Welcome to the 2017 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. During the summer, I will feature a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will follow the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no trades). You can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted this year. There have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed.
I will link you to those articles; as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2017-18 roster. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later; or an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as a dark horse to make the NHL. The cut-off for prospects is typically 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
TSP: New Jersey Devils Prospects
It was a long season for the New Jersey Devils. The team thought that adding Taylor Hall would give the long-suffering offense a boost. Hall had a decent season, with 53 points, but overall the Devils still had problems scoring. Their 183 goals for was third lowest in the NHL, and lowest in the Eastern Conference. The were 18 goals worse than the next lowest team in the conference. Couple that with playing in the toughest division in hockey, and their playoff chances were realistically sunk by Christmas, and the team spent much of the year looking to the future.
The team’s luck would take a major change at the NHL Draft Lottery though. With the league’s fourth worst record, they went into the night with the fifth best lottery odds (due to expansion). The lottery balls fell in their favour and the Devils had the top pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.
Draft Picks: Nico Hischier, Jesper Boqvist, Fabian Zetterlund, Reilly Walsh, Nikita Popugaev, Gilles Senn, Marian Studenic, Aarne Talvitie, Jocktan Chainey, Yegor Zaitsev, Matthew Hellickson
Graduates: Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, Joseph Blandisi
Top Prospect: Nico Hischier
The Devils drafted Hischier with the 1st overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on Hischier. As no games have been played since that report; we will not repeat it. You can check out the report here.
#2 Prospect: Michael McLeod
Center — shoots Right
Born February 3rd, 1998 — Mississauga, Ontario
Height 6’2″ — Weight 195 lbs [188 cm / 88 kg]
Drafted by New Jersey Devils in the first round, #12 overall at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft
McLeod had a strong season with the Mississauga Steelheads, increasing his goals and points output over his draft year. He continued his role as the number one centre and leader of the team. He took his game up another notch in the OHL playoffs, putting up 11 goals and 27 points in 20 games, and helping the team to win the Western Conference, before falling to Erie in the OHL Championship. McLeod also appeared for Team Canada at the World Juniors where he put up three points in seven games in a shutdown role.
McLeod is an absolute speedster, with great top end speed and outstanding acceleration. McLeod is one of the fastest skating prospects in all of hockey- he’s that fast. On top of that he has excellent agility, and the ability to change directions quickly. McLeod uses his skating ability to its full advantage to elude defenders and open up passing and shooting lanes when working off the rush, or even when playing the cycle game. McLeod has good size and is strong on his skates, which is a great asset in working along the boards and in front of the net.
McLeod shows strong passing skills and excellent vision. He makes strong, tape-to-tape passes both off the rush and in the cycle game. McLeod has a good release on his wrist shot, and has improved its power over the last year. It can improve a little more, by adding muscle to his frame. He is also using his shot more often than in the past. McLeod no longer looks to pass on every play, which was an issue in his draft year. Add in a non-stop motor to go along with his strong skating, McLeod shows the willingness and ability to get in quickly on the forecheck. He pressures defenders and creates turnovers and mistakes, which then create offence for himself and his linemates. He gets into the dirty areas, whether that be battling for pucks in the corner, or establishing position in front of the net.
Mcleod is also able to provide great support on the backcheck. His strong two-way game is seen as the Steelheads have matched him against the other teams top lines for two years now. They also use him to kill penalties. He also took this important role with Team Canada. He brings his grit and tenacity in all three zones, being strong along the boards and playing a physical brand of defence. McLeod reads the play extremely well, and provides defensive support where it is needed. He is strong positionally, and more than willing to sacrifice his body at the defensive end.
McLeod will go to Training Camp looking for an NHL role. However, with Hischier, Pavel Zacha, Adam Henrique, and Travis Zajac all competing for spots down the middle, it will be tough for the Devils to find him an ideal role and ice-time at this point. It might make more sense to do a nine-game tryout and then go back to dominate the OHL and play for Canada in the World Juniors. McLeod has the skills to be a top notch two-way centre in time. Its unclear if he has the offensive upside to be a first liner, though McLeod can develop into a top second line centre who can kill penalties and play against the other teams top line, while also producing points. Mcleod has all the skills you want from a player in both ends of the rink.
#3 Prospect: Steve Santini
Defense — shoots Right
Born March 7th 1995 — Mahopac, New York
Height 6’2″ — Weight 208 lbs [188 cm/ 94 kg]
Drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the second round, 42nd overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
After leaving Boston College to sign with the Devils late in the 2015-16 season, Santini had his first full year as a pro last year. He spent 38 games in the NHL scoring two goals and seven points. He also played 20 regular seaosn games, and four playoff games for Albany in the AHL, picking up a total of four assists.
Santini is a great skater. His straight line speed both forwards and backwards is excellent. He has a good first step and excellent acceleration based on compact, powerful stride. He has great edge work and pivots, and his strong agility allows him to quickly change direction and cover a ton of ice. The skating skill gives him the ability to be a top notch defender moving forward.
Santini’s offensive game is underdeveloped. He has a good first pass in his own end, but is not likely to join the rush. He also needs to improve his poise and patience in the offensive zone. Santini has a low and hard slap shot, but he does not utilize it nearly enough to be a real offensive threat.
The contributions Santini brings are often things you don’t see on the score sheet. Santini’s true value is in his defensive game. He is extremely well developed in this aspect of his game, and is developing into a shutdown defender. He has good size and a well-developed frame.
Santini plays a very strong physical game, clearing the front of the net, and working hard in battles along the boards. He maintains great gap control, always keeping himself between the puck and the net. Santini is a willing shot blocker. He’s also willing to lay a number of big hits if given the opportunity. Players need to keep their heads up if coming down Santini’s side of the ice, as he’s been known to throw some very punishing hits. Those who try to sneak by Santini along the boards have to be fearful as he is capable of making them pay the price.
Its time for Santini to take the next step and become a full-time NHLer. Expect him to make the Devils out of training camp. He still has some things to work on, and he might need to be a third pairing defenceman with his minutes managed early in the year. Expect Santini to grow into his role as a shutdown defender sooner, rather than later though.
#4 Prospect: John Quenneville
Center/Left Wing — shoots Left
Born April 16th 1996 — Edmonton, Alberta
Height 6’1″ — Weight 205 lbs [185 cm / 93 kg]
Drafted by New Jersey Devils in the 1st round, #30 overall at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft
Quenneville is another player who has just finished his first season of pro hockey. He had a very good rookie campaign in Albany with 14 goals and 46 points in 58 games. He also had four points in four playoff games. It was enough of a good impression to earn Quenneville 12 games with the big club, where he put up a goal and four points.
Skating wise, there is some good and bad with Quenneville. He has decent top end speed, but could stand to improve his first step quickness and acceleration. His stride is long and powerful, he has the balance and the strength to fight through checks and win battles on the boards. Quenneville has decent agility and solid edge work as well.
Quenneville has the versatility to play both left wing and centre, though he likely projects as a winger at the next level. Offensively, Quenneville is at his best controlling the puck down low on the cycle game and setting up teammates with good vision, and very high hockey IQ.
He can drive the net when given the opportunity. Quenneville improved on his finish in close this past year, showing more of a knack to make plays in front of the net. He is strong on the puck. His long reach and good puck skills really help him to protect the puck down low. He is not afraid to battle in the corners and in front of the net, and has only gotten better as he has gotten stronger. Quenneville added bulk over the last couple of summers and it would not be surprising to see him come to camp even more defined this year. He also has a strong and accurate wrist shot, allowing him to score from further out.
Defensively, Quenneville is very strong and well developed. He offers great support to his defenceman both in back pressure on the rush, and in defending the cycle game down low. He is very good in the face-off circle. Quenneville also anticipates plays well and cuts down passing and shooting lanes. Willing to play physical in all three zones, and even willing to drop the gloves, he can be a really pest to the other team’s top players.
With the Devils being well stocked up the middle, both now and in the future; Quenneville’s future with the team is on left wing. While he was a centre in junior, he already started that transition, as he spent most of last season on the wing in Albany. Quenneville will go to camp and has a good chance to earn a spot on the Devils. His defensive game means that he could start in the bottom six and work his way up the line-up. If he doesn’t make the team, expect him to have a big season in the AHL.
#5 Prospect MacKenzie Blackwood
Goalie — shoots Left – Catches Left
Born December 9th, 1996 — Thunder Bay, Ontario
Height 6’4″ — Weight 224 lbs [193 cm / 102 kg]
Drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the second round, #42 overall at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft
Blackwood is yet another Devils prospect who just finished his first season of pro hockey. In 36 games with Albany he put up a 2.55 goals against average and .907 save percentage. The Thunder Bay native came off a solid 2015-16 season where he was named OHL Goaltender of the Year.
Already at 6’4″ tall, MacKenzie Blackwood has the ideal size that teams look for in goaltenders now. He uses that size effectively and comes out to challenge shooters and take away the amount of net they have to look at. He skates extremely well and can back up quickly to close down the net on dekes. Blackwood is almost always square to the shooter, even on cross-ice passes as he gets across very quickly due to a strong leg push. He stays in control and avoids over-sliding.
Blackwood plays a strong butterfly technique with strong legs that take away the bottom of the net, and an excellent glove hand. His rebound control is strong for his age; however, it can continue to improve. He does a very good job of recovering quickly and getting square to the puck when he does give up a rebound though.
Playing the Puck
Blackwood also is a very good stick handler and passer, not being afraid to leave his crease to play the puck. He takes advantage if he sees the opponent make a bad line change, and can make a long pass to his forwards. Blackwood’s puck handling makes him like a third defenceman back there for his team. He is a natural leader, with a cool and calm demeanor. Blackwood does not get frustrated after giving up a goal. He bounces back quickly, focusing on making the next save.
There are still some raw spots in Blackwood’s game that could be refined by a good goalie coach. He can be tighter with his arms and body when he goes down in the butterfly. He also could work on reading the play when the puck behind the net. However these are minor issues. They should be fixed by a good goalie coach. For a goaltender who only started playing the position due to an injury to a teammate eight years ago, his technique is actually more polished than one would expect. These are some relatively minor issues overall.
Blackwood should continue to develop at the AHL level, as the Devils move their affiliate to Binghamton. It would be good if he can improve on last season and take a bigger role and play more games this season. Like with most goaltenders, this is likely a long-term project.
Sleeper Prospect: Yegor Rykov
Defense — Shoots Left
Born April 14th 1997 — Vidnoe, Russia
Height 6’2″ — Weight 216 lbs [188 cm / 98 kg]
Drafted by New Jersey Devils in the fifth round, #132 overall at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft
Rykov had a very successful season. He played in 47 regular season games and 15 playoff games for SKA St. Petersburg, picking up nine assists on the way to helping the team to win the Gagarin Cup. He also played for Russia at the World Juniors, scoring seven points in seven games, and helping the team to the bronze medal.
Rykov is a strong skater. He has good speed in both directions, and quick acceleration. He also has very good edge work and pivots. Rykov transitions quickly from offence to defence and vice-versa. He is solid on his skates and has good balance. It is difficult to move him off the puck.
Rykov has very good vision and passing skill. He starts breakouts with a strong and crisp first pass. He also has the stickhandling skill to skate the puck out of danger and make plays off the rush. Calm and poised with the puck, he quarterbacked the power play for the World Junior Team. However, Rykov needs to work on his shot. He could add upper body strength, which would give him better power.
Rykov’s defensive game is a bit of a work in progress. Some defensive lapses have led to lower, sheltered minutes with SKA, but it is important to note that he was a 19-year-old playing in a men’s league. At the slower pace of the junior level, he shows good positioning, and an active stick to create turnovers and transition to offence. He should continue to improve his defensive game as he gains experience.
Rykov signed with SKA until the end of the 2018-19 season. The Devils hope he can continue to develop and get even more minutes with the club. At that point, they will likely try to bring him to North America.
The Devils have really improved their prospect depth in recent years. They are looking very strong up front, and have some excellent depth. In addition to those already named, Jesper Boqvist, Nikita Popugaev, and Fabian Zetterlund improved the team’s forward depth at this year’s NHL Draft. Blake Speers is another talented winger in the system. He should make the jump to the AHL this season. Joey Anderson is a 2016 pick who had a solid season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. 2016 second rounder Nathan Bastian had a bit of a disapointing season though, he is young enough that he could bounce back. Brandon Gignac had a decent season in the QMJHL. Meanwhile, Nick Lappin had plenty of time with the Devils last season, and could take a bottom six role this year.
The Devils are also solid in goal where Gilles Senn and Evan Cormier provide depth behind Blackwood. However the defence lacks a top notch puck moving prospect. Damon Severson is young and can take that role at the NHL, but this should be a focus for the Devils as they build their prospect pool going forward.