Before the NHL Draft Lottery occurs, I have taken the time to utilize the Draft Hockey Prospects Simulator. The New Jersey Devils were award second overall. Canadian Owen Power went first overall in this simulation. That said, it’s very appropriate that GM Tom Fitzgerald calls on his teammate, Luke Hughes.
Luke Hughes, LD
Having watched Luke earlier on in the year, he has the speed and agility of his brother, Jack, and skates very gracefully compared to Miro Heiskanen, both of whom were also very high draft picks in their respective draft classes. Given the fact that Luke is already committed to the University of Michigan, the nearby native of Canton is going to develop for a few more seasons. Like his brother, Quinn, who played two seasons there before joining the Canucks, I firmly believe the game of Luke Hughes will become more improved being the more filled out of the Hughes trio.
Luke is the kind of guy who is fast, attacking and supportive. If Tom Fitzgerald is extended as Devils GM, I see him going after an NCAA Division I commit who has strong ties to U.S. Junior Development Programs. Luke is one of, if not, the youngest player in the 2021 NHL Draft class, so he’s going to blossom a bit later then Owen Power.
We saw that Tom Fitzgerald and his scouts took Artem Shlaine and Ethan Edwards, who were committed to the Connecticut Huskies and Michigan Wolverines, later in the 2020 NHL Draft. However, there’s no need to rush Luke to the NHL because Ty Smith and Kevin Bahl are already there. Nikita Okhotyuk will be up in a few seasons, plus Shakir Mukhamadullin should be up in the next three-to-four seasons. Luke will likely take two seasons, much like Quinn, and bring a more polished defensive game.
If, for some reason, the Devils end up first, I can see them getting Owen Power, who is a Victor Hedman type of defensemen, but can also skate very well for his 6’5, 214 pound frame from the University of Michigan. I really like Brandt Clarke, the right shot defensemen, who can absolutely skate and shoot the puck, and plays a game similar to Cale Makar and Adam Fox when it comes to skating up the ice and creating offence around him. The Canadian, through 26 games, recorded 15 points with HC Nove Zamsky in Slovakia.
Dylan Gunther of the Edmonton Oil Kings has been very productive this shortened season, recording 24 points in 12 games, splitting 12 and 12 between goals and assists. He’s a big power skater using his lower center of gravity and heads up hockey senses to produce the right plays.
William Eklund and Kent Johnson are both amazing forwards. Eklund can shoot the puck well and creates space, especially for a team like Djurgardens IF where he plays with Devils wing prospect, Alexander Holtz. Kent Johnson, I mentioned earlier in a draft profile that he thinks the game like Patrick Kane applying his sense, and his skating and stick handling are a few notches below Connor McDavid’s, but Johnson is the most electric of the two who I can see playing in New Jersey within a year or two. If the Devils are low as sixth overall, I would prefer Kent Johnson at this point.
(25) Carson Lambos, LD
The Winnipeg Ice defensemen plays a similar game to Ty Smith of the New Jersey Devils, who plays with speed and agility and is a great puck distributor, allowing him to tally 32 points in 2019-20. COVID-19 forced guys like Carson Lambos to partake in European hockey leagues for 2020-21. JYP’s U20 and U-18 teams have seen him combine 14 points in 15 games, while with SM Sarja, he collected 11 points in 13 games played.
Lambos played two games in Liiga, one of the toughest European leagues, known for developing many players, especially when he’s on a team with Samuel Helenius, who’s going to be a very interesting player in the 2021 NHL Draft.
Lambos has proven he can play on both North American and Finnish ice. The Devils Finnish hockey regional scouts and their scouts from the WHL should look into getting their hands on him as an ideal player. New Jersey may end up moving Will Butcher and graduating a few of their rookie defensemen. So having two guys like a Luke Hughes and a dynamic Carson Lambos can help restore the pipeline of left defenders. This strategy is you’re going to replace a minimum of two rookie defensemen with two defenders to develop over time.
Draft Day Scenario:
If, for some reason, Carson Lambos is not there and the Devils want to beef up on a different defensemen, I really like Daniil Chayka, a left-handed defensemen, who I did a player profile on earlier in 2020. While touching upon last season, New Jersey took Shakir Mukhamadullin at 20th overall. Daniil Chayka at 25th overall would be a proven high value pick if they decide to keep the first from the New York Islanders, which they acquired for Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac.
A couple things I look for in forwards on draft day are how fast they are, can they attack and are they supportive. This has been the system used by former GM Ray Shero when Tom Fitzgerald, his current successor, was working under him as the assistant GM.
The other portion of the equation for the best available players in round one like Mukhamadullin was a product of Tom Fitzgerald utilizing his regional scouts based in Russia. Scouting out leagues like the MHL and VHL helped to inform him, as Tom mentioned on draft night last season that he was at a game looking to scout Rodion Amirov (Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick) who happened to be on the same team.
Given what I’ve seen in Mukhamadullin’s play and build, I see a lot of similar big, physical, two-way defensive attributes in Daniil Chayka. Chayka and Mukhamadullin played together on Team Russia in the U-20’s, where they sent USA Hockey away upset, as the Americans lost to the Russians in December. The Devils, over the past few drafts with Fitzgerald and a shakeup internally, seem to have a similar philosophy and share trust in Fitzgerald building up the team’s pipeline.
Giving the circumstances from how the Devils defence and PK under Alain Nasreddine has performed very poorly, that’s the type of performance they don’t want, which will likely make Fitzgerald not want to bring Nasreddine back to run the defence and penalty kill. With it being mentioned that there was conversation of Fitzgerald getting an extension from ownership, it’s a positive sign because he has moved many pieces to get back better players to build around Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt.
To the point, despite what Larry Brooks of the New York Post wrote back on May 1st in his column Slap Shots, “Told too, but we can’t cross our heart and swear on it, that the Devils might be seeking a younger man than Lindy Ruff to shepherd the flock of youngsters flowing through the organization.”
A source told me that what was said has some substance, but I believe Fitzgerald will likely hang onto Lindy Ruff for another season. That is of course unless there is a younger coach that knows how to unlock the offensive potential of guys like Pavel Zacha and Michael McLeod, who have been popping more offensively under Ruff’s “uptempo run and gun” system.
Don’t be too surprised about P.K. Subban not returning to New Jersey. The Devils could look into adding a defensemen like a Dougie Hamilton and bringing in Adam Larsson, a former member of the hockey club. The Devils believe prospect Reilly Walsh is two-to-three seasons away from cracking the lineup and I see the team giving veteran right-handers contracts that will help bridge that gap.
Thoughts and Perspectives:
In the last pair of games, with the call up of Kevin Bahl, who has been a big presence, he brings a 6’6, 229 pound frame while also packing within that a long reach. He’s looked absolutely comfortable playing with Ty Smith against a Boston Bruins team with Stanley Cup potential. Bahl’s game, going from third line pairing over time, will earn him a top-four defence pairing as he goes through the thick and thin of an 82-game season.
Bahl was a key cog in two of New Jersey’s three wins against the Philadelphia Flyers. Although the Bruins beat the Devils 3-0 in the game he partook in, Bahl was a treat to watch, literally manhandling guys older than him, bringing that Ken Daneyko and Zdeno Chara style of physicality and hockey IQ as it pertains to smart positioning.
Don’t be surprised this offseason if Will Butcher and Connor Carrick join P.K. Subban as members of the team who likely won’t be returning next season. This happens to be a year where one might be bought out and ultimately lost to the Seattle Kraken. Butcher was a healthy scratch earlier in the year, and with his absence, guys like Colton White and Nikita Okhotyuk will likely battle it out while vying to lock down one of those spots.