After every NHL draft, I put a summary of my thoughts and general reaction to how the New Jersey Devils performed for that day. I know full well that it takes about five years before one can truly judge a draft class as being successful or not. Some prospects grow. Some do not. Some surprise and achieve beyond any reasonable expectations. Some wither into the ether. So I would recommend taking this following opinion piece about the Devils’ 2021 Draft class with a grain of salt.
That stated, my general thesis is that the Devils did great to take Luke Hughes and proceeded to underwhelm with the remainder of their picks this year.
Thoughts on the First Day
Note that I did not say the Devils were bad in this year’s draft. They did not do what Ottawa did by nearly breaking their groins with reaching for Tyler Boucher at tenth overall and proceeding to take size over other matters with their higher picks. They did not go even bigger on size like Chicago did with majority of their picks. They did not go into the draft with just three picks and ended up underperforming and not trying to gain more like Toronto. They did not use their first round pick on a criminal who asked not to be drafted like Montreal did. The Devils did not embarrass themselves or make the fanbase collectively erupt with their selections or making a trade that stunk the moment it was announced (looking at you, Philadelphia and Our Hated Rivals).
However, they did not excel at the draft either. Columbus had an awesome draft that will certainly help their now re-building efforts. Carolina went into the two-day event with no first rounders and ended up with a borderline one in Scott Morrow and two very solid picks in Aleksi Heimosalmi and Ville Koivunen amid a group of 13 (!) picks. San Jose ended up with William Eklund, took a decent chance on a goalie in the third round, and made some interesting late picks. Los Angeles ended up making four picks and made four excellent swings on their choices. Despite Dallas taking a 0 GP player in the first round, they did great on the second day with Stankoven, Martino, Roulette, Bar, and Arcuri. I know it is way too early to proclaim winners at the draft, but their choices stood out to me in a good way.
The Devils made the smart, reasonable, and expected choice in taking Luke Hughes at fourth overall. It was a great pick given his superlative skating, his offensive skillset as a defenseman, and his high upside. That it made Jack Hughes elated was a bonus. It was a worthy pick for fourth overall in this year’s draft class. It was the marquee choice that will lead and ultimately decide the quality of the draft for better or for worse. Then the remainder of the draft took a turn for the questionable.
Despite there being objectively better prospects available, the Devils made a reach of their own and selected Chase Stillman at 29th overall. One could wish that the Devils traded their second first rounder in a package for a player to help right away. Personally, I wished the Devils would have traded down to make this pick. Something that was absolutely a possibility given Tom Fitzgerald stating he did get offers for picks for 29th overall in his post-draft press conference and a theme for Carolina’s entire 2021 draft. Stillman’s upside is being a bottom six energy winger. While I can understand those players having a purpose in today’s game, it is not someone a team should aim for in the first round in the draft. Even if it is near the end of the first round.
Especially when more talented forwards were available at 29th overall. Such as Nikita Chibrikov, who could serve the same role as Stillman but be even better (think poor man’s Brad Marchand); Simon Robertsson, who had one of the best shots in the draft; Francesco Pinelli, who was one of the smarter forwards in the draft; or Aatu Räty, who really just needs his mind right to get his game back in order. Defensemen like Scott Morrow or Stanislav Szovil would have been fine choices at this point in the first round. Given that Fitzgerald was thrown off by Corey Masisak’s joking question about video quality of the Danish junior league – where Stillman played 8 games in outside of the World U18s – I suspect Stillman was selected based on that World U18 tournament where he was a bottom six winger, his rookie season in Sudbury in 2019-20, and maybe the fact he is Cory Stillman’s son. I know this year’s draft class is not as talented as past ones. But Stillman was not the best player available and Fitzgerald had the option to trade down but not take it. Had he done so and picked Stillman at, say, 45th and got an extra pick from it, then this would have been better received. Instead, it is very much a selection where I am hoping Stillman proves my pessimism wrong and the Devils’ belief in him right. Otherwise, this could end up haunting them. No, it was not the worst pick of the first round, but it is currently not a good pick in my opinion.
Still, I will credit Fitzgerald for being stand pat between the Expansion Draft and the NHL Draft. Prior to the start of the 2021 NHL Draft, there were some significant deals thrown around. Philadelphia decided to give away Shayne Gostisbehere on the 22nd and then give away 14th overall this year, a second rounder in 2023, and Robert Haag for Risto Ristolainen on the 23rd. Our Hated Rivals handed a long deal to Barclay Goodrow and then move a top-six forward in Pavel Buchnevich to St. Louis for a fourth liner in Sammy Blais and a second round pick. Vancouver handed Arizona three bad expiring contracts and ninth overall to Arizona for an even worse contract in Oliver Ekman-Larsson and RFA Connor Garland. Columbus got plenty back for Seth Jones from Chicago, including Adam Boqvist and a better first round pick; but it was very much a move that indicates Columbus is re-building. Throw in Carolina oddly decided to part with Alex Nedeljkovic on the 22nd prior to trading down a bunch today; and the Islanders moving players for cap space, and the Devils may have improved in their division just by doing nothing. They did not tack on any bad deals. They did not make trades where they ended up with the worse player. This was fine.
What was not as fine was the actual broadcast of the first round. No, the Devils had no influence over this. The broadcast was a NHL Network production – they used their set in Secaucus, New Jersey, they used their graphics – with assistance from ESPN (John Buccigross was the host) and Sportsnet (Sam Cosentino and Elliotte Friedman were involved). While the look and presentation was fine, the timing of the production was rough to sit through. Despite a five-minute clock for each team, there were several picks in the first round where a commercial break (with no tracker on-screen during them) or an interview with a player or player’s parent or team staffer or some panel discussion effectively gave the team more time to make the pick. Or make the viewer sit there seeing “The Pick is In” and waiting for Gary Bettman to show up and throw it to someone else to announce it. The first round of the draft was long at nearly four hours. How breaks and other bits like interviews were cued in just added to the dragged-out nature of it all. With the NHL Draft returning to Montreal in 2022 for an in-person draft, I hope ESPN or Turner is able to get more involved with the production and make it less of a grind for the viewer.
Ultimately, Friday night ended with the Devils adding a great prospect to their system and a one with limited upside. With no second round pick, the Devils would have to wait a bit before they began the second day of their draft.
Thoughts on the Second Day
Traditionally, the second day of the NHL Draft goes quickly. With an in-person draft, all teams do not want to spend all day on the floor of a near-empty arena making picks. It is usually done at about the same time (or less!) than the first round. However, this year’s draft was remote like last year’s. Last year’s remote draft stretched out the second through seventh round to a seven-hour slog. This year went a bit faster at six hours, but there were plenty of pauses and extensions given with teams being given multiple timeouts (Carolina!), trading picks down (Carolina!), and other delays. At least picks from the third round and onward were made even during commercial breaks, which did have the tracking graphic working through it. The Devils-centric result about this is that it took about two hours befor the Devils could make their first pick of the day.
That pick was center Samu Salminen of Jokerit’s U20 team. A player with good skills on the puck and was a leader for his club team and the Finnish squad at the World U-18 Championships, but has questionable skating issues that could hamper his impact on the ice (especially on defense) and his future as a pro. The Devils selected overage goaltender Jakub Málek from VHK Vsentin of the Czech second league in the fourth round. While unknown to most, he was at least a top-ten goalie in save percentage last season. The Devils began the NHL’s fifth round by taking stay-at-home defenseman Topias Vilén of Pelicans. He picked up a regular role in the Liiga last season and was an alternate captain on the same Finnish U18 team that Salminen captained. Vilén is a left-handed defenseman. In the sixth round, the Devils chose Viktor Hurtig, a large right-handed defenseman who will play for the Växjö Lakers next season. He is large and may have an offensive game in his toolbox, but time will tell as to whether the Devils unearthed the next hopeful late-draft pick out of Sweden. The Devils ended their draft class by going to Russia to take the double-overage forward Zakhar Bardadov, who played mostly in the KHL last season and represented Russia at the World Junior Championships and made some appearances with the senior national team. He is large, he has a nasty streak from his MHL days, and at age 20, he could end up in North America sooner rather than later. The Devils stuck to Europe with their five picks today. They did not trade up or down. They selected a range of talents.
My feelings on each do range a bit. I do not mind the Malek pick, but it is a shot in the dark to take a 19-year old goaltender from the second league of Czechia based on a recommendation from Scott Clemmensen (thanks to JRod2006 for pointing that out). I am fine with a flyer being taken on Hurtig and Bardadov at that point in the draft. I like the selections of Salminen and Vilén. However, I do have to question whether this was the best the Devils could have done today. Similar to how I felt with the Stillman pick, I do think there could have been better players selected with some of these later picks.
For example, Simon Robertsson somehow fell all the way to 71st overall. Robertsson was one of the best shooters in the entire draft and he produced quite a bit when he was playing at his appropriate level in the Swedish U-20 league before their season was cut short. I repeat that I like the Salminen pick, but if the Devils chose Robertsson there, then it would have really made this year’s crop of draft picks that much better. Likewise, Dylan Duke was a big faller today as Tampa Bay snagged him at 126th overall. I know he is a smaller player but he plays much bigger than his size, and he would have been a big steal at 100th overall. But the Devils opted to go with an overage goalie from a little-known league that they probably could have had in the fifth round or later. As much as I like the Vilén pick, the Devils could have snagged a more dynamic right-handed defenseman in Jack Bar (another huge faller) at 129th overall or the explosive winger with the meme name of Robert Orr. I understand the idea that a team has their board and their scouts have to be trusted and whatnot. But judging a draft has to consider the context the picks are made. It is more than just who did the Devils pick, but where were they picked and who else was available.
I feel like one of the five picks today could have been changed with even just one of what I suggested here and the Devils’ draft class goes from Luke Hughes and an OK group to Luke Hughes and a potentially good group. Combined with how I feel about the Stillman pick, that is why my main adjective for the the Devils’ 2021 Draft class is underwhelming. As much as I like and/or understand what they did today, I just think it could have been better than this. It could have been larger had Fitzgerald traded down from 29 or even elsewhere. It could have had more potential and skill involved. It is certainly not as ugly as 2014 or anything like that. But it does pale in comparison to the last time the Devils went mostly European for a draft.
Concluding Thoughts on the 2021 NHL Draft
Of course, I have to go back to my earlier point. I know this class was just selected and no one has done anything. For all I know, Stillman will go to Sudbury in 2020-21 and dominate the OHL and make fans like me start thinking about eating their words. For all I know, Salminen’s skating will get better and he becomes the Devils’ best chance of a Finnish draft pick actually becoming a successful NHL player ever. For all I know, Malek, Vilen, Hurtig, and Bardadov will garner value either with New Jersey, with Utica, or in a deal elsewhere. And Luke Hughes is even better than what we expect. This class could very well end up being much better than I anticipate by 2026.
Of course, it could also go the other way and the only quality player out of this year’s class is Luke Hughes. It could be a 2003 or 2004 throwback where the top pick was a huge success and the rest of the group was not. Which would not be as horrible given how large the Devils’ prospect pool is right now. But it would be a disappointment. For now, I just think the Devils could have done better with what they had. Not the whole thing; but even changing one or two picks would have made the class better for it. Alas, it is what it is. Hence, I think they may have underwhelmed this year.
The second main event of the 2021 NHL Offseason is now over. The next one is on Wednesday: Free Agency. While some big moves were already made, I would expect more to come. Sam Reinhart was dealt away today to Florida and Jack Eichel is now the main target left to be dealt away from Buffalo. Also, Columbus and Philadelphia swapped Cam Atkinson and Jakub Voracek; two players with big contracts that ended up saving some cap space for Philly. Between the flat cap and what teams aim to do, it is not expected to be a quiet few days before the 28th.
Will the New Jersey Devils stay quiet? Maybe not. JRod2006 checked out Fitzgerald’s post-draft media availability after today and he noted that Fitzgerald wants to add a 1B goaltender, a top six forward, and another quality defenseman. He also noted that Fitzgerald has been in conversation with Ryan Murray, so he could be returning. There have been rumors about New Jersey and San Jose doing something as well as P.K. Subban being shopped around (remember: his cap hit is high but his salary is low for 2021-22). And Friedman did mention during the NHL Network broadcast of the draft (thanks to alslammerz for pointing out the NHL.com stream of it today) that New Jersey is making a push for Dougie Hamilton. For now, they are just that: rumors. But, again, it will make for a less than quiet few days.
For here, the next steps are straight forward. In every post for each draft pick, I put a poll up asking for your reaction. All of those polls will close at 11:59 PM tonight. I will collect the results tomorrow and post up the annual community reaction to the draft class. Expect some kind of Free Agency preview beyond that. I will be recording a new episode of Garden State of Hockey with Dan about the Draft, so look for that soon too. And expect another Free Agent Frenzy Open Post for Wednesday. I know the NHL released their schedule on Thursday and I have not yet provided a breakdown of it. That could come later as the offseason will likely be in full effect as August begins. Know that hockey does not stop at All About the Jersey.
I want to thank Brian, Mike, Alex, Chris, and Jenna for their help with prospect profiles and the roundtables for this year’s draft. I want to thank CJ and Gerard for focusing on free agents in the middle of the prospect profiles so the site was not just all about the 2021 NHL Draft. I want to thank the other SBNation sites for doing prospect profiles that helped inform us of who these prospects are. In a year where the NHL teams were limited in their scouting of players, the prospect enthusiasts and public services were more valuable than ever. I want to thank Elite Prospects, Will Scouch, Josh Tessler and the Smaht Scouting team, Dobber Prospects, Steve Kournianos and his staff at The Draft Analyst, Ian and Duncan of Devils in the Details, The Hockey Writers draft crew, Ben Kerr of Last Word on Sports, FinnProspects, and Brock Otten and his connections among all other for being available resources on the future of this league.
Most of all, I want to thank you – the People Who Matter – for your support throughout the draft “season.” Everyone who followed along in the open posts, read the profiles, read the roundtables, read the previews, reacted to all of the picks (even if you do not like my take on the Stillman pick, which I still think is a bad one), and reading this post-draft opinion piece. You are the Devils fans and you will always matter at All About the Jersey. As ever, thank you for reading.