The New Jersey Devils’ farm system has come a long way in just the last year. They got lucky at the NHL Draft Lottery in April and won the first pick, giving them the chance to draft Jack Hughes. It isn’t just Hughes who’s helped bolster their overall pool of prospects, either. The rest of their system has seen players take strides in their development to give them depth they haven’t had in quite some time. Here are their top 10 prospects heading into the new NHL season.
1. Jack Hughes, Center, USNTDP
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Hughes instantly became the team’s best prospect the moment the Devils used the first pick on him. He dominated his age group, finishing with 112 points in 50 games for the USNTDP. And he broke Alex Ovechkin’s scoring record at the U-18 World Championships, with 32 points in 14 career games.
Hughes skillset is something the Devils haven’t had their pipeline in well over a decade. He’s a dynamic playmaker and has elite skating ability. He rarely dumps the puck in and always looks to carry it into the offensive zone with puck possession. While he may not have great size, at 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, smaller players like Johnny Gaudreau and Brayden Point are among the NHL’s best. And it shouldn’t be any different for Hughes when he hits his prime.
2. Ty Smith, Defenseman, WHL
Smith was the Devils’ first pick (17th overall) at the 2018 Entry Draft. He had a great preseason with the team last season, but they opted to return him to his WHL team, the Spokane Chiefs. He went on to have a dominant year there, finishing with 69 points in 57 games and was named CHL Defenseman of the Year.
His production shows he has plenty of offensive upside, and that was noticeable during last preseason, too. He’s smart in the defensive zone and makes the right pass more often than not. He should make the Devils’ 2019-20 roster as a bottom-pair defenseman, but he projects as a potential top-pair blueliner down the road.
3. Jesper Boqvist, Left-Wing/Center, SHL
After an injury-plagued 2017-18, Boqvist returned for another season with Brynas IF in the SHL (Sweden). He had a breakout campaign, finishing with 35 points in 51 games, which translates to 34 points in 82 NHL games. That jump in production showed enough improvement for the organization to sign him to an entry-level contract (ELC) this summer.
The Devils drafted Boqvist as a center, but he played mostly left-wing with Brynas. He competed at both positions at the Prospects Challenge this past weekend and looked good doing so. With that said, his game probably translates better on the wing, given he needs to improve his defense. If he reaches his ceiling, he could be a top-six winger.
4. Michael McLeod, Center, AHL
Last season was McLeod’s first full one as a pro. He finished with 33 points in 55 games for the Binghamton Devils (AHL) and earned a call-up to the NHL to close out the season. He finished with just 3 points in 21 NHL games, but he should benefit from the experience moving forward.
The Devils drafted McLeod with the hopes of him turning into a top-six forward. The offense hasn’t been there early in his pro career. But he’s only 21 years old, so there’s plenty of time for that to come around. His defensive game also improved quite a bit in 2018-19, which helped him become the Binghamton Devils’ first-line center. If he can start finding more offensive consistency, he could be an effective two-way, middle-six forward.
5. Joey Anderson, Right-Wing, AHL
The Devils have made a habit of getting value out of their mid to late-round picks. Anderson was a third-round selection in the 2016 Entry Draft and quickly became one of their top prospects. He made his NHL debut last season but was limited to 34 games after suffering a broken ankle just 11 games into his career.
When healthy, Anderson showed what made him a potential standout, two-way winger. He played well defensively and earned time killing penalties. He only had 7 points in 34 games, but his shot rates weren’t terrible, and he had a positive impact on the ice. Anderson may never be a 60-point scorer, but he has enough offensive upside to be a middle-six forward who’s a key contributor on the penalty kill.
6. Aarne Talvitie, Center, NCAA
Talvitie is a former sixth-round selection of the Devils in 2017. Out of Finland, he played a year of junior hockey in his home country before heading to Penn State in 2018-19. He got off to a hot start in the NCAA, totaling 16 points in his first 17 games during his freshman year. His performance was good enough to earn himself a call-up to Finland’s National Team for the World Junior Championships, where he was their captain and helped lead them to a gold medal over Team USA.
Unfortunately, that would mark the end of Talvitie’s season as he suffered a torn ACL in the gold medal game. He finished the tournament with 7 points in 7 games and was named one of Team Finland’s three best players. He’s only 5-foot-11 but comes in at 201 pounds and competes at a high level. His offensive upside is impressive for a former sixth-round pick, too, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him as a potential top-six forward.
7. Akira Schmid, Goalie, USHL
It took Schmid a while to find a home in junior hockey. After jumping from the WHL to the NAHL, he settled in with the Omaha Lancers in the USHL. That turned out to be the right decision as he dominated the league. He finished last season with a .926 save percentage across 37 games played, ranked first in the USHL.
Schmid is still a few years away from NHL action, but he’s quickly turned into the team’s best goaltending prospect. He has great size, at 6-foot-5, 205 pounds, and he has the athletic ability to go along with it. If he keeps on this upward trajectory, he could be a quality starting goaltender in the NHL.
8. Reilly Walsh, Defenseman, NCAA
The Devils used a third-round pick on Walsh at the 2017 Entry Draft. Since then, he’s made gradual progress at Harvard University, where he plays his college hockey. He finished this past season with 31 points in 33 games, which was the ninth-best scoring rate among NCAA defensemen.
Walsh is slated to return to school for his junior season, and he could be looking at big minutes. Defenseman Adam Fox opted against returning for his senior season to sign with the New York Rangers, while John Marino signed an ELC with the Pittsburgh Penguins. That could mean top-pair minutes for Walsh, and it should benefit him as he still needs to improve defensively before turning pro.
9. Marian Studenic, Right Wing, AHL
Studenic was one of the biggest surprises among Devils’ prospects last season. He started hot and was, at one point, the Binghamton Devils’ leading scorer. But he hit a wall during the second half of the season and finished with 28 points in 64 games in the AHL. It was still enough for him to earn a call-up to Slovakia’s National Team for the World Championships, and he performed well for them, with 5 points in 7 games.
There’s a lot to like about Studenic’s game as he’s a smooth and speedy skater. The offensive upside isn’t that high, but he should be looking at top-six minutes in the AHL this season. That’ll give him a chance to hone his offensive skill, and if it goes well, he could be in line for his NHL debut later in 2019-20.
10. Graeme Clarke, Right Wing, OHL
Clarke is the second of the Devils’ 2019 class to show up on this list after Hughes. He was one of their third-round picks and finished with 23 goals and 34 points in 55 games for the Ottawa 67’s (OHL). That doesn’t jump off the stat sheet, but he was playing on a stacked team, so it was hard for him to get big minutes.
However, Clarke did impress at the Prospects Challenge over the weekend. He scored a goal in a 2-1 loss to the Penguins on Saturday and had a couple of assists in three games played. He found himself on the top line with Hughes and Boqvist to close out the tournament, too. Clarke’s most noticeable weapon is his shot, but he’s a well-round offensive player and was creating chances for his teammates throughout the weekend. He should get more minutes with the 67’s in 2019-20, and that should help him take the next step in his development.
Who Missed the Cut?
There are a couple of prospects who just missed making this list. First up is Russian defenseman Daniil Misyul, who was another 2019 third-round pick. He’s 6-foot-3, 176 pounds and has spent his junior career playing for Loko Yaroslavl in the MHL. He’s also seen minutes in the KHL and played in one of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s regular-season games a week ago. There’s a case for him to be ranked higher, and he could easily crack the top 10 with a strong season in Russia.
Next up is Nathan Bastian, who had a stint in the NHL to close out last season. He finished with 3 goals in 7 games and showed an added level of physicality the Devils lacked at the NHL level. His AHL numbers won’t blow anyone away (24 points in 58 games last season), but 18 of those were goals. His ceiling isn’t more than a bottom-six forward, but he could be effective in that role if he can score while being physical.
Overall, the Devils have a deep group of prospects. With that said, they don’t have much star power other than Hughes and Smith, but that isn’t the worst thing given their potential. The Devils have also made a living on drafting smaller players (Hughes, Boqvist, Talvitie, Walsh) who have high offensive upside. That’s the trend in the modern NHL, so they should benefit from that strategy in the future (it paid off with Jesper Bratt). And that should help them become consistent playoff contenders when these players graduate to the NHL.