Devils Should Keep Diving Into European Draft Waters

When Paul Castron took over as the New Jersey Devils’ Director of Amateur Scouting in 2015, he had a tall task at hand. The organization’s farm system was barren and in desperate need of some skill. The first draft he was in charge of came in 2016. And since then, we’ve seen some trends develop in the team’s draft strategy. 

The Devils have made 37 draft choices under Castron, with 18 of them being European-born players (48.6% of their picks). Some of those choices have paid off, while others are still developing in the various leagues they play in. 

There’s no reason to believe that trend will stop when looking at the 2020 Draft, either. Nor should it. Assuming the Devils don’t land one of the first two overall picks, the strength of the class comes from European-born players. And that could help them build one of the NHL’s best prospect pools. 

Reviewing Devils’ European Draft Choices

In Castron’s first draft at the head of the table in 2016, the Devils came away with three European prospects. Yegor Rykov (fifth round, 132nd overall) once looked like one of their best defense prospects, but he was part of the trade that brought Michael Grabner to the Devils in 2018. There’s also Mikhail Maltsev (fourth round, 102nd overall), who had a solid rookie season in the AHL and could be competing for an NHL gig in 2020-21. 

But the most notable draft pick from the 2016 class, to this point, has been Jesper Bratt. The Swedish winger was a sixth-round choice and has turned into one of the Devils’ best players since making his NHL debut in 2017. He has 100 points in 185 games, so he’s already performed well above his draft slot and has shown marked improvement in each season. 

Jesper Bratt New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils’ winger Jesper Bratt (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Moving on from 2016, the Devils’ 2017 class featured a heavy dose of European prospects. There’s the Swiss-born Nico Hischier, who was the first overall pick. Jesper Boqvist (second-round pick) and Fabian Zetterlund (third-round pick) were both born in Sweden. The 2019-20 season was their first on North American ice, and both could become full-time NHLers sooner than later. 

The Devils’ selection of Europeans continued right through the seventh round. Gilles Senn, their top goaltending prospect, was born in Switzerland and played in the NLA until this past season. Marian Studenic played his junior hockey in the OHL but was born in Slovakia. Aarne Talvitie, a sixth-round pick from Finland, has turned into one of the Devils’ 10 best prospects. Though, he is working his way back from a torn ACL he suffered at the 2019 WJC. They also drafted Russian defenseman Yegor Zaitsev with one of their three seventh-round picks. 

Finally, there’s the 2019 class. The Devils took Jack Hughes with the first overall pick but selected four European players with their next 10 selections. They chose a pair of physical Russian defensemen in Daniil Misyul and Nikita Okhotyuk. They also drafted Russian winger Arseni Gritsyuk, who was one of the top players in the MHL — Russia’s junior league — this past season. Nikola Pasic, their final 2019 pick, had a strong season in the Allsvenskan — the Swedish AHL — and will suit up for Linkoping HC (SHL) in 2020-21.

2020 Draft Loaded With European Talent

Now comes the fun part: the 2020 Draft. If the Devils land the first overall pick, the choice is easy. They have to take Alexis Lafreniere. The same is true of Quinton Byfield and the second overall pick, though it may not be as much of a guarantee as Lafreniere. But things will get interesting if they end up selecting third overall, where they’ll likely have a tough decision on their hands.

Swedish winger Lucas Raymond may be the third-best prospect in this class. And he’d fill a need for the Devils while being the best player available at that slot. If they don’t choose Raymond, Tim Stützle would be worth considering. He’s the best prospect to come out of Germany since Leon Draisaitl and has the potential to be an impact NHL winger. 

Tim Stützle Adler Mannheim
Tim Stützle of Adler Mannheim is slated to be hockey’s next Leon Draisaitl (Photo Credit: Simon Hastegård/Bildbyrån).

There’s also Austrian-born center Marco Rossi, who led the entire CHL in scoring with 120 points in 56 games. And don’t forget about Swedish sniper Alexander Holtz, though his selection makes more sense in the 5-10 range, where the Devils will be selecting if they don’t land a lottery spot.

In addition to their own pick, the Devils could have two additional first-round choices. But it all depends on what happens with the draft lottery and play-in round in the NHL’s 24-team, return-to-play format. If the Arizona Coyotes’ pick transfers to the Devils, it could fall somewhere in the top 10-12. That puts European prospects like Rodion Amirov, Yaroslav Askarov, and Anton Lundell in their sights. 

Related: Devils Could Use More Puck-Moving Blueliners

The third first-round pick depends on how far the Vancouver Canucks advance in the 24-team playoff. If they don’t make it to the round of 16, the pick slides to 2021. But if they make it that far, the pick transfers to the Devils, where they’ll have plenty of options in the second half of the first round. They could choose William Wallinder, who checks in at 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, but is one of the best skating blueliners in this class. 

Noel Gunler had an inconsistent season in the SHL. That said, he’s a first-round talent and would be the high-end, scoring winger the team needs in their system. Other late first-round possibilities include winger Lukas Reichel (Germany) and defenseman Helge Grans (Sweden). 

Devils Have Built Depth Drafting From Europe

The Devils will enter the 2020 Draft without a second or third-round pick. That could change if they find a way to trade down and accumulate some more assets. But even if they don’t, they’ll have two fourth-round selections, as well as one in each of the final three rounds. And they’ve found some hidden European gems in the later rounds of recent classes (Bratt, Talvitie, Pasic, Gritsyuk). 

It won’t be any different with the 2020 class, as there are plenty of hidden gems worth having on their draft board. We’ll start with Russia, where Dmitri Ovchinnikov and Maxim Groshev would help strengthen the Devils’ depth at wing. 

Maxim Groshev Team Russia
Maxim Groshev of Team Russia (Russia Hockey/FHR.RU)

There are also two Russian wingers playing in the CHL who should be of interest to the Devils. The first is Egor Sokolov, who’s one of the top overagers in this class. He finished this season with 46 goals and 92 points in 52 games in the QMJHL and went on a scoring tear after the WJCs. He’s 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, so he’d bring some much-needed size to the organization too. 

The next Russian winger to consider is Pavel Gogolev, who spent the last three seasons playing for the Guelph Storm in the OHL. He finished 2019-20 with 45 goals and 96 points in 63 games. He has one of the best shots in this class and is an impressive stickhandler, as well. 

Related: Devils’ Rebuild: Grading Shero’s Drafts

The Devils will likely find some value with defenders and goaltending in the later rounds too. If they pass on Askarov in the first round, they’d be in good hands if they land a prospect like Joel Blomqvist (Finland) or Samuel Hlavaj (Slovakia). They’d also be wise to consider Calle Clang, the top goaltending prospect out of Sweden, and Czech netminder Jan Bednar. 

On defense, Alexander Nikishin might be what they’re seeking, as he’s a 6-foot-3, 196-pound defender who plays a physical game. If they covet puck-moving blueliners, Thimo Nickl and Samuel Knazko would be ideal mid to late-round targets. 

2020 All About Europe

The strength of the 2020 class lies among European talent. Does that mean the Devils should select a European player with every pick? Of course not. But Castron has shown he’s not afraid to dive into European waters. It’s worked out for them with Hischier and Bratt, while quite a few of their depth prospects have a ton of promise. Given the amount of European talent available this year, it’d be a surprise if that trend didn’t continue. Because it’s a significant reason why their system has strengthened over the last few years, and it should be at the 2020 Draft too.