The New Jersey Devils didn’t have a ton of on-ice success in 2019-20, but that doesn’t mean the future isn’t bright. After revealing his top 31 teams, the Devils came in second in Corey Pronman’s organizational ranking, which includes all players who are 22 years old or younger as of Sept. 15, 2020, over at The Athletic (from ‘2020 NHL organizational rankings: No. 2 New Jersey Devils’, The Athletic – 9/11/2020).
Because of that, the Devils’ system revolves around Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, two former first overall picks who are still younger than 22 years old, but it’s not just about those two. Their pool of young players is the deepest it’s been in over a decade, and that bodes well for the future. Let’s take a look at how they made it to this point.
Devils Upgraded Farm System Through Trades
A significant reason for the Devils improving their farm system is due to their work on the trade market over the last year. When they traded Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes back in December, they got three prospects in return, with the main piece being defenseman Kevin Bahl.
Bahl is 6-foot-7, 240 pounds, so he doesn’t look like the modern NHL defender that tends to be on the smaller side. But even for someone his size, he’s a very good skater. The question with him is how much offense he’ll offer at the pro level since he never topped 34 points in a season during his OHL career. If it doesn’t improve, it could limit him to being a third-pair or fringe second-pair defender.
The other notable trade that netted a top prospect for the Devils was when they sent Blake Coleman to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the trade deadline. In addition to a first-round pick, they also got left-winger Nolan Foote, who was the Lightning’s number one prospect.
Foote has a unique makeup that the Devils didn’t have in their system before acquiring him. He stands at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, and has a wicked shot, which is the strength of his game. He may need some seasoning in the AHL, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he got some NHL action in 2020-21. Overall, he projects as a top-six forward, and one who’d look pretty good alongside Hughes or Hischier.
The next prospect the Devils acquired through a trade was forward Janne Kuokkanen, who was part of the return for Sami Vatanen. Kuokkanen doesn’t have the upside of Foote, but he’s already spent three seasons in the AHL and has been productive in that time. He finished 2019-20 with 48 points in 56 games and seems close to earning NHL minutes. At 22 years old, it might be time for him to make the jump, as well.
Devils Have Offensive Depth
A few years ago, forward depth would’ve been non-existent in the Devils’ prospect pool. But they’ve changed that with selections they’ve made past the first round. Their decision to draft Tyce Thompson in the fourth round of the 2019 Draft seemed like an odd choice. As it turns out, they found a hidden gem.
Thompson had 44 points in 34 games for Providence College and was one of the best forwards in the NCAA last season. He’s a bit of a late-bloomer, but he’s a skilled forward who has a pretty nice shot. Since he’s a right-winger, it’s easy to see him playing alongside Hughes or Hischier one day too.
Jesper Boqvist is another prospect to keep an eye on. He struggled in the NHL last season, but he performed well when demoted to the AHL. He had 35 points in 51 games for Brynas IF in the SHL (Sweden) in 2018-19 as a 20-year-old. The scoring potential is there, and he could one day be a middle-six forward in the NHL.
Graeme Clarke is the real sleeper from the Devils’ prospect pool. He missed most of 2019-20 due to a shoulder injury (From ‘Ottawa 67’s will be without top offensive threat Graeme Clarke for at least four months’, The Ottawa Sun – 10/18/2019), but he’s another forward whose strength is his shot. If he can stay healthy, he could be a middle-six winger who has some scoring punch.
There’s also Joey Anderson, who looks pretty close to establishing himself as a full-time NHLer. He had 34 points in 44 games in the AHL last season, and his play was good enough to get him called up to the NHL, where he had six points in 18 games.
Anderson doesn’t have a ton of offensive upside, but he’s a solid two-way forward. He likely projects as a bottom-six winger, though he may have enough offensive ability to contribute as a third-liner. And he’ll likely become a regular on the penalty kill, where he’s already played well in his limited time in the NHL.
The Underrated Prospects
Sticking with the theme of post-first-round picks, the Devils have made off well in the fifth-round and later over the last few drafts.
Although he struggled last season, former sixth-round pick Aarne Talvitie seems poised for a bounce-back campaign. He only had 19 points in 30 games for Penn State last season, but he was coming off a torn ACL he suffered at the 2019 WJC. He’s 5-foot-11 but already checks in at 200 pounds, so he’s physically ready for the NHL. It’s just a matter of regaining some of that offensive potential he showed as a freshman in the NCAA.
Arseni Gritsyuk, who was a fifth-round pick at the 2019 Draft, was one of the best scorers in the Russian junior league in 2019-20. He made Avangard Omsk’s first team out of camp this season but has yet to dress in a KHL game. But even if the left-winger gets demoted to the VHL — the Russian AHL — it’ll be worth watching his development as he transitions to pro hockey.
Another late-round pick on the rise is Nikola Pasic. The Devils drafted him in the seventh round of the 2019 Draft, but there were plenty of scouting services who had him as a top-75 prospect. He had a very impressive draft-plus-one season, with 35 points in 45 games for BIK Karlsoga in the Allsvenskan, which is the Swedish equivalent of the AHL.
For comparison’s sake, Pasic’s draft-plus-one production in the Allsvenskan was better than that of Jesper Bratt’s in his draft-plus-one season. That doesn’t mean Pasic will replicate Bratt’s success, but he’s a legit NHL prospect. It wouldn’t be crazy to say he’s one of the Devils’ top 10 prospects, either. It appears he’ll be making the jump from the Allsvenskan to the SHL, where he’ll suit up for Linköping HC.
And though he didn’t get any love in Pronman’s ranking, Eetu Päkkilä could be another late-round find who was NHL potential. He was a seventh-round pick at the 2018 Draft and played in 39 games for Ilves in the Liiga (Finland) as a 19-year-old last season, where he had six goals and five assists. So he’s someone else worth monitoring once the Liiga season gets started.
Devils Are Set for Foreseeable Future
The Devils are carried by Hughes and Hischier being the pillars of their rebuild. But there’s much more to their system than just those two. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been ranked second by Pronman.
Related: 6 Options for Devils at 20th Overall
The Devils have much more depth than they did two and three years ago. They could use some more high-end defense prospects behind Ty Smith, but they still have a solid group in Bahl and Reilly Walsh. They also have three first-round picks at the 2020 Draft, and that’ll allow them to strengthen their young core even more. So it’s unlikely we’ll see them tumble down any organizational ranking any time soon.
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