Devils’ Top 20 Prospects: Preseason 2021-22

With the NHL Draft long over and teams’ prospect pools as good as set, it’s time to run down the New Jersey Devils’ top 20 prospects ahead of the 2021-22 season. The group has lost some punch with Yegor Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen and Ty Smith graduating to the NHL. But the Devils managed to replenish it some with a good but not great 2021 Draft. 

The criterion here is pretty simple: a prospect must be 24 years old or younger and have less than 50 NHL games played. There are exceptions, though, as is the case with Smith, who sits at 48 NHL games and is as good as an NHL regular at this point. 

In addition to that, I also considered a player’s NHLe in my rankings. For those who need a crash course on NHLe, I’d recommend this article from Byron Bader. In short, it’s a metric used to get an idea of how much a player will score in his first NHL season when coming from a junior or European league. NHLe was not the end all be all for my decisions, rather just an additional tool I used in certain cases via Patrick Bacon’s (TopDownHockey) NHLe model, which Jack Fraser (JFreshHockey) turned into player cards. There won’t be goalies as part of this list, as I’ll rank them in a separate post. So without further ado, let’s get into the Devils’ top 20 for the 2021-22 preseason. 

20. Jaromir Pytlík, Center

Pytlík was a fourth-round pick of the Devils at the 2020 Draft. Unfortunately, he barely played in his draft+1 season due to the COVID pandemic canceling the OHL season. He played in one game for the Czech Republic at the World Junior Championships but sustained an injury that knocked him out of the tournament after the first game. In all, he played in five games for the Czech Republic at the U20 level, totaling nine points. He also played in four games for HC Stadion Litomerice in the Czech second division, but that’s it for game action in 2020-21.

Sign up for our regular 'Devils Newsletter' for all the latest.

Pytlík essentially lost a year of development, but he will head to the Liiga (Finland) to play for KalPa in 2021-22. A good season there could vault him up the rankings, especially since he’ll be playing in a pro league. If he hits his ceiling, he could top out as a third-line center in the NHL, but it’s clear he has ground to make up.  

19. Daniil Misyul, Defenseman

Misyul had a solid season in the KHL, finishing with seven points in 46 games for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. The point totals don’t indicate it, but he’s a good puck-mover and excels in transition due to his excellent skating. He also plays a physical game and has good size at 6-foot-2, 187 pounds. He’ll spend the next two seasons in the KHL (From ‘Summer school 2021: Ranking the Devils’ top prospects (bottom three tiers)’, The Athletic – 8/26/2021), which should help his development if he can earn consistent minutes. He has the skating and puck-moving ability to one day be an effective bottom-pair NHL defenseman, but he needs more time. 

18. Zakhar Bardakov, Right Wing/Center

Bardakov was the Devils’ final selection at the 2021 Draft, drafted 203rd overall in the seventh round. He finished last season with eight goals and 11 points in 44 games for Vityaz Podolsk in the KHL but will move to SKA St. Petersburg, one of the top teams in the league, for the upcoming KHL season. He might not play a major role for St. Petersburg, but he should find enough playing time in their bottom six. Every once in a while, he’ll show some real flashes of skill: 

I’m not saying Bardakov is the next Sharangovich, but there are similarities. Like Sharangovich, Bardakov is a 20-year-old over-ager who had a decent season in the KHL when the Devils selected him with a late pick. Their production was eerily similar, too, as Sharangovich had 12 points in 47 games when the Devils drafted him in 2018. Time will tell what happens with Bardakov, but he’s certainly one to watch while he continues to develop in the KHL. His shot and physicality make him an intriguing prospect. 

17. Patrick Moynihan, Center

A sixth-round pick at the 2019 Draft, Moynihan has progressed nicely in his two seasons at Providence College. After finishing with 21 points in 34 games as a freshman in 2019-20, he finished with 15 points in 17 games in the shortened 2020-21 season. He also captured a gold medal with Team USA at the 2021 WJC. 

Moynihan is your typical high floor, low ceiling prospect. He has a relentless motor and goes to work on the forecheck. He also has a pretty decent shot, though his offensive upside is limited. Moynihan will spend the 2021-22 season with Providence then will likely sign with the Devils once his junior season concludes. He should top out as a bottom-six forward if he hits his ceiling. 

16. Fabian Zetterlund, Right Wing

Zetterlund showed signs of progress during the shortened 2020-21 AHL season. He finished with seven goals and 19 points in 34 games, increasing his production from the 19 points in 46 games he had in 2019-20. His shot is his best offensive tool, as it’s plenty powerful with some accuracy. He’s also built like a truck at 5-foot-11, 218 pounds, something the Devils could use in their bottom six. 

With the Devils having lost Nathan Bastian to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Zetterlund fighting for that spot when training camp begins in a few weeks. He has the makeup of a prototypical fourth-liner who could chip in offensively because of his shot, which is likely his ceiling if he makes the NHL. 

15. Michael Vukojevic, Defenseman

The last time I wrote about the Devils’ top 20 prospects, I had Vukojevic unranked. But a surprise 2020-21 campaign in the AHL lifts him into the Devils’ top 15. He finished with 11 points in 26 games for the Binghamton Devils, an impressive total considering he would’ve been in the OHL had they not canceled their season. After a productive draft+2 season as a 19-year-old, he now has a 35 percent chance of becoming an NHLer: 

Michael Vukojevic
Michael Vukojevic’s rating per NHLe

For someone who’s 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, Vukojevic skates very well for his size. His production in the AHL would have put him on pace for 33 points in a full 80-game season, so he seems to have more offensive upside than first thought. His defensive game is his strong suit, so if he can continue developing his offensive arsenal, that should bode well for him. He should get regular playing time for the Utica Comets — the Devils’ new AHL affiliate — in 2021-22 and certainly seems to be a prospect on the rise. 

14. Arseni Gritsyuk, Left Wing

Gritsyuk did not play a ton in 2020-21 due to an injury he suffered at the WJC. But when he did play, he was relatively productive, especially in the VHL and MHL, the Russian second division and Russian junior league, respectively. He had six points in eight games in the VHL and nine points in six games in the MHL. He also managed to play in 12 games for Avangard Omsk (KHL), where he had a goal and an assist. 

For a fifth-round pick, Gritsyuk has some intriguing offensive upside. He’s a good skater with a good shot and some playmaking ability, which he displayed at the 2021 WJC. He has a long way to go before being NHL ready, though getting regular playing time in the KHL this season would be a big help. He could top out as a bottom-six winger if he makes the NHL. 

13. Topias Vilén, Defenseman

Vilén was a fifth-round pick (129th overall) at the 2021 Draft, though most scouting services had him inside the top 100. The 18-year-old defenseman played in 35 games for Pelicans in the Liiga in 2020-21 and had eight points. Pelicans were one of the better teams in the league and were the sixth seed for the Liiga playoffs. So the fact that Vilén managed to get regular playing time as a 17-year-old (he turned 18 in April) speaks well about where he is as a prospect. 

Here’s what Eetu Siltanen of finnprospects.com had to say about Vilén:

“…Balanced, defensive-minded defender. Skating speed and pace of the game caused some problems from time to time, but for his age, [he] has very good physicality and a solid defensive game. [His] on-puck game is good enough, but there’s really not that much offensive upside.” 

Related: Devils’ Special Teams Turnaround Key to 2021-22 Success

Vilén will return to Pelicans for another season to continue his development. He’s a couple of years away from being NHL ready at a minimum, but his sound defensive game gives him NHL potential. 

12. Nikola Pašić, Left Wing

Another late-round pick of the Devils, Pašić had a decent season in the SHL (Sweden) in 2020-21, totaling 15 points in 52 games for Linköping HC. In his prior season, he finished with 35 points in 45 games for BIK Karlskoga in the HockeyAllsvenskan — Sweden’s second division. For what it’s worth, his production in the HockeyAllsvenskan in his draft+1 season was better than Jesper Bratt’s, and Bratt is now a top-six forward in New Jersey. 

That’s not to say Pašić is on the same trajectory as Bratt, but he does seem to have some NHL potential. Though he was a seventh-round pick in 2019, most scouting services ranked him in the top 100. The Devils got value in selecting him where they did; J.D. Burke of Elite Prospects thinks he was even one of the biggest steals of the 2019 Draft. So far, Pašić has improved as he’s moved up from league to league in Sweden. He’s a good playmaker but also showed some goal-scoring ability with Linköping, who he’ll return to for the 2021-22 campaign. He’s still far off from being an NHLer, but he’s certainly worth keeping an eye on as he continues to develop. 

11. Reilly Walsh, Defenseman

With the Ivy League canceling winter sports in 2020-21, Walsh decided to change plans and begin his pro career a year earlier than expected. He played for Binghamton last season, where he had 15 points in 33 games — a 37-point pace over 80 games. There were times where he showed real flashes of brilliance, like on this coast-to-coast goal he scored in February. 

Walsh is still a promising prospect, but his development has stagnated a bit over the last couple of years. With that said, he did begin his pro career a year earlier than he planned to, which is an important detail to consider. He’s still 22 years old and should play big minutes in Utica this coming season. He has promising offensive tools, from his shot to his playmaking, and he can quarterback a power play. His ceiling is that of a third-pair defender who can play on a second power play unit. 

10. Chase Stillman, Right Wing

Stillman was a first-round pick (29th overall) of the Devils at this past July’s draft. Because of the pandemic, he headed over to play in Denmark’s junior league, where he totaled nine goals and 16 points in eight games. Those point totals may seem gaudy, but the level of competition in Denmark’s junior league is less than impressive. 

The tools are there with Stillman. Via Ben Kerr’s profile of Stillman at Last Word on Hockey, he plays like a power forward, has good playmaking ability and gets into high-danger areas. His shot needs work, but there’s room to develop his game. As of now, he projects as more of a complementary third-line winger rather than a potential top-six forward you’d expect to find with a first-round pick, even a late one. But with the OHL returning for 2021-22, he’ll have a great opportunity to work on his game and make himself into one of the team’s top prospects. 

9. Graeme Clarke, Right Wing

Clarke wasn’t supposed to be playing professional hockey last season either. But the cancelation of the OHL season afforded him the chance to begin a year early. Judging by his work in the AHL, you wouldn’t know he was supposed to still be in the OHL. He finished with eight goals and 18 points in 31 games — a pace of 20 goals and 46 points in a full AHL season. 

Graeme Clarke Binghamton Devils
Graeme Clarke with the Binghamton Devils (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Though Clarke was perhaps the Devils’ most surprising prospect in 2020-21, he likely still needs time in the AHL, as he’s still just 20 years old and won’t turn 21 until April. However, he might not be that far off. Between him and Nolan Foote, they were arguably Binghamton’s best players last season. Clarke is a gifted offensive winger with a great shot, and he’s got some skill in the shootout. He’ll likely be a middle-six winger in the NHL who’ll get power play time because of his shot. Like Vukojevic, he’s also a prospect on the rise after an impressive first pro season. 

8. Samu Salminen, Left Wing/Center

Of the Devils’ post-first-round picks at the 2021 Draft, Salminen may have the most upside. He finished 2020-21 with 10 goals and 26 points in 17 games in the U20 SM-sarja — Finland’s junior league. That point-per-game rate ranked 10th best in the U20 SM-sarja, where he’ll return for 2021-22 to play for Jokerit’s U20 team. He also had seven goals and nine points in seven games for Team Finland at the WJC. Most scouting services pegged him as a late first-round or early second-round pick. And as it stands, the odds of him becoming an NHLer are pretty good:

Samu Salminen
Samu Salminen’s rating per NHLe

While Salminen can play left wing, his game should project well at center. He has a big frame at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, and still has room to add strength. He also has good offensive tools, specifically his shot, to work with while he develops. As long as he puts in the work to improve his skating and fine-tunes his defensive game, he has the potential to be a middle-six center. It’s worth noting he intends to play for the University of Denver (NCAA) in the 2022-23 season. 

“A big and reachy center with a good shot, above-average playmaking skills and leadership qualities. [Salminen] needs to improve his skating to be able to take the leap to the NHL one day.” – Miika Arponen – finnprospects.com

7. Kevin Bahl, Defenseman

Bahl was the centerpiece of the trade that sent Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes in Dec. 2019. He made his pro debut last season with Binghamton and totaled five points in 27 games. Though he got off to a slow start, he came along as the season progressed and earned a call-up to the NHL. He played in seven games and totaled two assists with New Jersey. 

While Bahl may not be a high upside prospect, he does seem like a good bet to become an NHLer. At 6-foot-6, 229 pounds, he’ll add size on the back end, but he also skates very well for someone of his stature. And while he’ll never put up big point totals, he showed good puck-moving ability when in the OHL with the Ottawa 67’s. He could top out as a high-end third-pair or fringe second-pair defender who’s mobile and can kill penalties.  

6. Tyce Thompson, Right Wing/Center

Thompson seems like your typical late-blooming prospect. He put up 25 points in 42 games during his draft year as a freshman at Providence College when the Devils selected him in the fourth round of the 2019 Draft. It didn’t take long for him to break out after then, however. Thompson finished his sophomore season with 44 points in 34 games. His production slipped some in his final season with Providence in 2020-21, but he still scored at a point-per-game pace. 

Tyce Thompson New Jersey Devils
Tyce Thompson, New Jersey Devils (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

After the college season ended, Thompson signed with the Devils and began his pro career. He put up an assist in seven NHL games and also added four points in 11 games with Binghamton. If he becomes an NHL regular, his bread and butter will likely be his ability to score goals because of his shot, though he also has enough creativity to generate chances for his teammates. His biggest weakness right now is strength; he needs to add plenty of muscle to his 6-foot-1, 172-pound frame. If he can get stronger, there’s a player with an NHL future as a middle-six winger or center. 

5. Shakir Mukhamadullin, Defenseman

The Devils drafted Mukhamadullin with the 20th overall pick at the 2020 Draft, but not without raising eyebrows. Most scouting services had him as a second or third-round pick, with red flags in his defensive game being a big reason. But despite the divisiveness of the selection, he had a very productive draft+1 season in the KHL, finishing with 10 points in 39 games for Salavat Yulaev Ufa. That came with him averaging close to 13 minutes of ice time per game, which isn’t always the case for 18-year-old defensemen in the KHL. Per NHLe, that big jump in production in his draft+1 season gives him a 41 percent chance of becoming an NHLer:

Shakir Mukhamadullin
Sh:akir Mukhamadullin’s rating via NHLe

Mukhamadullin skates well and has good size at 6-foot-2, 179 pounds, with plenty of room to get stronger. He’s mobile and has the potential to be a high-end offensive defenseman. His defensive game and decision-making need work, and adding strength is a must as he can get knocked off the puck a bit too easily. Top-pair potential is a big stretch, but he certainly has enough upside to become an offensive-minded, second-pair defender. 

4. Nolan Foote, Left Wing

Acquired in the trade that sent Blake Coleman to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2020 Trade Deadline, Foote finally made his debut as part of the Devils organization last season due to the pandemic. Considering he went almost a year without playing in meaningful games, his first pro season was about as good as it could’ve been. He finished with seven goals and 17 points in 24 games with Binghamton — a 24-goal, 56-point pace. He also added a goal and an assist in six NHL games. Per NHLe, he has a 73 percent chance of becoming an NHLer:

Nolan Foote
Nolan Foote’s rating per NHLe

What makes Foote one of the team’s top prospects is his combination of size and skill. He’s 6-foot-4, 200 pounds but has a rocket of a shot and decent playmaking ability. His skating is average, but it should be good enough to get by in the NHL. Of the Devils’ top prospects, he may be the closest to NHL ready, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him contributing as soon as this season. Once he fully establishes himself as a regular, he could top out as a second-line winger capable of scoring 20-25 goals a season while logging power play minutes. 

3. Dawson Mercer, Right Wing/Center

The 18th overall pick at the 2020 Draft, Mercer had a productive draft+1 season in the QMJHL, finishing with 19 goals and 36 points in 23 games. He’d also add six goals and 17 points in nine playoff games. He had a solid showing at the WJC for Team Canada and ended 2020-21 with the Guy Carbonneau Trophy as the QMJHL’s best defensive forward. 

Mercer does just about a little bit of everything well. He has an underrated shot, is a good playmaker, and is a high-end stickhandler. He’s defensively responsible and can play either right wing or center. And that latter part may be a bit of a dilemma once he makes the NHL. 

Related: Devils Prospects Ready to Battle for 2021-22 Roster Spots

The Devils’ long-term outlook as to who’ll be their third-line center is up in the air. Jesper Boqvist will likely get a shot to win that role this season. If that doesn’t work out, the spot could be Mercer’s to lose moving forward. With that said, Mercer is the type of player the Devils will want in their top six. He has the skill and upside to play on a scoring line, and that means him playing right wing since the team has Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. That’s likely the best fit for him and the team in the long run. 

2. Luke Hughes, Defenseman

Talk about a storyline at the 2021 Draft. The Devils used the fourth overall pick to select Luke Hughes, the younger brother of Jack Hughes. Luke finished the 2020-21 season with 49 points in 56 games between the U.S. National U18 Team in the USDP and the USNTDP Juniors in the USHL. 

Luke Hughes of the USDP
Luke Hughes of the USDP (Photo: Rena Laverty)

Surely having Jack played a part in the Devils’ decision to draft Luke. But it’s not like they reached and made the pick solely on the name. In fact, there’s a good argument Luke was the best available player at fourth overall. He’s a dynamic skater who excels in transition, and his offensive upside is through the roof. He needs to improve defensively, but he’s still 17 years old and doesn’t turn 18 until Sept. 9. He has plenty of runway to develop, and he’ll be playing for a stacked Michigan Wolverines team this coming season. If he blows up at Michigan, he could easily be the Devils’ top prospect in seven to eight months from now. 

1. Alexander Holtz, Right Wing

The Devils drafted Holtz with the seventh overall pick at the 2020 Draft. He spent last season with Djurgården in the SHL, finishing with 18 points in 40 games. He had gotten off to a hot start with Djurgården before cooling down significantly after returning from the WJC. It was tough deciding between Holtz and Hughes for the top two spots in this ranking. At the end of the day, NHLe gives Holtz the top spot. He has an 82 percent chance of becoming an NHLer and is the only Devils prospect with a higher than 30 percent chance of becoming a star:

Alexander Holtz
Alexander Holtz’s rating per NHLe

Holtz certainly has the potential to be a star player alongside Jack Hughes or Hischier down the road. He has a lethal shot and is an underrated playmaker. He’s not a bad skater, but if he can add some explosiveness to his skating, that could really ascend him into becoming a star. If he lives up to his potential, he could be a first-line winger capable of potting 30-40 goals and 65-70 points a season. 

Devils’ Draft Success Continuing

Other than Holtz and Hughes, the Devils’ system doesn’t have a ton of star potential, but it is about 20-deep. Everyone from Pytlík up to Holtz has NHL potential. Obviously, not even close to all their prospects will make the NHL. But because of that depth, they’ll eventually hit on enough NHL contributors, especially if they focus on player development. That’s how to build a consistent contender, and that should result in fruitful returns as more players continue to work their way up through the system. 

Full Top 20:

  1. Alexander Holtz
  2. Luke Hughes
  3. Dawson Mercer
  4. Nolan Foote
  5. Shakir Mukhamadullin
  6. Tyce Thompson
  7. Kevin Bahl
  8. Samu Salminen
  9. Graeme Clarke
  10. Chase Stillman
  11. Reilly Walsh
  12. Nikola Pašić
  13. Topias Vilén
  14. Arseni Gritsyuk
  15. Michael Vukojevic
  16. Fabian Zetterlund
  17. Patrick Moynihan
  18. Zakhar Bardakov
  19. Daniil Misyul
  20. Jaromir Pytlík

Honorable Mentions: Nikita Okhotiuk, Ethan Edwards, Aarne Talvitie