Devils Should Be Zeroing in on Top 2022 Talent at WJC

Believe me. This is not the type of article I hoped to be writing on Dec. 26, 2021. But with the New Jersey Devils having a 10-15-5 record at the extended Christmas break, the odds of them making the playoffs are about as slim as they can be. With the World Junior Championship getting underway today, it’s probably worth focusing on the top 2022 draft-eligible prospects in attendance and not just the four Devils prospects at the WJC. 

After what was thought to be a relatively underwhelming 2021 draft class, the 2022 draft is looking to be quite strong, especially in the top half of the first round. The projected first overall pick, Shane Wright, will be the must-watch prospect at the WJC for the 2022 draft. But there are a handful of other potential high picks playing for their respective national teams that the Devils should be zeroing in on should they get another top-10 selection.  

Brad Lambert — Center/Right Wing, Finland

Though Lambert only has six points in 24 games with JYP in the Liiga — the top pro league in Finland — this season, there’s a lot to like about his game. Via Will Scouch’s data, which he collects manually by tracking games throughout the season, he believes Lambert has a very promising profile that will lead to production in the second half of 2021-22. That reminds me a bit of Lucas Raymond, who didn’t produce much in the Swedish Hockey League during his draft year. But he had the underlying metrics that showed tremendous potential, and that’s now on full display with the Detroit Red Wings this season. 

Brad Lambert, JYP
Brad Lambert with JYP in the Liiga (Mandatory Credit: Jiri Halttunen)

The lack of production has had some waver on Lambert, however. Craig Button of TSN has him ranked 17th overall, while Elite Prospects has him ranked 13th. But if his profile is as promising as Scouch believes, betting on his upside in the 6-10 range of the draft would make sense. He’d give the Devils another high upside prospect that they don’t have on either wing after Alexander Holtz. 

Joakim Kemell — Right Wing, Finland

Shooting talent has been an issue for the Devils for a few seasons now. That’s why they drafted Holtz with the seventh overall pick at the 2020 draft. They have a few other prospects, such as Graeme Clarke and Nolan Foote, who have 20-goal potential. But none of them have the goal-scoring potential that Holtz and Kemell would have.

Before heading to Edmonton with Team Finland for the WJC, Kemell was lighting up the Liiga with JYP, totaling 12 goals and 18 points in 21 games. The caveat is he was shooting an unsustainably high 30 percent with JYP, but keep in mind that he’s a 17-year-old producing at close to a point-per-game pace in a good pro league. It’ll be interesting to see if he can keep scoring once he returns to the Liiga. But he does have a track record of scoring goals, as he had 22 in 36 games with JYP’s U20 junior team in 2020-21. 

As it stands today, Kemell is a consensus top-10 pick, and he’s even ranked in the top five by some public scouting services. The Devils would have the sixth overall pick in the draft if the 2021-22 season ended today. If goal scoring is what they desire and that’s the slot they stay in, they’ll likely have a shot at Kemell. Adding him and Holtz as potential scoring threats on either Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes‘ wings would be a decent way to build the team. 

Šimon Nemec — Defenseman, Slovakia

Before joining Slovakia for the WJC, Nemec had 13 points — all assists — in 22 games with HK Nitra in Slovakia’s top pro league. That’s impressive considering he’s a 17-year-old playing against men, even if the competition isn’t great in Slovakia. There are questions about his defensive game, but per Will Scouch, Nemec can pass the puck quite well and is solid in transition. And his production suggests he should be a high pick:

Despite the production, Nemec’s rankings are a bit all over the place. Entering the WJC, he’s ranked as high as second overall by FC Hockey and as low as 12th by Sportsnet. Perhaps that’s only because he’s 6-foot-1, 192 pounds. But if the Devils end up drafting in the 5-10 range, he’d be worth targeting. Their blue line of the future is taking shape nicely with Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler and Ty Smith, despite Smith’s struggles in 2021-22. They also have promising prospects in Reilly Walsh, Shakir Mukhamadullin and Luke Hughes, the fourth overall pick at the 2021 draft. Add Nemec to the pipeline, and they could have a deep but young defense corp in a couple of years. 

Juraj Slafkovsky — Left Wing, Slovakia

If the Devils are looking for size and offensive potential, then Slafkovsky may be their best bet. The Slovak winger, who doesn’t turn 18 until March 30, already measures at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds. He’s played in 20 games in the Liiga with TPS but has only four points. However, he’s also totaled 18 points in 11 games with TPS’s U20 team in the Finnish junior league. 

For someone as massive as Slafkovsky, there’s some skill there. As our very own Peter Baracchini states of Slafkovsky, “Whenever he’s on, he bullies his way to the middle of the ice, while displaying his strong puck control and hands as he’s able to make moves in tight spaces. He’s a great skater for his size and is always showing a high level of compete, engaging in puck battles along the boards.”

Related: Devils Prospects to Watch at 2022 World Junior Championship

The Devils’ roster mostly consists of smaller skilled forwards like Hughes and Jesper Bratt. A power forward like Slafkovsky to complement them could be a difference-maker a couple of years down the road if he lives up to his offensive potential. Like Kemell, he’s a consensus top-10 pick at the moment. And if he breaks out at the WJC, he’ll certainly be someone to pay attention to the rest of the 2021-22 season. 

Danila Yurov — Right Wing, Russia 

Yurov is one of the more intriguing top prospects in the 2022 draft. He’s played 21 games for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL but has not totaled a single point. However, that’s not his fault, as he’s averaged just a measly 4:37 of ice time per game. That’s not all that uncommon with young players in the KHL. But when in the MHL — Russia’s junior league — Yurov has very much looked like a top prospect, with 12 points in six games. 

As Peter Baracchini states about Yurov, “He’s a very strong skater with great mobility and edges. He uses that to his advantage to push defenders back and easily get by them, either with control or chasing after the puck.” 

The Devils have drafted plenty from Russia under Director of Scouting Paul Castron over the past five to six years, so there’s a good chance they have an eye on Yurov. Adding him to a core of forwards that consists of Hughes, Bratt, Hischier, Dawson Mercer and Holtz could make for a high-flying Devils offense in due time, as Yurov projects as a strong-skating, top-six winger. 

Logan Cooley — Center, USA

The Devils are in good shape with Hischier, Mercer and Hughes at center. All three players are 22 years old or younger, so that’s their future down the middle for many years to come. But if Cooley is available to them with a top-five or -10 pick, it’ll be hard to pass on him. In 27 games between the U.S. National U18 Team in the U.S. Development Program and USNTDP Juniors in the United States Hockey League, Cooley has totaled 18 goals and 38 points. 

Logan Cooley USNTDP U18
Logan Cooley with the USNTDP (Photo by Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

In an article with The Hockey News, an unnamed NHL scout raved about Cooley’s great skating and massive upside once he puts on more strength to his lower body. The Devils don’t need another center, but drafting for need in the top 10 of the draft is the worst thing a team can do. If he’s on the board and he’s the best player available, they have to select him and worry about the rest later. The potential is too good to pass up. 

Filip Mešár — Wing/Center, Slovakia

If you haven’t noticed, there are some pretty good prospects coming out of Slovakia these days. Mešár isn’t expected to be a top-10 pick like Slafkovksy or Nemec, but the top 15 isn’t out of the question. In 20 games with HK Poprad in Slovakia’s top pro league, he’s totaled five goals and nine points. 

Per Nick Richard of Dobber Prospects, Mešár is a highly creative offensive forward who excels in transition and has a deceptive shot. This isn’t to say he’d be the next Jesper Bratt, but that sounds a lot like a scouting report of Jesper Bratt. Not to mention he’s about the same size as Bratt at 5-foot-10, 172 pounds. He’ll likely play top-six minutes for Slovakia at the WJC, so it’ll be a good opportunity to see his skill on display. If the Devils regroup during the second half of the season and end up drafting in the 10-15 range with their first-round pick, then Mešár is worth considering. 

David Jiricek — Defenseman, Czechia

Jiricek is in the middle of his second pro season in Czechia’s top pro league, just like Mešár is in Slovakia. In 29 games with HC Plzen, Jiricek has totaled five goals and 11 points. He’s a bit of a do-it-all type of defenseman, as Corey Pronman of The Athletic states: “Jiricek defends well due more to his reach and physicality, which is excellent. Offensively he displays great hands, vision and a hard point shot.” (from ‘Top 23 prospects for the 2022 NHL Draft: Shane Wright leads forward-heavy group’ The Athletic – 10/25/2021)

Related: Dear Santa: Devils’ 2021 Christmas Wish List

The Devils have clearly emphasized adding size to their blue line under general manager Tom Fitzgerald. Jiricek is 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, so he checks that box off. He’s also a right-handed shot, which is a need for the Devils in the NHL and their prospect pool. But he’s not just a hard-hitting defenseman who’s big and doesn’t chip in on offense. It’s quite the opposite. The offensive upside is there, and that’s what should make him a top target for the Devils if defense is where they want to go with a top-5 or -10 pick. 

It Never Hurts To Get an Early Look

The Devils are by no means locked into a top-5 or -10 pick. But it’s going to take some work to right the ship when they return from the Christmas break on Dec. 29. If they don’t stop their current six-game losing streak, they’ll likely be heading for another high pick at the 2022 draft in July before even hitting the midway point on the 2021-22 season. And with many of the top prospects playing at the WJC for the next nine days, it could never hurt to get an early look at what options they’ll have when it’s time to make a pick in what is a very strong draft class. 

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