Not a lot has gone right for the New Jersey Devils this season. From trading away their best player to firing head coach John Hynes and eventually general manager Ray Shero. There’s a lot of uncertainty as to what comes next for the organization. But there are some positives to take away from a turbulent last two months. While there’s been plenty of debate over the Devils’ drafting and player development since Shero’s firing, some of his draft picks are making progress this season. And that could help turn things around heading into 2020-21.
Devils’ Prospects Playing Professionally
The Devils acquired the 22-year-old right-winger in the trade that sent Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes. Since arriving with the Binghamton Devils (AHL), Merkley has put up 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 12 games. And he was a big reason why Binghamton pulled off an eight-game winning streak that brought them back to .500.
Merkley was once a highly-touted prospect but has struggled with significant injuries since turning pro. But perhaps a move to the Devils was what he needed, as he has more goals in 12 games with Binghamton than he did in 26 games with the Tucson Roadrunners this season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him in the NHL at some point after the Trade Deadline passes if he continues producing.
Zetterlund is one of the Devils’ more intriguing prospects in their system. He’s 5-foot-11, 218 pounds and plays a physical game, but has some offensive upside. He got off to a slow start this season, but he was also recovering from a torn ACL he suffered while playing professionally in Sweden last season.
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Over the last month, Zetterlund has six points (three goals, three assists) in 10 games. He’s settled into a bottom-six role with Binghamton and has played a part in the team getting things turned around. It’s unlikely he plays in the NHL this season, but he’s someone worth monitoring the rest of the way. Because once training camp rolls around in September, he may have a shot at earning a bottom-six role in the NHL.
Anderson has arguably been Binghamton’s best forward this season. He has 12 goals and 19 assists in 39 games and has put up 23 points over his last 27 games dating back to Nov. 6. His defensive game was already one of his strengths heading into this season. But his offensive game needed improvement, so it’s good to see the spike in production over the last two-plus months.
Like Merkley, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Anderson earn a late-season promotion. He was called up early during the 2018-19 season and played in 34 NHL games. He finished with four goals and three assists last season and had decent underlying numbers. But with an improving offensive game, he may be ready to contribute at a higher level. He projects as a middle-six forward in the NHL, and that’s an area the team needs to improve heading into 2020-21. If he earns a call-up and performs well, that could be his spot to lose come training camp.
The Devils have done well in finding value in the late rounds of the NHL Entry Draft over the last few years. Jesper Bratt was a sixth-round pick in 2016 and has turned into an NHL regular, while a few others have NHL potential, too. Pasic was a seventh-round pick (189th overall) at the 2019 Entry Draft and has progressed nicely during his D+1 draft season.
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In 32 games with BIK Karlskoga in the Allsvenskan — the second division in Sweden — Pasic has totaled 26 points. For comparison’s sake, Bratt had 22 points in 46 games in his D+1 draft season in the Allsvenskan. Pasic is a solid two-way player and played on Sweden’s third line at the World Junior Championships (WJC) a few weeks ago. He could wind up as a middle-six forward in the NHL.
Devils in the CHL and NCAA
Talvitie got off to a strong start with Penn State as a freshman in 2018-19. He had 16 points in 17 games and was a star for a Finland team that captured gold at the 2019 WJC. But his season was cut short after he suffered a torn ACL in the gold medal game, and that kept him off the ice until this past fall.
Talvitie is in a similar situation to Zetterlund. They’re both coming off significant knee injuries and are still working their way back to full form. He’s done well with Penn State, with 15 points in 20 games as a sophomore. But even though his production is down, he’s still playing a top role for them. If he shows continued progress, he could be a candidate to turn pro for 2020-21.
Thompson is having a monster, breakout season for Providence College in the NCAA. After finishing last season with 25 points in 42 games, he leads the nation in goals (17) and is second overall in scoring, with 37 points, to teammate Jack Dugan. That was good enough to get Thompson on the long-list of finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.
There wasn’t a ton of hype for Thompson coming into the season. Most analysts seemed to think the Devils reached by selecting him in the fourth round of the 2019 Entry Draft. But he’s proven everyone wrong, including myself, and is undoubtedly one of the team’s 10 best prospects now. What comes next for Thompson will be worth watching. I imagine the Devils will make an effort to sign him once Providence’s season ends. And if their season comes to an early end, Thompson could get some pro action in the AHL before Binghamton’s campaign concludes.
The thought was Smith would play on the Devils’ blue line this season, but that’s not how things turned out. Instead, he was sent back to the WHL for one more season with the Spokane Chiefs. He got off to a slow start with the Chiefs, but that wasn’t enough to keep him off Team Canada for the 2020 WJC. Even though the Canadians and Smith captured gold, he didn’t have the tournament expected of him.
But since returning from the WJC, Smith seems to be returning to the player he was in 2018-19 when he finished with 69 points in 52 games. He has six points in his last four games, so maybe he’s picked up some momentum from Canada’s gold medal run. He’ll undoubtedly be playing pro hockey next season; it’s just a matter if he begins in the AHL or NHL. A strong finish to 2019-20 could help strengthen his case to begin in the latter.
Walsh has quietly worked his way up through the Devils’ prospect rankings since being drafted in 2017. He finished with 31 points in 33 games with Harvard last season and is producing at a similar rate this season, with 16 points in 17 games. That lack of a jump in production shouldn’t be a concern either, as Harvard isn’t the team it was last season.
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He may not be a shutdown defenseman, but Walsh has great offensive instincts and a killer shot. The Devils lack effective, puck-moving defenseman, so his offensive abilities will be a welcomed addition. Since he’s a junior, the Devils have to get him signed this spring. If not, he can return to Harvard for his senior season but will have the option to become an unrestricted free agent in Aug. 2021 if he chooses to.
Hoelscher plays on a stacked Ottawa 67’s team, along with several other Devils’ prospects (Kevin Bahl, Graeme Clarke, and Nikita Okhotyuk). But it’s Hoelscher that’s stood out the most from that group this season. He has 53 points in 41 games and was just named the OHL Player of the Week, with eight points in his last three games.
Hoelscher turns 20 years old in less than a week and is in his last season of CHL eligibility. The Devils will likely sign him to a contract once the 67’s season ends, but what he does at the next level remains to be seen. He’s not the biggest forward, at 6-foot, 176 pounds, but that’s not much of a problem in today’s NHL. He’ll need time in the minor leagues before having a chance at cracking the Devils’ NHL lineup. But there’s potential for him to play a bottom-six role one day.
Last Word on Devils’ Prospect Pool
The Devils don’t have a great farm system, and it’s probably league average at best. But they have some players who are closer to making an NHL impact than not. Merkley and Anderson could earn late-season call-ups, while Smith and Hoelscher will be playing professionally in some capacity next season. That could also be the case for Walsh, Thompson, and Talvitie, as they could choose to turn pro once the NCAA season ends. The Devils will also have another high pick at the 2020 Entry Draft, as well, so that should help them improve their system with an eye towards a retool for 2020-21.