The annual community poll for the All About the Jersey Top 25 Devils Under 25 is open. It will be open until next Tuesday. Go forth and vote if you have not.
Among the comments I do see is a lack of understanding who some of these young players are and where they are in the larger set-up. The purpose of the Top 25 Devils Under 25 is to provide that perception. It would be easy for me or James or anyone else to come up with a list and provide our own justification. I think it is more valuable to get the opinions of the People Who Matter and the other writers and come up with an overall perception. By no means are these rankings an be-all, end-all decision as to whether a developing player is going to make it or not one day. After all, plenty of those who did not make the Top 25 have risen up in years and did get at least a taste of the NHL.
Either way, the New Jersey Devils organization has to manage all of the prospects in their system. This can be divided up into two groups: unsigned players in the organization and signed players in the organization. Let us discuss both in this post.
Signed Prospects & Young NHL Players
The signed players is pretty straight forward. They have contracts. If they play for New Jersey, they are a part of the team’s cap. If they are not with New Jersey, they are most likely in Utica. Simple. As they are under the age of 25, the vast majority of them are going to be restricted free agents at the end of their current contracts. All the team would need to do to keep them on the team is to qualify them and then re-sign them. In other words, the team has already committed to that player’s development to the point that they were willing to give them a contract.
Per CapFriendly, the Devils currently have the following 21 players under the age of 25 under a NHL contract. They are organized by when their contracts will end. All are on entry level contracts (ELCs) unless otherwise specified.
Expires after 2023-24 (next season), 10 players: (F) Dawson Mercer, (G) Akira Schmid, (F) Nolan Foote, (G) Nico Daws, (F) Brian Halonen, (F) Graeme Clarke, (F) Tyce Thompson (non-ELC), (D) Santeri Hatakka, (D) Michael Vukojevic, (F) Shane Bowers (non-ELC)
Expires after 2024-25 (two seasons), 4 players: (D) Luke Hughes, (D) Kevin Bahl (non-ELC), (F) Alexander Holtz, (D) Daniil Misyul
Expires after 2025-26 (three seasons), 5 players: (D) Simon Nemec (his contract can slide a season if he plays fewer than 10 NHL games in 2023-24), (D) Topias Vilén, (F) Josh Filmon (same as Nemec, his contract can slide too), (F) Chase Stillman, (G) Tyler Brennan
Expires after 2026-27 (four seasons): (F) Nico Hischier (non-ELC)
Expires after 2029-30 (seven seasons): (F) Jack Hughes (non-ELC)
Hischier and Hughes will be unrestricted free agents when their contracts end. And well past age 25 too. Management will surely seek to keep them happy as they are core players on this roster. But they do not need to worry about a new contract for a while. All three have established themselves to be top forwards in this league and the team has committed to them accordingly.
The immediate focus by management will be on those whose contracts are expiring after this season. I’ve covered them last month. Here is what I wrote about the six of the eight Utica Comets in that group that are at the end of their entry level contracts. Bowers and Thompson are not on ELCs so they were not in that post. They are probably lower on the list for management to focus on among these ten. More attention will be paid to Dawson Mercer, whom I think should get paid a lot, and Akira Schmid, whom is in a tricky situation.
The team will definitely be interested in the two groups after them. Kevin Bahl is already on the NHL roster, Luke Hughes should be expected on it in some capacity, there is still hope for Alexander Holtz to take a spot on that roster, and Daniil Misyul is making his North American debut. This upcoming season could go a long way in determining their future in the organization ahead of a contract year in 2024-25. As for those just starting their ELCs or just had them slide into this season, the team will see how they perform in Utica first. Nemec is an exception, of course, as he already played a season with the Comets. He could be battling for a spot in New Jersey this Fall. The other four will get some seasoning in the AHL first.
Since all of these players have a contract, it is reasonable to conclude that the Devils have at least had some hope for the player turning out to be NHL quality. They clearly hit big with Hischier and Hughes. All three have been handsomely rewarded for their skills. Mercer could be the next to get a fat new deal beyond this coming season. The remainder - and I will include Schmid in this - are playing for more than just future money. They are developing and striving for ice time, a secure role on the team, and a future in the organization beyond their ELC (or non-ELC) seasons.
I do not want to tell you how to vote in the Top 25 Devils Under 25, but it is a good rule of thumb to check if the player is signed. At a minimum, it means the Devils have or had some plan for them at some point. This does not mean you should not put any and all unsigned prospects you are excited about behind them, though. I do recommend knowing their status as well.
Unsigned Prospects with Limited Rights
The unsigned players makes up the other group. When a team drafts a player, they are technically drafting the rights to that player. This allows the player to play in NCAA college hockey or stick with the current team they play for. This also means that the NHL team has exclusive rights to that player. This gives the team options as far as what to do with the prospect. They can be traded, given a “bona fide” offer of an entry level contract (which is required if the team wants the player to play in the NHL), or let their rights lapse to allow the player to re-enter the draft or become a free agent, depending on their circumstances. How long these rights last vary from where the player was drafted, how old they were, and other factors (e.g. the player leaves major junior hockey). The larger point is that the team has to make a decision at some point about the player, with one exception.
The general rule of thumb is that college players have their rights kept until they finish college. Major junior players in Canada have a two-year window. For European-based players in leagues where there is a transfer agreement with the NHL, the rights are typically four years long if the player is 18 or 19; two years if they are 20 or older. For the European-based players in leagues where there is no transfer agreement with the NHL (read: the KHL), the rights last indefinitely. By the way, since there is no transfer agreement, this is why KHL (and VHL and MHL) based players have to be out of contract before they can sign an NHL contract. It cannot be honored otherwise. And with the case of Ivan Fedotov, the KHL may not even honor it even if a NHL contract is signed.
Those are the rules in a nutshell. Helpfully, CapFriendly maintains a reserve list of all players for a team and when the team’s rights to that player ends. Checking it out every so often - such as when you’re thinking about the Top 25 Devils Under 25 list - helps in recognizing which prospects need to have big years and when. And you may want to keep that in mind as you go through the names in the Top 25 Devils Under 25 poll. Here are the 16 prospects that the Devils have the rights to for a limited amount of time.
Expiring in 2024, 5 players: (F) Jaromir Pytlik, (F) Patrick Moynihan, (G) Cole Brady, (F) Artem Shlaine, (D) Case McCarthy
Pytlik’s rights expire by June 1, 2024 whereas the other four expire on August 15, 2024. This is because Pytlik is playing in the Czech league, a league the NHL has a transfer agreement with. Specifically, Pytlik is playing for Jaromir Jagr’s Rytiri Kladno. Per Elite Prospects, that contract ends after 2023-24 so there is a window for the Devils to sign him without dealing with a transfer fee. Given that Pytlik has struggled to contribute much of anything after moving back to Europe after the 2019-20 season, it is possible the Devils let his rights go.
The other four are college players. Due to COVID-19, NCAA eligibility was extended and so were the rights. This means that Moynihan is slated to go to Providence for a fifth season and McCarthy will stick with Boston University for a fifth season. Shlaine and Brady did not start college until the 2020-21 season, so they are set to play their fourth seasons. Brady is with UMass-Amherst and Shlaine is with Northern Michigan. If the Devils let their rights lapse, they will become free agents. Short of some awesome seasons as seniors (or graduate students?), I doubt that risk will be there.
Expiring in 2025, 4 players: (F) Cam Squires, (D) Ethan Edwards, (F) Cole Brown, (G) Jakub Málek
Squires and Brown were just drafted by the Devils back in June. Both are Canadian major junior players so the Devils have two years - on June 1 of 2025 - to make a decision on either. Unless they have amazing camps, both should be expected to their junior teams for next season: Cape Breton of the QMJHL for Squires and Hamilton of the OHL for Brown. The Devils could sign either or both and send them back to their junior teams. But that may be a plan for 2024’s offseason.
The other two players are a bit more interesting. Edwards is a college defenseman at Michigan. Since he started college in 2021-22, his rights will end after his senior year in 2024 so the Devils have until August 15. With Luke Hughes now with the Devils among other changes on the Wolverines, Edwards could have a shot to develop into a bigger role as a junior. I would not just focus on his defenseman teammate. As for Málek, he made a switch to Ilves of Liiga last season after two straight season’s in Czechia’s second tier of hockey. He did not get wrecked in Liiga, which is promising. Per Elite Prospects, his contract ends after this coming season but there is an option year attached. The option may give the Devils a little more time to wait and see on the goalie prospect. Should he do well in 2023-24, I would not be shocked if the Devils pushed to sign him after, with a possibility of re-assignment depending on Utica’s goalie situation in two seasons.
Expiring in 2026, 5 players: (D) Seamus Casey, (F) Petr Hauser, (D) Viktor Hurtig, (D) Charlie Leddy, (F) Samu Salminen
The big name here is Casey, who is performing for the United States at their World Junior Summer Showcase. James will have more on that on Tuesday. The Devils may want to sign Casey before he becomes a senior. Should he get to that fourth year of college, he could opt to not sign with the Devils and become a free agent. Short of a massive decline in play or massive injury, a NHL team would absolutely be interested in Casey as a free agent. Do not be surprised if the Devils sign him after this or next season to avoid that risk.
They can probably take that risk with the other three collegiate players as they are not necessarily impactful prospects or college players. There is time for them to grow into that. Salminen made it to UConn last season and should, hopefully, not have any interruptions for 2023-24. Hurtig made the switch to college hockey and represented Michigan State last season, so his rights will end in 2026 instead of earlier had he stayed with Växjö Lakers in Sweden. Leddy will look to build on his freshman season at Boston College for next season and he has time to grow and develop.
The one exception in this group is Petr Hauser, who was very busy last season. In addition to U-20 play with the Czech national team at the WJCs and other games, he played for a bit with HC Sparta Praha (not so successful), Sparta Praha’s U-20 team (where he was the most successful), HC Sparta Praha in Champions Hockey League games (not so successful), and HC Banik Sokolov in the second tier of Czech hockey (also productive). Hauser is signed through 2023-24 with Sparta Praha. With the Devils owning his rights for two seasons beyond that, they may be comfortable with him re-signing for a season or two or letting him sign elsewhere in Europe for a similar time. They can afford to wait and see on him and, unlike Casey, he may not be in great demand if he remains unsigned by New Jersey after June 1, 2026.
Expiring in 2027, 1 player: (F) Lenni Hämeenaho
The Devils’ top pick of their 2023 draft class has the longest lead time for rights. He was already signed with Ässät of the Finnish Liiga and drafted at age 18. Hämeenaho is currently styling at the World Junior Summer Showcase. Again, James will have more on that on Tuesday. The Devils can afford to take their time to ink Hämeenaho to a NHL contract without a transfer fee. He is signed with Ässät through 2024-25 per Elite Prospects. Two more seasons in Liiga may be best for his development and he can seek to come over to North America when he is 20 after his contract ends. Even if it does not happen then, the Devils have his rights until he is nearly 23.
Expiring in 2028, 1 player: (D) Chase Cheslock
Cheslock was drafted in 2023. However, he has a five-year lead time on his rights expiring because he is going to college in 2024. Per NJ.com, Cheslock will play for the Omaha Lancers of the USHL in 2023-24. Then he will go to the University of St. Thomas - which is set to be in D-I by then - after that season. That will start the four year clock on his rights. This means that out of all of the prospects in the Devils’ system, he is the one the Devils can afford to be the most patient with. The Devils can just check in on him, give him guidance, and then prepare to sign him depending on how his college career goes.
Unsigned Prospects with Indefinite Rights
Remember how there are different rules for prospects in a league that does not have a transfer agreement with the NHL? That rule is that the NHL team has the rights to the player indefinitely. The rights will never expire. The problem: the NHL team cannot sign the player until the player is actually a free agent in that league since there is no transfer process. And the teams in the league can and do negotiate terms with that free agent - making it harder to bring over a young player since they can make more in the league than what an ELC allows and definitely more than what they would make in the AHL. This is the Russian Factor in a nutshell. This has not deterred the Devils (or other NHL teams) from drafting players out of the KHL or MHL. They have eight players on the reserve list and six are under the age of twenty-five. (The other two are the 25-year old Yegor Zaitsev and 29-year old Artus Gavrus. Ivan Khomutov from the 2003 draft probably retired or something.)
The U-25 Players with Indefinitely Long Rights: (F) Arseni Gritsyuk, (D) Daniil Karpovich, (F) Zhakar Bardakov, (D) Artem Barabosha, (D) Daniil Orlov, (F) Nikita Popugayev
The most interesting name on this list is Arseni Gritsyuk. Gritsyuk has emerged as a scoring forward in the KHL. He was prepared to spurn Avangard Omsk for the Devils when his contract ended. Yet, SKA St. Petersburg showed interest, showed him plenty of money, and the 22-year old decided to go with SKA instead of New Jersey. Good for his career in the KHL as SKA is the most wealthy organization in the league. Not good for his potential NHL career as now the Devils have to wait until he’s 24 before he can come over to North America. That is assuming he would even want to and whether it is worth having him acclimate to that style of play. Maybe it works, maybe it does not, but I see it as a disappointment from a Devils perspective.
Speaking of SKA, Gritsyuk joins Zakhar Bardakov on SKA. Bardakov did stick with SKA all season, playing in 42 season games and putting up six goals and 18 points to go with 9 playoff games. He may be deeper in their lineup but he is a regular. Would he want to make the jump to North America? It is a fair question given he is settled on the KHL’s biggest team.
That said, Gritsyuk (and Bardakov) were a long-shot picks and sometimes that is how it goes. Sometimes they do not work out as one would expect To be fair, the other five were also long-shot picks and that may contribute to their obscurity. The earliest round selected among this group is Orlov and Popugayev, who were fourth round picks in 2022 and 2017, respectively. Popugayev is here as he returned to hockey last season after the influencer thing went up in flames. Given that he did not do so well upon his return, his prospects in this organization are basically nothing. Best of luck to him at Lada Togliatti, his 15th organization since his MHL debut. At least he is signed for two seasons there. Orlov, on the other hand, has moved to Spartak Moskva (Spartak Moscow) for his KHL debut last season and he is signed through 2025-26. He would be 22 when that ends; he could follow the path Misyul just took with the Devils. Orlov may not be someone to rate for now but he could emerge in a season or two and command some attention. Especially if he does follow Misyul’s path.
The other two on this list could follow suit and potentially earlier than Orlov. Artyom Barabosha is signed through 2023-24. He is slated to play a third straight season with Krasnaya Armiya Moskva of the MHL. I wonder if he will be brought up by the KHL affiliate at some point soon. Whether to convince him to stick with the KHL, to see if he is ready for the next level, or both. The Devils should continue to keep an eye on his progress as he will be a young 21 when his current contract ends. Daniil Karpovich was drafted back in June and was on a junior contract when selected. His EP page shows he is signed through 2022-23 with Avto Yekaterinburg of the MHL. A one-season deal is curious to me. This means the Devils could actually attempt to sign him and bring him to North America very soon. I wonder if it is also a sign that the player is interested so Avto could not secure a longer commitment. A second straight productive season should make it worth considering from a NJ perspective - especially if some defense spots open up in the organization. He did get more of a positive reaction compared with the other 2023 drafted players by New Jersey. We shall see whether it carries into the Top 25 Under 25 voting.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
For those who were counting, this post covered 21 signed players with another 22 in the system whose rights are owned by the team for some length of time. This is pretty much the organizational depth. This is what makes up the Top 25 Under 25 list year after year. Players not signed to NHL deals count or do not have their rights owned by the NHL team do not count. And we made an executive decision to keep Popugayev out since he is not expected to do much of anything beyond be at Lada for at least a season (if that).
Again, I do not want to tell you how to vote. That is up to you. But these are factors to consider if you are looking at these players and wondering how they stand among others. By pointing out who is and is not signed does matter for most prospects. There may be some exceptions as an unsigned player may have far more upside and are not signed for some reason. Such as wanting to stay at college or the team can afford to wait. Knowing whose rights will expire - or cannot expire - also plays a role in terms of where they may fit in the organization. If you’re looking at a name in the poll and drawing a blank as to who they even are, even the little bit of information in this post may help.
Even if you’re not so interested in the Top 25 Devils Under 25 list or you already voted, I do think it is good to know where everyone in the organization stands every so often. It shows who the organization will look at in this coming season. It sets up part of their “to-do” list for 2024’s offseason. It can even be a minor factor in a potential trade, as the Devils may opt to move a prospect they may not be so sure they were going to sign in 2024 or 2025 anyway.
To that end, I want to know your take. Do you consider a player’s contract or rights status when determining your Top 25 Under 25 selections? Do you think Jaromir Pytlik, Patrick Moynihan, Cole Brady, Artem Shlaine, and/or Case McCarthy will do enough in this coming season to get a contract from the Devils? Who else on the rights list do you think will get a contract sooner rather than later? Who will be the next KHL/MHL player that the Devils are able to sign? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the rights process, how they differ from signed players, and more about the Top 25 Under 25 list. Thank you for reading.