New Jersey Devils forward prospects Nikita Popugaev and Ludvig Larsson will be playing outside of the organization next season. Each has signed a contract in Europe and are unlikely to have a role with the Devils in 2020-21. The immediate impact of their departures will be minimal, as the duo were known more by name than for their accomplishments in the minors this year.
Popugaev, 21, was a fourth-round pick of the Devils in 2017. However, he was considered a potential first-round pick early in the draft process due to his 6’6” stature and physical and technical gifts. His stock dropped once questions of his hockey IQ and work ethic began to overshadow is ability. Unfortunately, those questions have materialized into real problems for Popugaev early in his pro career. Following his junior career in the WHL, Popugaev returned home to Russia but failed to produce in the KHL. He finished the 2018-19 season with the AHL’s Binghamton Devils and his five points in 17 games were not enough to convince New Jersey that he was worthy of an entry-level contract. Instead, they signed him to an AHL contract, an unusual move for a drafted player. Rather than take this as a sign that he needed to work harder and improve, Popugaev instead spent this entire season in the ECHL and still only produced moderate numbers. With concerns from both team and player on what is in store for his future with the Devils, Popugaev has opted to return to the KHL, as his agent announced that he has signed a try-out deal with Dynamo Moscow. Popugaev is expected to either land an actual contract with Moscow or another KHL club once his try-out has been completed. This does not rule out the potential for a continued relationship between Popugaev and the Devils, but the team has until June 1, 2021 to sign him to an entry-level deal or else surrender his rights.
As for Larsson, his time with New Jersey and quite possibly North America is over. A former college standout who recorded back-to-back 20-point seasons with Merrimack College and Penn State University in his final two years in the NCAA, Larsson looked like he had the chops for the pro game. A versatile player who played forward and defense in college and was an excellent skater, Larsson certainly needed some seasoning in the minors but an NHL future was not impossible. However, perception was not reality for the 24-year-old. Larsson recorded two points in seven games for AHL Binghamton to close out the 2018-19 season on an amateur tryout, but after signing a one-year minor league deal he contributed only two more points this season in 19 games with Binghamton and spent just as much time in the ECHL as the AHL. Larsson has decided to return home to Sweden, as Allsvenskan club Mora IK per a team announcement. Barring an incredible turnaround in which Larsson’s play in the Allsvenskan lands him a contract in the SHL or another elite European league after next season and he continues to produce at a high level there as well, his time in North America is likely over.