The NHL Draft Lottery is now a thing of the past. The New Jersey Devils will have the fourth overall selection come the first round of the draft on July 23, the exact slot they held before the lottery drawing. It’s the fourth time in the last five drafts they’ll select in the top 10 and the second time in three years where they’ll be in the top five.
The top-end talent of the 2021 Draft lacks the same kind of blue-chip prospect that 2020 did with Alexis Lafreniere and even Quinton Byfield. Owen Power seems to be the consensus no. 1 pick, but what unfolds after him is a total question mark, assuming the Buffalo Sabres use the first pick on him.
Still, even with Power likely off the board by the time the Devils make their selection, there should be plenty of talent available. First up, we’ll look at defenseman Brandt Clarke, the younger brother of Devils prospect Graeme Clarke. While it’s not a lock that the Devils will select a defenseman, it’s a pretty good bet they will. And Brandt offers an interesting skill set that should very much appeal to them.
Clarke’s Intriguing Makeup
The first thing that stands out about Clarke is his offensive toolkit. His passing is high-end, and he shows an ability to stretch the ice. You’ll notice his passing ability when he’s on the power play, which he showed in his time on loan with HC Nove Zamky in Slovakia’s first division this season. Here’s what The Hockey Writers Mathieu Sheridan had to say about Clarke in a recent article and his potential as a power play threat:
“In the future, I can see Clarke being able to run a power play from the backend. He is so good at walking the line and finding an open lane to get a shot off. He is so calm with the puck on his stick and he will only continue to get better as time goes on.”
Clarke is active in the offensive zone and will jump in on the rush or forecheck. He’s a sneaky good stickhandler and uses his puck skills to create time, space and scoring chances for his teammates in the offensive zone. He has an underrated shot that manages to find its way through traffic more often than not. Given his arsenal, there’s no doubt he could become the Devils’ most skilled blueliner if he’s their choice.
Of course, you’re probably wondering how Clarke stacks up defensively. He does need some work in that regard, but he did hold his own playing in a pro league in Slovakia. What helps him is his ability to cleanly exit the defensive zone with puck possession or make an effective breakout pass to start the rush. That’s been a problem for the Devils for quite some time, so adding a puck-moving defenseman with the mobility Clarke has checks one need off their list.
Where Clarke Fits With the Devils
Clarke is a right-handed shot, which is a glaring weakness for the Devils’ prospect pool. Reilly Walsh looks like he has NHL potential, but he doesn’t have the upside Clarke does. After Walsh, it’s pretty slim pickings as far as high-upside right-handed defensemen go in the Devils’ system. So adding Clarke would be a significant boost in that regard.
When it comes to roster construction, of course, Walsh is one part of the puzzle. Kevin Bahl, who the Devils acquired when they traded Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes in Dec. 2019, figures to be part of their future. And Ty Smith looks like a building block after having a pretty decent rookie season in 2020-21. Aside from those three, the Devils have some defensemen who could be complementary pieces, but no one with top-four potential.
Drafting Clarke with the fourth pick changes that instantly and would make him the Devils’ best defensive prospect. One of the advantages of selecting as high as fourth overall is that you can take care of need while drafting the best player available. Unless Luke Hughes, the younger brother of Devils center Jack Hughes, is available, Clarke would likely be the best player available at fourth overall, and he covers a need.
If Clarke hits his potential, he could be a top-pair defenseman who plays alongside Smith for many years to come. He’s not NHL ready (there isn’t that type of prospect in the 2021 Draft), but it’s about long-term potential. Aside from Hughes, Clarke may have the most upside from the defensemen projected to be top 10 picks.
I think there’s a fair argument to be had that Clarke (and Hughes) could end up being better than Power down the road. Clarke’s offensive upside is more intriguing than Power’s, and I think he has enough defensive potential where his offensive toolkit gives him better long-term projectability than Power. If anything, Clarke compares more favorably to Hughes, whose offensive upside and overall potential may be the best of the defensemen in this class. So if Clarke ends up being the Devils’ choice at fourth overall, they should be in pretty good hands. A blue line built around him and Ty Smith sounds rather enticing, doesn’t it?
“Sees the game two steps ahead. Is terrific on the power play, but takes calculated risks to be part of the offence at even strength too.” – Sam Cosentino, Sportsnet
“Clarke is a mobile, puck-moving right-handed shot who is considered an excellent passer and playmaker with great vision.” – Mike Morreale, NHL.com