With the NHL postponing games from today through Dec. 26 due to rising COVID cases, the New Jersey Devils will have about a week off before returning to the ice on Dec. 27 to take on the St. Louis Blues in St. Louis. But before then, Devils fans have a bit to look forward to at the World Junior Championship, which begins on Dec. 26 in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta and concludes on Jan. 5.
Though some of Devils’ prospects, such as Arseni Gritsyuk, have aged out of the U-20 tournament, they’ll still have a few top prospects in attendance. That includes Jack Hughes’ younger brother Luke Hughes, the fourth overall pick at the 2021 draft. Here’s what to watch from him and the three other Devils prospects attending the 2022 WJC.
Alexander Holtz (Sweden)
This will be the third trip to the WJC with Team Sweden for Holtz. The seventh overall pick at the 2020 draft has had a productive 2021-22 campaign with the Utica Comets in the AHL, with six goals and 10 points in 11 games. He also got a cup of coffee in the NHL, where he had two points in six games. By the looks of it, he’ll get a chance on Sweden’s top line alongside good friend William Eklund and Colorado Avalanche prospect Oskar Olausson.
Holtz and Eklund came up together through Djurgårdens’ system in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). They were linemates for most of the 2020-21 season and fared well given their ages in the SHL — Holtz had 18 points in 40 games, while Eklund had 23 points in 40 games. Olausson has 25 points in 23 games with the Barrie Colts (OHL) this season, so the potential for Holtz to fill the scoresheet is there. He had three points in five games with Sweden last year, but I’d expect that to improve given his role and linemates this time around.
Shakir Mukhamadullin (Russia)
This will be the second trip to the WJC for Mukhamadullin. The 19-year-old defenseman played in seven games for Team Russia last year but did not total a point. Still, he had a significant role, playing top-four to even top-pair minutes. That will be the case again this year, as he’s expected to anchor Russia’s blue line.
Mukhamadullin’s production from 2020-21 is down slightly with Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the KHL — he has seven points in 34 games compared to 10 in 39 contests a season ago. With that said, his role has expanded with Ufa, and he’s now playing consistent top-four minutes.
In an article for Daily Faceoff on Nov. 10, prospects guru Chris Peters noted Mukhamadullin’s progression with Ufa has been pretty remarkable to watch since the Devils drafted him 20th overall at the 2020 draft. With him expected to have a prominent role for Team Russia, it’ll be interesting to see that progress in an international tournament against some of the best players in his age group.
Luke Hughes (USA)
You don’t always see 18-year-olds make it to the U20 WJC unless they’re a top prospect, but that’s the case here. Hughes is having a stellar freshman season with the Michigan Wolverines (NCAA), where he had 18 points in 20 games before joining Team USA for the WJC. With Owen Power playing top-pair minutes, Hughes has settled in on the Wolverines’ second pair. That’s allowed him to display his offensive skill set at even strength, as well as the power play.
Though 18-year-olds do make the U20 WJC (Holtz did as a 17- and 18-year-old), they don’t always have a prominent role. Hughes only turned 18 in September, too, making him the third-youngest player on Team USA’s roster behind top prospect Logan Cooley (2022 draft-eligible) and goaltender Dylan Silverstein (2022 draft-eligible).
Still, Hughes is going to play a key role for Team USA despite being one of their youngest players. He’ll likely get significant power-play minutes and second-pair ice time at even strength. With Jake Sanderson expected to play the difficult defensive minutes, head coach Nate Leaman will count on Hughes to generate offense from the back end. And that could be a difference-maker for the U.S. as they look to capture back-to-back gold medals.
Jakub Málek (Czech Republic)
Devils goaltending prospects Akira Schmid and Nico Daws have made names for themselves with their impressive starts for the Utica Comets in the AHL. But don’t sleep on Malek, who’s put up eye-popping numbers in the Czechia2 — the Czech Republic’s second division of hockey. In 23 games with VHK Vsetin, he’s put up a .936 save percentage (SV%). That ranks first in the league, and by a health margin — Pavel Jekel sits in second place with a .920 SV% in 22 games.
The Devils’ selection of Malek in the fourth round of the 2021 draft was a bit of a head-scratcher at the time. He was unranked by public scouting services, but it’s clear the Devils saw something they liked in him. His breakout season in a pro league, even if it’s the second division in the Czech Republic, seems to indicate as much.
The Czech Republic’s WJC roster boasts some talent on the blue line, namely Stanislav Svozil (Columbus Blue Jackets) and David Jiricek (2022 draft-eligible). They’ll likely need to be sound defensively since they’re in a group with Canada and Finland, but they’ll need strong goaltending too. Jan Bednar (Detroit Red Wings) projects to be their No. 1 netminder, but expect Malek to get in some games as well. His play in a pro league shows he’s deserving of it, and he could even overtake Bednar if he doesn’t get off to a strong start.
There weren’t any glaring omissions among Devils prospects for WJC rosters. At least not to the level of Los Angeles Kings prospect Brandt Clarke getting left off Canada’s roster. Still, there were a couple of Devils prospects who did not make Finland’s final roster. Those would be forward Samu Salminen and defenseman Topias Vilén.
Salminen is having a productive season playing in Finland’s junior league. He has 14 goals and 30 points in 27 games with Jokerit’s U20 club, where he serves as their captain. Vilén only has three points in 29 games, but he’s playing regularly for Pelicans in the Liiga — the top league in Finland. He played in 35 games for Pelicans a season ago as a 17-year-old, so it is a bit of a surprise not seeing him on Finland’s roster for a U20 tournament.
At the same time, both Salminen and Vilén are 18 years old and will not turn 19 until April (their birthdays are a week apart). That probably factored into Finland’s decision in leaving them off their roster. And chances are they’ll be on Team Finland in 2023 when they’re a year older and ready to have more significant roles.
While the Devils have had more prospects attend the WJC in previous years, some of their best are participating in the 2022 tournament. Hughes, Holtz and Mukhamadullin are all among their top five prospects wherever you may look for prospect rankings. And though Daws and Schmid are the Devils’ best goaltending prospects, Malek has worked his way up with his strong season in the Czechia2. That should make for an exciting tournament with fans looking for something positive during a bleak stretch for the Devils.
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Prospects info from Elite Prospects
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017