In what’s become an annual tradition, the New Jersey Devils will travel to Buffalo, New York to partake in the Prospects Challenge. The tournament begins this Friday and features prospects from the Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Boston Bruins. The Devils’ roster is made up of 15 forwards — including first overall pick Jack Hughes — nine defensemen, and three goalies. Here’s who to keep an eye on over the three-day tournament.
This will be the first time Hughes takes the ice in a Devils’ uniform. It may not be in official games, but there’ll be plenty of attention around him once the tournament starts. Hughes’ arsenal of tools is something the Devils haven’t had in their pipeline for years. He’s a dynamic skater and excels at entering the offensive zone with puck possession. He’s also an elite playmaker who has excellent vision and makes his linemates better.
There’s some concern about his size, at 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, and how he’ll handle the physical play of the NHL. The Prospects Challenge won’t completely calm those concerns, but going against other players who could be on the cusp of NHL debuts should be a good test for the 18-year-old center.
Boqvist is arguably the Devils’ best forward prospect after Hughes. He was a second-round pick in 2017 and has spent the last two seasons in the SHL (Sweden) playing for Brynas IF, where he played on the wing after being drafted as a center. His 2018-19 season was his best yet, with him finishing with 35 points in 51 games, which translates to 34 points over 82 NHL games. That was good enough for the Devils to sign him to an entry-level contract (ELC) this summer.
This will be Boqvist’s first taste of action on North American ice. He wasn’t a participant in last year’s Prospects Challenge, instead opting to remain in Sweden for the start of the SHL season. He’s a skilled forward who has high offensive upside and should see some time with Hughes over the next few days. Boqvist is a favorite to make the jump to the NHL for 2019-20, so a good showing here will get him off on the right foot.
Not only is Smith is the Devils’ top defense prospect, but he’s also one of the top ones in the league. He was the 17th overall selection at the 2018 Entry Draft and has only seen his stock rise since then. He played for the Spokane Chiefs (WHL) this past season, finishing with 69 points in 57 games, and was named CHL Defenseman of the Year.
Smith isn’t the biggest defenseman, at 5-foot-11, 179 pounds, but he makes up for it in other areas of his game. He’s a great passer and can break out of the defensive zone without chipping the puck off the glass consistently. Although he’s a left-handed shot, Smith has played the right side regularly. That may give him the best shot to make the Devils’ roster, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him there this weekend.
McLeod may have slipped down the Devils’ prospect pool since the additions of Hughes, Boqvist, and Smith, but he’s still among their top five. The 21-year-old center will be entering his second pro season. He finished 2018-19 with 33 points in 55 AHL games and ended the season with a call-up to the NHL. He only managed 3 points in 21 games with the Devils, but it’s the experience of playing in the NHL that should help.
McLeod is a strong skater for someone who’s 6-foot-2, 190 pounds. He may not have the offensive upside as hoped when drafted in 2016, but that could still come around. He’s also improved his defensive game, which helped him become the Binghamton Devils’ (AHL) first-line center throughout most of 2018-19. With that said, the Devils are quite deep at center in the NHL — with Hughes, Nico Hischier, Travis Zajac, and Pavel Zacha. But McLeod could throw himself into the mix with a strong performance.
Studenic was a fifth-round pick in 2017 and has slowly worked his way up the team’s prospect rankings. 2018-19 was his first pro season, and he got off to a hot start before hitting the wall that some first-year pros do. He finished with 28 points in 64 games in the AHL and added 7 points in 13 games for Team Slovakia in all international competitions.
Studenic, like many of the Devils’ prospects, is not the biggest player on the ice, at 6-foot-1, 163 pounds. But there are areas of his game that make him a solid NHL prospect. “I wouldn’t call Studenic a natural skill guy, but he’s got some puck ability, and I thought he showed high-end vision. If he can get better defensively or just be more consistent offensively, I can see him playing for the Devils,” said Corey Pronman of The Athletic (From ‘2019 NHL farm system rankings: No. 3 New Jersey Devils,’ The Athletic – 9/4/19).
Anderson has been held in high regard by the Devils since they drafted him in the third round of the 2016 Entry Draft. He played two seasons at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (NCAA) and racked up a bunch of trophies while there, including a National Title in 2017-18. He also played for Team USA at the World Junior Championships, winning gold and bronze medals in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
Anderson went on to sign his ELC soon after the conclusion of his NCAA career. It was right in time for the Devils’ playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he did not make an appearance. Instead, his debut came on Oct. 27, 2018, and he would go on to play in 34 games for the Devils last season. It may seem like he has a good shot to make the team, given his previous NHL stint. But the Devils are boasting a much deeper squad after a busy summer, so it’d serve him well to stand out against his competition.
Akira Schmid may be the Devils’ best goaltending prospect, and while he’ll be in attendance, Senn is the one to keep an eye on. The 23-year-old Swiss goalie was a fifth-round pick in 2017 but signed his ELC this offseason after spending the last two seasons playing for HC Davos in Switzerland. His numbers don’t look too impressive (he had a .901 save percentage in 2018-19), but Davos was one of the worst teams in the Swiss League.
There’s a lot to like about Senn as a prospect, however. He’s 6-foot-5, 192 pounds, and is quite athletic for his size. There’ll be a transitional phase for him on North American ice. But with Mackenzie Blackwood pretty much guaranteed to start in the NHL, that leaves Evan Cormier as the only other goalie available for Binghamton’s roster. So Senn should see regular playing time in the AHL.
A Head Start to the Preseason
Nobody will win a roster spot this weekend. With that said, it’s an excellent opportunity for the Devils’ prospects to catch the attention of their coaches. And unlike previous years, there are quite a few who could make the jump to the NHL. It’ll also provide the chance to see how players with previous pro experience — like McLeod, Anderson, and Studenic — have progressed over the summer. That should make for an exciting weekend, with the Devils’ young talent on full display.