Simply put, the Devils have been surprisingly competitive this year (especially when you compare their current play to last season). Nobody predicted they would be anywhere near the playoff picture in February, where they’re comfortably nestled in the Eastern Conference’s first wildcard spot going into tonight’s matchup. I think we’re close enough to the postseason where I can at least proclaim there is a halfway decent chance we see playoff hockey make a triumphant return to Newark after five long, dismal years. While the past couple weeks have been depressing, I’d like to think that all this stress is a side-effect of being in the midst of a tight playoff race.
This season has been a whirlwind of emotions for the Devils and their fans, but we must not forget the Devils technically are still rebuilding, and are still a team prioritizing their long-term plans. With a very deep draft coming up, there is great chance the Devils find a player who will be a key member of this young core. There are a lot of names to choose from, but assuming the Devils current projected draft position (13th-17th range) doesn’t change, these are three names that could potentially be available….
Ryan Merkley…. Outside of Rasmus Dahlin, Merkley could possess the most offensive skill out of any defenseman in this draft. Merkley is an extremely fast and fluid skater who has the playmaking skill to create scoring chances anytime. He has amazing hands and an accurate wrist shot he can get through to the net. Merkley uses his agility to open up passing and shooting lanes for himself, while his skating and hands make him very hard to defend against. He is exactly what the Devils need on the back end—somebody capable of creating offense both in transition and from the blue line.
Defensively, Merkley has endured some well-documented struggles. A lot can be traced back to his OHL team the Guelph Storm, who are (to be frank) quite terrible, and surrender a lot of scoring chances, which result in copious amounts of goals against. Scouts point to a lack of positional awareness as a key detriment to Merkley’s defensive game, however the young blue liner still has room to grow in his own end. If Merkley can find a way to balance his play in all three zones, he can potentially become a top-pair defenseman whose game closely resembles someone like PK Subban.
Bode Wilde….Another defenseman with the tools necessary to thrive at the pro-level. From Skating and stickhandling, to size and awareness both offensively and defensively, Wilde has it all. The left-shooting defenseman’s main tool is his skating, which allows him to bring the puck up the ice and facilitate offensive transitions on the rush. It also allows him to keep up with opposing skaters, along with playing fundamentally sound defense.
His shot and dexterity help him create space and take advantage of shooting lanes at the blue line. Wilde is an all-purpose defenseman, who can be relied upon to both run a power play and successfully kill penalties. Wilde will play at Michigan next season, and will hopefully continue to develop against older competition. If I had to compare him, I’d say Wile all the tools to play a similar game to Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
Akil Thomas….The young center seems built for Devils-type hockey (the current modern brand, not the defensive trap-playing style half of hockey fans still think the Devils implement). In the past few drafts, the Devils have looked for players with elite skating ability that can play in all situations. Nico Hischier and Michael McLeod possess these traits, and it’s worth mentioning that both are also centers (like Thomas).
Thomas has the same agile skating as Hischier that is coupled with a combination of flashy yet efficient skating and dexterous skill, along with an admirable hockey IQ. He plays a very large role on the penalty kill and powerplay of his current Niagara IceDogs team that he currently leads in scoring with 20 goals and 72 points.