While the season hasn’t gone as expected thus far, the New Jersey Devils have tons of talent on their roster and certainly have more on the way.
Regardless of their in-season results, Devils fans will have the luxury of kicking back and watching one of the best tournaments hockey has to offer, starting Dec. 26: the World Junior Championship (WJC).
Recently, the tournament has been flooded with past and present Devils’ players; it’s essentially been a rite of passage for them, as many got to showcase their talent on this big of a stage for the first time.
Current Devils’ Pasts at the WJC
On the current roster, over 70 percent (17/24) played at the WJC before becoming NHL mainstays:
Simon Nemec, Jonas Siegenthaler and Alexander Holtz are the only Devils to have played in the tournament in three separate years.
Akira Schmid, Nico Hischier, Luke Hughes, Vitek Vanecek, Michael McLeod, Dawson Mercer, and Curtis Lazar appeared twice.
Erik Haula, Ondrej Palat, Jack Hughes, Timo Meier, Tomas Nosek, Dougie Hamilton and Kevin Bahl appeared once.
Of that group, only four won a gold medal, and to nobody’s surprise, they’re all Canadian: Lazar, McLeod, Bahl and Mercer. Lazar was the captain of that winning squad in 2015.
Devils’ superstar J. Hughes was a silver medal winner at the 2019 tournament, where he dealt with an injury and only played four games. He did not record a goal but still notched four assists in those contests.
He was emotional after Finland stunned the United States in the gold medal game with a go-ahead goal with less than 90 seconds to go:
This tournament is the perfect microcosm of hockey as a whole: It encompasses players’ wildest dreams and pure elation mixed with the deepest trenches of heartbreak and despair.
Nico Hischier has often cited his WJC performance in 2017 as one of the reasons he went first overall to the Devils. He had seven points in five games on a lackluster Switzerland team, including two goals against a star-studded Team USA.
While there won’t be that many Devils in this year’s tournament, the two prospects slated to go to the WJC are must-watch television, and are slated to have very impactful futures with the Devils.
Seamus Casey, Defense (USA)
When Nemec was recalled to the Devils in place of an injured Dougie Hamilton, that was a devastating blow for Team Slovakia’s WJC hopes. Nemec was set to be their captain for a second straight season after leading them through a very successful 2022 campaign, which was only derailed by some Connor Bedard overtime magic in a crushing overtime loss to Team Canada.
With Nemec out of the picture, that will open up eyes for Devils fans to focus on one of the most exciting players in college hockey: Seamus Casey.
Casey was selected by the Devils in the second round, 46th overall in the 2022 NHL Draft. He was named to Team USA’s preliminary roster on Dec. 4, which is no surprise at all. The 19-year-old playing at the University of Michigan currently leads all NCAA defensemen in points with 23, in just 18 games. That also happens to lead all skaters on the Michigan Wolverines, which is a tough feat for a defenseman on such a talented roster.
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Casey made the Team USA roster for the 2023 tournament but did not play in a single game. He was overshadowed by many, including his future Devils’ teammate, L. Hughes.
This go-around, Casey is set for a large role on an absolutely loaded US roster. Not only have his offensive numbers at Michigan been on par with the younger Hughes, but he’s not afraid to use his body despite his relatively small stature (5-foot-9).
Between Casey and Montreal Canadiens’ Lane Hutson, who has been equally as impressive for Boston University, offense from the back end shouldn’t be an issue for Team USA.
Daily Faceoff projected Casey to be on the US squad’s second pairing, as splitting Hutson and Casey up allows for the offensive firepower to be spread deeper throughout the lineup. It would not be surprising to see Casey quarterbacking one of their powerplay units as well.
After neither Hughes brother was able to accomplish their gold medal dreams, it would be pretty awesome to see Casey step up as a leader on this American squad and lead them towards gold. And for Devils fans, it’s a great chance to tune in and get a glimpse at a potential future mainstay of the blue line.
Lenni Hameenaho, Forward (Finland)
When the Devils selected Lenni Hameenaho with the 58th overall selection in the 2023 Draft, it was met with a lot of criticism. He was considered very slow and a big project to work on.
However, as he showed at the Devils’ Development Camp in July, he knows how to do what’s important, and that’s score goals.
Since being drafted, Hameenaho has played like he’s taken all of that criticism personally. It’s not surprising; it’s unfair to doubt general manager Tom Fitzgerald & Co. after the Devils have continued to churn out gems past the first round. Devils chief scout Mark Dennehy referred to Hameenaho as someone who they thought should be taken in the first round.
Hameenaho will be returning for his second and final WJC, where he had an okay tournament last year. He picked up two points (one goal, one assist) in five games while sticking to a minimal role.
He turned heads at the World Junior Summer Showcase (WJSS) this summer, where Team Finland’s brass realized they’d be sorely mistaken if they didn’t elevate him into being a focal point of the squad.
Nobody on Finland’s roster had more than two points at the WJSS…except Hameenaho. He had seven (two goals, five assists) in only four games.
While some questioned if it was just a lucky streak or a legitimate breakout, he followed that by putting up some impressive numbers against men for Porin Assat in the Finnish Liiga, the highest level of pro hockey in Finland.
In just 23 games, he’s surpassed last season’s goal total (nine) with 11. He leads his squad in that category and is tied for fifth in the league, with five fewer games played than the players ahead of him.
He’s excelled defensively as well, as he sports a team-leading plus-9 rating. His superb hockey IQ, solid defense and wicked shot have been propelling him to be one of the best U20 overseas players in the world currently. He looks noticeably faster since he was drafted in July, as well.
The Devils are now seeing with Alexander Holtz that the intangibles are more important to start than the things you can work on. When I wrote about Hameenaho as a breakout candidate over the summer, it was for that exact reason. The shot and hockey IQ were there; the feet just had to follow. And now they are, which makes Hameenaho a scary force for Team Finland and likely for the Devils in the future.
On paper, Finland pales in comparison to the American and Canadian rosters. However, that’ll open the opportunity for Hameenaho to make a big name for himself, as so many players do at the WJC.
Three Weeks Away
There are only three weeks until the WJC gets kicked off, and non-stop hockey will give fans a glimpse at some of the most intriguing prospects throughout the league.
There’s always the potential for a lesser-touted Devils’ prospect to make their way onto the squad – maybe forward Josh Filmon (Canada) or defenseman Charlie Leddy (USA).
Filmon has mentioned making the WJC as a goal of his but has struggled to start the season in the Western Hockey League. Leddy was invited to the WJSS with Team USA but did not really stand out amongst the other star-studded blueliners and did not make their preliminary roster.
There’s also the possibility of Nemec struggling mightily and getting sent back to Utica in the American Hockey League, who can then grant him permission to join the WJC as they did last season. But judging by his great showing in his first NHL game vs. the San Jose Sharks, that’s doubtful.
Casey and Hameenaho are both having stellar seasons and can really put themselves on the map with a great WJC in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Virtually all games will be televised on NHL Network in the US or TSN in Canada. If Finland or the US is playing, keep your eyes glued as a Devils fan. You’re watching the future.