New Jersey Devils Topias Vilen Has Shutdown Defenseman Upside

NEWARK, NJ - JULY 14: Topias Vilen #38 of the New Jersey Devils during 2023 Development Camp on July 14, 2023 at the RWJBarnabas Health Hockey House in the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - JULY 14: Topias Vilen #38 of the New Jersey Devils during 2023 Development Camp on July 14, 2023 at the RWJBarnabas Health Hockey House in the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Getty Images) /

The New Jersey Devils are loaded with talented defensemen. Prospect Topias Vilen has stepped up his game on his journey to the NHL. John Marino had a fantastic season with the Devils in 2022-23. What do Vilen and Marino have in common? Plenty. One is a shutdown defenseman, and the other strives to be one in due time.

Sometimes, NHL teams find a hidden gem in the later rounds of the NHL Draft. In the fifth round of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, the Devils drafted Vilen 129th overall. The following year, he signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Devils. Vilen is steadily revealing himself as one of those hidden gems.

In a 2021 NHL Draft Profile, Colby Guy noted that Vilen “is able to see a play before it happens and get into the right position to stop it.” That should remind you of another Devils defenseman. It’s exactly what Marino does.

Vilen was loaned to the Lahti Pelicans in Finland for the 2022-23 season. He looks to transition to North America, where he will likely begin the 2023-24 season with the Utica Comets in the AHL. The 20-year-old hopes to crack the NHL roster, but the number of talented defensemen in the Devils organization will likely keep him from doing so for now.

If Vilen shines, it wouldn’t be the first time a late-round draft pick turned into an NHL star. The Devils have multiple impactful players on their roster right now that were selected in a late round of the draft, either by the Devils or by another NHL team. Jesper Bratt was a sixth-round draft pick by the Devils in 2016. Erik Haula was a seventh-round draft pick by the Minnesota Wild in 2009. Then there’s John Marino, a sixth-round pick by the Edmonton Oilers in 2015.

Marino was never signed by the Oilers. Instead, they traded his rights to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2019 for a sixth-round draft pick after he finished playing for Harvard University. Marino signed with the Penguins and played in Pittsburgh for three seasons before being traded to the Devils in 2022. He has four seasons remaining on a six-year contract before becoming a UFA.

Devils fans were in for a treat when the team snatched Marino from the Penguins. He’s very mobile and limits his opponents’ chances. Marino was critical to the Devils’ penalty kill last season. Now entering his prime, the 26-year-old is expected to continue excelling in a top-four defenseman role with the Devils.

The young prospect Vilen was impressive last season and during the Devils’ Development Camp this summer. At the camp, Vilen told the media that his goal is to be the steal of the 2021 draft. The Devils saw something in him after he was passed over in the first four rounds of the draft, and his progress over the past few years shows there’s more to come.

The 6’1’’ defenseman has enough size and physicality to fend off the opposition. He’ll continue to get stronger as he gets older and gains more experience. He has speed, which is an area Vilen has worked on. “Gaps up, move the puck forward faster,” Vilen told during development camp. Although he still has plenty of time to develop his game, he’s already making significant strides toward becoming an NHL defenseman.

Vilen has lived up to the defensive expectations. Prior to last season, though, there were worries that his deficiencies in the offensive zone would keep him from becoming a steady NHL defenseman. He was thought of as someone who would become a bottom-pairing or bubble AHL/NHL guy.

Last season, Vilen improved his offense enough to become more of a two-way player. In the 2021-22 season with Liiga, Vilen scored zero goals and contributed six assists. In the 2022-23 season, he scored nine goals and had eight assists, contributing nearly three times as many points. If Vilen can contribute this type of offense in the AHL in 2023-24, he’ll have more value than before, hoping that this improvement can translate to the NHL stage.

As Vilen hopes to prove he’s a steal of his draft year, Marino is no stranger to being referred to as a steal. The Penguins should still be kicking themselves for letting Marino go in exchange for Ty Smith and a draft pick. The Devils know what they have with Marino, and they best be sure to hold onto him.

While Marino shoots right-handed and Vilen shoots left-handed, a lot in Vilen’s game mirrors Marino’s. Both of them have an important presence in the defensive zone. The most straightforward comparison is the high defensive IQ both players have. They each have an awareness of the defensive zone along with the skills to intervene.

Although both Marino and Vilen are considered defense-first, each of them works hard to play a two-way game. While Marino doesn’t score many goals, he gets the puck up the ice and also contributes assists here and there.

Marino is a workhorse who grinds through some of the toughest minutes and takes care of business. Vilen is establishing himself as the same type of player. If Vilen continues his trajectory and growth, he has a shot to become a top-four defenseman like Marino.

Vilen has a lot of potential to make an impact in the NHL, but will that be with the Devils or with another club? The Devils have a full slate of defensemen. Jonas Siegenthaler, Dougie Hamilton, Luke Hughes, John Marino, Kevin Bahl, Brendan Smith, and Colin Miller are expected to make up the roster’s defensemen. The Devils also have prospects Simon Nemec, Seamus Casey, and Daniil Misyul. Siegenthaler, Hughes, Bahl, Smith, and Misyul are left-handed shooters like Vilen, while the others are right-handed.

Former Devils prospects Shakir Mukhamadullin and Nikita Okhotyuk being traded last season helped Vilen’s case. That’s two fewer left-handed defensemen in the organization. However, Vilen could still find it difficult to earn an everyday place in the lineup unless trades shake up the roster.

The Devils could consider trading Vilen in the near future. He has significant value, and being moved to another team might give him more of an opportunity to play NHL minutes. On the other hand, it’s not a bad idea to keep the prospect pool stocked with talent, and the Devils don’t have as many left-handed defensemen in the pipeline as they used to.

Next. Will Seamus Casey Face a Logjam?. dark

In the event of an injury of a left-handed blueliner, Vilen could see some NHL time. The Devils wouldn’t be eager to ship him out unless it was for the right return. Those rumors of trading for a goalie have certainly been circulating this summer.

Vilen can keep developing in Utica for now, but there will come a time when he’s banging down the door to the NHL. If he’s still with the organization when that happens, the Devils will either need to make room for him or send him elsewhere.

Pucks And Pitchforks
Pucks And Pitchforks /

Want your voice heard? Join the Pucks And Pitchforks team!

Write for us!

Vilen can flourish in the NHL one day just like Marino is now. That day might not be today, but it’s coming. When it arrives, Vilen will be ready to show everyone what a steal he is.