New Jersey Draft Picks:
#1 – Nico Hischier
#36 – Jesper Boqvist
#63 – Fabian Zetterlund
#81 – Reilly Walsh
#98 – Nikita Popugaev
#129 – Gilles Senn
#143 – Marian Studenic
#160 – Aarne Talvatie
#191 – Jocktan Chainey
#205 – Yegor Zaitsev
#214 – Matthew Hellickson
There was a lot of draft buzz that centered around the Devils moving down 2-3 spots to take defenceman Cale Makar, a player they were quite impressed with according to many scouts in the league. The rumours made sense as New Jersey had selected centers with first-round picks in the last three drafts, including two in the top 12, and there is a definite need for a top-end defence prospect in the system.
Alas…either the packages offered to move down weren’t enticing enough or the purported rumours were simply unfounded, as New Jersey stuck to the script and chose Halifax center Nico Hischier first overall, giving the club a young group of center prospects that is the envy of the league.
Hischier gives the Devils a bonafide number-one center for the future and plenty of options with other recent high picks that were selected. Pavel Zacha and and John Quenneville may end up being groomed on the wing as Blake Speers and Michael McLeod will be good bets to fill top-three center spots along with Hischier in a few years.
Already a solid center at both ends of the ice, Devils GM Ray Shero is on record as saying he expects Hischier to play for the Devils next season, so he’ll have to add a few pounds this summer to withstand the rigours of an NHL season…the rest of his game is certainly NHL-ready.
Jesper Boqvist is an excellent addition at 36th overall and a good bet to push for a top-six forward role in a few years once he has the strength to compete at the NHL level. Already a regular for Brynas in the SHL, Boqvist proved himself at three levels of Swedish hockey last season, showing scouts that he has high-end smarts and skill that should translate ably to the NHL in two or three years.
Fabian Zetterlund was a curious selection at 63rd overall considering that the Devils are prospect-starved on defence and have selected numerous forwards with premium picks in the past few years while neglecting defence…a position that is in dire need of fortification. Obviously he was high on New Jersey’s draft list – likely top 45 – and that would be higher than most, if not all, other NHL teams had him ranked. Zetterlund showed flashes at U-18 events this season; there is some skill and competitiveness, so the hope will be that he can find some consistency in his game. He’s another candidate to end up on the wing given how strong New Jersey now is down the middle, and he has shown that he can play both positions.
The Devils finally got around to addressing defence with their fourth selection, taking undersized high school defenceman Reilly Walsh 81st overall. A decade ago a defenceman like Walsh would have been a late pick at best given his size, defensive questions and lack of high-level competition, but the puck-moving blueliner impressed at the Ivan Hlinka tournament last summer and showed scouts he has the smarts and puck skills to develop into a solid college player. Given New Jersey’s lack of offensive defencemen, Walsh will likely get a legitimate chance to play an offensive role with the Devils some day if development goes as hoped.
Nikita Popugaev was well worth the “risk” in the fourth round, and despite the off-ice concerns and dropoff in his play in the second half of the season, it was surprising not to see him selected in the third round when teams were willing to gamble on players like goalie Daniil Tarasov who never played a single game. Popugaev has NHL level size and skills, so if he ever gets the rest of his game together and learns what it takes to reach his full potential the Devils found themselves a top-four winger in the fourth round.
Marian Studenic made Recrutes’ honourable mentions list and almost cracked the top 100, so grabbing him at 143rd overall was good value. Not overly large or aggressive, Studenic nevertheless has a decent work ethic and is one of the better skaters in the draft. He needs to find more scoring consistency at the junior level, and take it from there. Certainly he possesses the speed and agility to play the pro game some day.
Aarne Talvatie was captain of Finland’s team at the U-18 championships, and didn’t disappoint from a production standpoint as he scored seven points in seven games in a second-line center role. Scouts have concerns with his size and mobility – not much he can do about his height unless he finds a good bone stretcher, but the skating can always be worked on, so if it improves significantly the Devils found themselves a solid fifth-round pick.
Jocktan Chainey is another prospect that cracked Recrutes’ honourable mentions list (New Jersey chose four of the 50 listed) after an up-and-down season in Halifax. An average-sized defender with decent puck-moving skills, Chainey neither wowed nor disappointed at the U-18’s playing a bottom-line role for Canada. He’ll be a longshot to ever make the Devils, but in the seventh round he was worth the “risk”.
Yegor Zaitsev and Matthew Hellickson are both defencemen passed over in last year’s draft who had decent seasons. Hellickson was a defensive mainstay on Sioux City’s blueline and came within a game of winning the USHL championship. Zaitsev is a stay-at-home defenceman who appeared in 19 games for Moscow Dynamo in the KHL and also played in the SHL Super Series last fall.
Draft grade – A : New Jersey grabbed the top player in Recrutes’ rankings and eight players listed in the top 150, the most of any team in the draft besides Las Vegas…so there was both quality and quantity. Where the club gets penalized slightly – keeping them from an A+ mark – is failing to address the huge need on defence until the 81st pick, reaching for yet another center at 63rd overall when there was no need to do so. New Jersey had five picks in the top 100 but only selected three players that made Recrutes top 100, and the only player drafted who brought significant value in terms of where he was picked in relation to Recrutes’ list was Popugaev, and the reasons are quite apparent why he dropped.
Nevertheless…it was a solid draft for the Devils, and the future looks bright at forward for the club. One assumes that GM Shero at some point over the next couple of years will try to convert his forward depth into much-needed help on defence.