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It’s late-August, and the sun that is New Jersey Devils hockey is beginning it’s slow rise from the eastern horizon. Sure, recently Devils hockey has been less of a sun and more of a black hole that sucks in hours of our free time during the winter. To go with another nature cliché, it is also darkest before the dawn. These past years of ineptitude on the ice has led to the Devils prospect pool being able to bring in some high end talent. What was once Reid Boucher and Eric Gelinas has transformed into Michael McLeod, Nico Hischier, Steve Santini, and many more promising young players.
So in classic sports blog fashion, I’m going to throw down an arbitrary ranking of the Devils 12 best prospects.
1) Nico Hischier…This one is a given. Hischier enters the league with huge expectations coming off being picked first overall in the NHL Draft. Hischier is a prototypical modern NHL center. He is fast, agile, and most importantly, extremely intelligent. Hischier reads the game both ends of the rink at an NHL level. He has the raw physical skills to go along with his hockey IQ. Hischier is incredibly hard to knock off the puck in the corners and can score goals just as well as he sets them up. Hischier is well on his way to becoming a first line center in the NHL, and will hopefully lead the Devils back to the playoffs.
2) Michael McLeod…Not to be forgotten in all the hype surrounding Nico Hischier is the 12th overall pick from the 2016 NHL draft-Michael McLeod. McLeod had a slow start to his 3rd season in the OHL. He was productive but not what Devils fans were hoping for. This all changed after McLeod came back from a silver medal winning effort with Canada at World Juniors. His second half of the season in Missasauga can only be described as utterly dominant. His gamebreaking speed and top class playmaking were on display as he put the Steelheads on his back and led them to the OHL final where they unfortunately fell short to former third overall pick Dylan Strome’s Erie Otters. McLeod has very little left to prove in the OHL, and I expect to see him playing full time in the NHL at some point in the next year.
3) Steve Santini…The most seasoned of the prospects listed, Santini showed last season he is ready for the NHL. Anyone who followed his progress through junior and NCAA hockey knew not to expect an Erik Karlsson-like offensive dynamo. Santini brought to the Devils what he has always brought to his teams- extremely steady defense, smart puck handling, and of course, physicality. Santini isn’t the guy you want in your fantasy lineup, but he’s the guy who helps teams win cups. If he continues to progress at his current rate, Santini will be an extremely reliable top-four defensive defenseman.
4) John Quenneville…Like Santini, Quenneville was given a chunk of NHL games last season to get him used to NHL-caliber competition. Quenneville didn’t look out of place, and even showed impressive chemistry alongside Joseph Blandisi, which led to one of the few highlights of last season. Quenneville has spoken about his willingness to play wing or center, which should be music to Coach Hynes’ ears. Quenneville has pretty good offensive instincts, and will only continue to mature at the NHL level. He’s a safe bet to become a second or third line scoring winger and will give the Devils some much needed depth in their eventual push for the playoffs.
5) Yegor Rykov…The young Russian continues to quietly impress every year. The unheralded fifth round pick has spent the last 2 years in the KHL. Rykov followed up an exceptional World Junior tournament with an amazing performance in the KHL playoffs, winning Rookie of the Week during the Quarterfinals and Finals. He’s a poised and mature defenseman for his age, exemplified by his ability to be so successful against men in arguably the second best hockey league in the world. Rykov is one of the few bright spots on the Devils future blue line.
6) Blake Speers…The routinely underrated Speers has a very good chance at playing a middle six right wing as early as this season. Speers excels due to his versatility and playmaking ability. Devils coaches clearly love him as he was granted an NHL look last season over guys like Michael McLeod. Speers was a key penalty killer for Canada in the past World Juniors en route to a silver medal. The most telling detail about him during the WJC was despite having a wrist injury that sidelined him for most of the first half of the season, Hockey Canada still decided they needed Speers on their team. I love what Blake Speers brings, and think he can become a middle-six NHL forward that a coach can count on in all situations.
7) Joey Anderson…The Joey Anderson hype has never been higher. Coming off a breakout season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and a gold medal, people are beginning to buy what Joey Anderson is selling. Anderson is the perfect example of an elite glue guy. He can occupy any lineup role and succeed. Anderson went from a fourth to a first liner practically overnight at World Juniors, and kept up with the likes of Clayton Keller and Colin White. After a hat trick against Canada at the World Junior Summer Showcase, it seems like his stock has never been higher. Anderson will return to a very good UMD team and will probably wear a letter at World Juniors. I can see him eventually getting second line right wing time on the Devils if he continues to progress. Teams need players like Joey Anderson to win championships.
8) Jesper Boqvist…The young Scandanavian might have the most pure skill outside out of any Devils prospect not named Hischier. His combination of smooth skating, stick handling prowess, and playmaking vision make him an offensive threat every time he steps on the ice. Like Anderson, Boqvist was able to raise his stock at the Summer Showcase and probably secured himself a spot on the Swedish team next year. What holds Boqvist back is his size and lack of defensive game. He’s a pure offensive forward at this point. He’s still a couple seasons away from the NHL, so he has time to play in the SHL and learn how to compete against grown men. If he can round out his game, the Devils could have a potential top-six playmaking winger on their hands.
9) Brandon Gignac…Brandon Gignac is a player who is routinely forgotten when talking about the future of the New Jersey Devils. Many fans forget his breakout performance at the Rookie Showcase last summer. This isn’t the only promising sign either, Gignac put up four productive seasons in the QMJHL, and will now be playing in Binghamton. Gignac has shown high skill and playmaking throughout his time in juniors, and is a bit of a sleeper when it comes to Devils prospects who can make an NHL impact. He’s much more of a safe bet when compared to high upside/high risk player like Nikita Popugayev.
10) Reilly Walsh…The Devils waited a long time before taking a defenseman in the 2017 draft, but it looks like they made it count with the selection of Reilly Walsh. Walsh was a member of the USHL champion Chicago Steel last season and excelled as an offensive defenseman. Walsh looks like he’s built in the mold of a modern NHL offensive defenseman- a smaller player with high skill and speed. Walsh routinely joins the rush and creates offense from the back end, something the Devils have struggled with for the last couple of years. He will be attending Harvard this fall, where he’ll hopefully continue to round out his game. Walsh should be looking to make his pro debut in about two years.
11) Nathan Bastian…I love social media as much as the next guy, but will always have a bias against Nathan Bastian. Before the 2016 NHL draft, I wanted the Devils to take the highly skilled Swedish forward in Jonathan Dahlen. The Devils passed on him for Bastian, and Dahlen was selected immediately after by the Senators. Dahlen has continued to show his ability, especially during his time with the Swedish team at World Juniors. The same can’t be said for Bastian, who has only posted solid numbers in the OHL but nothing spectacular. He’s a big center who can skate and isn’t afraid of the dirty areas. He could very well be a successful bottom-six center for the Devils, which is still valuable but not what the Devils probably hoped for out of their 2016 second round pick.
12) Mackenzie Blackwood…To be honest, I don’t know how to value a goaltending prospect. Nobody really does, so we won’t truly know the value of Blackwood until he starts games in the NHL. He could end up being more successful than players like Bastian and Gignac, but it’s hard to say at the moment. What can be said about Blackwood’s play- it’s certainly promising. He continued to grow and improve throughout the AHL last season, and posted a couple strong performances in the playoffs. He’s still the Devils best goaltending prospect, and will hopefully see some NHL time in the next two seasons. Only then will we really know what we are going to get out of Blackwood.