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FEATURE: Prospect Analyst Sees Potential for Bright Future

In speaking with The Athletic's Corey Pronman, it's clear the Devils have a good foundation of young talent that should lead to future success

by Chris Wescott TheChrisWescott / NewJerseyDevils.com

If there was some magic switch on the wall that would instantly make your top prospects NHL ready, the New Jersey Devils would be smashing it into the "on" position without delay. You always want to see the fruits of your labor quickly. It is the era of instant gratification. Almost everything is available at your fingertips. Unfortunately, it's just not how life works. You can't speed up time. And it will be a while before we see some of these names lighting the lamp in the black and red.

But there is no denying there is palpable excitement surrounding the New Jersey franchise's future. Currently, they're led up the middle by two first-overall picks, Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, and the youthful roster is accented by a rising star in net in Mackenzie Blackwood, as well as talent on the wings like Jesper Bratt, Kyle Palmieri, and Nikita Gusev. But this team is nowhere near its potential, with a plethora of tantalizingly promising young prospects a year or two, or three, away from making an impact.

As you're reading this article, the words are coming from NewJerseyDevils.com. Of course, there would be an amplifying of positivity coming directly from the source. And so, sometimes it feels good as a fan of the team to have the reasons for excitement confirmed, and even bolstered, by a third-party voice.

Enter Corey Pronman of The Athletic. He's one of the most well-known and respected prospects writers in the hockey world, and his work this summer has lauded the Devils pool of young talent. He recently ranked New Jersey as the second-best franchise in the NHL in terms of young talent. He also gave them an A- grade for their 2020 NHL Draft class, as the club added eight more prospects to the system earlier this month.

These pieces just reinforce the widely accepted opinion that the future is bright in New Jersey.

"[Nico Hischier] and, in particular, Jack Hughes, if they become even kind of close to what I think they could potentially be, those are kind of cornerstone building-block kind of caliber players," Pronman said of why he thinks so highly of Jersey. "The other reason would be the kind of the quality of depth of the organization… having that plus the quality depth I think really kind of distinguishes the Devils in terms of their young talent."

Pronman cites the simple quantity of picks the Devils have had in recent years as a good starting point for success for the organization. It gives the Devils more kicks at the can. To be frank, the draft in any league is often times considered a crapshoot. You do your homework on the players, predict their ceilings and their floors, but what it really comes down to is how you develop that talent. Ultimately, a lot of what will make a player successful comes from the player themselves, but having more young players gives you even more of a chance that some of them pop.

"That doesn't mean they're all going to play," Pronman warned. "It doesn't mean they're all going to be good players. But in the world of prospects, you need to be taking calculated bets. And if you get 15, 16, 20 guys who look like legitimate prospects, and you can get 10 of them to pan out, all of the sudden, that's half a roster right there of guys who can legitimately play."

Now Pronman says having a strong prospect pool does not automatically assure a club of sustained success, but it does increase the odds for it. He also says he doesn't believe the Devils are finished building yet to position themselves as top contenders.

However, "you can really see a foundation coming together there," he said.

The Devils made moves last year to bring in Kevin Bahl and Nolan Foote with in-season trades, giving them two pro-ready players with good chances at becoming contributing players in the NHL someday. 

"I like Bahl, and I like Foote," said Pronman. "Foote, I think has multiple dimensions, and he's not just a goal scorer. I think he has size and he's got skill and I think he's got pretty good hockey sense. Because of his foot speed, he won't be a true play-driver in the NHL, but there are a lot of elements there that I think could help him play top-nine, possibly in a top-six role in the NHL."

In addition to Foote up front, Pronman likes the Devils acquisition of a certain hulking defender.

"Kevin Bahl has grown on me," he said.

"I see a guy who doesn't have a ton of offense, but I think the first pass is good enough, and given the size and the mobility and the physicality that you can see, there are some specific things that he does at an extremely high level that I think will translate into the pros, and particularly to the NHL, and that will make him a useful, possibly even a good NHL defenseman."

Bahl joins Ty Smith as one of the club's top defensive prospects and Pronman is also a huge fan of Smith's game.

"I see some dynamic components to his game and he's just a really skilled, really intelligent puck mover, rather mobile, really elusive player with his skill and skating. That's just a guy, I think you can envision on an NHL power play."

Throughout Pronman's 40-minute interview on the Speak of the Devils podcast, the analyst broke down almost all of the Devils top prospects. He named 2019 fourth-round pick Tyce Thompson, currently with Providence in the NCAA, the club's dark horse to make the NHL. He says Blackwood has shown flashes and can be a quality NHL goaltender. And, he's intrigued by the Devils 2020 Draft Class as well.

Pronman gave them an A- with his draft grades for The Athletic. Part of that is because the Devils were able to add three first-rounders.

It all starts with Alexander Holtz, who was taken seventh overall, and is one of the best if not the best goal scorers in the class.

"This was a guy you were hearing about when he was like 13, 14, 15-years-old coming up through Sweden as one of those potential elite, can't-miss guys," Pronman said. 

Sometimes those players fizzle out as they get older and their peers catch up to them or get bigger and stronger. Not with Holtz.

"The two things that have always stood out to me aren't his elite skill or his elite shot. He is going to be known as the goal scorer, the guy who can finish from range, and all that is true and he does those at a really high level. But for me, he has elite, elite hands. He projects to be a guy who can beat a lot of NHL defenders with one-on-one play and be able to create offense with his skill very consistently. I think he brings both that elite skill and elite shot, and he competes hard, he's a really intelligent player, he can make passes. I think you can envision him as a first power-play type player."

Pronman says he sees Holtz as a great player in the NHL, whether that's a year, two, or three down the line.

"I think he's going to get there."

In addition to Holtz, the Devils added two more first-round picks in forward Dawson Mercer and defenseman Shakir Mukhamadullin.

In Mercer, Pronman sees a player who has continued to improve his stock over the last couple of years who has high-end skill and playmaking ability, who can win tons of one-on-one battles and score goals. Pronman projects him to be a legitimate two-way center in the NHL and he's a really strong prospect to add to the pipeline.

Pronman is also a fan of Mukhamadullin, who he says is an athletic player with size and enough offense to play in the NHL.

It's not hard to see why Pronman would rate the Devils so highly. They've managed to acquire a large amount of prospects with legitimate NHL potential. They've given themselves more chances to get it right, and with that have set themselves up for a bright future. But the work has only just begun, and it never truly stops.

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