Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects, the column that brings you the next crop of professional hockey players. As we go through the summer of 2023, each day our LWOS Prospects Writers will bring you a look at one NHL team’s top prospects or other topical article. Be sure to bookmark the site, follow Ben Kerr, Kyle Pereira and Frederik Frandson on Twitter, and spread the word for the site that will bring you analytical and critical profiles and scouting reports! You can find all the articles here as well as our extensive NHL Draft preview. Today, we look at the 2023 New Jersey Devils Top Prospects.
For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played (including playoff games) or is 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and we may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
2023 New Jersey Devils Top Prospects
1.) Luke Hughes
Luke Hughes, one of the three Hughes brothers, was the fourth overall selection in the 2021 NHL draft. Getting scooped up by the Devils reunited him with his older brother Jack Hughes. That selection absolutely strengthened the New Jersey Devils prospects pipeline. The biggest of the brothers, Luke played on the blueline for the University of Michigan for the last two years. In that span, he recorded 87 points in 80 games. Last year, he even got time with the big club. In two regular-season games, he managed two points.
The youngest of the Hughes brothers, he is more closely similar in style to Jack. While Quinn Hughes is certainly skilled as a puck-mover, he is a bit more conservative. Meanwhile, Jack goes full throttle and can dazzle consistently. Luke can do just that as well but from the back end. His skating is outstanding, and he can beat defenders with just his feet. Meanwhile, he is an excellent puck-mover, transitionally and in the offensive end.
What he needs to work on is the defending aspect of his game. While he is a defender by title, he acts as an extra forward. Oftentimes, he can recover with his skating, but Luke simply doesn’t possess the defensive awareness to this point to be consistently effective in his own end. He may experience some growing pains due to that.
2.) Simon Nemec
Simon Nemec, the second overall pick in the 2022 NHL draft, is another strong defender. Having two top-four picks in back-to-back drafts, not to mention the selection of Jack Hughes at first overall, certainly strengthens the New Jersey Devils prospects list. But being a top pick isn’t the only chip Nemec has on his side. Last season, Nemec pushed for a roster spot but failed to stick. Instead, he remained in the AHL. That was more due to the depth of the Devils blueline, however. That was proved by Nemec’s 34 points in 65 games with the Utica Comets, as a focal point of the blue line.
Nemec is an excellent two-way defender. His offensive game has some dynamism to it, with an ability to control the pace of play from the point. He does so by using his high-end hockey IQ to find open players and create space for himself or his teammates. Nemec’s skating is a big reason for that ability. Meanwhile, he is incredibly smart and responsible, tracking back and defending the rush exceptionally well. When he forces turnovers, he is quick to transition up the ice, acting as the play-creator from his own end to transition up ice.
3.) Seamus Casey
Seamus Casey, a second-round pick (46th overall) in the 2022 NHL draft, was considered a steal back when the Devils first called his name. Had it not been for his size (5’9” and 161 pounds), Casey would’ve likely pushed for a top-15 draft slot. However, he isn’t bigger, and teams yet again overlooked a talented player for it. But it’s the New Jersey Devils prospects pipeline that will potentially benefit. Last season, playing with fellow Devils prospect Luke Hughes, Casey produced 29 points in 37 NCAA games with Michigan.
Casey may not be the most dynamic of players with the puck on his stick. However, he may be one of the smartest guys on the ice when he steps out for a shift. Casey dissects plays so well, allowing him to make all the right plays almost every time. His skating is also excellent, which seems to be a focus of the organization, looking at the aforementioned players. But Casey is not only an excellent skater, but he reads the play fast, making him two to three steps ahead at a given time.
While he does need to bulk up quite a lot, being patient is something the Devils can afford. Look at their NHL blueline, and then the names on this list. Casey will be awarded all the time in the world to get bigger and even better on the ice. It’s the perfect situation for a high-upside swing.
4.) Alexander Holtz
Alexander Holtz, drafted seventh overall in the 2020 NHL draft, is the third top-10 draft pick out of the top four. The top forward on the New Jersey Devils prospects list, Holtz has gotten some NHL experience over the last couple of seasons. In 2020-21, after putting up 18 points in 40 SHL games, he finished the year in the AHL. There he scored three points in 10 games. The following season, he would score 51 points in 52 AHL games, an excellent feat that led to a nine-game stint in the NHL (two points). This past season, Holtz saw 14 AHL games (11 points) and 19 NHL games (four points).
Injuries limited how much he played last season, but boy is there potential there. Holtz has always been an excellent offensive zone presence. When he got the puck on his stick, he was a threat. However, there were questions about his ability to work away from the puck, and if he can lead his own line or be a complimentary piece. Over the last few seasons, he absolutely improved away from the puck. Not only that, but he also improved his playmaking skills, making him a true dual-threat presence. The only thing missing? Consistency in the NHL. He’s done well in the AHL but has yet to truly find a footing with the big club. But again, the potential is absolutely there.
5.) Akira Schmid
Next on the list, Akira Schmid was nearly a hero in the playoffs… for the Devils. Schmid looks ready to take the big leap to a full-time NHL netminder. Over the last few seasons, the goalie who was taken in the fifth round (136th overall) in the 2018 NHL draft has steadily gotten better. In 2021-22, his first professional season, he struggled at times. In the AHL, he went 22-8-5, with a .911 save percentage (SV%) and 2.60 goals against average (GAA). But, in the NHL, he went 0-4-0, with a .833 SV% and 4.83 GAA. He looked out of place. But last season was a whole new story. He posted an 11-7-4 AHL record, with a .905 SV% and 2.62 GAA before going to the NHL once again. There, he went on to post a 9-5-2 record, with a .922 SV% and 2.13 GAA, drastically better than the year prior.
Schmid is a big goalie, standing at 6’5” and 205 pounds. That size certainly brings its own value. He takes up a lot of the net and has a grasp on angles making him that much more difficult to beat. But not only that, his athleticism has improved, making him an even stronger projection to the highest level. However, he has only played a very small sample in the NHL, and towards the end of his strong playoff run, started to come back down to Earth. That doesn’t mean the magic is gone. It simply means he needs to show he can play in the NHL long-term, and this season is the biggest season for him and his potential. For the New Jersey Devils prospects pipeline, Schmid establishing himself will only make them significantly better.
6.) Lenni Hämeenaho
Hämeenaho, drafted in the second round (58th overall) in the most recent draft, is one of the newest additions to the New Jersey Devils prospects pipeline. Last season, Hämeenaho potted nine goals and 12 assists for 21 points in 51 games in the Finnish Liiga. Getting that much experience against men in the top Finnish league as an 18-year-old is impressive and is what warranted his selection in the top two rounds. So far this season, he has two goals in three Liiga games, a strong start to his second season in Liiga.
Hämeenaho is a smart player. His ability away from the puck is strong, able to find open space on the ice in the offensive zone consistently and making the right reads to extend possessions. Additionally, he is strong in his own end. He does a good job keeping play to the perimeter and overall having strong positioning and anticipation. However, the upside is lacking at this point. His playmaking and shooting aren’t particularly strong and are things he will expand on as he grows. But his IQ and experience against men give him a solid base from which he can build towards an NHL career.
7.) Nico Daws
Nico Daws, the second goalie on this list, was taken in the third round (84th overall) in the 2020 NHL draft. Daws, who stands at 6’4” and 205 pounds, is very similar in size to Schmid. Also similar to Schmid, he has gotten some NHL experience over the last few seasons. In 2021-22, he split the season between the AHL and NHL. At the AHL level, Daws went 14-4-2, with a .916 SV% and 2.54 GAA. Meanwhile, in the NHL, Daws went 10-11-1, with a .893 SV% and a 3.11 GAA. A tough start to his NHL career, certainly. It led to Schmid surpassing him on the depth chart, as he only played in the AHL last season. Daws went 16-14-3 with a .904 SV% and 2.70 GAA, a step in the wrong direction.
This upcoming season, Daws likely will only get another NHL opportunity if he returns to his 2021-22 form in the AHL, plus Schmid either slips or there’s an injury to one of the Devils NHL goalies. Daws is not the most athletic goalie, but he has excellent technical abilities. He can track the play well and stays square to almost every shot he faces. Additionally, he hardly ever gives up second chances with rebounds, keeping them away from danger or holding onto pucks. That technical ability, however, can only take a goalie so far. Daws needs to improve his lateral mobility to take that next step to be a consistent NHL goalie.
8.) Nolan Foote
Nolan Foote, who came to the Devils from the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Blake Coleman trade, was drafted 27th overall in the 2019 NHL draft. Over the last three seasons, Foote has played in the professional ranks. That includes parts of those seasons at the NHL level. In 2020-21, he scored 17 points in 24 AHL games and two points in a six-game NHL stint. The following season, he would play 55 AHL games with 32 points, and seven NHL games with four points. Finally, last season, he again played 55 AHL games, this time scoring 37 points. He also only played six NHL games and managed only one goal.
Foote is a big body, standing at 6’3” and 190 pounds. That size was what garnered attention in his draft year. But it hasn’t been enough to translate to the NHL. While he has a strong shot, he doesn’t possess a strong playmaking ability. Not to mention, his skating is considerably behind even an average NHL skater, which sets his impact even further back. Due to his raw skills lacking, he has trouble making up for that weaker skating ability. While he has taken steps towards improving that area, and he has garnered NHL experience, his time with the Devils could be coming to an end. They’re chasing a Stanley Cup. He could be successful, but it seems more and more likely that will be somewhere else.
9.) Graeme Clarke
Clarke, the third-round pick (80th overall) in the 2019 NHL draft, is a winger looking to take that next step this upcoming season. The 6’0” and 174-pound forward has played in the AHL over the last three seasons. In 2020-21, after a short stint in Slovakia, he played 31 AHL games and scored 18 points. He followed that up with 24 points in 52 AHL games the next season, not quite the improvement he was hoping for. But that improvement was seemingly delayed by one year. Last season, he broke out with 58 points in 68 games, finally producing at a high level against pros.
Clarke is a goal-scorer, certainly. He has a strong shot, and he knows how to use it. Last season, he used it well to the tune of 25 goals. But the questions that surrounded him when he was drafted back in 2019 have still stuck. Clarke simply needs help from his linemates to be an impact player. His defensive abilities leave much to be desired, he doesn’t particularly flash strong vision and playmaking, and he has yet to prove his off-puck abilities. While the success last season is promising, for the Devils, who already have a roster pretty much set in stone for the season where they are competing for a Cup, Clarke feels too risky. An NHL shot may come elsewhere, but the potential is still there, thanks to this past season.
10.) Tyce Thompson
Tyce Thompson, drafted in the fourth round (96th overall) in the 2019 NHL draft, is another winger looking to take that next step. After a successful NCAA career with Providence College (94 points in 101 games), he has transitioned to professional hockey. Over the last three seasons, he has played a few NHL games but has mainly stayed in the AHL. In 2020-21, following his final NCAA season, he posted four points in 11 AHL games and one point in seven NHL games. The following season, he played just 16 AHL games, scoring 15 points, and got an additional two NHL games (no points). Last season, he played almost a full AHL season, with 26 points in 56 games. He also saw another two-game NHL stint, with no points to show for it.
Thompson has dealt with injuries since turning pro, which set him back last season after a strong second NHL season. He isn’t small, standing at 6’1” and 174 pounds, but he plays as if he is as big as his brother Tage Thompson. That aggressive and fast-paced style is his, and he always gives 110% of his effort every time he is on the ice. While that can win over some coaches, he doesn’t have the puck skills yet to match the speed. Adjusting to the NHL pace could go a long way, but similar to Clarke, the NHL opportunities moving forward may come with a different organization.
HM (Round 4 or Later): Arseni Gritsyuk
Arseni Gritsyuk, who was drafted in the fifth round (129th overall) in the 2019 NHL draft, is yet another winger who makes this list. Over the last two years, Gritsyuk has played full-time in the KHL, and this season, he is looking to make it three straight years. In 2021-22, he managed to play 39 KHL games, scoring an impressive 28 points. Meanwhile, last season, he scored 40 points in 66 games. Thus far, Gritsyuk has one goal in three games. His contract in the KHL ends at the conclusion of the 2024-25 season, meaning the 22-year-old won’t be coming over to North America for some time.
Gritsyuk looks to be another player that comes over late from the KHL to have an NHL career, similar to that of Artemi Panarin, among others. But there’s also the chance he turns out to be more of a Nikita Gusev or a Vadim Shipachyov, who struggled to play in the NHL or even stick. However, Gritsyuk is his own player with his own style.
He plays fast and hard, aggressively pursuing pucks off the forecheck and wreaking havoc when the puck isn’t in his possession. Additionally, he has fine-tuned his offensive game, becoming more of a dual-threat scorer, both setting up teammates and scoring on his own. The puck skills he possesses are also impressive. The biggest concern to this point is the Russian factor and whether he will even come to North America when his contract expires. But if he does, he could join the Devils and be a success.
In The System
The New Jersey Devils prospects list is a pretty strong grouping. But their NHL squad is also relatively young. With Luke Hughes likely sticking, Nemec also potentially becoming an impact player this season, and several other guys in the top 10 potentially getting games, that’s no secret. But then, there’s Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Timo Meier, Nico Hischier, Jonas Siegenthaler, John Marino and Kevin Bahl, all of whom are 26 or younger. However, there are also names not listed that certainly warranted some attention.
Some of those names that just missed out on the top 10 include Josh Filmon, Chase Stillman, Daniil Misyul, Michael Vukojevic, Topias Vilen, and Tyler Brennan, who are all under contract. Then, there’s Samu Salminen, Daniil Orlov, Jaromir Pytlik, Cam Squires, Ethan Edwards, Charlie Leddy, Chase Cheslock, and several others who are in the system but not yet signed. It’s safe to say that the Devils are a young team, and they have several prospects who can be high-impact players down the line. They could be top contenders for a very long time.
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Main Photo Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports