If you were expecting fireworks from Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald’s first draft running the team – i.e. a splashy trade, you might have been dissapointed as the organization used all of its first-round picks. In fact the only draft move they made was punting their seventh-round pick, trading that for Arizona’s seventh rounder next year. However, if you were only hoping for more intriguing prospects to be added to the system, you probably weren’t dissapointed in the end.
Perhaps the biggest question going into the draft was whether the Devils would keep all three of their first-rounders, the answer was a resounding yes with nary a trade down or up. Fitz, like previous GM Ray Shero clearly believes in head scout Paul Castron and his staff. Plus it was supposed to be a strong first round anyway, so the Devils took their shots and I’d say went chalk with the first two picks at least, starting with their #7 overall Alexander Holtz.
Holtz is a winger who’s supposed to be the best pure goal-scorer in the draft and is capable of making plays as well. He got regular shifts and power play time for his team Djurgarden, as one of the more productive U18 players ever in the top Swedish league (16 points in 35 games) and was unquestionably among the top group of forwards after first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere. In many ways, this was an easy pick for Fitz considering the lack of pure goalscorers in the system, not to mention the top two defensive prospects were off the board and #7 overall was arguably too early for top goalie prospect Yaroslav Askarov although I do think he’ll be the real deal and wound up in a great situation with Nashville.
Our #18 pick might have actually been less debatable, as the Devils picked highly regarded center Dawson Mercer who was expected to be off the board a few picks earlier. Mercer is a well-rounded two-way player who can play center or wing, and has some offensive skill (60 points in 42 games for his QJMHL team last year) but also a high understanding of the defensive part of the game. You could say Mercer is a high floor player but that might be underselling his potential celing if he improves his offense just a little bit.
With our third first rounder, Fitz threw his biggest curveball of the draft at #20. I admit I’ve done almost a complete 180 on defenseman Shakir Mukhamadullin of the KHL since we selected a guy who was rated as more of a tweener 2nd/3rd round pick in the first round. As with Holtz, Fitz put a lot of stock in the fact this guy has held his own against men in an top professional league. He’s certainly got the toolbox, as a 6’3 defenseman who can move the puck and Mukhamadullin’s shown some offensive aptitude with 6 points in his first 14 games this year. Historically, U19 defenseman rarely play at all in the KHL, so the fact he is, and has taken a big step up early in this season bodes well. Defensively he might have consistency issues at this point in his development but if he can make full use of his frame and reach the Devils may have found a diamond in the rough.
My criticism was mainly why not at least trade back if you’re going to go off the board, but in hindsight Fitz was probably right to stand pat since the draft started wildly diverging from consensus ranks at about that point in the first round, with Columbus’s next pick even more off the board so to speak. Plus the fact you have games ‘this’ season to evaluate players like Mukhamadullin on makes it tricky to rate guys as if 2020 was a conventional summer draft. He could be one of those guys who is making a big leap from his age 18 season to his age 19 season.
Without a second round pick it was a long time yesterday (even longer with the insanely slow pace of the second round) before the Devils selected again, picking goalie Nico Daws. Daws is an overager who wasn’t drafted last year, but showed enough growth in the high-scoring OHL last season to be a member of Canada’s U20 team and get drafted here. As a 6’4 goalie, he’s certainly got the size for the position but like with all big goalies, lateral movement is a question at the highest level. Still, he’s an intriguing mid-round pick and an example of why I don’t like drafting goalies in the first round. You can find guys like Daws in the middle rounds every year, and sometimes they pop.
New Jersey rounded out its draft with Czech center Jaromir Pytlik in the fourth round, who showed enough aptitude to play a solid two-way game in the OHL but his lack of high-end skill or tools at this point of his development left him as a fourth-rounder. Assuming special assistant Patrik Elias put in a good word though, that’s enough for me to endorse the pick. With our two fifth rounders, the Devils picked undersized D Ethan Edwards from the Alberta Junior Hockey league and Russian-born forward Artem Shlaine from the USHL with picks #120 and #130. To finish off the draft, the Devils selected center Benjamin Baumgartner from Davos of the Swiss league at #161.
I won’t presume to put a grade on the draft, part of me still wishes we could have been able to trade one of our latter two first rounders for more of an immediate upgrade but such deals weren’t made at all on day one by anyone so it’s impossible to get on Fitz for that. You could pretty much debate any pick except maybe Mercer to a degree. Even with Holtz, many Devil fans were going gaga over playmaking Marco Rossi, who went to the Wild two picks later at #9. Time will tell in the end on just how well Fitz managed this draft, and how well Castron and his scouts did in finding future players for the Devils organization.