The New Jersey Devils ended the 2020-21 season as one of the youngest teams in the NHL, and that will remain the case to start 2021-22. They’ll be led by 20-year-old Jack Hughes and 22-year-old Nico Hischier up front, while the only defenseman on the roster over 30 years old will be P.K. Subban. Their young players will be crucial to any success they have, and that counts for any prospect who makes the team out of training camp.
There’s a spot or two open up front for a Devils prospect and perhaps a chance for someone to sneak in as a bottom-pair defender. They’ll have a deep group of prospects competing for those gigs, especially at forward, thanks to the depth they’ve built for the Utica Comets — their new AHL affiliate. Which one of those prospects has a shot at starting their season in the NHL rather than in Utica? Let’s take a look.
Tyce Thompson, Right Wing/Center
Thompson made his pro debut last season and totaled one assist in seven games. The Devils then sent him down to finish 2020-21 in the AHL, where he had four points in 11 games. Thompson only logged 59:43 at five-on-five in the NHL, but he did finish with a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 54.7 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 61.04 percent. Those are positive early returns, but he has work to do to add muscle to his 6-foot-1, 172-pound frame.
If Thompson shows up to camp having bulked up, he could have a shot at a roster spot. The Devils could have two holes to fill up front: figuring out who’ll be their third-line center and filling in a wing in some capacity. Thompson played both right wing and center with Providence College in the NCAA and played a bit at center when demoted to the AHL last season. It seems more likely he starts in Utica, but it certainly helps to have the versatility to play either position. That could give him more paths to the NHL.
Kevin Bahl, Defenseman
The 2020-21 campaign marked Bahl’s first pro season, and as many first pro seasons go, it came with some ups and downs. He played in 27 games for the Binghamton Devils (AHL) and finished with five points. The first half of the AHL season was a struggle for him, as he clearly looked like he needed some time to adjust. But it eventually came along for him, and the Devils rewarded him with a call-up to the NHL.
Bahl would play in seven NHL games, but the results were not great. He finished with a CF% of 41.2 percent and xG% of 34.03 percent. Granted, it’s a small sample size, but it does seem like he needs more time in the AHL. It’s easy to see what the Devils like in him, though. He skates very well for someone who’s 6-foot-6, 229 pounds and will add size plus mobility on the back end. He could battle it out with Jonas Siegenthaler, who the Devils acquired in April, on the left side of the team’s third defense pair. But he’ll certainly have to dominate during the preseason to beat out Siegenthaler as things stand.
Fabian Zetterlund, Right Wing
Zetterlund has slowly worked his way back from a torn ACL he suffered during the 2018-19 season when playing in the SHL for Färjestad BK. He finished 2020-21 with 19 points in 34 AHL games — a 45-point pace over 80 games. That’s an increase from the 19 points in 46 games he totaled during 2019-20 — his first season on North American ice.
With the Devils having lost Nathan Bastian to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, Zetterlund seems like a prime candidate to fill his role. At 5-foot-11, 218 pounds, he plays a physical game but can also find the back of the net because of his shot. He could gel on a line with Miles Wood and Michael McLeod as Bastian did last season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he got a look there during training camp.
Graeme Clarke, Right Wing
Like many other OHL prospects, Clarke got an early start to his pro career since the OHL canceled its 2020-21 season due to the COVID pandemic. The Devils signed him to an AHL deal, allowing him to play in the league last season. He finished with 18 points in 31 games for Binghamton, second on the team to Zetterlund. Had the AHL been able to have a full season, Clarke would’ve been on pace for 20 goals and 46 points.
The 2021-22 season will mark the first of Clarke’s entry-level contract, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the 20-year-old winger fight for an NHL spot. He’s a gifted offensive player with good playmaking ability and creativity, as well as a great shot. The Devils have room for a middle-six right-winger on their NHL roster, and he could earn the role if he handles himself at five-on-five during the preseason while putting up points. His performance in the AHL suggests he could be a bit ahead of schedule.
Marián Studenič, Right Wing
Studenič got his first taste of NHL action last season and potted his first-career goal in a game against the New York Rangers. Though he didn’t light up the AHL in 2020-21, he did not look totally out of place in the NHL. He’s a good skater and can kill penalties, something that might help him stick in the NHL, especially if he can find more offense to his game.
Like Zetterlund, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Studenič fighting to replace Bastian in the Devils’ lineup. He has the mold of a modern fourth-line winger and is a better skater than Zetterlund. Studenič isn’t the type of player that’ll move the needle significantly, but Bastian gave the Devils solid depth last season. If he shows he can replace some of what the Devils lost in Bastian, he could be playing on opening night.
Nolan Foote, Left Wing
After acquiring him in the trade that sent Blake Coleman to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2020 Trade Deadline, Foote finally made his Devils organizational debut almost a year late due to the COVID pandemic. He finished the 2020-21 season with seven goals and 17 points in 24 AHL games — a 24-goal, 56-point pace over 80 games. He also got a cup of coffee in the NHL, where he had a goal and an assist in six games.
The Devils brought in Tomáš Tatar this offseason to give them some scoring help on the wing, but the team still needs a young winger to step up and provide depth. Foote has a howitzer of a shot and could be what the Devils are looking for in their middle six. His brief NHL stint was only so-so, but he was Binghamton’s best player for large stretches of last season. He’s not that far off from being NHL ready, and it wouldn’t be a shock if he shows that’s the case during the preseason.
Dawson Mercer, Right Wing/Center
A first-round pick (18th overall) at the 2020 Draft, Mercer has quickly blossomed into one of the Devils’ top prospects. He finished with 19 goals and 36 points in 23 games in the QMJHL last season and was named the league’s defensive forward of the year. Though he doesn’t turn 20 years old until October, he could be right in the thick of the race to fill out the Devils’ forward depth.
Like Thompson, Mercer can play either right wing or center. The difference is Mercer has much more upside and could be a top-six forward one day. He’s the type of player you’ll want in your top-six, too, especially in the long term. He’s defensively sound but has an underrated shot and is a gifted stickhandler with the skill to play on a scoring line. With that said, he might be the team’s best fit as a third-line center for this coming season. My guess is head coach Lindy Ruff will give him a look at both right wing and center during preseason games. And if he shows well at one of the positions, he could get a look in the NHL early on.
Alexander Holtz, Right Wing
Drafted seventh overall at the 2020 Draft, Holtz has the highest offensive upside of any prospect in the Devils’ system. He got off to a very strong start with Djurgården in the SHL (Sweden) last season before cooling off after World Junior Championship. After finishing with 18 points in 40 games for Djurgården, he came over to North America and played in 10 games with Binghamton, finishing with a goal and two assists.
Holtz has an electric shot and is an underrated playmaker with good skating ability. There’s no doubt he has the potential to be a high-end top-six winger. The question is, is he ready at only 19 years old? He’s not the type of player who’d thrive in a third-line role, so if the Devils don’t think he’s ready for top-six minutes, he needs to begin 2021-22 in Utica. But if he consistently lights the lamp and performs well at five-on-five with Hughes or Hischier during the preseason, he’ll have a good argument to make the team.
Who Makes the Final Cut?
The Devils’ blue line is as good as set after their offseason additions. But the battles up front for a roster spot should be quite competitive when training camp opens in about a month. Unless they really light it up during preseason games, the Devils will likely want top prospects such as Holtz and Mercer to get some AHL seasoning before giving them regular minutes in the NHL.
If I had to bet on who makes the team out of camp, I’d have my money on Foote. He’s the closest to NHL ready and can play as a third-line or middle-six winger if needed. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see Zetterlund or Studenič make the roster if the Devils choose to go for depth and let all their top prospects play big minutes in Utica. It’s been a while since the organization has had this many options that could battle it out for an NHL roster spot at forward. That speaks well of their drafting ability in recent years, and it’s finally created what should be good problems to have when finalizing their 2021-22 roster.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
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