Devils 2008 system audit

By Jared Ramsden

While the Devils roster is littered with homegrown players, there were a few lean years at the draft table for the organization. Combine that with the team using some of their prospects as trade bait to land some help for runs at the Stanley Cup, and the Devils prospect well nearly ran dry, only to be saved by some solid rookie free-agent finds such as David Clarkson, Johnny Oduya, Rod Pelley and Andy Greene. However the organizational depth appears to be on the upswing again with the addition of some good prospects over the course of the last three or four drafts.

The heart of the Devils roster is made up of homegrown talent. Martin Brodeur, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, Paul Martin, Brian Rolston (who returned to the organization over the summer), Colin White, Brian Gionta, Travis Zajac and Jay Pandolfo were all drafted by the team, and throw in the signings of John Madden, Oduya, Clarkson, Greene and you see why the team was lauded for its pipeline of talent in the recent past. Upon closer inspection though, the lean drafting years can be identified as only Parise and Zajac have made significant impacts as homegrown players since the 2001 draft class.

Good things appear to be on the horizon though, as players like Petr Vrana, Nicklas Bergfors, Mattias Tedenby, Nick Palmieri, Alexander Vasyunov and Matt Halischuk continue to develop and represent a big part of the future up front. Throw in the likes of defensemen Matt Corrente, Tyler Eckford, Brandon Burlon, Mark Fayne and T.J. Miller and the team has a group of solid, multi-faceted blueliners who should ease the concern of a current problem spot on the big club right now.

While the Devils group of prospects as a whole probably doesn’t excite many outsiders or have much in terms of all-star potential players, overall it is a group of solid mid-range prospects, of which more than a handful should eventually graduate and make an impact at the NHL level, either with the Devils or another organization.

Left Wing

The Devils have decent depth at left wing in the organization, but only two have currently crossed the pond to play in North America.  That number may jump to three soon. There are couple of potential game-breakers in Mattias Tedenby and Alexander Vasyunov out there, to go along with two-way threats Mike Hoeffel and Brad Snetsinger. Rounding out the left wingers are Vili Sopanen, Patrick Davis and John-Sebastien Berube.

Tedenby, New Jersey’s top pick this past summer, is perhaps the most exciting forward prospect the team has had in the system since the drafting of Parise back in 2003. Tedenby is a scintillating skater, with mesmerizing puck skills and top-notch goal scoring ability. He is just entering his first full season in the Swedish Elite League, so he is likely a couple of seasons away from signing a contract with New Jersey, depending on how quickly he develops. His maximum upside appears to be that of a top line sniper, though the Devils may have to settle for him developing into a  second line scorer. Unless he completely flops, Tedenby should be manning the left side on one of the Devils top two lines in the not too distant future.

In Alexander Vasyunov, the Devils still really don’t know what they have, given the fact that he has received limited ice time in Russia since being drafted in 2006. However it appears as though he may be on the verge of coming over to North America, though this has not yet been confirmed or made official by either Vasyunov or the organization. If this does indeed come to fruition, playing in North America should help him significantly in terms of his overall development. He is one of the most purely offensive gifted players in the system, and while it might take him time to adjust to the larger ice surfaces and style of play, the Devils will be patient. A natural goal scorer with a great shot and quick release, Vasuynov will likely never be much of a reliable player in his own end, though he will need to make a little headway in this area if he wants to become a full-time NHL’er. He is a classic boom or bust prospect, but the overall upside is tremendous. If he makes it, he will make it big and likely pile up the goals. The Devils won’t know for at least two to three years if Vasyunov will indeed fulfill his maximum potential.

A major knee injury late in his draft eligible year caused Mike Hoeffel to slip to the second round of the 2007 draft where the Devils gladly scooped him up, and so far he is making the Devils look good for their decision to select him. He was able to successfully fully rehab his injury over the summer last year and had an excellent freshman season at the University of Minnesota, leading the team in rookie scoring with 19 points in 45 games. Hoeffel is a prototypical Devils forward prospect in that he is well schooled at both ends of the rink. While more slanted to his defensive duties, Hoeffel has the ability to chip in offensively, though he is limited somewhat due to his average hands. His work ethic, speed, fore-checking prowess and physical play could eventually see him playing a Jay Pandolfo role at the NHL level. He still needs a couple of more years development time with the Golden Gophers before turning pro, but he is as safe a bet as any Devils prospect at reaching his potential as a third-line grinder.

Signed back in December of 2007, Snetsinger is an intriguing prospect, who at worst should develop into a reliable bottom-six checker, but showed in junior that he has the ability to put the puck in the net. How that offense translates to the pro game will be a thing to keep an eye on this year as he enters his first season of hockey at the pro level.

Also making a case for most intriguing prospect is towering Finnish left winger Vili Sopanen. His size and goal scoring ability make him a potential power forward in blooming, and after a very successful first full season in the Finnish Senior Men’s League, the Devils may have a diamond in the rough. While his goal scoring promise may not reach full fruition once he decides to turn pro, the potential is there with what he has shown thus far in his brief time in the system.

Patrick Davis has a world of talent, and an abundance of offensive potential, but he has yet to show much of it in his first two seasons of professional hockey. Injuries are partly to blame, but so far he has been a bit of a disappointment. He has gotten off to a solid start in year three in the AHL, and it is paramount that he has a good year, or he will risk falling off the Devils prospect radar. 

With their last pick in the 2008 draft, the Devils drafted John-Sebastien Berube, an agitator and tough guy, who might just have some untapped offensive potential. As he continues to fill out, he will become even more of a physical presence than he already is. Going into his third full season of junior hockey with Rouyn-Noranda, Berube will look to improve his all around skill set.

 
Right Wing

There are currently only five right wingers in the system, however, this position quite possibly houses the most talent in the organization. Nicklas Bergfors, the top prospect in the system headlines the group, but having Nick Palmieri and Matt Halischuk, both of whom are in the top seven group of New Jersey’s prospects here at Hockey’s Future, gives this group a tremendous amount of overall potential. Nathan Perkovich and Vladimir Zharkov, the remaining two right wingers, both are considered wild cards at this stage of their development, but have the skills to make an impact at the next level should they maximize their potential.

It’s hard to remember sometimes that Bergfors is going into his fourth season of pro hockey, despite being only 21 years of age. He did not have as strong a training camp this year, and that combined with the fact he is still on a two-way contract, and the fact the Devils top six group of forwards was essentially set before camp started, and Bergfors was in tough to make it this year. Most casual observers are losing patience with his development, thinking that he should have made the big club by now. Upon closer inspection though, the Devils have no need to rush their most prized prospect. Until there is a spot open in the top six, there is no point in promoting him and playing him with checkers. He needs to play with those who can augment his high level of talent and overall skill. He is off to a quick start in Lowell already, and it’s conceivable that he could receive a look or two up with the big club at some point during this season. Regardless, next season should be the year Bergfors makes his mark at the NHL level.

The fact that Palmieri played on a sub-par club during his draft year may pay off in the long run for the Devils, as they were able to snag him in the second round of the NHL draft back in 2007. He is by far and away the best power forward prospect the Devils currently have in their system, and though he has a bit of maturing to do, there is no doubting his skill set. Big and possessing a soft pair of hands, Palmieri would benefit exponentially with a trade to a contending OHL team from the bottom feeding Erie Otters. As Palmieri continues to mature and fill out his frame, he should only get better. He’s not a lock to be a top-six forward, but he is far too talented to not eventually have success at the next level. A season or two in the minors after this year and he should be ready for the jump to the NHL.

While he has yet to play an NHL game, Halischuk could end up being one of the best bargains from the 2007 draft class. Not even ranked by Central Scouting, he had about as good a season as you could have last year and put himself and made scouts who passed him over think twice. And he has already made a big splash in his pro debut with Lowell, scoring four goals in a game. Halischuk is about as well rounded a prospect as the team has in the system, possessing superb hockey sense. And when you combine that hockey sense with his all out effort and intensity, what the Devils have is a fundamentally sound prospect who should be in the NHL sooner rather than later. At worst he should develop into a sound, third-line checker with the ability to chip in with 30-40 points, but the potential for more is definitely there.

Perhaps one of the most overlooked prospects in the system, Nathan Perkovich is a goal scorer, plain and simple. In two years at Lake Superior State, he has scored an impressive 32 goals, and is off to another strong start in this his junior year with the Lakers. He will need to improve his play in his own end and become stronger if he wants to translate his goal-scoring prowess to the next level, but he will be given time to do it. There’s a good chance he will turn pro after this season, and while he will likely need a heavy dose of minor pro seasoning, he could end up being a real surprise in the not too distant future.

Lightning fast, industrious and fearless, Zharkov is blessed with enormous natural skill, but he was often denied the chance to fully unleash it while playing with his club team in Russia the past two seasons. Now that he made the decision to cross the pond and come to North America, his development should improve in spades. Over the course of the season, the Devils should be able to get a better sense of what kind of player he will develop into and what kind of role he will need to be thrust into to succeed at the professional level.

Center

The center ice position was once a major source of concern in the organization, but after adding four centers to the organization at the draft this past June, things are looking better down the middle for the Devils. While not necessarily deep in terms of overall talent, the team is fairly well stocked now, going nine deep at the position.

Petr Vrana may not be the most spectacular player, but he is the top center ice prospect in the system. The addition of Patrice Cormier and Adam Henrique in the second and third rounds of the 2008 draft respectively gave the position a major infusion of talent. David Wohlberg and Kory Nagy were also added later on in the 2008 draft, while Michael Swift was signed over the summer. Tony Romano is looking to bounce back after a sub-par 2006-07 season, and Ivan Khomutov and Kevin Cormier round out the centers.

After a breakout third season in the AHL in which he led Lowell in scoring, Vrana was set to compete for a spot with the big club to start the season. Though his one-way contract played a role in him making the squad as the 13th forward, he earned it with a strong pre-season and training camp. A smart, versatile, plug and play type player in the mold of former Devil Sergei Brylin, Vrana scored a goal in his first NHL game, and has not looked out of place. His role with the big club will fluctuate throughout the season depending on injuries and how well he plays, but at this point, it appears as though he might just stick for the whole season.

It was a rough go of it for Cormier in his draft year last season as he battled through numerous injuries, causing his draft stock to fall significantly, but the Devils were more than happy to pick him up in the second round this past June. He plays a power-forward type of game, and appears to be very well rounded as he is a steady player at both ends of the rink. Should he remain healthy this year, he could be in for a monster season with Memorial Cup host Rimouski. Cormier’s long range potential is outstanding as he has the tools to emerge into a second tier scoring center.

Henrique was somewhat overshadowed on a deep Windsor squad last season, playing in a third line role and not seeing the top minutes he may have received on another team. However, with a handful of Spitfires graduating over the summer, he is primed to assume more responsibilities and as a result, should see a significant increase from his back-to-back 44-point seasons. Henrique has the two-way skills that the Devils covet, and is a top-notch penalty killer. The Devils should get a better idea of where Henrique’s offensive skill set is after this year, but he should eventually emerge into a sound third line checker after some seasoning in the minors.

Much like Henrique, Wohlberg is a fantastic two-way center, with some untapped offensive abilities. He is just starting off his collegiate career at the University of Michigan this year and he will spend at least two to three seasons with the Wolverienes  before taking the next jump in his hockey career.

Swift caught the Devils eye with an scintillating overage year of junior in Windsor with the Spitfires and signed with the club at the commencement of the season. Continuing a trend at the position, Swift is strong and both ends of the rink. He is a hard-working player who is not afraid to get his nose dirty. While the offensive success he showed in junior may not translate to the next level, he still has the ability to develop into an effective energy player down the road after a few seasons in the AHL with Lowell.

Romano had disappointing season in the OHL with London last year after showing so much promise in the NCAA with Cornell the year before. A fresh start in Peterborough, combined with the fact he is in his overage junior season, should make his point totals should rise significantly. Romano is immensely gifted offensively, but must become more well rounded as a prospect if he wants to have a future in the organization. Nagy should pile up the points this season with Oshawa, playing alongside phenom and top 2009 prospect John Tavares, but it is his strong work ethic that will take him places in his career.

Khomutov decided to return to Russia after a decent comeback season of sort with Lowell last year, so his long-term future with the team is up in the air. Cormier, the older brother of Patrice, was just recently added to the organization before the season started. He is an enforcer, plain and simple and will likely ride the AHL/ECHL shuttle this season. 

Defense

This is perhaps the most intriguing position in the organization. The team is loaded with a multitude of blueliners, and while none of them will likely emerge into the star quality type blueliner that the team has lacked since the Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer days, there is a plenty of promise among the group.

Matt Corrente offers the most potential of the bunch, while Brandon Burlon, Mark Fraser, T.J. Miller, Mark Fayne, Tyler Eckford and Anssi Salmela each have their own unique skill sets. CHL’ers Matt Delahey and Harry Young were added to the group at the 2008 draft, a group that also includes Corbin McPherson, Ryan Molle, Olivier Magnan and Valeri Klimov.

Corrente did not have the type of pre-season the team was hoping for after shining in his first two, and as a result, was dispatched to Lowell to start the season, where he will likely spend the whole season rounding out the rough edges in his game. Physical and tough as nails, he has the strong skating skills and offensive ability to thrive at the next level. He is the most likely of the Devils defense prospects to develop into a top four blueliner down the road, but might need another year of seasoning in the minors next year before he makes a serious run at a full-time NHL gig.

The addition of Burlon to the system gives the Devils a prospect perfectly suited to the more wide open play that has been seen in the NHL since the lockout ended. Extremely mobile, he is a heady player, capable of playing at both ends of the rink, though he is slanted a little more to the offensive side of things. He is currently in his freshman season at the University of Michigan, though he has yet to play a game due to an ankle injury. New Jersey will be patient with Burlon, letting him develop under the tutelage of revered coach Red Berenson.

Fraser is going into his third season of pro hockey, and perhaps has the best set of intangibles of any prospect at any position in the system. A big, sturdy, physical rearguard with leadership skills, Fraser will have to continue to bide his time in the minors until a spot opens up in New Jersey. He’s a fairly safe prospect, and once given a shot, should emerge into a steady bottom pairing defender at the NHL level.

Miller and Fayne are each going into their junior seasons of college hockey. Miller is a solid two-way defenseman who didn’t get much of a chance to showcase much of his offensive skill set last year, but improved immensely at the other end of the rink. A breakout season at Northern Michigan could be in the cards this year and he is likely to turn pro at season’s end. His long term and overall upside is through the roof. Fayne is not as spectacular a prospect as Miler, but similarly to Miller, he has some offensive upside that he has yet to really be able to unleash. He is solidly built and continues to make gains and improvements in his overall mobility.

An outstanding junior season at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks in which he led all NCAA defensemen in scoring really put Eckford on the prospect radar. A converted forward, Eckford has made significant gains and improvements as a prospect throughout each and every season since being drafted way back in 2003 in the seventh round. He has great puck skills and the ability to quarterback a power play. Eckford is beginning his pro career in the AHL with Lowell this year, where his progress will be monitored closely.

Salmela was added to the system as a free agent last year, and came with some fanfare after leading the Finnish SM-Liiga in scoring by blueliners with 16 goals. He cracked the Devils line-up with a strong pre-season and training camp, suiting up in the first three games, but has since been dispatched to Lowell. At 23 years of age and possessing great mobility and puck moving skills from the back end, Salmela shouldn’t need much time in the minors and will most likely receive another look with New Jersey at some point during the season.

Going into his third full season of junior with the WHL‘s Regina Pats, Delahey is primed for a big season after seeing a major increase in minutes and responsibilities after injuries decimated the Pats back end. Not a flashy blueliner by any means, Delahey should slowly climb up the prospect ladder if he continues to show improvements in his overall game.

Not much is known about McPherson, but now going into his first season of hockey at the NCAA level with Colgate, the Devils will have a better idea of what type of prospect they have. Magnan has his work cut out for himself with more talented blueliners in the system ahead of him on the depth chart, but still could make a move with a good season on the farm with Lowell.

Molle of the WHL‘s Swift Current Broncos and Young, who suits up for the Spitfires with fellow Devils prospect Henrique, are both physical, steady, stay at home types who excel on the penalty kill. Their long range potentials aren’t outstanding by any stretch, but every team with championship aspirations needs these type of character players on their roster.

Goaltending

With the only goaltending prospect being Jeff Frazee, who has a lot to prove after a disastrous junior year at the University of Minnesota, this is easily the weakest position in the system from a talent and depth standpoint.

While Martin Brodeur is still going strong at the age of 36, the team has to start grooming potential replacements, be it through the draft, or by trading for a young goaltender from another system. It was somewhat shocking to not see the team pluck a goaltender or two at the draft this past summer, especially considering that this was a fairly strong class of draft eligible goaltenders. The team has not drafted a netminder since selecting Frazee back in the second round of the 2005 draft. Frazee has the skills to make it at the next level, but until he proves that he can overcome the mental obstacles that plagued him throughout his collegiate career, he can not be considered a sure thing at this point. The fact he is starting off his pro career at the ECHL level with Trenton shows that he is going to need significant development time in the minors.

 
Overall

The Devils do not have the most exciting or electrifying group of prospects, but with recent additions to the system over the course of the last few seasons, the team has seen a dramatic improvement in overall prospect depth and now have some promising potential top-flight players to be excited about, namely Tedenby, Bergfors and Corrente. Though it may be a slow climb, the team looks to be getting back on track in terms of gaining respectability with the development of their prospects.