With just over a month left in the regular season, the Devils not only have the most unappetizing (re: meaningless) games down the stretch of the season, but also a brutal March schedule that all but guarantees some ugly nights for the die-hards who’ll be at and/or watch every game. Sure there are things to look forward to on the big club – you hope #1 overall Jack Hughes takes a step forward in this final quarter of the season the way he really hasn’t so far, or that Nico Hischier starts putting up points like a top-line center again, though his early February injury seems to have derailed his scoring touch. Certainly Mackenzie Blackwood is the brightest spot to this point of all the younger players, I could make a catty comment that he’s the only #1 overall I haven’t mentioned so far, but he is also older than Nico or Hughes. Even Blackwood can only do so much to keep this sinking ship afloat game after game though. Thankfully it seems like at least interim GM Tom Fitzgerald was willing to commit to Kyle Palmieri as a main cog for the next few years by not dealing him at the deadline and alluding to a possible extension down the road.
Other than those four players – the first three of which were specifically named as the building blocks of the next Devils core – you really don’t have a lot of assurances going forward as a Devils fan, especially since we’re still unsure whether it’ll be Fitz or someone else at the head of a ‘collaborative process‘ (with apparently more influence by franchise legend and EVP Martin Brodeur) making the decisions. Certainly there are pieces already in the system, as well as upcoming draft picks – perhaps as many as three first-rounders this year – who can add to or supplement the core down the road. Really that’s all you can look to as a Devils fan in these last few forgettable weeks of the NHL season, taking stock of the future at all levels of the organization. I’d be lying if I said I gave it more of a passing thought till now, but this blog will probably help me as much as the reader in gaining some insight to our prospect pool.
First, at the AHL level you have a playoff chase with Binghamton to keep your eye on. After a slow start for the baby Devils (7-15-4 in their first twenty-six games), they’ve turned it on in part due to additions both Fitzgerald and predecesor Ray Shero made in-season to bolster both the farm team and the Devils’ prospect stock. Two of the pieces from the Taylor Hall trade are current Bing forwards Nick Merkley and Nate Schnarr. Merkley in particular has made an impact with eight goals and eleven assists in 22 AHL games, already earning one promo to the NHL club and will likely be back with New Jersey before the season’s over. Janne Kuokkanen, the centerpiece of the Sami Vatanen trade, should also help the AHL team’s stretch run…or perhaps join the Bing-NJ shuttle down the stretch himself. Others who could potentially make an impact down the road are winger Nathan Bastian and recent callup Mike McLeod, if the latter can find a scoring touch. Not to mention Jesper Boqvist whose first stint in the NHL didn’t go well, but he’s starting to show why he was such a highly regarded prospect heading into camp since his demotion to the AHL.
That’s the tricky part of trying to follow an AHL team, the fact you could get prospects called and recalled at a moment’s notice. In goal for example, the Devils have shuttled Cory Schneider and Louis Domingue between the AHL and NHL all season, but with Schneider back to stay (for the rest of this season) as the Devils’ backup, and Domingue in Vancouver’s organization now, the Devils will let 24-year old Gilles Senn man the crease a lot down the stretch and he’s another to watch, in terms of potentially making an impact at the NHL level as a backup to Blackwood within the next couple of years. Defensively guys like Dakota Mermis and Josh Jacobs have been called up out of neccesity so Bing’s really going to need the vets down there – including one-time Devil Matt Tennyson – to stabilize the defense.
Really you are watching the young guys when you watch an AHL team though, trade deadline depth acquisitions such as defensemen David Quenneville and Frederik Claesson are nice to help the young guys potentially make the playoffs and take some load off the younger players but you aren’t watching guys like them or AHL All-Star Ben Street if you’re looking at future Devils. Though team results don’t matter to us in the end, you would like to see the young guys get a shot at some playoff hockey down there – at this moment Bing is three points out of a playoff spot with around twenty games remaining.
Making the effort to pay attention to a non-NHL team generally means either forking down the money for a stream, making the trip to go to a game or just listening on radio (if that’s even still free). Otherwise you could just follow the team YouTube and Twitter accounts for info.
Same goes with the Devils’ various WHL, OHL and college prospects. At least in the OHL the Devils have a de facto second minor-league team with no fewer than four current draft picks on the powerhouse Ottawa 67’s, headlined by recent acquisition Kevin Bahl (also from the Hall trade). Bahl and 2019 2nd round pick Nikita Okhotyuk are both defensemen to watch, while 2019 3rd round forward Graeme Clarke had a fast start to his post-draft career (eight goals and thirteen points in eleven games) interrupted due to injury, but his recent return should only help Ottawa in the OHL playoffs. A possible late bloomer is the fourth Devils prospect, Mitchell Hoelscher – a 6th round pick in 2018, he has 32 goals and 69 points in 57 games…and to give you an idea of how stacked Ottawa is, that point total’s only good for sixth on the team.
In the WHL, the Devils’ clear headliner is Spokane’s Ty Smith – a former first-rounder who dissapointed by not making the big team this year but still has a potentially bright future ahead, and even I have to remember the 2018 first-rounder still just 19 years old. Perhaps suffering a bit of a letdown after being left in the WHL for a second straight post-draft season, Smith got off to a slow start this year but has picked it up since winning gold with Canada at the World Juniors and showed his talent last night with a memorable eight-point game.
Expect to see Spokane’s captain stick in the NHL as soon as next year, and hopefully many more years after that. Hopefully the same could soon be said of Kelowna’s Nolan Foote (a 2019 1st-round pick), the current centerpiece of the Blake Coleman trade. Foote has 15 goals and 33 points in 27 games during an injury-interrupted season, but he should help Kelowna’s playoff push down the stretch – and at just 19 years old himself, the future is bright for the big scoring winger as well.
Among the college kids who could be a part of the Devils’ organization in the near future are Providence’s Tyce Thompson (19 goals and 43 points in 32 games), a 2019 4th rounder who could be another late bloomer up front. Also, Penn State’s Aarne Talvitie could be one to watch up front as a potential bottom six player down the road. On defense, the Devils are headlined by Harvard’s Reilly Walsh (21 points in 27 games), who former GM Shero presciently told after drafting him that he should enjoy the next three years at Harvard.
Given this is his third year there now, he should be approached to sign a pro contract this offseason before it becomes an Adam Fox-type situation. Boston University’s Case McCarthy could be another one to watch down the road in the stay-at-home mold.
Overseas, it seems like whatever prospects we have are really too far off for the most part to highlight there, not to mention it’s even harder to keep track of them than it is the North American team players. At least there’s enough to comb through or watch over the next 2-3 months here, if the NHL team is just too depressing for you at this point.