New Jersey Devils Prospects with Something to Prove for a Contract in 2021

Now that the offseason has subsided for the New Jersey Devils, the focus may have shifted towards re-signing restricted free agents. Namely, Mackenzie Blackwood and Jesper Bratt. Fans have also wondered about the fate of Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev, whose contracts will end after the 2020-21 season. Should the Devils try to sign them to extensions? Would they want to be extended? These are good questions to ask and discuss – in another post.

In this one, I want to focus on the many other players in the organization who will need new contracts after next season. Specifically young players. Unlike Palmieri, Gusev, and Travis Zajac, they do not have a long history in professional hockey. If you did not see the announcement of the site’s Top 25 Under 25 community survey last Monday, then know that the Devils have 52 players under the age of 25 in their system. (Aside: You have until Friday to vote in the survey. Make your voice heard.) The Devils have a lot of them and a maximum of 50 contracts to hand out. What this means is that an entry level contract (ELC) or a second contract after their ELC ends is not a guarantee for all prospects in the system. So those who are not signed for next season will have something to prove in 2020-21 to earn that next – or even first – contract from New Jersey. In this post, I will highlight each of them and whether I think they have a good chance of getting that contract.

The Challenge Everyone Faces

Of course, this season has a special challenge for all players. The challenge all of these players face is the same challenge we are all dealing with: The Coronavirus Pandemic.

Given that the global pandemic is still active, the future of the 2020-21 hockey season remains in doubt across the globe. Here is a quick summary of what is going on:

  • The National Hockey League is aiming for a January 1 start date, but who knows how the season will be structured or how long it is.
  • The American Hockey League announced way back in July that the earliest their season will start is December 4. I am not aware of any update or confirmation of this date being an actual start date.
  • The ECHL has plans of starting their season in December – but only for some teams with others, such as the Devils’ ECHL affiliate Adirondack Thunder – starting in January.
  • In Europe, some leagues have started their seasons as normal such as the Kontinental Hockey League, the Swedish Hockey League, the Finnish Liiga, the National League in Switzerland, and the Tipsport Liga in Slovakia. However, as the pandemic has caused active cases within those leagues, there have been postponed and forfeited games. For a recent example, Dinamo Riga of the KHL had a game cancelled due to 13 positive cases in their organization. Some events such as the Champions Hockey League already cancelled their 2020-21 campaign. And the German DEL planned to start in November, but that was pushed back already. We will see whether these leagues in Europe can complete their seasons.
  • In Canada, major junior hockey is not exactly on the same page. The QMJHL has started but there has been a postponement of two entire divisions worth of teams. Out West, the WHL will try a division-only schedule on January 8. In Ontario, the government wants a ban on body checking before allowing the OHL to resume. I interpret that as a “no” without saying “no.”
  • In American junior hockey, the USHL will have their season but with an unbalanced schedule to limit travel. Two USHL teams will not participate: the Grand Rapids RoughRiders, who have significant damage with their arena, and the Madison (WI) Capitols, due to the pandemic. The NAHL has started their season, at least.
  • College hockey is also a work in progress. The NCHC announced pods for their 2020-21 season that will start in December. The Big Ten is also a “go” for a November start date. Atlantic Hockey will start in November with two regions split up as a pod. However, just as we have seen in college football, the virus can come and infect people. For example, six hockey players on Yale’s team tested positive and now all sports at the school are off until October 21 at the earliest. Again, we shall see whether the leagues can pull off an entire season

This is all relevant as the Devils have prospects that will be playing in almost all of these mentioned leagues. They need to be able to play in order to develop as a player and demonstrate to their organization that they are worth signing. You have to have to actually be on the ice to prove that. That stated, their health comes first and I would rather them not play than risk getting infected. If that is the choice, then that is my preference. But it is not my call to make and unless the NHL makes a change with contracts and draft rights, those that are set to end in 2021 will still end then. Some of them are actively playing and others are not. All the same, here is the list of these players as per CapFriendly.

Defensemen & Goalies Under Contract

Josh Jacobs – RHD, Binghamton – Standard Two-Way Contract at $700,000

Jacobs is 24 and I think he is an AHL defenseman. Well, he is an AHL defenseman. What I mean is that I do not think he is going to break through to the NHL. He has had all of three appearances in New Jersey since being drafted in 2014 and those were all cups of coffee. It is not like Jacobs has been bad in Binghamton. Just the opposite. According to Jeff and his panel, they awarded Jacobs as the best defenseman on the team last season. They thought he did quite well up until the season was cut short. To me, a player who excels in the minors but does not get a chance to play for a bad NHL team is a sign that the organization does not think that highly of Jacobs. The Devils did sign him to this contract, so they do like him enough to keep the opportunity. I would think the expectation is that he will be a leading defender for Binghamton again. I also think he is at that age where he may want a NHL contract to play in the AHL; to at least have the option of a NHL opportunity. I can see the Devils obliging him on a season by season basis. The issue is that for a player in his position, he needs games to continually prove that and without any certainty about an AHL season, that is a problem. But of all of the players in this position, I can only think of one who is in a better spot than Jacobs such that the need to prove himself is not as high.

My guess: I think Jacobs gets another one-season, two-way deal in 2021.

Colby Sissons – LHD, Binghamton / Adirondack – Entry Level Contract at $696,111

After sliding twice, Sissons’ ELC will end after the 2020-21 season. There were hopes in his future given his awesomely productive last season with Swift Current in the WHL where he put up 13 goals and 71 points in 72 games along with 23 points in 21 playoff games. However, his pro career has yet to stick in the AHL. In his first season of pro hockey, he appeared in 38 games with Binghamton and nine games with Adirondack. In his second season of pro hockey, which was last season, he made just six appearances with Binghamton and 48 with Adirondack. The good news is that Sissons was quite productive with Adirondack with seven goals and thirty points. The bad news is that his sophomore season of pro hockey had him play more games in a lower league than the league he spent more time in a season prior. That does not bode well for his progress. 2020-21 will be a crucial season. Can he be good enough to stay on the AHL blueline? If he does, can he show the offense he demonstrated as a junior? Or an improved defensive game that will at least make him viable at the AHL level? Either way, I am not confident in Sissons getting a second NHL contract at the moment. Maybe an AHL contract, but I am not seeing much of a NHL future from him – albeit from my distanced standpoint.

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My guess: Unless Sissons breaks out at the minor pro level in Binghamton, he does not get a NHL contract.

David Quenneville – RHD, Binghamton – Entry Level Contract at $775,833

The diminutive Quenneville was a point producer in the WHL. So much so that he earned an ELC from the Isles back in April 2018. Since then, he has not fully stuck in the AHL like Sissons. He spent all of the 2018-19 season with Worcester in the ECHL. His time was split last season between the Isles’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport for 18 games (6 points) and Worcester for 14 games (2 points). When he was dealt to New Jersey as part of the Andy Greene deal, his time was kept to Binghamton for 7 games where he contributed one assist. While I understand the pandemic cut short his opportunity in the AHL, his pro career has not come anywhere close to what his gaudy point totals in the WHL would have suggested. This season would be a great time for him to show any kind of improvement to New Jersey. If he does not show improvement or there is no season, then I think he does not get qualified in 2021.

My guess: Quenneville may not get qualified and will become an unrestricted free agent.

Gilles Senn – G, Binghamton – Entry Level Contract at $817,500

Senn made his North American debut in 2019-20. More than that, he made his NHL debut too. Injuries required a call up to New Jersey and he was able to get into two games. Those are games he will not forget. The 27 he appeared in Binghamton were not too bad. While his 90.1% overall save percentage is not all that impressive on its own, it was superior to his fellow rookie in Evan Cormier. Jeff and his panel were impressed by Senn’s performances throughout the season and named him the team’s best rookie and the team’s most improved player in their season awards. Given that the Devils went out and signed Scott Wedgewood and acquired Zane McIntyre and Louis Domingue last season, I do not think they are comfortable with the 24-year old netminder being the definitive #3 goalie in the system. I do think they are comfortable enough to let him challenge for that role as Wedgewood’s signing is only for a season and he may not totally block his chance at more minutes. I think Senn has a good chance at getting another contract even if the AHL season does not happen. If only because of the lack of goalie depth at his current level.

My guess: Senn will get a second contract.

Evan Cormier – G, Binghamton / Adirondack – Entry Level Contract at $718,333

I am not as confident in Cormier’s future. He entered 2019-20 in Binghamton with a chance to be a tandem with Senn. Unlike Senn, Cormier did receive games at the AHL and ECHL level after he signed an ELC from the University of Guelph in December 2018. His 15 games with Binghamton in 2018-19 showed some promise as he posted a 90.2% save percentage in all situations. He had some idea of what to expect. This past season was rough on him. Cormier posted an overall save percentage of 88.3% in 11 games with Binghamton. He ended up in the ECHL for 15 games. ECHL appearances are not necessarily a bad sign for goalies. There are only so many spots available and it is better to play than not. However, Cormier posted an overall save percentage of 88.5% in those 15 games. That is not a good sign either. Cormier needs to do well in 2020-21 because the Devils’ depth may start getting ready for pro hockey. Schmid is 20 and could enter the AHL if and when he is signed. Nico Daws was drafted at 19 and turns 20 in December. He could jump right into AHL hockey if he signs an ELC after his birthday. And the Devils may want to do that if the OHL is delayed or has no season so he can at least play somewhere in their system. There is no guarantee that Cormier would be among the goalies in Binghamton next season. We do not know if there will be an AHL season, but there will be an ECHL season. If Cormier ends up with Adirondack again, then he needs to do well. He needs to perform well. Otherwise, I could see the Devils cutting him loose to make way for Schmid, Daws, and whomever else they sign as a goalie if they move on from Wedgewood in 2021. As of now, I am not confident of that happening.

My guess: Cormier will not get a second contract unless he plays great in the net wherever he is in 2020-21.

Forwards Under Contract

Janne Kuokkanen – C/LW, Binghamton – Entry Level Contract at $811,666

The Devils acquired Kuokkanen in the Sami Vatanen deal back in February. Kuokkanen was thought to be someone who could be ready for the NHL with Carolina but they did not have the room for him. Enter the Devils, who were willing to take him. Kuokkanen has proven to be an effective scorer at the AHL level. Last season, he put up 12 goals and 30 assists in 52 games with Charlotte and caught fire quickly with a hot Binghamton team with three goals and three assists in four games. Kuokkanen was called up, made one appearance, and then the pandemic shut down 2019-20. It remains to be seen whether he would have played more for New Jersey or continue to rack up points with Binghamton. All the same, I think the organization has a lot of hope for Kuokkanen. They did trade for him and they also loaned him out to Kärpät of the Finnish Liiga to ensure he keeps playing. So far, he has a goal, two assists, eight shots, and averaged 13:03 per game in five games as a left winger. It is a decent enough start. I doubt the Devils will let him go after just having him in the organization for such a short time. In fact, I think he could battle and get a forward spot in New Jersey if and when training camp begins. Therefore, I think he will get a second contract even if he does not make New Jersey in 2020-21.

My guess: Kuokkanen will be re-signed.

Yegor Sharangovich – C, Binghamton – Entry Level Contract at $775,833

Sharangovich was an overage draft pick such that he could have jumped right into the AHL in 2018-19. Which he did. This past season was his second pro season in North America and there were some gains. He was more productive with ten goals and 25 points in 57 games. However, Jeff and his Panel pointed out how his role was shifted a lot in Binghamton and that may have hindered his performances. They also pointed out that he did improve as the season went on as he played higher in the depth chart with Joey Anderson and Ben Street. They also think he could play a key role next season. I think the organization does have some faith in Sharangovich as they did loan him out instead of keeping him idle. Sharangovich is currently with Dinamo Minsk of the KHL and he is playing a large role there. He is tied for fifth among Minsk forwards with seven points (five goals and two assists) and he has taken 38 shots in 14 games, which is a decent shooting rate. What surprised me is that he is averaging 18:15 per game. That is a lot of minutes for a young player in the KHL. What is more is that he is playing center given that he has taken 169 faceoffs in 14 games. I hope the Devils are paying attention to what he is doing because he is receiving significant ice time in what is arguably Europe’s best league. That will help his cause for getting a second contract. Especially if the organization thinks it will translate to Binghamton and, maybe, New Jersey in the future.

My guess: Sharangovich will be re-signed.

Marian Studenic – RW, Binghamton – Entry Level Contract at $775,833

Studenic is a right winger on a team that saw a right winger traded away, so he moved up the depth chart by default at the position. That helps his cause in the short-term. What did not help his cause was last season. Specifically, the first half of last season. He was rated poorly by the Panel and he was not productive. However, he did improve in the 2020 portion of last season and put up fifteen points from January 17 to February 29. He finished last season with seventeen, so the points did come from him – as did a more favorable assessment in the third quarter of last season. Like Kuokkanen and Sharangovich, the Devils loaned out Studenic to keep him playing. He was sent to HC Slovan Bratislava of the Slovakian Tipsport Liga. So far, he has one goal and three assists in four games – which is a good start to his campaign. We shall see if it will continue. It would be a good thing for the right wing depth in the Devils’ system if Studenic can be productive abroad as we wait as to whether there is an AHL season. If there is and Studenic can be a top winger there, then that would be even better – and guarantee a second contract. I think he will get one regardless just based on the depth. But a good 2020-21 from him anywhere will help his odds of sticking around beyond this season.

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My guess: Studenic will be re-signed.

Brett Seney – LW/C, Binghamton – Standard Two-Way Contract at $700,000

Like Jacobs, the Devils re-signed Seney to this contract for one season. Like Jacobs, Seney was one of the best in his position for the B-Devils last season. He was highly rated throughout 2019-20 by Jeff and his Panel and they awarded him the Best Forward award. Seney led all Binghamton Devils in goals with 19 and points with 44. I do not think he has much of a future in New Jersey beyond being a call-up and/or a fourth-line energy player. It is telling that after getting into 51 games in 2018-19, he played in just two for a bad New Jersey team last season. He is 24, he is not going to get much better; but what that means is that Seney is a very good player in the AHL. He is the kind of player you need to have on your AHL roster to keep them competitive, which helps the development of younger players such that the squad do not get washed in so many games. Like Jacobs, I think the Devils will oblige keeping him on one-season, two-way deals for the near future. And also like Jacobs, even if 2020-21 ends up as a bust for the AHL, I think the Devils are confident enough him to give one to him anyway.

My guess: I think Seney gets another one-season, two-way deal in 2021.

Nathan Bastian – RW, Binghamton – Entry Level Contract at $714,166

Bastian has appeared in seven NHL games and was injured, which kept him from receiving more games in 2018-19. However, he did impress with how he looked among the run of play in those seven games. Bastian stayed in Binghamton all season and had himself a fine season. He improved his point totals in his third AHL season over his second one and reduced his penalty minutes by a bit. The Panel noted his consistency in the middle of Binghamton’s lineup and the praise was rather high as they also named him the team’s MVP for 2019-20. With Anderson sent to Toronto and barring any signings by Fitzgerald, there could be a spot at right wing up for grabs in 2020-21. I think Bastian has a great shot at it. If not now, then it could be soon. I do not think the Devils will give up on a big 22-year old winger who has shown signs of progression since turning professional. Not anytime soon at least.

My guess: Bastian gets another contract; definitely if he makes the NHL in 2020-21.

Michael McLeod – C, Binghamton – Entry Level Contract at $863,333

Whereas Bastian has inspired some hope, McLeod has not made much of an impact at the professional level. When in New Jersey, McLeod was used as a center and he has not done particularly well at it. He has 33 appearances total in New Jersey over the past two seasons and has little to show for it but few minutes per game and just three assists. For someone once thought to be a future top-six center, McLeod has not shown that potential at the NHL level. While he was more productive in Binghamton, the expectation was for him to be one of the team’s better players. That was not the case last season, as Jeff and the Panel rated the 2016 first round pick rather low. While points are not everything, it does not inspire a lot of confidence that he put up just 21 points in 49 games, finishing eighth on the team in scoring. And if Nick Merkley put up two more points, he would have tied him in far fewer games. I am getting a real John Quenneville vibe where I am left wondering, “When is it going to come together? Is he a NHLer or not?” He may get a second contract just because he is a former first-rounder and the Devils may not want to give up on him. But if McLeod does not break out at any level in 2020-21, then I think his time is running out.

My guess: McLeod will get a second contract but who knows after that.

Brandon Gignac – C, Binghamton – Entry Level Contract at $714,166

Gignac was seen as a shrewd pick in the third round of the 2016 NHL Draft. His pro career has been really up and down. His first season in the pros was cut short due to a significant injury. His second season, 2018-19, went pretty well with 36 points in 66 games with Binghamton and making his NHL debut with one game with New Jersey. His third season did not go so well. He put up 14 points in 36 games and was a healthy scratch at times. That is not a good sign and Jeff and the Panel picked up on it. Even his third quarter evaluation questioned his future in Binghamton. If his future on the AHL affiliate team is in question, then his future for the NHL is totally in doubt – assuming there is one at all. Gignac may be the one more hurt by the possibility of not having a 2020-21 season. Kuokkanen, Sharangovich, and Studenic are playing somewhere. Seney and Bastian have done well at the AHL level. McLeod, for all of his issues, did receive over 30 NHL games already. While the Devils do not have a lot of centers coming in immediately, they do have plenty in Binghamton who can play the position. After all, he was a healthy scratch at points last season. Gignac could be the odd man out if he does not get to play. And even if he does, he would still need to prove he can be a regular to warrant a second NHL contract.

My guess: Gignac does not get a second contract unless there is a season and he does well enough to be a regular contributor.

Players Without Contracts

When a player is drafted, the team gets their rights for a period of time. Depending on where they are drafted from, this can be two years (major junior), four to five years (college, most European based players), or indefinite (only for Russian-based players, apparently). The good news is that this means a team can let a player go back to a team they are signed with (e.g. Alexander Holtz, who is signed with Djurgårdens IF of the SHL) and play and then work out a entry level contract later. After all, a wise man once said, “If you have time, you use it.” However, these players on the Devils’ reserve list will need to be signed in 2021 for the Devils to keep them:

Graeme Clarke – RW, Ottawa (OHL) – Rights End: June 1, 2021

Poor Clarke. His 2019-20 season was cut short due to the pandemic and a significant shoulder injury. Apparently, he re-injured it during a goal celebration and it required surgery. Clarke played nine games, was then out for months, and then played seven more before CoVID-19 ended the OHL season for everyone. Those 16 games were promising. He was drafted to be a scoring winger and he did put up nine goals and eight assists in those 16 games. According to Pick224, he was on pace to put up serious offensive numbers with the ‘67s. In those 16 games, Clarke to 66 shots compared with 113 in 55 games in his draft season. He scored six even strength goals in 16 games compared with 15 total in 55 games in the prior season. His primary point per game rate was 0.6875, a big jump from the 0.5091 in his draft year. Clarke was tabbed to be on Ottawa’s first line with Marco Rossi, which could have been beneficial for both sides. Not that Rossi needed a lot of help given that he put up 120 points anyway. The point is that there is a talent in his game and it has not had a good chance to develop due to an injury and pandemic shortened season. With the OHL’s status currently unknown, Clarke has not had a chance to make a real comeback. Still, I think he is the kind of player worth taking a risk on given his shot and his offensive tendencies.

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My guess: Clarke will be signed to an ELC.

Matthew Hellickson – LHD, Norte Dame (Big Ten) – Rights End: August 15, 2021

Hellickson has grown to be a mainstay on the Fighting Irish blueline. In 2019-20, he was named as an honorable mention for the All-Big Ten team, was named to the Academic All-Big Ten team, and managed to lead the Fighting Irish in game winning goals with three. Hellickson scored five all season, so his goals were mostly timely. While 16 points is not a lot, he did finish second among Norte Dame defenders in points per USCHO. Also, he only took 16 PIM in his 37 games, which is pretty smart at least. The Devils’ second seventh round pick in the 2017 draft will be entering his senior season. I do not think he has done so amazingly well that he would command a lot of attention in free agency. With the number of Devils defensemen in the system, Hellickson could be a victim of the numbers game. Unless they clear some space in Binghamton – and they might – I could see him going without an ELC.

My guess: If they make room in Binghamton, he will get an ELC. If not, then no.

Nikita Popugaev – RW/LW, Adirondeck (ECHL) – Rights End: June 1, 2021

If nothing else, Nikita Popugaev has traveled a lot since being drafted in the fourth round by the Devils in 2017. He transferred to the WHL in 2015-16 to Moose Jaw. In his draft eligible season, he was dealt to Prince Albert and something went awry. He started 2017-18 with Moose Jaw and then transferred to CSKA Moscow’s system in the KHL splitting time between the main team, their minor league team in the VHL, and their junior team in the MHL. In 2018-19, he was moved to Amur Khabarovsk and remained their until February when he signed an AHL deal with Binghamton. He made 17 appearances in upstate New York to close out that season. Popugaev spent all of last season in Adirondack in the ECHL. Now he is back in Russia with Dynamo Moscow, again splitting his time between the KHL team and their VHL team. In all of these stops, he did not produce enough or play well enough to warrant further minutes or opportunities. I can see why teams would want to take a chance on a young 6’6”, 216 pound winger and hope they can be the ones to help him figure it out. If they succeed, then they have a big winger who can help them out. Assuming I did not miss something, I do not think any squad has been successful yet. To that end, I think the Devils may let him go free – unless he plays out of his mind in Russia in 2020-21. So far, I do not think that has happened.

My guess: Popugaev will not be signed.

Michael Vukojevic – LHD, Kitchener (OHL) – Rights End: June 1, 2021

I was not a huge fan of the pick back in 2019. However, I do recognize that Vukojevic shown some slight improvements in his 2019-20 campaign. He was given and kept an ‘A’ on his jersey with Kitchener. His production went up a bit from 29 points in 68 games to 30 in 63. His penalty count decreased a little bit from 65 in 68 games to 63 in 63. Per Pick224, his estimated ice time went up a bit from 21.28 to 21.36. These are modest gains but I will take that over any decline. According to Brock Otten of OHL Prospects, Vukojevic is similar to Okhotyuk in terms of style of play and role. My concern is that the Devils have Okhotyuk signed. That said, I can see the Devils handing him an ELC to see what he can do at the next level in the future and, as Otten wrote, hope they hit on at least one of Bahl, Okhotyuk, and Vukojevic. It will be a challenge for Vukojevic to show any further improvement if there is no OHL season, though. That is something Bahl and Okhotyuk may not need to contend with.

My guess: Vukojevic will likely be signed to an ELC.

One More Factor: Fitzgerald

Normally, a change in management would make some people’s futures in the organization more doubtful. If a new general manager came in that did not draft you, did not see you develop or play in the minors, and had to decide who to keep, then you would have the right to be worried. However, Tom Fitzgerald is not like most new general managers. He was an assistant under Ray Shero since 2015 and has worked closely with Binghamton. For the players who have played in Binghamton, this is both a good and bad thing.

It is a good thing if Fitzgerald has a favorable opinion of the player. If he liked what he saw from Binghamton and receives favorable reports, then that should help one’s chances of getting contract even if 2020-21 is undercut again by the Coronavirus. However, it is a different story if he has an unfavorable opinion of the player. If he did not like what he saw or what he heard about the player, then that player needs to put in some work to change his mind. Without playing at all or playing a lot, that makes it more difficult to get that next contract.

Your Take

As extensive as this post was, I hope you come away with an appreciation of the amount of decisions Fitzgerald will have to make next year. New Jersey can only have 50 non-sliding contracts on the books at any given time. What that means is that they should be used on players who will contribute either immediately or in the future. As the Devils have a lot of young players in their organization, not everyone will be able to get an entry level contract or a second contract. Likewise, the Devils have additional assets they can move in a trade. We saw an example of that when the Devils moved Anderson for Johnsson. We could see more minor moves but more moves in that vein in future years. The larger point is that deciding whether these younger players will get a contract does matter.

They may not be as big decisions as deciding whether to offer an extension to Palmieri, but they are decisions that Fitzgerald will have to make. Again, the 2020-21 season is likely to be non-ideal to some degree and some of these decisions will have to be made with incomplete data. Good luck to all involved.

Now I want to know what you think of all of this. Who among these players do you think has the most to prove? Who do you think is in a safe enough position to get another contract with New Jersey if they want to sign here? Do you think the players that are loaned out have a better chance than the others? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the players on this list in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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