Jon Merrill still top prospect for New Jersey Devils

By John Iadevaia

Jon Merrill - New Jersey Devils

Photo: Defenseman Jon Merrill continues to be the top prospect for the New Jersey Devils. Merrill was selected in the second round of the 2010 NHL Draft. (courtesy of Rich Graessle/Icon SMI)

Whether or not the New Jersey Devils reach the postseason, management can be satisfied with the NHL-ready talent waiting in the wings. Eric Gelinas and Jon Merrill have shown they can become impactful blueliners, as has the recently re-acquired Alexander Urbom.

Meanwhile, the Albany Devils have had their most successful season thanks to the contributions of Reid Boucher, Stefan Matteau, Seth Helgeson, Keith Kinkaid, and others. Down the list, Damon Severson and Graham Black are putting together strong final seasons at their respective levels.

1. (1) Jon Merrill, D, 8.0C
Drafted 2nd Round, 38th overall, 2010

There is a reason Merrill remained in the NHL with New Jersey over the explosive Gelinas. He still makes mistakes like any rookie, but he has impressed his teammates and the coaches with his high hockey IQ. Since he came back from an injury in November, Merill looks more comfortable and confident. He is not known for making highlight reel plays, but is smart and prevents scoring chances. Merrill is not a high scorer, but he picks his spots to jump into the action or make a critical pass. Before the Olympic break, he earned a healthy amount of playing time, especially on the second powerplay unit and penalty kill.

2. (2) Damon Severson, D, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd Round, 60th overall, 2012

While Merrill and Gelinas have ushered in the Devils youth movement, another top prospect will be added to the mix very soon. Severson remains a key part of Kelowna's defense that is helping the team break their record-breaking 52 win season from last year. In 52 games, he has 12 goals, 38 assists, and a plus-39. As always, the offensive-minded defenseman continues to provide good puck-movement and distribution with his quality skating and passing. The Devils scouts still want him to improve his mental toughness, but he has now erased most of the inconsistencies from his defensive game. Expect Severson to be a big contributor in the AHL or make the jump to the NHL next year.

3. (6) Eric Gelinas, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd Round, 54th overall, 2009

Gelinas immediately changed New Jersey's dynamics with his energy, speed with the puck, and booming shot. However, Gelinas appeared to hit a wall during the winter. Opponents began to pressure him, forcing his shots wide or blocked along the way. More eye-opening was his declining defensive play by either pinching in the neutral zone or making mistakes in his own end. His ice time started to shrink to a point where the coaches only used him as a powerplay specialist or generally under five minutes a night as a seventh defenseman. Despite being the second-leading scorer among NHL rookie defensemen with six goals and 16 assists, the Devils made the controversial decision to send Gelinas back to Albany to work on his flaws.

4. (3) Reid Boucher, LW, 7.5C
Drafted 4th Round, 99th overall, 2011

Another rookie that brought possibly more excitement upon his debut was Boucher. Coming off a stellar completion to his junior career, the Michigan native has hit the ground running in his rookie season. That same talent and awareness he demonstrated in Sarnia has transitioned to the pros. His shot continues to draw praise from the organization and before being called up to New Jersey in December, he was one of the leading scorers in Albany. Again, he showed he was not out of place in the NHL, generating multiple chances a game, proving to be a threat with his skill, and toughness. His first NHL stint lasted 23 games that saw him notch two goals and five assists. The only thing holding him back is experience, but that will come in time.

5. (10) Keith Kinkaid, G, 7.0C
Signed as a free agent, April 18th, 2011

Entering the 2013-14 season, it was expected that Kinkaid would have to share the crease with the organizations top goaltending prospect Scott Wedgewood. But like the sport itself, things do not go as expected and surprises take place. Kinkaid played exceptional in November and December to take a strong grip over the starting job. Thanks to him, the AHL affiliate has put together its best season in a long time. The acquisition of Cory Schneider in the off-season and future uncertainty seems to have lit a fire under him to seize the potential back-up job when Martin Brodeur's time is done. He will have to continue his strong play in the second half of the season to keep Albany in a playoff spot.

6. (5) Alexander Urbom, D, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2009

It has been a wild ride for the bruising Swede this year. Urbom was claimed off waivers by the Washington Capitals prior to the regular season. Head Coach Adam Oates used him as a depth defenseman that brought a physical edge in his own end. However, he was unable to earn more playing time from the Capitals veteran defensemen and found himself as a healthy scratch on occasion. New Jersey reclaimed Urbom when Washington waived him in January. With his return, the Devils farm system adds another stay-at-home defenseman to the depth chart. He will resume is role in Albany on a crowded blue line.

7. (4) Scott Wedgewood, G, 7.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 84th overall, 2010

While Kinkaid has become the starter in Albany, Wedgewood is still receiving a healthy amount of games. Unlike his first pro season in the ECHL, where he was a standout on a weak team, Wedgewood is having a hard time finding his game in front of a systematically better team. He had a chance to take control of the crease when Kinkaid was on emergency recall in October, but was unable to keep Albany afloat. He has adjusted to the higher level, albeit slowly, but has to do a better job of tracking the puck.

8. (8) Stefan Matteau, C/LW, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 29th overall, 2012

The biggest flaw Matteau has had to overcome in his young career is maturity. It is something that many players have to deal with, especially for those who play an aggressive, intense style like Matteau. Throughout the year, the forward has learned to control himself and has limited the amount of bad penalties. By doing that, he is starting to realize his potential as an effective power-forward. One of his attributes that does not show up on the boxscore is his strength along the boards that allows him to win puck battles.

9. (6) Steve Santini, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2013

Santini has emerged into one of Boston College's top defenseman in his freshman year. The stalwart defenseman worked his way into the lineup and has become a mainstay on the top pair with San Jose draft pick Isaac MacLeod. He was also a standout for Team USA at the 2014 World Junior Championship. His punishing hits and zone awareness have disrupted many attacks by the opposition. While his offensive game remains a work in progress, Santini is on the ice for many of the Eagles' goals. Through 26 games, he has amassed two goals, seven assist, a plus-27 rating, 38 penalty minutes, and 47 blocked shots.

10. (12) Seth Helgeson, D, 6.5B
Drafted 4th round, 114th overall, 2009

An impressive rookie season has seen Helgeson rise on the organizations depth chart. As it stands, he is the only player in Albany that has suited up in every game. Even better is that his performance remains the same night in and night out. While known for his physical, reliable play in his own end, he has tapped into his offensive side a bit. Kinkaid may draw the attention for his superb play in goal, but Albany would not be as good defensively if not for the stalwart Helgeson in front of him.

11. (8) Reece Scarlett, D, 7.0C
Drafted 6th round, 159th overall, 2011

Scarlett is not an intimidating player on defense. That was a concern from scouts as the 20-year old entered the pro ranks. Following the musical chairs of shifting defensemen in the fall, Scarlett seized the moment and has become Albany's powerplay specialist. Like Helgeson, both have provided a consistent presence in their specialty on the blue line. Most impressive is that he has held his own alongside Gelinas, Merrill, and Urbom when they have been in Albany. Through 42 games played, he has four goals, 12 assists, and a plus-eight rating.

12. (14) Graham Black, C, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 135th overall, 2012

Black has played the best hockey of his career in 2013-14. A fierce competitor who plays a strong two-way game, Graham has been in good health following a 2012-13 season where he was treated for Grave's disease. Through 57 games, Black is one of the top scorers in the WHL with 29 goals, 47 assists and a plus-17 rating.  The overage forward also has been a special team's expert with nine goals on the powerplay and two shorthanded.

13. (9) Blake Pietila, LW, 6.0B
Drafted 5th round, 129th 0verall, 2011

Similar to Black, Pietila is an established bottom-six forward who is a quick skater that plays hard on and off the puck. While defense is not an issue, his scoring is not up to par. It is a good sign to see him put up career numbers on the offensively-challenged Michigan Tech team. In 33 appearances, he has scored only eight goals, but only one of them has come at even strength. Contributing on a consistent basis will be one of his challenges going forward. Fortunately, since the turn of the new year, he has been on a hot streak, notching 15 of his 24 points.

14. (13) Blake Coleman, C, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 75th overall, 2011

Coleman was putting together a strong junior year prior to a shoulder injury in early December. After struggling to adjust to a bottom-six role as an underclassman, he started putting his game together. The gritty, physical forward developed into an intimidating force on both ends of the ice, but became a top scorer in the fall with a handful of multi-point weekends in November. What is interesting is that Coleman's game might translate better to the pros than some of his peers who put up better numbers. Prior to the injury, he notched 10 goals and six assists in 17 games. The Riverhawks have sorely missed his presence, but there is a chance he returns to the lineup before the postseason.

15. (NR) Myles Bell, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 6th round, 160th overall, 2013

The second overage player of the Devils in the WHL, Bell continues to shine as a converted forward in his final year at the junior level. He is dangerous on both ends of the ice thanks to his powerful shot, sturdy frame (6', 210 pounds) and mobility. As of this writing, Bell sits 20th in scoring with 39 goals and 28 assists through 57 games. The former defenseman still needs more experience at his new position, but his high offensive skills have made the transition easier.

16. (11) Brandon Burlon, D, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2008

With increased competition and number of bodies, staying in the Albany lineup is a daily battle. There are two ways to look at it for Burlon. On the one hand, the constant shuffling of responsibilities and partners has hurt his effectiveness. Yet considering the amount of high-end talent on the blue line, it is encouraging that the multi-purposed defenseman is regarded very well by his peers. He has played in 41 of 51 games and is active in all three zones on both sides of the puck.

17. (19) Ryan Kujawinski, C, 6.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2013

A boom or bust prospect, Kujawinski possess an impressive combination of talent and size. His inconsistencies have been noted many times, but now injuries he have made it difficult for him to find his stride. The Devils scouts consider him a project because he is not as refined as a regular junior player. Given he has moments where he takes over a contest, they are hopeful Kujawinski can start to round out his game when he becomes healthy.

18. (20) Ben Johnson, C, 6.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 90th overall, 2012

Johnson has done a great job of focusing on his game instead of his off-ice issues. With the help of his teammates, he has been able to improve his overall effectiveness, especially at even strength. In 49 games, he has 23 goals and 45 points along with a plus-21 rating, the first positive rating of his junior career. He has the size, speed, and skill to reach the NHL but it is still unclear if he will be signed to an entry-level contract.

19. (15) Curtis Gedig, D, 6.0C
Drafted 7th round, 204th overall, 2009

Do not be fooled by his spot on the list. Gedig, the Devils final selection in the 2009 draft, has been one of the more consistent performers in the Devils system. His steadiness and simple style aid the Buckeyes in all three zones. Whether the team is trying to hold a late lead or need to kill a four minute penalty, Gedig is on the ice for key situations. When he reaches the pros, he will have to bring that same stability to show he might be more than a minor leaguer.

20. (NR) Mike Sislo, RW, 6.0C
Signed as a free agent, April 3rd, 2011

Breaking into the rankings in his final season as an eligible prospect is the fearless Sislo. He has earned it by how he has conducted himself on the ice this season. Since the fall, he has provided a supporting role in Albany's top-six and helped turn the special teams into a strength. In his first NHL call-up, he created offense in limited minutes and was reliable in his own end, before he was returned to the AHL after seven games. He currently has 13 goals and 26 points through 40 games played with Albany.

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