New Jersey Devils hockey technically returns at noon on Friday. The 2023 Prospects Challenge will begin for the Devils with a game against Ottawa at the Harborcenter in Buffalo, the hosts of the Prospects Challenge. Rookies have reported to training camp this week and with activities beginning today, the team announced a 24-man roster for this year’s challenge. The roster features 9 AHL-signed players, 4 players on a try-out, and 11 prospects - with one who got a taste of the NHL last season. Here is a breakdown of the roster.
09/14 Update: Per Amanda Stein on X this Thursday morning, Luke Hughes is not playing in the Prospects Challenge games. He was on the roster because he is a part of camp, but he will not play. The post as originally written is as-follows. Just skip over the Hughes bits.
Goaltenders (3): Tyler Brennan, Isaac Poulter, Riley Mercer
Brennan is the Devils’ fourth round pick from the 2022 NHL Draft. He just finished up his major junior career with WHL’s Prince George last season. He is signed to an entry level contract; this makes him the only one of the three that could be called up by New Jersey. Although today’s signing of Keith Kinkaid will make that much less likely.
Poulter was signed to a two-way deal with Utica in 2022-23 after finishing his time with Swift Current of the WHL. Poulter mostly spent last season with the Adirondack Thunder, the Devils’ ECHL affiliate. However, he did get called up and appeared in 13 games for the Comets. With Brennan coming in along with the signings of Erik Källgren and Kinkaid, Poulter will have to make the most of his time in Utica if or when he gets an opportunity. This means doing as well as he could with the Thunder when he is there.
Riley Mercer is Dawson Mercer’s brother. He is also not new to the camp process. Riley Mercer was in Montreal’s training camp last year. He was cut and he returned to Drummondville of the QMJHL for the 2022-23 season. Given his age, I believe he eligible for one more season of major junior. It is possible he is here to fill out the numbers and get his name out there for a potential contract after his 2023-24 campaign ends.
Defensemen (8): Luke Hughes, Simon Nemec, Santeri Hatakka, Topias Vilén, Daniil Misyul, Colin Felix, Will MacKinnon, Oscar Plandowski
You know the first name on this list. It’s Luke Hughes. Scorer of an amazing first NHL goal. Performed in the second round of the NHL playoffs. He is all but penned into a NHL job for 2023-24. This may be pre-preseason, but I would expect Luke Hughes to be one of the best players on the team at this year’s Prospects Challenge. I highly doubt a player goes from big minutes in the playoffs to AHL minutes unless the player makes that happen. I highly doubt Luke Hughes will make that happen.
Four intriguing names will join him on the blueline. Simon Nemec is coming off a great rookie season with Utica. I want to think he has a good shot at a NHL job or at least NHL action in this coming season. He will need to demonstrate his worthiness here first. There will be competition from Hatakka, Vilén, and Misyul. Each are eligible to be called up by New Jersey and each will have something to show off to the decision-makers.
Hatakka is coming off a lost season due to injury. He has yet to play for New Jersey or Utica since being a part of the Timo Meier trade back in February. Hatakka has been in the NHL before and I would like to think he is going to make it clear he can hang at that level to the decision makers. Vilén was a standout at last year’s Prospects Challenge. He had a very good season with Pelicans last season and joined Nemec as the only spare defensemen called up in the playoffs. I think the organization wants to see how much he has grown compared to last season. Misyul is making his North American debut at this tournament and he could surprise depending on how well he takes to it.
The remaining three defensemen are less known. Here is what I found out about each. Colin Felix is a Camden-born defender who went pro after four seasons with UMass-Amherst, signing with Lehigh Valley for 2022-23. He did not appear for the Phantoms, though. He spent all of last season with the Reading Royals of the ECHL. He got the attention of Utica’s staff and signed him to a one-way AHL deal in July. Will MacKinnon - unrelated to Nathan - was a teammate of Felix last season with the Royals. His path to hockey was a little different as he was a member of the USNTDP U-17 team, Des Moines in the USHL, and four seasons of University of New Hampshire before going pro with the Royals. The Comets signed him also in July to a two-way AHL deal. Oscar Plandowski may be hoping for a contract. He was drafted by Detroit in the fifth round of the 2021 draft from Charlottetown of the QMJHL. He was not signed by Detroit and he split time between Drummondville and Moncton last season. Now 20 years old, he may be hoping for a pro contract. This tourney may be a good place as any to impress anyone - be it with the Devils organization or one of the other teams.
Forwards (13): Cole Brown, Graeme Clarke, Filip Engras, Josh Filmon, T.J. Friedman, Brian Halonen, Michael Horth, Timur Ibragimov, Jace Isley, Erik Middendorf, Xavier Parent, Cam Squires, and Chase Stillman
Believe it or not, this group does not include Alexander Holtz. I do not know whether his 28 NHL games disqualifies him from appearing or, more likely, the Devils see him more as a veteran and, therefore, not a part of this camp. The same could be said for Nolan Foote. This means the forward group will be led by Clarke, who led the Utica Comets in scoring last season. Out of this entire group, he is the only offensive player who has shown he can do it at the AHL level.
He will have a little familiarity with some of the other forwards. Brian Halonen was a regular for the Comets last season. Timur Ibragimov, now signed to an AHL contract, came over from the Meier trade and has established himself in Utica. He also played a little bit with Xavier Parent, a try-out from last year’s development camp that earned an AHL contract. Parent was a scorer for Adirondack with 23 goals and 51 points in 50 games; he put up three goals and six points in 14 games with Utica along with three goals and four points in five playoff games. Parent could be in line for more time with the Comets and this tourney, where he impressed last year, would be a good place to prove that. Clarke also knows about Filip Engaras. The 24-year old Swedish winger was acquired from Bakersfield last season and appeared in 26 games. While he only put up three goals for the team, the hope is that he can do a bit more.
The prospects will be of some interest as well. Josh Filmon also impressed at last year’s Prospect Challenge. He returned to Swift Current, scored 47 goals in 64 games, and joined Utica for four games. The hope will be that he can be a producer at the AHL level. And that he is beefier than he was last season. Stillman finished up his junior career with Peterborough, which included a run at the Memorial Cup. He was not much of a producer in major junior, which brings questions as to what he could do at the pro level. He could begin to answer some of those questions in the next three exhibition games. Cole Brown and Cam Squires were drafted back in June; this will be their first taste of competition with the Devils beyond the intra-squad scrimmages from July. The hope is that, like Filmon and Parent last year, they can stand out in a good way.
The remainder of the group are players new or somewhat new to the organization. Friedman signed with Utica after his time with Quinnipiac ended; he got into two games last season. He has been signed to an AHL contract. Erik Middendorf was a USTNDP player that went to Colorado College, left to play for the Chicago Steel, and then went to Michigan State in the last two seasons. He signed with the Thunder after that second season as a Spartan back in March and played in 11 games for Adirondack. He did well enough to get an AHL contract. I would think both Friedman and Middendorf will work to show they belong more in Utica than in Adirondack. The two forwards here on a try-out are Michael Horth and Jace Isley. Horth is soon-to-be 20 year old left winger who played for Charlottetown of the QMJHL in the last two seasons. He finished last season with 28 goals and 45 points in 66 games, both improvements over his rookie season of 11 goals and 18 points in 56 games. Similar to Plandowski, I would think his goal is to secure a deal either now or in the near future given his age. Jace Isley is a 21 year old forward who finished his major junior career with Red Deer last season. His last was his most productive with 30 goals and 56 points; prior to that, he never topped 30 points in a season. Isley is committed to the University of Saskatchewan. However, a good tourney here may lead to a deal that will take him away from Canadian college and into pro hockey in some degree.
When looking at this season’s Prospect Challenge roster and last season’s roster, you can notice some differences. For one, this year’s roster is leaner at 24 players compared to the 28 that went to Buffalo last year. For another, there is less of a NHL presence. The 2022 roster had Holtz, Foote, Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotiuk, Reilly Walsh, Nico Daws, and Akira Schmid. All of whom had at least a game of NHL experience. Only Luke Hughes can claim that among this group.
Most importantly, you can see the progress made just from the 2022 roster. Schmid got a NHL opportunity, demonstrated he was worthy of a NHL job, and secured his spot with some of the best playoff performances from a goaltender in Devils history. Bahl got a NHL opportunity and eventually secured his position on the blueline ahead of Brendan Smith. Okhotiuk was part of the package that brought Timo Meier to Newark. The Devils organization sees Holtz and Foote as not being needed for this tournament, which speaks to how they see those two players. There is quite a bit of turnover at the Utica level, but that is common. And for a pre-preseason tournament, I would think the 2022 Prospects Challenge helped the perception of Vilén, Filmon, and Parent within the organization. There will be players who can and hopefully will make themselves known in this year’s tournament.
That is ultimately the main prize from the Prospects Challenge. It is an opportunity to win future opportunities. This may mean a contract. This may mean more interest in development. The best case scenario is what happened with Jesper Bratt, who did well at his Prospects Challenge and earned a shot at some NHL preseason games. That earned him a longer stay in camp, which earned him a NHL roster spot, which secured what would be a long and now lucrative NHL career. The players are not here to be given a spot, they are here to take it. These games may not mean much in the bigger picture, but that is what they are worth.
The Devils will be streaming all three of their Prospects Challenge games on their website. We will have Gamethreads for each so you can discuss what you see from each of them. Now that you know who is on the Devils’ 2023 Prospect Challenge roster, I want to know what you think of the roster. Who on this team are you the most excited to see? Who do you think will stand out among this group that is not already a recognizable name? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this year’s roster in the comments. Thank you for reading.