After the NHL Draft concludes, I like to write up an overview post going over my thoughts, feelings, and general reaction to what the New Jersey Devils did. Themes and patterns tend to show up in whom the Devils take each year. Last year was about beefing up the defense, wherein they took five defensemen out of eight picks. In 2021, I felt the Devils reached too much for what was an underwhelming draft class after Luke Hughes. Thank you, Topias Vilén for giving that class more hope. This year: on-ice intelligence. The New Jersey Devils went to Nashville with six picks, only one within the first three rounds (which was at 58th overall in the second round), and decided to take players touted for their minds on the ice.
To be fair, this year’s draft was the least important for the New Jersey Devils in years. The rebuilding seasons are a thing of the past and absolutely cannot happen in 2023-24. General Manager Tom Fitzgerald deserves all of the kudos for what he has done in June already with New Jersey. Let me remind you of the hits. A sign-and-trade of Damon Severson to Columbus for Calgary’s third rounder; and later sending that third rounder and Yegor Sharangovich to Calgary for Tyler Toffoli. Sending Mackenzie Blackwood to San Jose for a 2023 sixth rounder - a return better than what Tampa Bay got dumping Corey Perry to Chicago (a 7th rounder in 2024) and possibly better than what Philly got for sending Kevin Hayes and 50% retention of salary to St. Louis (a 6th rounder in 2024). Re-signing Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier to reasonable contracts. Giving Erik Haula a raise and some stability in his career. To this end, does it matter what Fitzgerald does at this year’s draft? For a team already set to contend in 2023-24? Not really.
I will caution the Devils and the People Who Matter who handwave away the draft entirely. I can agree it is great to not have to start to get very familiar with prospects in January for a change. However, drafting well is worthwhile for contending teams. Being able to stockpile talent to backfill roster spots if/when players want to leave or become too expensive to keep is very valuable. As is having prospects to trade away instead of one of those players. Because of past drafts, Fitzgerald was able to get Timo Meier from a rebuilding San Jose team without giving up one of their top prospects (e.g. Luke Hughes, Simon Nemec) or top young players (e.g. Dawson Mercer, Kevin Bahl). That is a credit to having a deeper pool. And it can be done even when the team is picking late. Just look at Carolina, who keeps swinging on offensively talented prospects and being able to move them and/or build them up as needed. The Devils’ proverbial window is open and could be open for the rest of the decade. However, if the Devils want to extend that window out, then doing well at the NHL Draft will be the cheapest and easiest way to do so.
This is all to say that I do not think very highly of this draft class on its own. How can I? The Devils had one pick within the first three rounds and used four of the remaining ones in the following rounds. It is unlikely any will be players to drive the team to further success - not that the Devils really need that right now. If two or more of those picks ever see the NHL just for a single game, then it would be a successful pick. The Devils opted to swing on players noted for their “hockey IQ,” presumably with the idea that knowing what to do, reading what is going on, and knowing where to be can make up for other flaws in one’s game. Which I can agree with. That said, none of these picks should be seen with really high expectations beyond “making it is a goal.”
- 2nd round, 58th overall: Lenni Hämeenaho - I did a prospect profile on him as well as the post about his selection. He is a safe choice as a winger. He’s smart on the ice, he gets to the “dirty” areas, and he is already a pro in Finland. Someone who can probably make it but perhaps not much higher than a bottom-six role. Especially with his skating. Which is fine for 58th overall. He was projected to go around where he was picked and he was. I would have preferred a bigger swing on Reily Haidt, Gracyn Sawchyn, or even Kohen Zimmer. I liked this pick all the same.
- 4th round 122nd overall: Cam Squires - Chris pointed out that the Cape Breton winger significantly improved on his production season-over-season. It was also noted that he works hard, he forechecks, and he is smart on the ice. It is also a nice bonus that he cares about his community. If he makes it, great, but it may not be much more than a hard-working winger that is a fan favorite for his humanitarian activities. Which would be more than fine for 122nd overall.
- 5th round, 154th overall: Chase Cheslock - This defenseman came from Minnesota high school, Rogers High, while also playing for St. Cloud in the NAHL and Omaha in the USHL last season. He is large. He is more of a defensive player than an offensive one. But Elite Prospects highlighted his IQ along with his ability to kill offensive plays, which adds to the theme of the class. Cheslock is very much a project pick as he is set to go to St. Thomas in 2024-25. The Devils can let him cook for a while. By then, the hope is that he can be a pro defender. Which, again, great even if it is little more than a depth role. At this point, this was the third-straight right-shooting player for the Devils. This was broken with the next pick.
- 6th round, 164th overall: Cole Brown - Cole Brown continues the Devils’ running streak of taking OHL players as he played for Hamilton last season. He also shoots left. He has a good size and is described with a simple power forward-like game. The skill may be limited, as per Brock Otten’s assessment of the player, but sticking to what he does best and doing so consistently is, well, smart.
- 6th round, 186th overall: Daniil Karpovich - Karpovich is my favorite of the picks from the fourth round onward. I actually like them for what they are. But Karpovich is the kind of swing that I am pleased to see the Devils take. A MHL defenseman who is apparently out of contract now who scored a heap of points for his team. So much so he finished fourth in the league in scoring. This is not to say he could only score. He is big enough to be effective physically and smart enough to play big minutes at his age. Granted, there are questions about the quality of the competition he faced in the MHL. And, as he is Belarussian, he certainly has not had the chance to be tested internationally. Still, this is a player with at least the results to show that what he has been doing is successful. If he gets tested and blossoms, then this could be a real find. But, again, even if he just makes spot appearances in the future, it’s a win because it’s 186th overall. This pick also extends the streak of players picked out of the KHL/MHL.
Those were the picks. By the way, the link goes to not only the post for each one but also a poll. The results of that poll will be collected tomorrow and the results will be posted on Sunday.
Concluding Thoughts on the 2023 NHL Draft
Do not misunderstand me. I do not hate or dislike these picks. I think they were good picks for where they were. It is just not a flashy or particularly exciting one. Which is what you would expect for a team that had one pick within the first 93 picks. Had Heidt, Sawchyn, or even Zimmer been picked at 58th overall, then it would be a flashier class with one real intriguing talent to follow and garner praise from others. (Aside: I’d love to know why those three fell so far.) But that’s the thing. The Devils do not need a flashy draft class. They do not need a first-line winger or a top-four defenseman or a strong complementary player for the middle-six. The Devils or the People Who Matter do not need the validation from Elite Prospects or Dobber Prospects or talking head about the prospect pool. The Devils in 2023 are not the Devils of 2022 (or 2021 or 2020 or 2019...). If they can find some pro players out of this group, then great. They clearly had a goal to pick players known for their smartness on the ice in one way or another and they met it. Now it is up to the organization and, more importantly, the player to develop to be the best player possible.
There are two other notable parts about this draft for the Devils. The first is that one streak ended today in Nashville. The Devils did not draft a goaltender. Despite this draft class not being strong for goalies, 26 were taken. This included Italy’s top prospect in years (ever?) in Damien Clara, French goalie Antoine Keller, Kazakh goalie Vladimir Nikitin, German goalie Arno Tiefensee, and many more from all over the world, such as two goalies from American high school hockey (Hampton Slukynsky, Rudy Guimond). None were taken by the Devils. This ends a run from 2015 to 2022 of the Devils drafting at least one in each draft. That run was Mackenzie Blackwood, Evan Cormier, Gilles Senn, Akira Schmid, Cole Brady, Nico Daws, Jakub Málek, and Tyler Brennan. All things have to come to an end.
The second is that the Devils did not use their seventh round draft pick. It was 216th overall, literally the seventh-last pick in the whole draft. Today was going to be the last draft for David Poile, who was Nashville’s original and only general manager up until this coming season. Fitzgerald was picked by Poile in the expansion draft and was named Nashville’s first captain. Fitzgerald has mentioned he’d like to be his last trade with Poile. So it happened. He gave Nashville their seventh round pick for Nashville’s seventh round pick in 2024. Chris wrote it up here. There was video of the event, too. The trade was announced at the podium with context, Fitzgerald went over to give Poile a hug, and a photo was taken of Fitzgerald, Poile, and Barry Trotz (the next GM of Nashville). Poile received an ovation from the draft floor and then proceeded to pick Aiden Fink, a 5’9”, 153 pound winger from Brooks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Did the Devils need to use their seventh round pick? No. Do seventh round picks often become pro players? No. Was it worth a goodwill gesture? Yeah. This is the kind of thing others in the NHL take note of and it can only help Fitzgerald down the line. It also furthers the notion that the organization does care about others (also demonstrated with letting Severson and other UFAs talk with other teams early). And the Devils will have a seventh next year so that makes it more than fine to do.
Several of the People Who Matter did not care very much for the 2023 NHL Draft. Even more were pleased to not have to care very much for the 2023 NHL Draft. To that end, a perfectly acceptable slate of five prospects being added is, well, perfectly acceptable to me. Draft grades for New Jersey may not be high and that is fine. OK is OK. C’s get degrees and all that. I do want the Devils and their scouting department to keep identifying talented players that can be developed as it is only to their organization’s benefit to do so. If Hämeenaho, Squires, Cheslock, Brown, and/or Karpovich become pros and eventually make it to New Jersey, then great. I will be quite happy about it. Is it essential that they do? No, and that is the difference with this year. And it is a welcome difference.
What is next is very soon. Tomorrow, qualifying offers are due by 5 PM ET and the first buyout window closes. Saturday is Free Agency Frenzy. Jared will have a free agency preview up tomorrow morning. I will have an open post for all of the action, good and bad, on July 1 this Saturday. Hockey does not stop. Not at All About the Jersey. Not for the New Jersey Devils. Not for anyone.
I want to thank James, Chris, Gerard, Jared, Mike, Alex, and Matt for their support throughout the offseason preparation. I want to especially thank James for helping me with the prospect profile organization for this year as well as Chris for helping me on the second day of the draft. I want to thank the staff at Elite Prospects, the staff at Smaht Scouting, the prospect staff at The Hockey Writers, the staff at Dobber Prospects, Gabriel Foley, Steven Ellis, Chris Peters, Brock Otten, Steve Kournianos, and everyone else who follows, writes, quips, clips, and discusses hockey prospects all year round.
Most of all, and as ever, I want to thank you - the People Who Matter - for your support throughout this very busy offseason for the Devils. Everyone who followed along in the open posts, read the profiles, read the free agent previews, reacted to all of the picks, reacted to all of the good moves made by Fitzgerald so far, and reading this post-draft opinion piece. You are the Devils fans and you will always matter at All About the Jersey. Thank you for reading.