Top 10 Prospects
1. Nicklas Bergfors, RW
2. Matt Corrente, D
3. Petr Vrana, C
4. Nick Palmieri, RW
5. Alexander Vasyunov, LW
6. Barry Tallackson, LW
7. Mark Fraser, D
8. T.J. Miller, D
9. Mark Fayne, D
10. Nathan Perkovich, RW
Unlike last off-season when the Devils took major hits in losing top center Scott Gomez to the rival New York Rangers and No. 1 defenseman Brian Rafalski to the Detroit Red Wings, the only key players that could hit unrestricted free agency July 1 are checking-line forwards in Jay Pandolfo and Sergei Brylin. And there is a good possibility that at least one, if not both of those players will re-sign with the team. So this coming off-season won’t be nearly as disastrous as last year and there will be some continuity behind the bench with Brent Sutter firmly entrenched as the team’s head coach.
Devils GM Lou Lamoriello has already stated that he intends to shore up a defense group that once was a team strength with the likes of Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko and Rafalski patrolling the back end. While Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya emerged as a solid pairing as the season wore on, they need help. The team hopes to re-sign impending UFA Bryce Salvador, who fit in well after coming over from St.Louis in a trade deadline deal, but his return is not certain. Dependable Colin White overcame a serious eye injury in training camp, but struggled at times and can no longer be relied upon to play as many minutes as he has in the past. While there are a few marquee free agents available on the market, the Devils might be best served in looking to swing a trade to bring in a top four defenseman.
The Devils didn’t expect free agent signee Danius Zubrus to fill the skates of Gomez, but they surely expected more than the 13 goals and 38 points he put up in his first year as a Devil. He played well in spurts but never really got comfortable or in a groove and actually ended up playing more on the wing. Patrik Elias moved to center ice out of necessity and while he seemed to get more comfortable there as the season wore on, it is not certain what position he will line up at next season. Travis Zajac, despite a rough sophomore season, should be counted on to play a major role next season and John Madden is a perfect third-line center, but the team clearly needs to land an offensive-minded center, whether it be via the free agent route or trade.
Zach Parise, who has emerged as the Devils top goal scorer, Jamie Langenbrunner and Brian Gionta represent a good, but not spectacular cast of scorers on the wing. Niklas Bergfors and Petr Vrana, who can play either center or wing, both appear ready for a crack at full-time NHL duty, but are not sure things at this point. Bergfors fought through a couple of shoulder injuries last year, but the former top pick back in 2005 has the skill set to be a key offensive contributor. As mentioned , the club may need to tinker the checking lines somewhat with the uncertain futures of Pandolfo and Brylin and regardless of whether those two return to New Jersey next season, expect sophomores David Clarkson and Rod Pelley to take on more responsibilities next season. There will likely be a few new faces brought in to compete for the remaining roster spots up front as well.
The organizational strengths haven’t changed much since last season. The team has quietly stockpiled a fairly solid group of young defensemen, and while there isn’t a game-changing, future No. 1 in the bunch, the Devils should soon start to see some of the seeds they planted on the blueline the past two or three drafts, come to harvest.
Leading the way is 2006 first-round choice Matt Corrente. While he suffered through an injury plagued junior season, the team has high hopes for the rough and tumble blueliner and he could very well make the team next season. Tyler Eckford will begin his pro career next fall after leading all collegiate defenseman in scoring last year. The forward-turned-defenseman has steadily improved his play in his own end, while continuing to show the skating skills and offensive talent he possesses from the back end. He’s likely a few years away from New Jersey, but his potential is outstanding. Mark Fraser has done his time in the AHL, and should be in contention for a spot in New Jersey next season. He’s a younger, better skating version of Colin White. While thumper Kirill Tulupov was not signed and will re-enter the draft, the Devils replaced him by signing 23-year-old Finnish blueliner Anssi Salmela. He scored 16 goals for his club team last year and will be one to watch in training camp. Mark Fayne and T.J. Miller both had solid sophomore seasons with their respective collegiate teams and should only continue to get better. The depth in this area is drastically improved from years past.
The Devils boast a solid group of role-playing forwards within the system. Vrana is the closest of the bunch to making an impact in New Jersey after a breakout third pro season in which he lead the AHL’s Lowell Devils in scoring. Not much was made of the Devils selection of Matt Halischuk in the fourth round last summer, but after a phenomenal season with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, he now merits talk as one of the top prospects in the Devils system. He’s a jack of all trades forward, who is equally adept at putting the puck in the net as he is playing sound and steady defense in his own zone. He won’t put up the type of numbers he put up in junior last season (scoring at over a point game in both the regular season and playoffs), but think of him as a lesser version of current Devil Jamie Langenbrunner. Top 2007 pick Mike Hoeffel had an above average freshman season at the University of Minnesota and in-season addition Brad Snetsinger finished out his OHL eligibility by finishing in the top 10 in OHL scoring.
Unfortunately for the Devils, their organizational weaknesses far outweigh their strengths, particularly the alarming lack of depth at center ice and in goal. Also of concern is the lack of overall top-end talent in the system, especially up front. This is something that can partly be attributed to the team drafting so low each season. That can’t be used as a big excuse though, as a team like the Detroit Red Wings consistently find talent despite drafting late just like New Jersey.
With Vrana not having much left to prove at the AHL level, the center ice position becomes even more devoid of talent and depth and must be addressed at the draft this year. Behind Vrana is Tony Romano, who nearly fell off the Devils prospect map with a terrible season after switching leagues from the NCAA to the CHL, Ivan Khomutov, who shows glimpses of his great skill and talent, but appears to lack desire and intensity and freshly-signed Michael Swift, the 2007-08 OHL overage player of the year award winner. That’s it. Expect the Devils to draft at least two pivots, and possibly even more to help restock a position in desperate need of warm bodies.
The Devils appeared to have a couple of solid goaltending prospects in Jeff Frazee and Jason Smith, but that was last year, and now, this is another position that is in need of a major overhaul, especially with Brodeur turning 36 last month. While he’s still at the top of his game, the team needs to start grooming some prospects to take over once his career comes to an end. Frazee has the skill set to be a good goaltender, but his constant mental lapses and inability to stay focused cost him his starting job at the University of Minnesota last season. He signed with the Devils at the commencement of his college season and the hope is that some good coaching will get him back on track, but he is far from a sure thing at this point. Smith was not signed by the Devils after last season, and appears to be destined for a career in the minor pros. The Devils do not currently have any goaltenders playing outside the minor pro ranks and will need to start adding one or two goaltenders a year through the next few drafts in the hopes of finding a successor to Brodeur. While it might not be a popular choice among Devil fans to see the team use the 21st overall choice in the first round on a goaltender, there is an outside chance of that happening this year.
Nick Palmieri appears to the type of burgeoning power forward that the Devils so desperately need, and Bergfors, Alexander Vasyunov and Nathan Perkovich appear to have the potential to emerge into goal scorers in the near future. But none of them appear to be the type of upper echelon players that will develop into top of the line scorers. Zach Parise was the last player the Devils draft to emerge into a legitimate top end player, but that was all the way back in 2003. And if you discount the selection of Zajac, the team has failed to draft a top offensive player the past four drafts. That needs to change this year, and the team could use its top pick to address this weakness.
New Jersey will have a full compliment of selections at the draft at the Corel Centre in Ottawa this year, including an extra pick in the seventh round that the team received when they traded forward Aaron Voros to Minnesota.
The Devils generally go with the best available player on their draft board, however, with some glaring needs in the system at center ice and in between the pipes, the team might have to be more focused at their draft table this year.
The Devils haven’t gone off the board with many picks lately, and that trend will likely continue this season with the team needing to fill specific holes. That’s not to say a surprise pick won’t happen, but with the Devils system needing an infusion of talent almost everywhere, taking the safe route appears to be the best way for Lamoriello and chief scout David Conte to go. This could also be a year where the team considers making a move up in the first round to snag that elite talent that the team so desperately needs. It worked when the team moved up to take Zach Parise in 2003, and another astute move like that one could pay major dividends for the team in the future.
Since the 2000 entry draft, the Devils have only chosen only a total of four goaltenders. That is a trend that will likely start to change this year, as was discussed at great length earlier. The Devils have had a good string of luck drafting OHL’ers lately (Corrente, Fraser, Halischuk and Palmieri), but they also have not shown a tendency to heavily favor one league over another when it comes to selecting players. The team has surprisingly taken a high number of Russian players recently, something of a concern due to the transfer agreement issues between the NHL and Russia, which makes it difficult to get them under contract to the team.
Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result: Jordan Eberle, C
The Devils have glaring needs up the middle and in between the pipes, but with a solid crop of goaltending prospects available this year, that need can be addressed later on so the Devils take the best available forward in Regina Pats center Jordan Eberle. Though Eberle is under-sized, he is one of the best pure goal scorers available in this year’s draft and immediately becomes one of the top prospects in the organization.