Devils see big opportunity with two first-round picks in 2021 Draft

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The 2021 NHL Draft will be held July 23-24. The first round will be July 23 (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, SN NOW, TVAS) and rounds 2-7 are July 24 (11 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN, SN NOW). NHL.com is counting down to the draft with in-depth profiles on top prospects and other features. Today, a look at the New Jersey Devils, who have two picks in the first round. NHL.com’s full draft coverage can be found here.

The New Jersey Devils will be selecting in the top 10 of the NHL Draft for the fifth time in the past seven years and hope to add to what appears to be a promising young core and emerging group of prospects.

“It’s a unique year,” Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. “Everybody’s in the same place. The playing field is even.”

New Jersey has its own pick at No. 4 plus the No. 29 selection, acquired from the New York Islanders in the trade of forwards Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac on April 7.

The first round is scheduled for July 23 (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, SN NOW), with rounds 2-7 on July 24 (11 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN, SN NOW).

“I think at the top it might not be as unpredictable as some people are thinking,” Devils vice president of amateur scouting Paul Castron said. “There will probably be some wild cards even in the top 10, but you got names like [Michigan defenseman] Owen Power, [Michigan forward] Matthew Beniers, [Frolunda defenseman] Simon Edvinsson, [Edmonton forward] Dylan Guenther and [USA Hockey National Team Development Program Under-18 defenseman] Luke Hughes … they’re kind of on everybody’s radar.”

The Devils have eight picks at the draft, including five in the top 100. What does Fitzgerald tell the scouting staff about the kind of players the Devils are looking for?

“He emphasizes and puts a high value on hockey sense for players,” Castron said. “I don’t think it’s a big surprise. I’m sure most teams value that because when the talent and compete are equal, how fast you react and the decisions you make under pressure are important. That comes down to hockey sense and being able to execute, and the more players you get that have that hockey sense and combination of everything, it’s going to bode well for you.”

 

[RELATED: Complete coverage of 2021 NHL Draft]

 

The Devils (19-30-7) finished seventh in the eight-team MassMutual East Division and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a third straight season and for the eighth time in the past nine.

But there were positives, among them forwards Jack Hughes (No. 1, 2019 NHL Draft) and Nico Hischier (No. 1, 2017), defenseman Ty Smith (No. 17, 2018) and goalie Mackenzie Blackwood (No. 42, 2015) continuing to develop into the centerpieces of a young, foundational core group.

Fitzgerald said he sees an opportunity to solidify that foundation and deepen the pool of prospects while overseeing his second NHL Draft as a general manager. At the 2020 NHL Draft the Devils selected three players in the first round, forwards Alexander Holtz (No. 7) and Dawson Mercer (No. 18), and defenseman Shakir Mukhamadullin (No. 20).

“I believe we’re going to get a really good player,” he said. “I think there’s some real quality defensemen. There is a Swedish goalie [Jesper Wallstedt] who’s supposed to be high end and another Canadian Western league goalie [Sebastian Cossa] who’s supposed to be high end. I think it’s probably a mix.”

Wallstedt (6-foot-3, 214 pounds), No. 1 in NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of International goalies, was 11-8 with three ties, a 2.23 goals-against average, .908 save percentage and two shutouts in 22 games with Lulea in the Swedish Hockey League.

Cossa (6-6, 210), No. 1 in Central Scouting’s final ranking of North American goalies, was 17-1-1 with a 1.57 GAA, .941 save percentage and four shutouts in 19 games with Edmonton of the Western Hockey League.

One option for the Devils with the No. 4 pick could be Luke Hughes (6-2, 184), the younger brother of Jack Hughes and Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes.

“It would be unbelievable to go to the Devils,” Luke Hughes said. “My brother clearly wants me to be there. That’d be super cool to play with him, and I’d love that. But at the same time, there’s 32 great teams out there and I’d be happy to go to go to any one of those teams.”

Fitzgerald said the Devils won’t base their selection on sentimentality.

“We’re going to be true to the process,” he said. “I can just be frank about that. I’m sure the Hughes family is very excited about where Luke is going to be and what kind of player he’s going to be. … It must be exciting to have two NHL players under the same roof, plus a future NHL player. There must be something in the water at the Hughes house.”

In addition to their young core, the Devils saw significant growth this season from several other young players, among them forwards Nolan Foote, 20; Marian Studenic, 22; Jesper Boqvist, 22; Janne Kuokkanen, 23; Yegor Sharangovich, 23; Michael McLeod, 23; and Nathan Bastian, 23.

Holtz, who signed a three-year, entry-level contract April 19, is expected to push for a roster spot next season after the 19-year-old scored three points (one goal, two assists) in 10 games with Binghamton of the American Hockey League and 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) in 40 games with Djurgarden in the SHL. Forward Tyce Thompson, 22; and defenseman Kevin Bahl, 21, also could get more extensive NHL playing time next season.

“[The fans] have to know that the group they’re watching grow right underneath their eyes is going to be a really good and exciting team in the future,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think I have to oversell that; I think you know from what we’ve seen from these kids is they’re selling themselves. I’m excited to be the manager of this team moving forward.

“The priority is to improve the team each year and continue to cross the Stanley Cup Playoff finish line. I absolutely know how the fans feel about the lack of playoff success around here … I understand it. Selling hope and selling excitement for what these young kids are going to look like is something we have to do. I know there’s no consolation from this past year, but there was a big step in a lot of areas that will lead to the end result of being a competitive playoff team each year moving forward.”

Listen: New episode of NHL Draft Class

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