Devils’ Draft Strategy Could Hinge on Their Needs

The best draft strategy is taking the best player available, especially in the first round. And it should be no different for the New Jersey Devils at the 2020 Entry Draft. They hold the sixth, 10th, and 17th overall picks without help from the draft lottery, although what picks they maintain could change depending on how the NHL returns from its coronavirus suspension

If they end up with all three picks, what if they decide to draft based on need instead of best player available? They’re weak on the wing in their prospect pool, and they could use another impact defenseman besides former CHL Defenseman of the Year, Ty Smith. We know drafting based on need is an approach teams take all the time, even if they deny it. But with the strength of this year’s draft class, the Devils may be just fine with that kind of approach. 

Devils Can Grab Impact Winger Sixth Overall

Alexander Holtz

We’ll start with Holtz, who’s the second-ranked international skater, per NHL Central Scouting. The Swedish winger played for Djurgardens IF in the SHL (Sweden) and finished with 16 points (9 goals, 7 assists) in 35 games. He also finished with five points in seven games for Team Sweden at the 2020 U-20 World Junior Championships. 

What stands out with Holtz is his shot, as it’s absolutely lethal and arguably the best in this class. He’ll pick his spot from anywhere on the ice and hit his target. He also doesn’t take bad shots, which is something you like to see from a young sniper. If there’s one downside to his game, it’s he’s, at best, an average defender. But he has the potential to be a 30-40 goal scorer in the NHL. 

Alexander Holtz Djurgarden
Alexander Holtz makes perfect sense for the Devils (Photo by ERIK SIMANDER/TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty Images)

The Devils have a couple of decent wingers in their system, but none with the upside Holtz has. They also don’t have anyone close to having the kind of shot he does, so he’d fill a need for position and skill. Imagine either Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier, two former first overall picks, setting up Holtz for the next five-plus years. That’s probably something the organization could live with if they take the need-based approach. 

Lucas Raymond

The Devils could end up being one of the luckiest teams at the draft if Raymond falls to them at sixth overall. He finished the SHL season with only 10 points in 33 games. But Frolunda HC was one of the best teams in the league, so the ice time wasn’t there for him. Though when playing in the Swedish junior league, it was clear he was a step above the competition — he had 14 points in nine games. 

Raymond is a different player from his Swedish counterpart, Holtz. He doesn’t have the shot Holtz does, but he makes up for it with his creativity and playmaking ability. He’s also an absolute nightmare on the forecheck, as he’s always chasing the puck and creating havoc. He’s a surprisingly great defender for someone his age, as well. 

Related: Lucas Raymond: The Next Swedish Superstar

If the Devils snag Raymond, they’ll fill a need (right or left-wing), but they could also end up getting the best player available. He needs another year or two in Sweden to bulk up — he’s only 5-foot-10, 165 pounds. But this would be a win-win situation without a doubt. 

Cole Perfetti

Moving on from Europe and over to the OHL, it’s time to look at one of the best scorers in the entire CHL, Cole Perfetti. The left-winger had an outrageous season, playing in 61 games and finishing with 37 goals and 111 points, second to only Marco Rossi in the OHL. 

Cole Perfetti, OHL, Saginaw Spirit
Cole Perfetti would be the best winger in the Devils’ system (Photo courtesy CHL Images)

Like most of the forwards in the top half of the draft, Perfetti is on the smaller side (5-foot-10, 185 pounds). He has a good, quick shot, although not on the same level as Holtz’s. He’s also a high-end playmaker, so he should be a valuable contributor on the power play in the NHL. 

If there’s a knock on Perfetti, it’s his average skating ability. That’s something he needs to work on before making the jump to the NHL, so it seems likely he returns to the OHL for one more season. But he would give the Devils the game-breaking winger they need in their system. 

Another Winger or Defense 10th Overall?

Jack Quinn

Quinn wasn’t on too many people’s radars before this season began. He’s a 5-foot-11, 175-pound winger who plays for the Ottawa 67’s in the OHL. The Devils have four prospects of their own on the 67’s (Kevin Bahl, Graeme Clarke, Mitchell Hoelscher, and Nikita Okhotyuk), so they’re likely quite familiar with Quinn. 

If there’s a player who can rival Holtz’s shot in this class, it’s Quinn. Given that, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see he was second in the OHL with 52 goals before they suspended play due to the coronavirus. Expand that total to include the rest of CHL, and he’s still second in goals across the OHL, QMJHL, and WHL. He also takes a lot of quality shots like Holtz does.

Jack Quinn Ottawa 67's
Jack Quinn could continue the 67’s bandwagon to New Jersey (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

For as great as Quinn was this season, there are some concerns about him, and it’s not about his size. Nor is it about his skating. In his draft minus-1 season, he had just 32 points in 61 games, granted the 67’s were one of the best teams in the CHL. He also turns 19 in September, so it’s always a bit of concern to see a late birthday, draft-eligible player have a breakout campaign during his draft year. But he’d still be the Devils’ best forward prospect if they select him. 

Jake Sanderson

After Jamie Drysdale, Sanderson is the no. 2 ranked defenseman in this class. He played for the U.S. U-18 National Team in the USDP, where he was their captain, and finished with 29 points in 47 games. When he played in the USHL with the USNTDP juniors, he finished with 14 points in 19 games. 

None of his offensive totals catch your eye, but that’s not his strength, either. Rather, he’s the top defensive defenseman in this class. What stands out about Sanderson is his ability to break up plays before they even start. He’s a solid skater, and while offense isn’t his strength, he can still move the puck effectively. 

Sanderson might be one of the more controversial prospects in the first round of this draft. NHL Central Scouting has him ranked as the no. 4 North American skater, ahead of names such as Perfetti, Quinn, and Rossi. That’s probably a bit of a stretch, but I could see him being a target for the Devils with this pick. He’d fill the need for another impact defenseman in the team’s system behind Smith. 

Dawson Mercer

Mercer doesn’t get the same recognition some of the other top forwards are getting, but he’s quietly been very productive. He finished his draft minus-1 season with 30 goals and 64 points in 68 games with the Drummondville Voltigeurs in the QMJHL. He began this season red hot, with 42 points in 24 games for the Voltigeurs, before being traded to the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, where he had 18 points in 16 games. 

Dawson Mercer Drummondville Voltigeurs
Dawson Mercer fits the mold of what the Devils need at wing (Photo from Drummondville Voltigeurs)

Mercer’s game isn’t too different from the other wingers mentioned here. Like Quinn and Holtz, he has one of the best shots in this draft class. He’s also an elite stick-handler, which sets him apart from some of the other forwards who could get selected in the 10-15 range. In addition to his offensive ability, he’s also a solid defender.

It’s not unusual to see prospects’ rankings have a wide range between different services. But Mercer’s rankings (via Elite Prospects) range from 15th overall by McKeen’s Hockey to 11th overall by Elite Prospects. So while the Devils might be reaching taking him with the 10th pick, it wouldn’t be unreasonable. At day’s end, he fills their need for another scoring winger like Holtz, Quinn, and Raymond do.  

Should Devils Go Defense With 17th Overall Pick?

Braden Schneider

Schneider is one of at least three defensemen projected to go in the middle of the first round. He plays for the Brandon Wheat Kings in the WHL, and finished with 42 points in 60 games this season. He stands at 6-foot-2, 209 pounds, but skates well for someone his size.

Schneider may not be a game-changer offensively, but he can move the puck effectively. Like Sanderson, he’s a defensive defenseman and doesn’t make a ton of mistakes in his own zone. Although his point totals don’t jump out at you, there’s room for that to improve as his offensive game matures. 

For the Devils, Schneider should be in play if he’s available. He’d likely become their second-best defensive prospect behind Smith. With that said, they have plenty of defensive defensemen in their pipeline. So they could look for someone with more offensive upside.

Kaiden Guhle

Guhle may be the best defender to come out of the WHL this season. The 6-foot-3, 187-pound blueliner played for the Prince Albert Raiders and finished with 40 points in 64 games. His brother, Brendan Guhle, was an original draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres but was traded to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Brandon Montour. 

Kaiden Guhle Prince Albert Raiders
Kaiden Guhle could be a great value pick in the middle of the first round (Photo by Lucas Chudleigh/Apollo Multimedia)

Guhle’s game isn’t all that different from Schneider’s. They’re both defensive defensemen, but what separates Guhle from Schneider is his A-plus skating and mobility. He has limited offensive upside, but that’s something he could improve as he grows older, especially because he’s such a great skater. But like Schneider, he’d be a safe choice for the Devils too. 

William Wallinder

I haven’t seen any of Wallinder’s game, so here’s what a couple of writers have to say about the 6-foot-4, 192-pound defender from Sweden:

“Large and in-charge. A lot of upside. Quality feet. Quick outlets. Not afraid to jump into the rush. Looked competent in a pro league as a young ’02.” – Cam Robinson of Dobber Prospects

“Fascinating puck-mover with size and skating ability. Think Alexander Edler, whose value may not be truly appreciated until later in his career.” – Sam Cosentino of Sportsnet

He appears to be a very good skater for someone his size. His offensive ability may be the best part of his game too. He put up 24 points in 37 games for Modo Hockey J20 in the Swedish junior league. But he also played in 18 games for Modo in the Allsvenskan, the second division in Sweden. 

Related: William Wallinder — 2020 Draft Prospect Profile

Schneider and Guhle are both safer selections who probably won’t be massive point producers in the NHL. The Devils have a lot of that in their pipeline, with prospects like Bahl, Daniil Misyul, and Okhotyuk. While it can’t hurt to have defensive defensemen, they have more of a need for offensive defensemen like Wallinder. So he should be in play at this point in the draft. 

Devils Can Still Get Their Winger 17th Overall

Let’s say the Devils select Sanderson with the 10th overall pick. That takes care of their defensive need, but it means they could still use another winger. Fortunately, there’ll be plenty to choose from with the 17th overall pick. A few they could target at this point include Noel Gunler, Seth Jarvis, and Rodion Amirov. 

Seth Jarvis Portland Winterhawks
Seth Jarvis may be the most underrated player in the 2020 draft class (Photo by Keith Dwiggins/Portland Winterhawks)

We’ll start with Jarvis, who finished with 98 points in 58 games in an unbelievable season in the WHL. He’s an elite skater and stick-handler. When watching him play, he reminds me of Jesper Bratt in terms of his niftiness and ability to create space. He has the potential to be a high-end, scoring winger in the NHL. And he could end up being a steal in the middle to late first round. 

Next up is Gunler, who’s one of the more divisive prospects in this draft. There are times when he looks like a top 10 talent. And there are other times he isn’t noticeable at all, which is why the Swedes likely kept him off the national team on multiple occasions. There’s no doubt he could be an impact scoring winger in the NHL, though. The question is if he’d be worth the risk to fill a need with this high of a pick.  

Related: 10 Prospects the Devils Need on Their Draft Board

Lastly, there’s Amirov, who’s the top-ranked Russian forward in this year’s draft. He played in 21 games for Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the KHL and finished with two points. When not in the KHL, he played for Tolpar Ufa in the MHL — Russia’s junior league — and finished with 22 points in 17 games. He plays in all situations and will likely do so in the NHL. He doesn’t quite have the offensive upside of Gunler or Jarvis, but he should be enough of a scorer to make it into a team’s top six. 

What About Yaroslav Askarov?

If you follow the Devils closely, you’ll know goaltending is an issue that needs addressing. Askarov is the best goalie prospect in this class, and arguably the best since Igor Shesterkin in 2014. It’ll be tempting for the Devils to use one of their first-round picks on him. But which one? If he’s there at the 17th overall pick, it’d be hard to argue against drafting him. It’d be a different story in the top 10, though. 

Yaroslav Askarov Team Russia
The Devils will have a tough decision on their hands if Yaroslav Askarov is available for them (Russia Hockey/FHR.RU)

Askarov maybe a top 10 talent, but it’s been a long time since a team used that high a pick on a goaltender. The Tampa Bay Lightning selected Andrei Vasilevskiy 19th overall, while the Washington Capitals drafted Ilya Samsonov 22nd overall. The Devils also selected Mackenzie Blackwood in the second round of the 2015 Entry Draft. 

It’s easy for teams to find starting netminders in later parts of the draft, and the Devils’ need for goaltending is more of an immediate issue. Askarov would be a couple of years away, at least, from helping, unlike Holtz or Quinn, who are closer to competing in the NHL. 

When all is said and done, the Devils will very likely end up going the way of best player available. That said, if they choose a need-based approach, they should still come out fine. Let’s say they select Holtz and Quinn with their first two picks. They then follow that by choosing Wallinder with the 17th overall pick. They’d be taking care of their need for impact scoring wingers and an offensive-minded defenseman. But they’d also be giving their farm a much-needed injection of high-end skill it doesn’t have. And I’d say that’d be a pretty successful first round. 

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Prospect stats from Elite Prospects