Now that we know the New Jersey Devils hold the seventh overall pick at the 2020 Draft, it’s time to begin discussing what they could do with the selection. There should be a few highly skilled forwards available that the team needs if they want to build around Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes.
The prevailing thought is that’s the direction they’ll go. But there have been a couple of mock drafts projecting the Devils to take a defenseman at seventh overall. One of those defensemen is Jake Sanderson, who has skyrocketed his way into the top 10 of the final rankings for the 2020 Draft. There’s no denying he’s a high-level defender that’d give them a long-term upgrade on the blue line. That said, they may be better off going in a different direction with the pick.
Sanderson’s Defensive Abilities Not the Concern
A look at the Devils’ defense shows a glaring weakness in just about every spot, at least at the NHL level. They acquired P.K. Subban at the 2019 Draft, but he had the worst season of his career and will need a change in his role to get back on track. Will Butcher had an outstanding rookie campaign in 2017-18, but his development has stagnated. Damon Severson’s been inconsistent at times, but he’s made more than enough progress to be called their best defenseman.
It’s clear the Devils’ blue line needs work. But while it could use a facelift at the NHL level, they do have a promising group of prospects. Ty Smith was the first CHL defenseman to win the WHL Defenseman of the Year award in back-to-back seasons since Dion Phaneuf in 2003-04 and 2004-05. He won’t be a top-pair defenseman right away, but the long-term potential is there. Other top prospects include Reilly Walsh and Kevin Bahl, the latter who the Devils acquired in the Taylor Hall trade.
You can argue Smith, Walsh, and Bahl are three of the team’s top five or six prospects. But Sanderson’s defensive potential may be the best of them all. He’s terrific in one-on-one battles, and offensive players have a hard time getting around him. He always comes away with puck possession and rarely makes mistakes, so there’s not much to nitpick with him.
But if there are some question marks about Sanderson, it comes at the offensive end. He’s not a high-end offensive defenseman, and the upside here is limited. If you’re looking for a comparison to Sanderson’s style of play, think John Marino of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sanderson has a higher ceiling than Marino. I’m not trying to say otherwise. But think in terms of each player’s makeup. They’re both defensemen who skate well and don’t make many mistakes in the defensive zone but have limited offensive abilities.
Every team needs a player like that on their blue line, but it’s hard to justify using a top 10 pick to acquire one. If the Devils are interested in Sanderson with the seventh pick, they have to be sure he can be a no. 1, shutdown defenseman who can play 20-25 minutes a night against hard competition. Maybe he can, but other prospects will offer more upside than him with the seventh pick.
Devils Must Take Best Player Available
Since the strength of the 2020 Draft is at forward, the Devils should be in a position to select one at seventh overall. The prospect that seems to be gaining the most attention in post-lottery mock drafts has been Alexander Holtz. The Swedish sniper finished with 16 points in 35 games for Djurgardens (SHL) and has the best shot in this draft class. He’d be the perfect choice for the Devils if they’re looking to put wingers around Hughes and Hischier.
Other names that should be on the Devils’ draft board are Marco Rossi and Lucas Raymond. Rossi led the entire CHL with 120 points in 56 games while playing for the Ottawa 67’s in the OHL. The Devils already have four prospects on the 67’s, so they should be well-versed in his strengths and weaknesses.
Then there’s Raymond. His numbers in the SHL weren’t spectacular (10 points in 33 games), but he played on a stacked Frolunda team, so the minutes weren’t there for him. Most scouts have him as a top-five prospect, and he probably has an argument to be in the top three based on his upside. It’d be a surprise if he’s still on the board for the Devils. But it’d be tough arguing he isn’t the best player available in that spot.
That’s also part of the debate against taking Sanderson with the seventh pick. Let’s say that Holtz, Rossi, and Sanderson are the three players available for the Devils, it’d be hard to convince me Sanderson would be the best player available over them. And he wouldn’t be the best player available if Raymond drops to seventh, either.
Another thing to consider is the Devils could have two additional first-round picks. One would come from the Arizona Coyotes, assuming they don’t win the first overall pick. And another would come from the Vancouver Canucks, if they make the playoffs.
But it’s Canucks’ pick that presents the Devils the perfect opportunity to draft a defenseman. Barring a Canucks’ run to the Stanley Cup, that selection should end up in the 17-20 range. If that’s the case, drafting Kaiden Guhle would make a lot of sense. He’s the 18th overall prospect in Elite Prospects’ consolidated rankings and is a defensive defenseman like Sanderson. It’s easier to justify taking that style blueliner in the mid to late first-round rather than the top 10. And that should be the team’s approach if they want to grab a defenseman in round one.
Devils Have to Gamble on Upside
Sanderson’s a tremendous defender, but the Devils would be playing it safe by drafting him with the seventh pick because he has limited offensive upside. With a draft choice that high, you have to bet on upside rather than playing it safe. And there’s not much of an argument to take him over Rossi or Holtz if those are the choices.
It’s also possible Sanderson is off the board by the Devils’ pick, so none of this may matter. But if the plan is to build around Hughes and Hischier, they’ll need more skilled wingers. It’s a forward-heavy class, so the opportunity is ripe for the Devils to draft wingers similar in age to those two. And that should be their approach to the seventh pick, even if Sanderson is available.