After just missing out on making the playoffs last season, there was optimism in the air for the Lowell Devils going into the 2007-08 season. However, that optimism quickly faded, as the team struggled to score and keep the puck out of the net and the end result was the second-worst record in the AHL, with a paltry 62 points, better than only the Rochester Americans, who have a split NHL affiliation.
Despite the overall struggles of the team, there were some positive developments for some of the Devils prospects toiling in Lowell. Most notably was the breakout season that center Petr Vrana had. The third-year pro finally was able to put it all together, and he was by far the most consistent player for the team. He suited up in all 80 games, and led the team in a handful of categories, including assists (41), points (61) and power-play goals (10). Vrana was also Lowell’s lone representative at the AHL All-Star game.
Considering the lack of talent surrounding Vrana in Lowell, his season is all the more impressive. While he may be lacking in size, Vrana more than makes up for it with his blazing speed, competitiveness and sound two-way play. He is about a complete a prospect as the Devils have in the organization, and his exceptional season in Lowell should earn him a long look in training camp next season. Vrana does not have much left to prove in the AHL, and with the opportunity to play with more talented players at the NHL level, the best of Vrana may still be yet to come.
Upon first glance at Nicklas Bergfors’ numbers (12 goals and 15 assists in 66 games), one would think that he had a sub-par year. But he made New Jersey’s opening night roster after a strong showing in training camp and exhibition games. He injured his shoulder in that first game, and he spent a month recovering before being returned to Lowell, where he subsequently injured his other shoulder. So in essence, Bergfors spent the majority of the first half of the year injured and it took him some time to get back to full health and regain his confidence.
Secondly, much like Vrana, the overall lack of talent in Lowell played a contributing factor in his below-average numbers, and when you combine that with the injuries he dealt with in the first half, it’s not surprising to see him only record 27 points on the year. Had he had the opportunity to play with more talented players, his numbers likely would have been more noticeable.
Bottom line, Bergfors didn’t have a great season by any stretch, but his value to the organization is still very high and he still remains the most talented prospect in the organization. He is a top-notch skater, and possesses the other requisite skills, including above-average hockey sense to be an impact scorer at the next level. He likely will again be given an opportunity to make the Devils out of training camp again this fall, but in order to be 100 percent effective at the next level, the Devils need to be sure to play him in a role that enhances his strength, or in other words, he needs to be on a scoring line with players that have the type of offensive skill set that he has.
Barry Tallackson had his best season as a pro and appeared to come into his own in the second half of the year. He ended up leading the team in scoring with 22 goals, and finished second in overall points with 45. He made a couple of brief appearances in New Jersey as an injury replacement, but failed to make much of an impact in the three games he saw action. The robust power forward has made good strides in the minor pro ranks, but with him turning 25 in April, being a restricted free agent and the likely addition of other forward prospects to Lowell next season, his short and long-term future with the Devils appears cloudy at best.
Much like Tallackson, it looks like Jason Ryznar might be living on borrowed time in the Devils organization. He had a respectable season and was an assistant captain on the team. However, he was healthy scratch off and on down the stretch as the team wanted to get a look at other players in the system. Since playing a handful of games in New Jersey in his first pro season, he seems to have fallen off the prospect ladder somewhat. He gives you a solid effort night in and night out and he has good defensive skills, but it appears that he may have reached his ceiling as a prospect and again like Tallackson, he is a restricted free agent and his future with the team is up in the air.
Someone who had a comeback season of sorts was center Ivan Khomutov. After a tumultuous 2006-07 season that saw him start the year in Lowell, return to his native Russia, before finishing the year back in North America, he was able to find a regular spot in the line-up. He ended up finishing fourth in team scoring with 13 goals and 19 assists in 72 games. The talented pivot has a wealth of offensive skill, but still has nights when his overall effort and desire are not up to par. It will be interesting to see what direction the Devils decide to go with him because there is a major lack of depth up the middle in the organization and he is a restricted free agent. He is still quite rough around the edges, but has enough skill that the team may consider bringing him back to the fold for next season.
Forward Patrick Davis had a somewhat disappointing second full pro season, but he is still young and has a solid all-around package of skills that the Devils will remain patient with the talented big man. In 60 games, he scored seven goals and 12 assists, just one more point that he had in his rookie pro season. He did step up his physical play, which was encouraging to see after he battled injuries for much of his first pro season.
Mark Fraser made great strides in his second pro year, often looking like a seasoned vet on the Lowell blueline. He only missed one game this season, suiting up in 79 games, scoring a goal and 17 assists, and posting a respectable -7 rating on a Lowell team that struggled to keep the puck out of the net for most of the season. He was also second on the team in penalty minutes with 96.
He is solidly built at 6’3, 200 lbs, and is not afraid to play it physical, but he could still use a few more pounds of muscle on his frame to become even more of a physical force. He continued to play smart and steady in his own end, blocking shots and helping keep the front of the net clear for his goaltender. Fraser logged a lot of minutes on the blueline for Lowell, including lots of time on the penalty kill and even the power play on occasion. With there likely to be some change in New Jersey in regards to the defensemen, Fraser could conceivably challenge for a spot on the team with a strong showing in training camp and pre-season games.
Despite a team-worst -32 rating, Olivier Magnan played in 75 games and gained valuable experience on the Lowell blueline that should make him better prepared going into his third minor pro season this coming fall. He recorded one goal and 15 assists in those games, and tried to play a safe and simple style of play for the majority of the season. As Magnan fills out his lanky frame and continues to gain experience, he should continue to slowly but surely develop as a prospect.
Rookie defender Sean Zimmerman had an up and down season, spending some time with Trenton in the ECHL early on before spending the majority of the second half of the season in Lowell. In 66 games, he recorded six assists, a -17 rating and 66 PIM’s. Zimmerman has good size, and like Magnan, needs to bulk up and become more physically involved to start to realize his full potential. He should be more comfortable in his second pro season.
In the pipes, good things were expected from Jordan Parise after a solid rookie pro season, but he took a bit of a step back this year. Injuries were a major contributing factor as a shoulder injury kept him sidelined for the second half of the season. While he isn’t likely to ever evolve into a starting NHL netminder, he showed enough in his rookie pro season for the Devils to consider this season only a minor setback in his development and hope that he can remain healthy next season and regain the form he showed in 2006-07.