Hockey is back. Well, sort of. The New Jersey Devils and their prospects will travel to Buffalo this weekend to partake in the Prospects Challenge. Among the teams participating are the Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Devils will play in three games, starting with a tilt against the Canadiens on Friday at 7 PM. They’ll conclude the weekend with a matchup against the Sabres on Saturday night and a final contest on Monday at 10 AM against the Bruins. Here’s what to expect and who to watch for in the Devils’ three games.
Devils Should Have an Exciting Group of Forwards
The Devils have built up their farm system over the last few years. Aside from Luke Hughes and Arseni Gritsyuk, who are already committed to their NCAA and KHL seasons, most of the team’s top prospects should be in Buffalo this weekend. Perhaps the most notable position group will be the Devils’ forwards, many of who will have pro experience.
We’ll start with Alexander Holtz, the seventh overall pick in the 2020 draft, who’s coming off 26 goals and 51 points in 52 games with the Utica Comets (AHL) last season. Last year, it was Dawson Mercer who impressed at the Prospects Challenge. That carried over into training camp and helped him earn a spot in the NHL after a strong preseason.
The Devils already have a crowded group up front, so Holtz will have to impress during exhibition games to make the NHL roster. One way to do that is to get off to a strong start at the Prospects Challenge by being one of the best players as Mercer was a year ago. He should be playing top-line minutes, perhaps alongside Nolan Foote and Tyce Thompson, so he should get scoring opportunities.
Speaking of Foote and Thompson, they’re two prospects who could be fighting for NHL spots during camp. At 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, Foote gives the Devils a different look as a power forward with an impressive shot but a growing ability to get to dirty areas and score. With uncertainty around who’ll be the Devils’ fourth-line center, Thompson could find himself battling for that gig; I’d also expect him to get a look on the wing since that is his primary position. Like Foote, he has an impressive shot, but he’s a better skater and is a more skilled player who could figure into the Devils’ bottom-six.
The other top prospect to keep an eye on is Fabian Zetterlund. He finished last season with 24 goals and 52 points in 58 games for the Comets and played quite well for the Devils in his 14-game NHL stint. Having turned 23 years old recently, he may be the most NHL-ready of the Devils’ top prospects up front and could figure into a middle-six role based on his NHL production last season (47 points per 82 games).
Lastly, Jack Dugan will be worth watching if he’s on the roster for this weekend. A former top player in the NCAA, the Devils signed him to a one-year deal this summer worth $750,000 at the NHL level. He may be 24 years old, but he was the Vegas Golden Knights’ No. 3 ranked prospect by Scott Wheeler just two years ago (from “Wheeler’s 2020 NHL prospect pool rankings: No. 10 Vegas Golden Knights” – The Athletic, 2/3/2020). It’s a low-risk, high-reward signing for the Devils, and they’re likely familiar with him since he was Thompson’s teammate at Providence College in the NCAA. Perhaps a change of scenery will do him well.
Devils Defense Won’t Lack Quality Either
Though the forwards may be the more exciting group among the Devils’ prospects, their defense isn’t far behind. Leading the way will be Šimon Nemec, Kevin Bahl, Reilly Walsh and Nikita Okhotiuk, the latter three of whom have NHL experience and played in at least one game for the Devils a season ago.
At 23 years old, Walsh will be among the most experienced defense prospects and should see some significant playing time at the Prospects Challenge. He has a good shot and puck-moving ability, which his 43 points in 70 games with the Comets a season ago indicates. He could be on the cusp of breaking into the NHL, so a good showing this weekend could send him into camp on the right foot.
His defense partner may be Bahl, who showed progress in his development during his NHL stint last season. Though his five-on-five numbers were still not great, they improved markedly from where they were in 2020-21. At 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, he skates well and can move the puck, even though he may not put up many points. Along with Walsh, they will have a shot at winning third-pair roles with the Devils, even though they signed Brendan Smith to a two-year contract this summer.
While Okhotiuk only played in five games for the Devils a season ago, he quickly caught the attention of fans. He’s a physical defenseman who’s not afraid to stir up trouble, something the team doesn’t have much of on the back end. He doesn’t have much offensive upside, but he skates well and is not afraid to shoot the puck. Okhotiuk will likely begin the season with the Comets, but he’ll probably be involved in something over the weekend.
Another prospect some fans may not be familiar with is Topias Vilén, a fifth-round pick in the 2021 draft. The Devils signed him to his entry-level contract this summer, which will begin for the 2022-23 regular season. His numbers in the Finnish Liiga last season (six points in 50 games) don’t suggest much offensive upside, but it is a defensive league. With that said, he does project as more of a defensive defenseman in the NHL. He played well at Devils rookie camp back in July and should factor into the Comets lineup this season.
And, of course, there’s Nemec, who the Devils drafted with the second overall pick at the 2022 draft. He finished with 43 points in 58 games between the regular season and playoffs for HK Nitra in the Slovak Extraliga. Though it’d be a surprise if he started the season with the Devils, he should play significant minutes for the Comets relatively quickly. There’s also a matchup against fellow countryman Juraj Slafkovsky, the first overall pick in the 2022 draft, on Friday night that’ll be worth tuning in to.
Daws & Schmid Offer Familiar Faces in Net
Finally, there’s goaltending. Devils fans are probably more familiar with their goaltending prospects than they should be because of injuries to Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier a season ago. Because those two missed significant time with injuries (in Bernier’s case, all but the first two months of the season), Nico Daws and Akira Schmid played quite a bit in the NHL.
Daws stood out more of the two and had an extended stay with the Devils, playing in 25 NHL games and totaling an .893 save percentage (SV%). Though that might not seem great, he was a 21-year-old playing in the NHL well ahead of schedule. He did have a few impressive starts, however, and his .916 SV% in 21 games with the Comets at his age demonstrates he has NHL potential.
Schmid did play some in the NHL, too, but it did not go all that well. He totaled an .833 SV% across six games, but no one can fault him for that. Schmid essentially went from playing in the USHL to the NHL without much time in between with the Comets. Because he struggled with the Devils in his limited action, most of his work came in the AHL with the Comets, where he totaled a .911 SV% across 38 games.
At 6-foot-5, 205 pounds, Schmid is quite athletic, which makes him an intriguing goaltending prospect. But based on his work in the NHL, he still has a long way to go before being NHL-ready. He should get decent playing time this weekend, so it’ll be interesting to see where he stands after an offseason of training. The same is true of Daws, who will be No. 3 on the Devils’ goaltending depth chart and the first man up if injuries strike in net again.
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Lastly, if CHL prospects are in attendance this weekend, Tyler Brennan is someone Devils fans should be keeping an eye on. Though he was a fourth-round pick just this past summer, he ranked 62nd overall in Bob McKenzie’s draft rankings, making him the top-ranked goaltender in the 2022 draft. Like many of the Devils’ goaltending selections in recent years, Brennan is tall and athletic at 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, but his mental makeup is what stands out, per Ben Kerr of Last Word on Sports. He’s a year or two away from playing in the AHL, but he may rank ahead of Schmid in terms of NHL upside.
Which Devils Prospects Will Stand Out Among the Rest?
More so than in previous years, the Devils have quite a few prospects with pro experience who may be ready to challenge for NHL gigs. While they can’t win jobs this weekend at the Prospects Challenge, they can certainly grab the attention of Devils coaches and management a week ahead of training camp. And if a prospect or two performs as Mercer did a year ago, they could put themselves in a prime position to make the opening night roster.
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