Devils’ Top 10 Prospects: Midseason 2021-22

We’ve finally reached the NHL All-Star break. And it couldn’t have come a better time for the New Jersey Devils, who have lost six games in a row. At 15-25-5, their 2021-22 season is all but over, which means it’s time to begin looking to the future. Fortunately, they still have a deep prospect pool with plenty of talent making their way through the ranks. Let’s look at the Devils’ top 10 prospects at the midway point of the 2021-22 season. 

10. Samu Salminen, Center/Left Wing

The Devils drafted Salminen with the 68th overall pick in the third round of the 2021 NHL Draft. So far In his draft plus-one season with Jokerit’s U-20 team in the Finnish junior league, he’s totaled 31 points in 28 games, a slight decrease from the 1.52 points per game he averaged during his draft year.

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Salminen already has NHL size at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds. Though he is bigger than many of today’s skilled forwards in the NHL, he has quite a bit of offensive upside. He’s a good playmaker and has an underrated shot. He needs to improve his skating, but he has plenty of time to work on that. Salminen intends on playing for the University of Denver (NCAA) in 2022-23, so it’ll be a while before he’s playing in the NHL. He projects as a middle-six forward if he hits his ceiling. 

9. Kevin Bahl, Defenseman

Bahl was the centerpiece of the trade that sent Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes in Dec. 2019. He’s in his second professional season and has eight points in 30 games for the Utica Comets in the American Hockey League (AHL). He’s gotten a couple of cups of coffee in the NHL but has yet to stick with the Devils’ NHL roster. 

Kevin Bahl New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils prospect Kevin Bahl (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Counting totals aren’t a great way to measure defensemen’s play in general. But that’s especially true for a blueliner like Bahl, who doesn’t project to have much offense at the next level. There isn’t much in the way of advanced stats for the AHL, but there are some that can help provide a bit of insight into his performance. His game score per game of 0.15 ranks 24th on the Comets, which isn’t great. At the same time, defensemen his size (6-foot-6, 230 pounds) take a bit longer to round out their game. He doesn’t turn 22 until the end of June, so he still has room to develop. He projects a defensive third-pair defender in the NHL.   

8. Tyce Thompson, Forward

The Devils’ fourth-round selection at the 2019 draft has worked his way up among their prospect pool. His season came to a halt after he underwent shoulder surgery in November that put him out for “months.” He has yet to return to the ice, and there’s no timeline for when he may return. However, he had gotten off to a strong start in 2021-22. 

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Thompson had seven points (4 goals, 3 assists) in seven games with the Comets. That led to a call-up to the Devils, where he had some good moments in the two games he played before injuring his shoulder. His game score per game of 0.91 still ranks fifth on the Comets, even though he hasn’t played for them since November. Six of his seven points in the AHL were primary points, which is always a good sign too. Losing almost the whole 2021-22 season due to an injury is a setback, but there’s still a player on track to be an effective third-line forward for the team if he returns healthy. 

7. Reilly Walsh, Defenseman

It’s been a slow rise for Walsh since the Devils drafted him in the third round of the 2017 draft, but he’s started to break out this season. Though he’s a defenseman, his 27 points in 36 games rank third on the Comets to Chase De Leo and Fabian Zetterlund. His game score per game of 0.68 ties Victor Soderstrom for 16th best in the AHL among defensemen to this point in the season. Only half of his points are primary points, and only half are at even strength. But half his points coming on the power play might actually be a plus. 

Reilly Walsh Binghamton Devils
Reilly Walsh with the Binghamton Devils in 2020-21 (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

One of Walsh’s strengths, even since his time at Harvard (NCAA), was his ability to quarterback the power play. And he’s shown that’s still a strength of his with the Comets. He’s never going to be a shutdown defender, which will limit how high up the lineup he’ll play, but the offensive upside is there. He likely projects a third-pair offensive defenseman in the NHL who should see time operating the Devils’ second power-play unit. 

6. Graeme Clarke, Right Wing 

Clarke battled some significant injuries during his junior days with the Ottawa 67’s in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). But since turning pro, he’s mostly been able to stay healthy, and he’s been a bit of a surprise in the process. He was not supposed to be playing pro hockey last season, but since the OHL canceled their 2020-21 season due to the pandemic, the AHL amended their rules to allow drafted CHL prospects to play in the AHL. 

Related: Devils News & Rumors: Garland & Canucks Forwards

Clarke was one of the Binghamton Devils’ (AHL) best players in 2020-21, tallying eight goals and 18 points in 31 games. He’s built off that, with 15 points in 20 games for the Comets this season; he’s missed the last few weeks with a hand injury but should return to the ice soon. 

Only eight of Clarke’s points have been primary points, and his game score per game of 0.6 ranks 11th on the Comets. But the important thing to remember is this was supposed to be his first pro season. He’s only 20 years old and does not turn 21 until the end of April. He’s a prospect that keeps improving and one that could be a solid middle-six scorer down the road due to his shot and underrated playmaking.  

5. Nolan Foote, Left Wing

After an impressive first pro season in 2020-21 where Foote tallied 17 points in 24 games with the Binghamton Devils, his production has slipped a bit with the Comets. He has 19 points in 32 games, though he does have nine points in his last 10 games. His shot generation has fallen off a bit as well, and his underlying numbers are a mixed bag. His game score per game of 0.58 is 11th on the Comets, but he’s second in goals for percentage (GF%) at 73.8 percent; the Comets have outscored teams 31-11 with Foote on the ice. 

Nolan Foote Binghamton Devils
Nolan Foote with the Binghamton Devils in 2020-21 (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Is there cause for concern with Foote? Not at this time, but he hasn’t taken the step forward expected of him this season. Still, there’s plenty of season left in the AHL, and he has been playing better lately. His skating still needs improvement, and he needs to start playing more like a power forward given his frame (6-foot-4, 201 pounds). He already has a great shot, so if he rounds out the other areas he needs to improve, he could still become a middle-six winger. He’s only 21 years old, and as with Bahl, bigger players tend to take longer to develop. 

4. Shakir Mukhamadullin, Defenseman

I’ve been writing about the Devils since 2015 and for The Hockey Writers since 2018. I can’t recall coming across a Devils prospect as unique as Mukhamadullin. His production with Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the KHL is more or less the same as a season ago (10 points in 39 games compared to seven in 34 games this season). But he’s playing top-four minutes much more consistently and is averaging 15:19 in ice time, up from 12:56 in 2020-21. What he’s doing in those minutes is super interesting as well: 

Whether it’s in the NHL, AHL or KHL, it is quite rare seeing a defenseman put up the transition rates Mukhamadullin is. That’s something you’re accustomed to seeing from forwards and specifically centers, not defensemen. The same with dekes, so it’s clear he can stick-handle and move the puck. That’s all the more impressive, given he’s 6-foot-4, 194 pounds. There were concerns about his defensive game when the Devils drafted him 20th overall at the 2020 draft, but he seems to have made progress there. He’s a difficult defenseman to project in terms of where he’ll play in the NHL because he’s so unique. But a highly mobile second-pair defenseman is very much a possibility. 

3. Arseni Gritsyuk, Left Wing

There’s no Devils prospect on the rise faster than Gritsyuk. He’s had a track record of producing in the MHL, the Russian junior league, but it’s now beginning to translate in the pros with Avangard Omsk (KHL). To date, he has 16 goals and 28 points in 39 games for Omsk. He’s fired 101 shots on goal in 39 games, so he’s been a high-volume shooter. Not only has Gritsyuk been one of the best even-strength U-21 players in the KHL, but he’s been one of the best players in the entire league: 

Arseni Gritsyuk
Arseni Gritsyuk of his performance during the 2021-22 KHL season (via @lassialanen)

In short, Gritsyuk is having success in all aspects of the game in the KHL. Offensively, defensively, in transition, he’s getting it all done. That’s why Russia included him on their Olympic team for the Beijing Winter Olympics. Considering the Devils drafted him in the fifth round of the 2019 draft, they have incredible value on their hands. 

This isn’t to say Gritsyuk is a star in the making or the next Kirill Kaprizov. He’s not, but he’s a legit NHL prospect who’s breaking out in the KHL at 20 years old. He’s under contract with Omsk for 2022-23, but assuming he doesn’t re-sign with them, he should make his way over to North America in 2023. His ceiling seems to be that of a second-line scoring winger. 

2. Alexander Holtz, Right Wing

I had Holtz ranked first in my preseason ranking, but his “drop” has less to do with him and more about the rise of who’ll be first in this midseason ranking. After a so-so draft+1 season in 2020-21, Alexander Holtz is having a strong campaign playing for the Comets in the AHL. He has 12 goals and 25 points in 22 games and has impressive underlying numbers. His game score per game of 1.18 is 17th in the league among all forwards and third among U-21 forwards, behind Buffalo Sabres prospects Jack Quinn and Peyton Krebs. And any time you draw comparisons to Trevor Zegras, you’re probably heading in the right direction:

Holtz’s scoring hasn’t come via empty-calorie points, either. Eighteen of his 25 points are primary points (goals or primary assists). His rate of 0.90 primary points per game ranks fifth in the AHL for U-21 players behind Krebs, Quinn, Yegor Chinakhov and Matthew Boldy. There’s a pretty reasonable argument that Holtz may be too good for the AHL, so it might not be long before he returns to the NHL. There are flaws to his game, specifically defensively, but defense is not why the Devils drafted him. They selected him to be a high-end scorer, and he has all the tools to be a 30-goal, 60-point scorer alongside Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier. 

1. Luke Hughes, Defenseman

Luke Hughes, the younger brother of Jack Hughes, is having a stellar freshman season with the Michigan Wolverines in the NCAA, with 10 goals and 23 points in 28 games. Though he’s left-handed, he’s played primarily on the right side for the Wolverines, which he did for the USNTDP as a draft-eligible prospect as well. And that could be a factor once he makes the NHL. 

Luke Hughes
Luke Hughes with the USNTDP (Photo from Rena Laverty)

There’s no doubting the Devils selecting Luke fourth overall at the 2021 draft had something to do with Jack. But it’s not like they reached in making the pick. He was a consensus top-five prospect, and he’s showing with the Wolverines why that was the case. He has great offensive instincts and is an elite skater. Had he been born a week later in September, he’d be a 2022-eligible prospect and would be in the conversation for being a top-three pick. The fact he doesn’t turn 19 until September means he still has a ton of runway for development, especially defensively, where his game is still a bit raw. His ceiling continues trending towards a high-end, top-pair defenseman. 

Building Through the Draft Takes Time

It’s hard selling the Devils have a bright future when it’s been so many years of hearing that phrase, but it’s true. The organization does have a bright future. They’ve placed more emphasis on drafting and building a team around Hischier and Hughes’ ages under general manager Tom Fitzgerald than they did under Ray Shero. And that kind of team building takes time, especially when a significant portion depends on drafting. 

Related: Devils Weekly: Struggles in January, Blackwood’s Injury & More 

Hischier turned 23 a month ago, while Jack Hughes doesn’t turn 21 until late May. Their top prospects, Holtz (20), Luke Hughes (18), Mukhamadullin (20) and Gritsyuk (20), are all in the same age bracket as Jack and Hischier. Nor does that include Dawson Mercer (20), the 18th overall pick at the 2020 draft, who’s already establishing himself as an NHLer. If they all hit their potential, they could be playing alongside Hughes and Hischier for a long time. And those promises of a bright future for the Devils should become a reality. 

Full List

  1. Luke Hughes
  2. Alexander Holtz
  3. Arseni Gritsyuk
  4. Shakir Mukhamadullin
  5. Nolan Foote
  6. Graeme Clarke
  7. Reilly Walsh
  8. Tyce Thompson
  9. Kevin Bahl 
  10. Samu Salminen

Honorable Mentions

  • Fabian Zetterlund (RW)
  • Patrick Moynihan (C/RW)
  • Chase Stillman (RW)
  • Nate Schnarr (C)

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Advanced stats from AHL Tracker

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