The community vote for the twelfth All About the Jersey Top 25 Devils Under 25 list will end on Tuesday. Votes will be tabulated in the following days between the votes from the People Who Matter and the writers (who obviously matter). Next week, we will reveal who missed out on the Top 25 out of the 42 players ranked this year and the first five of the Top 25 from 25th to 21st. Ahead of those dates and the closure of the poll, I want to explore a common question from these lists: How many of these guys make it to the NHL much less the New Jersey Devils?
It is true that many of the People Who Matter are not necessarily going to know enough about every young player in the system to feel comfortable ranking them. It is also part of the point of the ranking at all. The Top 25 list is not meant to be judgment of whether a young player is going to be someone at the New Jersey level or not. It is an exercise in perception. If you rank a player low and he becomes a future NHL player, then the reaction should not be “how did I get this wrong?” It should be one of celebration. A player that rose up and took a spot in the greatest league in the world is something to exalt.
Of course, taking a spot can mean different things. Your mileage may vary as far as how you define success. For the sake of this post, I will focus on games played in the NHL. This is because a lot of prospective players do not even play in a single NHL game. And there is a world of difference between someone who has received a couple of call-ups and someone who has become a regular on the team. Further, there are a handful of players who did not make much of their mark in New Jersey but have had a notable career - even if for a little bit.
To that end, I went through every single player who has ever been named in a Top 25 Under 25 list since 2012 to find out how many have actually made it and broke that down into various levels of “making it” based on games played. I want to thank Hockey-Reference and HockeyDB as sources for each player.
How Many Have Made It At All?
Over the last 12 years, 153 different players were involved in at least one of the Top 25 Devils Under 24 rankings. 40 have made it to the list one time; most of these were acquired players who were close to aging out (they were 24) or did not last long in the organization as they were on one season contracts to see what they could do. Eight players have been on it for seven lists; only two remains with the team today: Jesper Bratt and Michael McLeod. Nico Hischier will join this short group in 2023 for his seventh and final ranking.
Out of the 153 players, 81 of them have appeared in at least one NHL game. For many, this is making it. This is evidence that they have shown up in the greatest league in the world - even if it was just for a short time. Incidentally, 76 of those 81 appeared in at least one game for New Jersey. Brandon Baddock (1 GP with Montreal, yes, seriously), Viktor Lööv (4 GP with Toronto), Jeremy Davies (23 GP with Nashville and Buffalo) Brandon Gormley (58 GP between Arizona and Colorado), and Alexander Kerfoot (442 GP! across Toronto and Colorado) are the five that made it to the NHL but never in a Devils uniform. Kerfoot is clearly the exception. He was a Harvard standout that opted to sign with Colorado after letting his signing rights end after his senior year. He has put together a very fine career. Far more than Baddock, Lööv, Gormley, and Davies.
I find this to be interesting that over half (52.9% to be precise) of whoever has been in a Top 25 Under 25 list made it to the NHL. I do think the acqusition of 23-24 year old players helped a lot with that. Most were obtained with the purpose of playing in the NHL. Whether that was the famous Larsson-for-Hall trade, flipping a pick for Kyle Palmieri, signing Will Butcher out of college, getting Andrei Loktionov, signing Sergey Kalinin out of the KHL, acquiring John Hayden, obtaining Beau Bennett, signing Vojtech Mozik out of Europe or getting Devante Smith-Pelly, there was an intention to play such players.
What also helped was that the Devils were just not very good for most of the time we have done these lists. For most of 2012 through 2023, the Devils’ season was effectively over well before the trade deadline. This gives an organization more of a reason to just try some players out with little risk. Add in a need due to injuries and so that is how a cavalcade of guys get cups of coffee in the NHL. I doubt Ben Thomson, Mike Sislo, Joey Whitney, Michael Kapla, Blake Speers, Brandon Gignac, Raman Hrabarenka, Gilles Senn, or Harri Pesonen would get an opportunity on what was a better team at that time.
It is because of this group, I think a more narrow definition of “making it” is needed. It is great that, say, Josh Jacobs made it into two NHL games - and with New Jersey. It is a stretch to say he “made it” given that those two were his only NHL appearances so far and likely ever.
How Many Have Made It By Different Definitions of Making It?
This is where games played becomes more a deciding factor. Sure, a player may not play a lot of minutes or be asked to do a lot. But we do not look at a fourth line forward or a third-pairing defenseman who has been in the NHL for more than a bit and say, “He didn’t make it.” No, we say he is a NHL player. How long does it take for that to happen may depend on your viewpoint. To that end, I will present you some breakdowns. Remember: 153 different players have appeared on an AAtJ Top 25 Devils Under 25 List since 2012. Knowing that 81 have made it, here’s the breakdown of that group.
Less than 10 Games: 14 with the Devils, 15 total. Roughly 9.8% of the total of 153 are in this group.
This is where Thomson, Whitney, Kapla, Speers, etc. ended up. Also, Luke Hughes but that should change really, really soon. Incidentally, the highest rated out of all of these that is not named Luke Hughes was Speers, who took 9th in the 2017 ranking. Speers did have a big 2016-17 with a WJC appearance, 3 games with New Jersey out of camp, and a couple of games with Albany after his OHL season ended. Alas, that was his peak. A great season for a prospect will usually shoot them up the rankings. But it is a lesson that a great season could just be that.
Less than 82 games, more than 10: 30 with the Devils, 22 total. Roughly 14.4% of the total of 153 are in this group.
This is not a mistake. It is possible for a player to play less than 82 games with the Devils but exceed it in their NHL career. For example, Colton White. His call-ups with New Jersey totaled 38 games as a Devil. White has been toiling on Anaheim and is now up to 84 games played in his career after 2022-23. For a second example, Joseph Blandisi played in 68 games with the Devils and is sitting at 101 total NHL games played. For a third example, A.J. Greer only got 10 games worth of action as a Devil but has 108 total games played as he has fit in Boston.
Anyway, the total is the more interesting number as it represents players who have done more than just get a few games but not yet enough to say they played a season’s worth of games in the NHL. Some likely will as this group of 22 includes 2023 Playoff Hero Akira Schmid, the recently re-signed Kevin Bahl, Alexander Holtz, and the Swole Swede himself Fabian Zetterlund, who missed the mark by 2 games with a total NHL GP of 81. It does include some players who really got a long look in New Jersey and nowhere else such as Mike Sislo, Nick Lappin, Blake Pietila, Seth Helgeson, and Matthew Corrente.
The highest rated player ever to be in this grouping is Alexander Urbom, who came in 5th in the first ranking in 2012. There was a lot of hope in the big Swedish defenseman as he was just getting into some games with New Jersey. Despite one outcry over losing him to waivers, Urbom never really stuck in the NHL with the Devils or the Capitals. He played a total of 34 NHL games - 14 with New Jersey - and moved back to European hockey in 2014 up until 2020-21. A lesson that the high ranking is not a guarantee. Something I think the People Who Matter have learned since then.
Less than 200 games, more than 82: 15 with the Devils, 21 total. Roughly 13.7% of the total of 153 are in this group.
This is for the group who have played for at least a season’s worth of games in the NHL, but perhaps not long enough to warrant being called a veteran or a regular, though. This group of 21 includes some who have moved on and out of the NHL like Andrei Loktionov, Janne Kuokkanen, Kalinin, Eric Gelinas and Mattias Tedenby. Some are still active and could get into more games such as Nathan Bastian, Mackenzie Blackwood (on another team), Jesper Boqvist (on another team), Ty Smith (on another team), and Dawson Mercer (who will definitely break it).
This is a group where you could say that they have made it and comfortably so. They were in the NHL for at least a season’s worth of games and being around for a little bit is often more substantial than a cup of coffee or an extended run out. I can respect it. I want to aim a little higher, though.
There were some high ranking players in this group. Blandisi, Smith, Steve Santini, Loktionov, Blackwood, Gelinas, Mercer, and Reid Boucher were all top 5 ranked players in various years of these lists. Loktionov was a one-and-done 3rd place finisher on the 2013 list, which was one of two community-poll only results. Blackwood has been on this list since his draft year in 2015 up until 2021. He peaked in 2020 when he came in third. At the opposite end, Greer is in this grouping with a total of 108 games played. He was a one-and-done player on this list; he came in at 35th in 2021. Greer was easily the lowest ranked player to get into this group.
More than 200 games: 17 with the Devils, 23 total. Roughly 15% of the total of 153 are in this group.
The undeniable successes - at least from a “making it” standpoint. Sure, the player may frustrate you like Pavel Zacha did for many of the People Who Matter. Sure, you may remember them more for their faults than their successes, like Damon Severson. Sure, the player may be limited as to what they could do, such as Miles Wood. Some may have you scratching your head like John Hayden. Some may end up not reaching original expectations but stuck around for one reason or another like Jon Merrill and Jacob Josefson. Some were surprises like Yegor Sharangovich and Blake Coleman. Some are future legends like The Big Deal, Nico Hischier, and (dare I suggest) Jesper Bratt. And some became absolute legends like Adam Henrique and Taylor Hall (he was 24 when one-for-one happened), the two to have exceeded 800 NHL games played. This the upper echelon of the players who have been on these lists since 2012.
Some of them were highly touted right from the start. Henrique, Hall, Palmieri, Larsson, Jack Hughes, Hischier, and Will Butcher never finished below 3rd in a single ranking. John Moore, Pavel Zacha, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Josefson never finished outside of the top ten. It helps to either be an established NHL player or a top pick to finish as high as these players did.
Others did rise from outside the top 25 to get into this group of 200+ NHL games played. Miles Wood entered the listing after the 2013 draft at 31st. He reached as high as fifth in 2018. Blake Coleman started at 17th in 2012 and fell to 26th in 2016 after injuries derailed his entry into pro hockey. Kerfoot never finished higher than 21st - and that did not matter. Sharangovich was a double-overage pick and fell from 24th to 29th in 2019. He did not really rise significantly until his amazing breakout in 2020-21. Kevin Rooney is easily the lowest ranked person in this group. Not only was he an older undrafted signed player, he did not feature much in the two years he was ranked: 38th and 40th. He is up to 227 NHL games, now with Calgary.
The biggest riser was one of the Devils who just got paid: Jesper Bratt. Jesper Bratt was rated 37th in 2016, which was right after his draft year. A sixth-round selection who was not even playing in Sweden’s best league was not likely going to be ranked high. He was not. But he made one big jump into 22nd in 2017. Bratt’s original plan was to join London in the OHL after he finished third in Allsvenskan scoring among U-19 players. Good enough to get attention but still be ranked lower on this list. After making the team in 2017-18 and a successful rookie season, he jumped further to 4th in 2018. In total, Bratt’s gain of 34 spots is the largest movement between highest and lowest rank of anyone in this list’s history so far. A meteoric rise relative to everyone else who has been on this list, past and present.
Again, what these players did - and still do - in the NHL varies. Michael McLeod, Hayden, Stefan Noesen, Wood, and Smith-Pelly were and are bottom-six forwards. Hall, Palmieri, Henrique (for multiple seasons), Bratt, Hischier, and Hughes were and are top-six forwards. I understand that role and whether the young player became as good as was hoped - Zacha remains the best example - will impact a fan’s perception of the player. However, this is why I prefer to use games played. If a NHL coach and a NHL team is willing to have the player on their roster and play in games this often, then that is a clear sign that they think they are good enough. We may disagree about that and/or how they are used. But if “making it” is going to mean anything, then we have to admit that all it takes is for the decision makers to decide that the player is actively playing in the NHL.
Final Thoughts & Your Take
The major lessons that I learned from this look back was that just getting into the NHL happened more times than I expected. I thought the percentage would be far less than 50%. Instead, just under 53% of all of the under-25 year old players we have ranked over the years have got into the NHL for at least one game. However, making it is often more than just one game. It could be argued that a minimum of 200 games played is too much or just over 10 is too loose. It is a debatable point, to be sure. I came away from this exercising thinking that 82 is a good rule of thumb as it reflects a season’s worth of games played. And it has to be independent of the player’s role or contribution since, again, the NHL coaches and management are the ones that ultimately decide who is in and out. Whether that is a fourth liner or the only Hart trophy winner in Devils history; both have clearly made it in this league.
Lastly, I would not stress out too much about the players - especially those that tend to end up deeper on these lists. Should a player put together a strong enough season - whether it is in junior, college, Europe, or Utica - they will get noticed in the next year. Getting an entry level contract, being a top tier player, doing well enough to get posts here written about them, and so forth - they all matter. The Top 25 Devils Under 25 list is an annual exercise of perception in the organization's depth. There is no definitive right answer. So vote away. You have until Tuesday at 11 AM to do so. And if you want to look back further at the history of these Top 25 Devils Under 25 lists, then feel free to peruse the Top 25 Under 25 subsection.