You can’t win ‘em all.
After coming out with the top overall selection in two of the past three NHL Entry Drafts (sandwiched around its sole playoff appearance since 2012), the Devils weren’t charmed a third time when the lottery ping pong balls didn’t align their way on Friday night.
The “Placeholders” won the draw, necessitating a “Phase 2” (boy, the NHL loves phases) lottery for the eight teams that end up falling in the upcoming qualifying round to determine who will be rewarded with the ultimate prize. Assuming, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t force a cancellation of that round, too.
The Devils instead will select seventh, which isn’t a horrible place to be in this draft. Rankings are all over the map after the consensus top three of left wing Alexis Lafrenière, center Quinton Byfield, and German wing Tim Stuetzle. One of a host of highly-rated prospects should fall into interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald’s lap due to those diverging opinions.
New Jersey also owns two other conditional first-round picks. Arizona’s is top-three protected, which means the Devils will get it unless the Coyotes lose their qualifying round series to Nashville and then cash in on their 12.5% odds for winning the Phase 2 lottery. Vancouver’s pick is simply lottery-protected — the Canucks have to beat Minnesota in the qualifying round for the pick to transfer to the Devils. In both cases, the Devils would receive unprotected 2021 first-round picks if the conditions for this Draft aren’t met.
Fitzgerald told the media that he wouldn’t be averse to trading picks should he hold all three, since the Devils have plenty of needs following their miserable 28-41-12 2019-20 campaign. With the organization’s prospect pool now stocked with players with modest upsides, what it really needs now is high-end talent. If they’re not moving up, which will likely prove to be too costly, they should keep the seventh pick.
Under the regime of prior GM Ray Shero, I believe the Devils would be focusing on some of the highly-skilled but undersized forwards in this group like Ottawa 67’s center Marco Rossi at seven. Hopefully, Fitzgerald will take a page from Devils icon Lou Lamoriello’s book and not his mentor Shero.
Those Devils were built from the back, with defensemen Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko and the GOAT Martin Brodeur in net providing the core that forged the Devils to three Stanley Cups.
With that in mind, it’s well past high time for the Devils to prioritize their defense— correcting their deficiencies in protecting their own zone, not just moving the puck when they get it. Shero really let this unit go during his tenure. As a result, New Jersey has gone four consecutive seasons without finishing in the league’s top half in goals against.
Some of that could be attributed to poor goaltending, but let’s not minimize all the issues this club has had in its own end in recent seasons. Shero seemed to prefer defensemen like Will Butcher, whom he brought in as a college free agent three years ago, and 2018 17th overall pick Ty Smith, both of whom lack the size to compete in the hard areas in the corners and in front of the Devils’ goal. You really can’t be “hard to play against” when you’re physically overmatched.
Therefore, the one player who I hope drops on the board on draft day, whenever the NHL decides to hold it, is defenseman Jake Sanderson.
A member of a less-accomplished U.S. National Development Team than the previous year’s contingent that included the Devils’ 2019 No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes, Sanderson has been rising on scouts’ charts due to a significant uptick in performance in the season’s second half. NHL’s Central Scouting has him ranked as the fourth-best North American skater among 2020 Draft prospects.
At 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, Sanderson has all the defensive tools. The son of 17-year NHLer Geoff Sanderson, Jake has also received high grades for his hockey sense. All the little details that have plagued this team—positioning, tying up sticks, the ability to quickly process and end opposing plays—that’s Sanderson’s forte.
He's not going to be Bobby Orr, flying down the ice to lead counterattacks and then finishing them off with highlight-reel moves. However, Sanderson’s skating is rated as well above average and he has experience quarterbacking a power play, with his passing deemed to be superior to his shot.
The Devils could use this in spades. Sanderson projects to be a minutes-eater, a guy to play against top lines. A left-handed shot, he could develop into a version 2.0 of recently-departed captain Andy Greene—bigger and better skating.
My sole reason to hesitate on this pick is that Sanderson will be attending North Dakota this season. Until the NHL changes the asinine rule that allows U.S. college players to become free agents if they aren’t signed after their senior seasons, I believe the Devils should be wary of the risk.
Still, if he’s available, I’d rather the Devils secure the second-best defenseman in this draft after Erie’s Jamie Drysdale before they attempt to plug other holes.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.