ONTARIO HOCKEY LEAGUE
Nikita Okhotyuk - D
39 Games Played
Okhotyuk's season started with a six-week delay after the Devils defensive prospect injured his thumb in September. Not only did Okhotyuk miss the beginning of the Ottawa 67s season, but he was also held out of his first training camp with the New Jersey Devils.
After missing the first six weeks of the OHL season, Okhotyuk returned to the 67s lineup for his third year playing in the league. He scored three goals and 16 assists, but his strength isn't necessarily in those numbers but in the way, he prevents the opposition from capitalizing on theirs.
"An excellent skater," Button said. "with power, quickness, agility, and footwork."
What more could you really ask for in a 6-foot, 198lbs defenseman?
"He makes your efforts, as an opponent, doubly hard because he competes so hard & takes pride in being a staunch defender," continued Button.
Okhotyuk may very well have played his final game in the OHL, now eligible to play in the AHL once the 2020-21 season starts. Each year, his OHL numbers have improved, in year two he had 17 points in 56 games, while this past season he finished with 19 points in 39.
Button described Okhotyuk as a "player in the defensive zone who engages quickly and hard on opponents, so they are not in positions to take advantage defensively."
When it comes to projecting Okhotyuk's potential for the future, Button has only high hopes. " I see him as solid second pair defenseman who will be in the competitive battle at all times."
Kevin Bahl - D
54 Games Played
He was the big "get" for the Devils in the trade with Arizona in exchange for Taylor Hall. The hulking 6'7 defenseman is the most recent 67 player to become a part of the Devils organization. Bahl is what Button called a "unique player." His size, his abilities, his awareness, all a part of what makes Bahl such a special player.
"He's territorial and he loves asserting himself," Button said. "Taking opponents out of their space. If it was a war, he'd be advancing the front line and pushing the enemy back." His frame and physicality allow him to take advantage and punish an opponent who dares get in his way.
For Bahl, though has produced nearly 20+ points a season, 25 in this last year Button says don't count on him as being a big offensive producer, but his ability to be in the right spots at the right times allows him to capitalize in point production.
His biggest asset?
"He's a bear to play against," Button said. "Opponents will not have any time to feel comfortable playing versus him."
Graeme Clarke - RW
16 Games Played
Graeme Clarke's early season was halted by a shoulder injury that kept him out of the lineup for four months. His injury came early in the season on October 14th, celebrating a goal he suffered a torn labrum that required surgery. At the time, Clarke was on a roll with seven goals and nine points in nine games.
His recovery kept him out a total of 46 games, returning on February 25 - where he again scored a goal. He went on to play just 16 games this season.
Clarke finished his year with nine goals and eight assists in 16 games before the CHL season was cancelled.
Button recognizes Clarkes abilities by comparing him to the Los Angeles Kings Tyler Toffoli, a player who would benefit from a good centerman.
"They need complimentary players to play with, but given that, they can be productive," Button said. What Clarke may lack in footspeed he can make up with his 'mental-pace' according to Button, which allows Clarke to recognize his opportunities quickly, adding "he can score at the NHL level, a trigger man with an exceptional release on his shot."
Clarke is just beginning his OHL career, while his teammates Hoelscher, Okhotyuk and Bahl are all expected to turn pro next season.
Michael Vukojevic - D
63 Games Played
Michael Vukojevic is a personality. He showed it extensively in his first NHL Development Camp last summer, and he has the talent to go along with it.
The 6'3 shutdown defenseman just completed his third season with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League where he wore an 'A' on his jersey for the first time in his OHL career. He's a young defenseman still figuring out his defensive game, but Button sees the improvements already underway.
His excellent skating, as a young defender has allowed him to excel amongst his peers, even make up for the areas of his game that still require refining.
"As a younger player, he was able to use his skating ability to make plays with the puck and skate by opponents. Because of his size, it was tough to get the puck away from him. I don't think he will be a point-producer but I feel he has made a significant adjustment in being a defenseman who will defend hard and be able to move the puck out of the defensive zone."
While his defensive game continues to round-out, it is his competitiveness and the physical aspect to his game that draw attention. The body-on-body battles are a noticeable facet of his game.
"Makes it difficult to gain advantages because physically he holds his own and skating wise, he stays with you," Button said.
One other area where Button gives Vukojevic praise is his self-awareness.
"It's hard for a player who has been so good in one area of the game at younger ages to make that adjustment when he realizes that he can't have similar success as he moves up levels."
His strength lays in his size and his 'terrific skating', as Button put it.
WESTERN HOCKEY LEAGUE
Ty Smith - D
46 Games Played
A first-round pick in the 2017 NHL draft, 17th overall, Ty Smith is a player full of pedigree. For a second straight season, Smith captained his WHL Spokane Chiefs team this season, after co-captaining with Jaret Anderson-Dolan the previous year.
In his final Canadian Hockey League season, Smith continued to lay his mark on the league with several record-breaking performances. He set the Spokane franchise record for a defenseman with an eight-point night against Seattle on Feb. 28. The player whose record he broke? That was his own.
Where Smith has continued to grow over his four WHL seasons is how his mind understands the game and how that has led him to tremendous success early in his career.
"He understands what he can do and what may pose challenges for him," Button said. "He reads plays so well without the puck so he can get into an opponent's space and negate him instead of having to play him where he may have a different challenge."
In the abbreviated 2019-20 WHL season Smith reached a career high in goals with 19 in 46 games, adding 40 assists for 59 points, which ranks him fourth in WHL defensemen scoring.
"His puck play is very good," Button shared. "The puck gets to the right places at the right times when his teammates can do something positive with it, because they have room and time to operate. He has great poise; he rarely compounds a mistake.
"He's so adept at 'getting on' to the next play after a mistake, and not trying to make up for it," emphasized Button.
An area that Button pointed out several times is Smith's ability as a leader. His Spokane captaincy is a testament to that and recognized even more so when he wore an 'A' on his Team Canada jersey at the 2020 World Junior Championship. Smith had three assists in the tournament and played 17:08 of the Gold medal game between Canada and Russia.
Smith and the Canadians took home the gold medal, adding to his hardware that also includes CHL Defenseman of the Year from the 2018-19 season.
"He's a determined competitor," Button made known. "Still waters run deep. I have never seen him pushed out of a game, he's in it to find a way to win."
For the last two years, Smith has been the final or one of the final cuts at the Devils regular season training camp, just falling short of the NHL roster and sent back to his Junior club. While Smith has previously voiced his disappointment in not securing an NHL roster spot, but Button sees it as a blessing in disguise.
"I think this year was so beneficial for him in junior in allowing him to mature physically to a greater extent," explained Button. "He's quick, agile, gains leverage when he moves by being able to hold his edges and gets 'under' opponents to hold his position."
Nolan Foote - LW
27 Games Played
Acquired by the Devils at prior to the trade deadline from the Tampa Bay Lightning, Nolan Foote comes from a pedigree hockey family. His father is Adam Foote, a great competitive defenseman for who played the majority of his career with the Colorado Avalanche.
"His Father was so overtly competitive that people at times mistake how competitive Nolan and his brother Cal are," Button expressed. "It's a different type of competitiveness than Adam but not less so."
The 19-year-old suffered a lower-body-injury in February and was limited to just 27 games this season for the WHL's Kelowna Rockets, the team he captains. He totaled 33 points with 15 goals and 18 assists before the season was cancelled.
"He has a game that reminds me in style to James van Riemsdyck," Button explained. "He has improved his speed and pace of his game and uses his size and reach to gain and hold his advantages. He gets to the right spaces to get the puck or pick up a rebound that allows him to be a good goal scorer."
In particular, Button made notice of Foote being a perfect winger for current Devils players like Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, two highly talented players in their individual ways.
"You need wingers that can finish the plays that they will create as well as be able to open up space for them as well," Button explained. "Nolan can fit in nicely with either one of those players because they will get him the puck in the right spots and Nolan knows where those right spots are."