (1.14 in 2016-17) and Zach Werenski (1.00 in 2015-16). Hughes ended up being a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award which goes to the Top Collegiate Player. He received numerous honors such as Big 10 All-Rookie Team, Big 10 Co-Rookie of the Year, Big 10 Second All-Star Team, and was a Big 10 Champion with Michigan.
Hughes also continued to gain international experience. In the rescheduled U20 WJC, Hughes had a goal and 5 assists and was named a Top 3 Player on Team for the United States. He also played in the World Championships (WC) last spring where he got a chance to play against players with professional experience. He had a goal and 3 assists in 10 games for the US.
Hughes is set to be a key player once again for Michigan in 2022-23. He’ll wear an “A” as an alternate captain for the team and figures to play a top pairing role as a sophomore. This is a nice step up from his 2nd pairing role on the right side as a freshman. Hughes is capable of playing on either side of the ice and I look forward to him gaining experience in all situations. His offensive game is already well displayed through his excellent skating, vision, and ability to transition through all zones. I’m intrigued to see how his defensive game develops as a sophomore especially now that he’s packed on more muscle.
#3 - Jesper Bratt - LW/RW - Age: 24 - 2022-23 Team: New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2021 Rank: 3 - Elite Prospects Profile
Jesper Bratt retains his 3rd place ranking for another year. By now, we all know the story of Bratt’s quick ascension to the NHL after being a 6th-round pick in the 2016 Draft. The 5’10”, 174 lbs. forward capable of playing on either wing rose quickly through the AIK system in Sweden. His draft season of 2015-16 saw him contribute in the Allsvenskan (2nd division) with 8 goals and 9 assists in 48 games which were the most by a U18 player. He helped Sweden to a Silver Medal at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament with 3 goals and 2 assists in 5 games. He also produced for Sweden’s team at the U18 WJC with 2 goals and 2 assists in 7 games as they would go on to win a Silver Medal. Bratt would follow up that impressive draft year with another solid season in 2016-17 which would prove to be his last in Sweden. That season, Bratt posted 6 goals and 16 assists in 46 games for AIK, showing them he was comfortable at the professional level.
Bratt would earn a role on the Devils at the age of 19 in 2017-18. As a rookie, he had 13 goals and 22 assists with an average ice time of 15:15 per game. His production would finish around the 30-point mark for the next 3 seasons (33 points in 2018-19, 32 points in 2019-20, and 30 points in 2020-21). That doesn’t take into account games played as his points per game rate fluctuated from 0.65 in 2018-19, to 0.53 in 2019-20, to 0.65 in 2020-21. The signs were there that a healthy season from Bratt in 2021-22 could be his breakout and that proved true.
Last season, Bratt posted career highs in games (76), goals (26), assists (47), points (73), points per game (0.96), and average ice time (17:26). Evolving Hockey had his overall impact in the 91st percentile thanks to his offensive game that ranked in the 93rd percentile. Bratt was a real asset at both even strength and on the power play. He also proved to be a versatile player whose playmaking skills could fit in well throughout the lineup. He played about 170 minutes at 5v5 with Johnsson and Mercer according to Evolving Hockey, with that line having a 59.21 GF%, 52.81 CF%, and 59.69 xGF%. In about 167 minutes with Hughes and Sharangovich, that line had just a 44.26 GF% but 57.07 CF% and 59.53 xGF%. His 3rd most common line was with Hischier and Pavel Zacha where in about 155 minutes, the trio had a 65.74 GF%, 56.36 CF%, and 62.91 xGF%. That strong performance earned him a one-year, $5.45 million contract for the upcoming season.
Bratt figures to be a key player for New Jersey in 2022-23, perhaps only behind Jack Hughes in terms of expectations from an offensive production standpoint. While the team seems set with their top 6 left wings, Bratt’s versatility to play either wing could allow them to experiment with different combinations in training camp. I expect Bratt to further build upon his breakout season and perhaps become a point-per-game player in 2022-23. He’s set to be a restricted free agent once again and it will be interesting to see if he and the team can agree to a long-term deal after this season.
#2 - Nico Hischier - C - Age: 23 - 2022-23 Team: New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2021 Rank: 2 - Elite Prospects Profile
Captain Nico Hischier retains his 2nd place ranking. The 6’1”, 174 lbs. center from Switzerland has quickly become an important player for the team since being selected with the 1st overall pick in the 2017 Draft. He quickly made the jump from the QMJHL (where he had 86 points in 57 games in 2016-17) to the NHL in 2017-18. As a rookie, he had 20 goals and 32 assists with an average ice time of 16:19 as he appeared in all 82 games for the team. Injuries would limit him over the next 3 seasons as he had 47 points in 69 games 2018-19, 36 points in 58 games in 2019-20, and 11 points in 21 games in 2020-21. Overall, his points per game rate went from 0.68 in 2018-19, to 0.62 in 2019-20, to 0.52 in 2020-21. Hischier was named captain during the 2020-21 season which speaks to how highly the organization thinks about his leadership and intangibles to go along with on-ice skills.
Last season, Hischier was able to play in 70 games with 21 goals and 39 assists with an average ice time of 19:21. His 0.86 points per game rate ranked 8th among U24 forwards (minimum 50 games played). Evolving Hockey had his overall rating in the 78th percentile with his offensive game being in the 74th percentile and his defensive game in the 58th percentile. His even-strength play was effective on both ends of the rink, he had a positive impact on the power play, and his impact on the penalty kill would look better if the Devils had some better goaltending. He spent most of his 5v5 time last year centering Bratt and Zacha or Tatar and Zacha. In about 155 minutes with Bratt and Zacha, the trio had a 65.74 GF%, 56.36 CF%, and 62.91 xGF% according to Evolving Hockey.
The Devils will look to Hischier to lead this team back to the playoffs in 2022-23. With Jack Hughes centering the top line and carrying the offensive load, the team can utilize Hischier in several ways. They could have him center the 2nd line as they rely on his experience and skill to bolster their attack. They could have him center a more defensively oriented line, thus allowing Mercer’s line to be deployed in more offensive situations since Hischier is the better defensive center at the moment compared to Mercer. Either way, the Devils will be expecting big things in all areas of the ice from Hischier in 2022-23.
#1 - Jack Hughes - C - Age: 21 - 2022-23 Team: New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2021 Rank: 1 - Elite Prospects Profile
As I’m sure many expected, Jack Hughes once again tops the Top 25 Under 25 list. The elite, 5’11”, 176 lbs. center has become a star player for the Devils since they took him 1st overall in the 2019 Draft. The USNTDP product excelled in his draft year of 2018-19 with 34 goals and 78 assists in 50 games for the U18. His 112 points and 2.24 points per game rate set a record for USNTDP players in their first year of draft eligibility. That season also saw Hughes captain the USA at the U18 WJC where he had 9 goals and 11 assists in 7 games as they won a Bronze Medal. For that, he was named to the tournament All-Star Team and was a Top 3 Player on Team. He also won a Silver Medal with the USA at the U20 WJC where he had 4 assists in 4 games. Hughes also played in 7 games for the USA at the World Championship.
Since joining the Devils as an 18-year-old in 2019-20, Hughes has consistently upped his production every season, though injuries have limited his availability. In his rookie season in 2019-20, Hughes had 7 goals and 14 assists in 61 games with an average ice time of 15:52 per game. Those numbers may not jump off the page but considering he was jumping from the USDP/USHL to the NHL, they were solid. In 2020-21, Hughes was able to build upon his rookie season with 11 goals and 20 assists in 56 games with an average ice time of 19:04. He seemed set for a big campaign in 2021-22 and he didn’t disappoint.
Last season, Hughes solidified his spot at the top line center for the Devils with 26 goals and 30 assists in 49 games with an average ice time of 19:34 per game. His Evolving Hockey card had his overall impact in the 90th percentile with his offensive impact in the 86th percentile. Notably, his even strength and power play offensive impact were areas where he excelled due to his excellent skating, mobility, transitional game, vision, and playmaking ability. Hughes has also shown the ability to draw penalties at an impressive rate while also being a player that stays out of the box. His strong performance also led to his first career All-Star selection. Hughes mostly centered Sharangovich and Mercer last season but also saw significant time with Sharangovich and Bratt together. Regardless, whoever he plays with gets better due to Hughes’ ability to drive play and create scoring chances.
Back on November 30, 2021, the Devils signed Hughes to an 8-year extension worth $64 million that starts with the 2022-23 season. Also, last season Hughes started to wear an “A” for the team clearly showing that they value him both on and off the ice as a leader. Hughes should continue to be the focal point of the Devils’ offense going forward. I’m looking forward to him reaching even greater heights in his 4th NHL season and hope he can help carry this team back to the playoffs.
Rankings & Your Take
For full disclosure, here is how everyone ranked the players in this post:
Thank you to everyone in the AATJ community and the writers for participating in ranking players for this year’s list. Now that the top 5 have been revealed, tell us where you had these players ranked. Did any of these rankings surprise you? What are you expecting out of these players in the upcoming season and beyond? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!