There are no secrets as to who the players are that made it to the top of this year’s list of the Top 25 New Jersey Devils Under 25. So without further ado, let’s delve in.
#5 - Simon Nemec - RHD - Age: 19 - 2022-23 Team: Utica Comets (AHL) - 2022 Rank: 7 - Elite Prospects Profile
Rising up two spots from last year’s ranking and making his first appearance in the Top 5 is 6’1’’ 190lb defenseman Simon Nemec. The Devils 1st round (2nd overall) pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, Nemec rose up the draft rankings for his high level play for HK Nitra in the Slovakian league. A jack of all trades defenseman, known for his high hockey IQ and solid two way game, Nemec first broke into the top Slovakian league for a 12 game stint as a 15-year-old in 2019-20.
The following season Nemec graduated full-time to HK Nitra scoring 2 goals and 17 assists in 37 games. On top of that, In his draft year, Nemec played another 39 games for HK Nitra and finished 8th in the league for offensive production by a defenseman with 26 points (25 of them assists). Nemec really shined in the post-season elevating his game with an impressive 12 assists in 19 games. Nemec also shined on the international stage often starring for Slovakia in various tournaments.
Last season, Nemec finished strong after an early adjustment period, earning AHL Top Prospect Team honors, and ending the season with 12 goals and 22 assists for 34 points in 65 games. Since AHLtracker began tracking the stat in 2004, no D+1 defenseman had scored more points than Simon Nemec in the AHL. Given that Simon Nemec is not a one trick offensive pony and plays a well-round defensive and physical game, this fact should excite Devils fans as to the young defenders ultimate potential.
Next season, Nemec will compete for a roster spot on the big club. While it remains to be seen whether Nemec will begin the season in Utica for New Jersey, it’s a fairly safe prediction to assume that Nemec is likely to suit up for the Devils sometime in 2023-24. The future is very bright for Nemec, who seems likely to develop into a top pairing right-handed defenseman in the NHL one day, but the Devils have the luxury of not having to rush him. Camp will determine whether Nemec forces their hand.
#4 - Luke Hughes - LHD - Age: 20 - 2022-23 Team: Michigan Wolverines (NCAA) - 2022 Rank: 4 - Elite Prospects Profile
Maintaining the 4th spot on this year’s list is 6’2’’ 183 lb defenseman Luke Hughes. The youngest brother of Quinn and Jack Hughes (more on him later), Luke Hughes was drafted by the Devils in the 1st round (4th overall) in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. In 2020-21, Hughes backboned the U18 United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP) scoring 6 goals and 28 assists in 38 games. His 0.90 points per game rate ranked 5th in USNTDP history among defensemen playing at least 30 games.
In 2021-22, Hughes the younger’s star continued to rise in the NCAA for the Michigan Wolverines. As a freshman, Hughes tallied 17 goals and 22 assists in 41 games, leading all defensemen and earning Hobey Baker Award considerations. Last season, Hughes continued to shine for Michigan, upping his totals to an incredible 48 points in 39 games, earning his ELC and joining the New Jersey Devils at the tail end of the regular season.
As a Devil, Hughes scored his first two points last season, including a storybook game-winning overtime goal assisted by his brother in the final game to give the Devils a franchise best winning season of 52 games. Hughes played 21 minutes in that final game. After watching the Devils and Rangers in the first round from the press box, Hughes reentered the lineup for his first taste of the NHL playoffs in round 2 against Carolina, where Hughes scored two assists in three games.
Next season, the expectations are for Hughes to play full-time for the Devils, hopefully replacing the offense lost at the blueline after the Devils decided not to resign Damon Severson in the offseason. Although Hughes has only played a small number of games in the NHL, that expectation appears reasonable and may grossly understate the numbers Hughes is capable of producing in his rookie campaign.
#3 - Dawson Mercer - C/W - Age: 21 - 2022-23 Team: New Jersey Devils - 2022 Rank: 5 - Elite Prospects Profile
Edging out Luke Hughes and rising two spots from last year is the Devils 1st round pick (18th overall) in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft Dawson Mercer. It may seem like Dawson Mercer has been around for ever after making the jump straight to the NHL from the QMJHL in 2021-22, but Mercer is only about to enter his third season for the Devils.
Mercer’s rookie campaign saw the then-20 year old tally 17 goals and 25 assists for 42 points in 82 games for the struggling Devils. Last season, the Devils improved to one of the best regular-season teams in the league. Mercer improved as well upping his totals to 27 goals and 29 assists for 56 points in 82 games.
Mercer is quickly earning conversation for inclusion in the Devil’s offensive core (if he’s not there already) alongside Jack Hughes, Timo Meier, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt. What Mercer’s contract looks like after his ELC expires after this season will be an interesting topic of debate throughout the season. For now, Mercer will look to improve his game even further on both ends of the rink and reach the 30 goal plateau.
#2 - Nico Hischier - C - Age: 24 - 2022-23 Team: New Jersey Devils - 2022 Rank: 2 - Elite Prospects Profile
[Note: This is John, filling in for James from this point of the post and onward. He will be fine.] Devils captain Nico Hischier keeps the 2nd spot in his final year of eligibility for this list. Hischier had an utterly fantastic season. Hischier played big minutes on the ice with just 10 in the box. 31 goals and 80 points, good for a tie in points with John Tavares and Kyle Connor for 29th in the entire NHL. Not to mention a 10-goal and 20-point improvement over 2021-22. Along with about 100 more shots on net with 11 more games played.
But Hischier’s season was not just about the offensive gains. His off the puck play continued to receive rave reviews. Hischier played a ton on the PK with over two minutes of shorthanded ice time per game and winning well over half of his faceoffs. He was named a finalist for the Patrice Bergeron-owned Frank J. Selke Trophy for the league’s best defensive forward. Predictably, he finished behind Bergeron; but being a finalist speaks to his reputation and skillset. Hischier was projected to be a do-everything-well center back in 2017 when he became the first New Jersey Devil to go first overall. He has become a do-everything-really-well center and a cornerstone of this generation’s Devils teams.
For most teams, Hischier’s season would warrant an easy spot at first on a list of under-25 players. It would be a fitting send off for someone who will age out of this list. To be fair, Hischier has been at the top before and he has always been ranked high on these lists. But the New Jersey Devils are not most teams and you know who it is in first.
#1 - Jack Hughes - C - Age: 22 - 2022-23 Team: New Jersey Devils - 2022 Rank: 1 - Elite Prospects Profile
The Big Deal. I have called him that for years and the general hockey world has recognized that Jack Hughes is one with the 2022-23 season. Even with a slowish start to the season in terms of production, Jack Hughes set a franchise record for most points in a season with 99. The 43 goals, 56 assists, and 99 points put him tied with Mitch Marner to place 12th in the whole NHL in terms of scoring. And offense is not just about the points; Jack Hughes has been an utter machine at creating and attacking the net. He finished fifth in the NHL in terms of shots on net with 336; he averaged nearly 20 minutes per game in the season; and he was able to get some goals even when Igor Shesterkin was in I’m-Going-to-Goalie-You mode. Oh, and he did all this with just six minutes in the penalty box. Alas, the Lady Byng was given to Anze Kopitar instead of Jack Hughes, who had a better season and fewer penalties.
Hughes has always rankled some of the People Who Matter and those who still think it is 1995 and the Devils are built from the net and blueline out. A lot of those nitpickers and critics became quiet as the season went on. Maybe it was when he dropped nine goals and 18 points in November as part of the Devils’ winning streak, talking about the team being on a heater. Maybe it was when he producing amid the Devils’ one extended slump last season in December. Maybe it was when he turned it up for 13 goals and 23 points in January. Maybe it was when he passed John MacLean’s 87 points in 1988-89, then Brian Gionta’s 48-goal season, then Taylor Hall’s Hart-winning season in 2017-18, then Kirk Muller’s 94 points in the important 1987-88 seaon and Zach Parise’s 2008-09, and then Patrik Elias’ franchise record from that amazing 2000-01 team. Maybe it was when Jack Hughes showed he can also Do It in the Playoffs with six goals and eleven points in twelve playoff games. The haters and losers have been reduced with many acknowledging Jack Hughes is a special player.
You may not like the nickname. But it is very fitting. And far superior than the crass one P.K. Subban came up for him. Either way, Hughes came in first. It will take a supremely special season from anyone else to surpass him before the 2026 list. Perhaps that the most impressive thing about Hughes at all. He’s just 22. There is potentially more to come. That will be a very Big Deal.
Here’s how everyone ranked these players:
There was no debate or disagreement as to who finished first and second. Curiously, it ended up being a close call for Mercer in third place. He just edged out Luke Hughes, which speaks to how much people - such as the Community Voters - think of Luke’s potential. It is not like DAWGson is not seen as a Very Good Boy around here. It was a tight finish among the Community Votes between those two too. Nemec was a solid fifth finisher, placing decently ahead of Akira Schmid and decently behind Hughes-Mercer.
That concludes the AATJ Top 25 Under 25 for this year. Thank you to all of the All About the Jersey writers and those who participated in the Community Vote in ranking all of the players for this year’s list. Now that you know who is at the top of the list, what do you think of these placements? Did any of them surprise you? Who would you rather have in these rankings if you disagree? What do you expect from these five players? Do you think they top the list in 2024 (except Hischier, of course)? Now it is time to tell us what you think. Let us know in the comments below.