New Jersey Devils starting to reap benefits of loaded minor-league system

By John Iadevaia

Keith Kinkaid - New Jersey Devils

Photo: Keith Kinkaid has been one of the top goaltenders in the AHL this season. In 16 starts, Kinkaid has an 11-4-1 record, three shutouts, and a 2.09 goals against average. (courtesy of Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

While the New Jersey Devils are having a roller coaster season, their minor league affiliate, the Albany Devils, are the surprise team of the AHL. Part of the reason is the play from their rookie class, featuring some of the franchises top prospects, including Jon Merrill, Reid Boucher, and Stefan Matteau.

While Albany still relies on their defense, their balanced team-scoring has given them a boost. The meager special teams have now become an asset as well. Even with all of the recent departures and injuries, the Devils farm team has shown adversity and found ways to win to remain one of the more competitive teams in the Eastern Conference.

AHL

Reid Boucher, LW, 20

Lost in the excitement over Boucher's move to the pros, there was some hesitation over whether or not his offensive style could transition from the OHL. Fast forward to December, and he has shown he is a danger to create scoring chances when he is on the ice.

There was an adjustment period in October, but by November, he became one of the team's go-to scorers. He has shown no fear of battling against bigger opponents for the puck and has found room to shoot. When he was recalled to New Jersey, he led the team with 10 goals, and was second in scoring with 18 points, along with 69 shots and a plus-four rating.

In his first NHL nine games, Boucher has a goal and two assists. He has been solid in New Jersey, but he might be returned to Albany when big club gets healthy. Nevertheless, Boucher is gaining invaluable experience in his first pro season.

Harri Pesonen, LW, 25

Pesonen was a dependable scorer in his first pro season in North America. But his second stint in Albany has not gone as planned. Instead of being a top scorer, he has found himself in a depth scoring role.

Bad luck has factored into his struggles. With 58 shots on goal this season, he has only four goals, and did not score his first until November 30th. Since Albany is receiving production from everyone, Pesonen is simply a piece of the puzzle right now. Once the roster is restocked, he might start to produce at a higher level.

Mike Hoeffel, LW, 24

Hoeffel has played more impactful hockey this season. Alongside Chris McKelvie and Rod Pelley, the Minnesota native is creating scoring chances by out-working the opposition in the dirty areas. This has given Albany the ability to roll all four lines constantly throughout a game. Through 23 games, he has scored four goals and four assists for eight points.

Riley Boychuk, LW, 22

Boychuk, acquired over the summer from Buffalo in the Henrik Tallinder trade, has played in limited action this season. He was originally assigned to Elmira where he only dressed for two games. Since being called up to Albany, he has played in 12 games and managed two points while playing mostly fourth-line minutes.

Stefan Matteau, C, 19

It has been an interesting year for the Devils first-round pick from the 2012 NHL Draft. October saw Matteau struggle to register significant playing time due to his overly aggressive style getting him into bad situations. Slowly throughout the season however, his penalty minutes have dwindled and he has started to create offense.

Part of Matteau's turnaround has come by taking advantage of his promotion to the top six due to injuries and call-ups. When Boucher was called up, he joined Joe Whitney along with Elmira call-up Artem Demkov. The trio has found chemistry, bringing size, speed, and skill when they step on the ice. On the season, Matteau has six goals, seven assists, and 33 penalty minutes through 25 games.

Matteau was named to Team USA's preliminary roster for the 2014 World Junior Championship in Sweden.

David Wohlberg, C, 23

Wohlberg is in his second year with Albany and has played in 22 of 27 games. He has mainly been used in a checking role on the fourth line. The role suits him given his speed and gritty style of play, and will be the type of role he is expected to play if he graduates to the NHL.

It is also a good sign that the 23-year old forward has earned the trust of head coach Rick Kowalsky to be used as a close-to-everyday player. Last season, he had a hard time being inserted on a mostly veteran lineup. Still, his offensive numbers are a bit discouraging, on the season he has two goals and a minus-one rating.

Scott Timmins, C, 24

On a team with a wide cast of newcomers, most fans did not have Timmins pegged as the most impactful over the likes of Matteau and Boucher. Almost immediately he became one of the team's best offensive options and currently has 14 points through 13 games.

After being acquired prior to the regular season from Florida, he scored in the first nine games of the season-the second longest in Albany history- with five goals and seven assists. Unfortunately, two games later, he suffered a lower-body injury against Wilkes-Barre Scranton on November 8th. He returned to the lineup on December 21st.

Mike Sislo, RW, 25

Sislo was plagued with inconsistencies to start the 2013-14 season and bounced around the lineup as a result. Eventually, he had his breakout game on November 8th by netting a hat trick. Since then, the Wisconsin native has been an active member of the top six forward group.

An area he has made a difference is special teams. Sislo provides a nice finishing touch down low on the man advantage, while his defensive awareness can help kill the clock or spring a scoring chance during man down situations. Through 23 games, he has eight goals and 17 points.

Eric Gelinas, D, 22

When Gelinas was called up to the NHL, New Jersey's quality of play turned around. The Quebec native helped generate cleaner breakouts and speed on a slow moving team. His booming shot instantly upgraded the team's powerplay and spread out the defense. He also helped the struggling Adam Larsson find his comfort zone and play at a level not seen since his rookie year.

As the season has progressed, Gelinas has seen his minutes steadily increased. Through 28 NHL games he has four goals, 11 assists, and a minus-three rating.

Jon Merrill, D, 21

Injuries plaguing the New Jersey blue line forced management to recall Merrill for a game against Minnesota on November 3rd. He played only three shifts before tumbling into the boards and suffering facial lacerations and a concussion. He would be sent back down to Albany before being recalled again, this time for the injured Adam Larsson. Through 15 NHL games, Merrill has an assist and a minus-four rating while playing averaging about 18 minutes a night.

Merrill has looked more comfortable in his second NHL stint. He has shown good puck-management at times, but has also been caught out of position on a few occasions. Do not be surprised if he is returned to the AHL to further develop.

Reece Scarlett, D, 20

Scarlett did not play in the opening days of the season. Since he has been inserted, it is hard to keep him out. With Gelinas and Merrill up in the NHL, he has stepped up as the main puck-moving defenseman and quarterback on the man-advantage.

His quick skating and ability to get pucks through traffic to the net have benefited Albany's forwards in maintaining the attack. This has been crucial to the powerplay's success this season. Through 22 games, he has four powerplay goals, six assists, 40 shots on goal, and a team leading plus-10.

Brandon Burlon, D, 23

Coming into this season, some of the Albany veterans were expected to compete with the new blood for playing time. Burlon seems to be in a constant battle as he has bounced up and down on the depth chart.

He is a jack-of-all-trades defenseman who does not excel in any one facet of the game, but can do many things fairly well. Through 26 games, the Ontario native has two goals, four assists and a minus-three rating. On good nights, he wins puck battles and applies pressure from up top on offense. Yet the shuffling of partners, minutes, and responsibilities has given him fits. He is not struggling by any means, but he is not as consistent as he was last season.

Seth Helgeson, D, 23

While many of his teammates have been recognized for their offensive work, Helgeson has been one of the more underrated players on the team. Other than Dan Kelly, the hulking stay at home defenseman has played in every game this season for Albany.

Helgeson has quickly adapted to the faster play and more physical style of the pros thanks to his maturation in the NCAA. Now unleashed from college, he can throw the body around freely.

Offensively, he has chipped in with five assists and is a plus-three. He has been paired with many of the Albany defensemen throughout the season, but his consistency has remained the same. He is arguably the most responsible defenseman on the team and sees a lot of time on the penalty kill and late in the game.

Raman Hrabarenka, D, 21

Hrabarenka was assigned to the ECHL to start the 2013-14 season. In five games, he had two assists, eight shots on goal, and was a plus-three. Eventually, he was recalled to the AHL to reinforce a shortened blue line.

In 16 AHL games played, he has notched three goals, 10 assists, and a minus-three rating. Like Helgeson, he can rub out opponents along the boards and use his size to deter opponents.

Harry Young, D, 24

Young started the year in the ECHL with the Elmira Jackals and played in six games before he was recalled to Albany. Thus far he has appeared in only six games at the AHL level. While he is considered a depth defenseman, Young is usually active in both ends whenever he is in the line-up.

Keith Kinkaid, G, 24

The former Union College standout has emerged as one of the best goaltenders in the AHL this season. Kinkaid has been the backbone for Albany's turnaround, backstopping them in 11 of their 17 wins thus far. On the year, he is 11-4-1 with a 2.09 goals against average along with a .919 save percentage, and an AHL leading three shutouts.

Early on, the Long Island native split the opening games with Scott Wedgewood, going 2-1-1 before he was recalled to New Jersey to fill in for the injured Cory Schneider. Since his return, he has played exceptional. He was named the AHL's Player of the week from November 11th-16th, a stretch where went 3-0-0, allowing just three goals on 82 shots for a 0.97 goals-against average and .963 save percentage.

Kinkaid's confidence has been his greatest strength this season. Whether his work load has been light or he is under siege, he gives the team a chance to win and the assurance it has needed to maintain its early run.

Scott Wedgewood, G, 21

Wedgewood started off the season with Albany on a good note. He split the first few games with Kinkaid, posting a 3-0-0 record with a 1.62 goals against average and a .935 save percentage. When Kinkaid was recalled to the big club on October 26th, it was a chance for Wedgewood to solidify his spot as Albany's starter. Instead, he struggled, conceding 14 goals over his next four starts in which Albany lost. He only played in four November games as Kinkaid has taken over the majority of starts.

Unlike last year, where Wedgewood played with the Trenton Titans of the ECHL, he has not looked as composed in net. His posture and aggressiveness are fine, but it seems he has struggled with shots from the point and in traffic. He has also had difficulty tracking the puck and will go down on the ice too early.

To this date, Wedgewood's totals stand at 6-4-0-0 with a 2.94 goals against average and .876 save percentage. These numbers are not good by any stretch, but there is still more than half a season to go for him to figure out his issues.

ECHL

Maxime Clermont, G, 21

It has not been a good season for Clermont thus far. He lost his role as the starter on Elmira to Scott Greenham. Even with a lesser workload, Clermont is showing the same struggles he has faced before. He just cannot seem to put everything together.

When Kinkaid was called up to New Jersey, Clermont was recalled to backup Wedgewood in Albany. He played two games in the AHL, one start and one relief for Wedgewood. In his lone start against Adirondack, he surrendered three goals and made 27 saves in the loss. It is interesting to note that in the limited stints he has come to Albany during his career, he has looked alright.

Through 11 starts in the ECHL, Clermont has a 4-6-1 record, .895 save percentage, and 3.30 goals against average.

Other Notes

On the weekend of December 8th, Miami (Ohio) forward Blake Coleman suffered an upper-body injury which required immediate surgery. He is expected to miss substantial time. It is a big blow to Miami, as Coleman had multi-point weekends throughout November and contributed with his physical play on both ends of the rink. In 17 games, he amassed 10 goals, six assists, and was a plus-eight.

Coleman could be back in time to finish the season and/or a potential run in the NCAA tournament. If he can return to the lineup and be the same effective player he was this fall remains to be seen.

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