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New Jersey Devils Prospect Update: Five Prospects Poised to “Breakout” in 2023-24

Josh Filmon, Graeme Clarke, Nolan Foote and Topias Vilen had breakout seasons last year, while other Devils prospects such as Artem Shlaine and Zakhar Bardakov took big leaps in their development. Who will follow this year? These are my top five candidates for a break out season in 2023-24.

Syndication: The Record Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com / USA TODAY NETWORK

With little hockey to be played, speculation summer is well underway. On this week’s prospect update, we try our hand on speculating which Devils prospects might “breakout” this year. Let’s delve in.

Samu Salminen

After dominating the lower Finnish leagues, Samu Salminen made his North American debut this past season with the University of Connecticut, where he finished the year with 17 points in 27 games. By all accounts, Salminen had a fine freshman campaign for UConn, though not as good as younger freshman Mathew Wood, who was taken 15th overall in this year’s draft by Nashville after putting up 26 points in 25 games.

Like most players his age (Salminen turned 20 in April), Salminen is growing and now stands at 6’3 and 190 pounds. Salminen’s game is growing as well. Visa issues derailed Salminen’s start of the season, causing him to miss the first few games and camp with his new collegiate team. That, plus an adjustment to North American ice, contributed to a slow start for the former third round pick, who put up only two points (a goal and an assist) in his first eight games. After that, Salminen caught fire producing at a nearly .8 pts/g pace, even earning time on the University of Connecticut’s top line.

Josh Reinitz of the Hockey Writers said this about Samu Salimen in his article about the Devils prospect camp.

Salminen fills a need that the Devils do not currently have on their roster, a huge, mobile center. at 6-foot-4, he would be the tallest center on the roster. Combine that with his speed and playmaking and he may end up being another draft day steal for the Devils. — Josh Reinitz for TheHockeyWriters.Com.

Salimen’s speed was one of the bigger concerns when he was drafted, but the big center seems to be picking up his speed as he grows into his frame. Although Salminen will never be confused for Miles Wood racing down the ice, to be effective in his role, he doesn’t need to be. Per an interview with Peter Robinson of NHL.com, Salminen is poised to take on a bigger roll for UConn this season. With Salminen’s terrific shot and offensive toolkit, a bigger role should translate to bigger production. All in all, it makes Salminen my top candidate to breakout this year.

Seamus Casey

Some may argue that right-handed defenseman Seamus Casey has already “broken out” after a strong freshman campaign that saw the 19 year-old blueliner put up 29 points in 37 games for the University of Michigan and they would have a persuasive case. However, with the graduation of Luke Hughes to the Devils and Top 4 defenseman Keaton Pehrson, the University of Michigan will likely turn to Seamus Casey to play monster minutes next season.

Alex Drain of MGBlog agrees:

So that’s two players in the top four of this past season’s defense exiting, but fear not, Michigan faithful, as this is still a very deep defensive corps. The star figures to be sophomore Seamus Casey, who is in line for big point totals with Hughes out of the picture and ceding him the PP1 slot. After a strong freshman year and the brilliant Frozen Four goal, I can’t wait to see what Casey can do in year #2. [Alex Drain for MGBlog]

Casey’s opportunity leading the Wolverines PP was confirmed by head coach Brandon Naurato as reported by Mike G. Morreale for NHL.Com.

“As long as he’s at Michigan, he’ll be running the power play and running our offense from the blue line.” Brandon Naurato.

Seamus Casey may very well be a point per game or higher producer for the Wolverines this coming season and continue to turn heads with his offensive production. However, the real test for Seamus Casey’s NHL future will be the development of his defensive game. Per Morreale’s article, Casey said his goal is to add “ten pounds of muscle” (this summer) and the extra strength should help him in all aspects of his game. Hopefully, the added muscle will help him in the corners and in the more physical aspects of his game.

Cole Brown

As a sixth round pick in this past year’s entry draft, Cole Brown has a long way to go to viability. Brown was one of my five takeaways from development camp last week after a strong showing in the 5 on 5 scrimmage. Much like Nolan Foote and Josh Filmon, Brown’s bread and butter is his shot, which he showcased in camp sniping a couple of goals.

Last season in the OHL, Brown had 17 goals and 42 points in 60 games for the Hamilton Bulldogs, doubling his production from his first season. Whether Brown follows in Filmon’s footsteps remain to be seen, but with an increased role likely in his D+1 year, there is still plenty of runway for his production to pop. Brown is more of a “gut feel” pick for me on this list more than anything else, so take it for whatever it’s worth, but I like his chances to put himself on the radar this season.

Cam Squires

Cam Squires may be the most likely to breakout on this list. A late riser in this year’s draft, Squires went from being ranked 114th by Central Scouting in the midterm rankings to 56th when the final rankings were published. The Devils selected the energetic winger in the 4th round and may have found another later round gem.

Daniel Amoia already wrote an effective piece for the Hockey Writers on why the Devils may have “struck gold” with Squires and why he is such a good candidate to breakout this season, so I won’t rehash the entire article here. Amoia’s argument includes a lengthy Dawson Mercer comparison as both players touted similar numbers at this stage in their careers, possessed a high hockey IQ and developed a relentless motor and two-way game. I highly suggest everyone read the full article here. A few bullet point highlights from Amoia’s piece:

  • Squire’s production jumped from 34 points to 64 points in one season.
  • Squire’s has impressive hockey IQ.
  • Squire’s has yet to gain the muscle mass that should elevate him, but is likely to put that on this summer.
  • Squires played for an awful team. The Eagles were 44-81-7-4 last year since Squires joined the team. Playing for such a poor team hurt Squire’s production.
  • Squire’s scored 30 goals, which has only been done four times in team history by a player in their draft season.

If you need further evidence as to why Squires is more impressive than his draft pedigree suggests after reading Amoia’s article, I’ll leave you with this nugget pointed out by former scout Jason MacIsaac:

Lenni Hameenaho

The scout book on Lenni Hameenaho consistently refers to the 6’0 winger as a “safe” likely future third-line winger. For details, please reread John Fischer’s excellent write-up on the prospect prior to the NHL draft. While that may be true, I believe there may still be another gear inside the hard-nosed winger.

As observed by Eetu Siltanen in Nick Richard’s profile on Hameenaho for Dobber.

He has some solid puck skills and a good shot, but he hasn’t been a volume shooter so far in his Liiga career. Hämeenaho looks like a good prospect with a safe floor but he also has some intriguing upside and untapped potential. Eetu Siltanen

Hameenaho tallied 9 goals and 21 points in 51 games for the Liiga in his draft year. As John Fischer noted in his profile of Hameenaho.

Juraj Slafkovsky had 10 points in 33 games with TPS in 2021-22. Brad Lambert had 7 goals and 15 points in 45 games with JYP in 2020-21. Aatu Räty had three goals and six points in 35 games with Kärpät in 2020-21. Anton Lundell had nine goals and 19 points with HIFK in 2018-19. - John Fischer for Allaboutthejersey.Com

John Fischer rightfully points out that “points aren’t everything,” which is definitely true, especially when it comes to prospects across different leagues, but they are a helpful indication, especially when comparing other prospects in the same league. Hameenaho is a smart hockey player, noted for his hockey IQ. He played the hard, gritty, style of game he had to play in order to be effective in the top division men’s Liiga as a 17-year-old. If Hameenaho can increase his breakaway speed and utilize his shot more for Assat this season in an increased role, an elevation to his game should follow.

Plus, Hameenaho has some pretty slick hands.

Bonus Picks

I also considered Russian defenseman Daniil Orlov and Czech winger Petr Hauser for this list. Orlov had a strong start last year and at one point very early on led all Devils prospects in PNHLe before injuries derailed his campaign. Going against a breakout for Orlov this season; however, is the way Russia tends to manage young defensemen in the KHL. Orlov will likely not get the opportunities this season playing for Spartak Moskva that he had in the MHL and VHL. Much like Daniil Misyul, this may make Orlov’s progression more difficult to track.

Peter Hauser could also breakout this year. Hauser looked stronger and quicker in prospect development camp than he had in previous years and he will need to be in order to earn his opportunities playing for HC Sparta in the top Czech league, where he had zero points in eight games last season. Hauser is a large, hard forechecking winger, who’s path to the NHL would be that of a bottom six checking role. Hauser will need to show that he can first be productive in the top Czech league before earning that opportunity.

FINAL THOUGHTS

First, an editorial note. I left players such as Alexander Holtz off this list as he needs to “break in” to the NHL, more so than breakout in his development at the lower levels. With that caveat, now it is time to tell us what you think. Post meaningful and constructive comments below.