Merrill leads solid group of prospects in New Jersey Devils 2014 Fall Top 20

By John Iadevaia
Jon Merrill - New Jersey Devils

Photo: Defenseman Jon Merrill had a strong rookie pro season in 2013-14, managing two goals and nine assists in 52 NHL games. (courtesy of Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

 

Thanks to a few rookies stepping up last season, the New Jersey Devils feel comfortable to trust their prospects with bigger roles going forward. The change has already started on the blue line, but the transition with forwards might take a while.

Down in the AHL, last year’s rookie class helped spur Albany to its best season in quite some time. With players like Reid Boucher, Stefan Matteau, and Seth Helgeson putting together impressive efforts, they helped infuse a new energy that will likely get better this upcoming season.

Keith Kinkaid and Eric Gelinas were two notable graduates from last year’s list, but the bulk of the Devils’ strongest prospects remain at the pro level.

1. (1) Jon Merrill, D, 7.5B
Drafted 2nd Round, 38th overall, 2010

Following his return from injury last winter, Merrill showed his worth on the Devils blue line. Throughout the second half of the season, the rookie played very well, earning more responsibility, which included additional ice time on special teams. In certain games, he was their best defenseman. In 52 games, he scored two goals and nine assists to go along with a minus-three rating.

Merrill joins Gelinas and Adam Larsson as the three young blueliners expected to play in New Jersey. The coaching staff was high on Merrill’s smart play away from the puck, but only saw flashes of his offensive side from his Wolverine days.

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

While Merrill, Gelinas, and Larsson are likely to start the year in the NHL, Severson remains the dark horse that could steal a spot at training camp. It is more likely he begins the year in Albany, but it would not shock anyone if he is one of the first call-ups if injuries occur on the back-end. Still, the team has high hopes that Severson is going to be in New Jersey sooner than later.

The former Kelowna star wrapped up his junior career with another strong year. In 64 games, he added 15 goals and 46 assists along with a plus-47 rating. He also added 18 points in 14 postseason games for the Rockets. The offensive-minded defensemen brings vaunted firepower and can quickly start the rush with his skating. Look for him to be amongst Albany’s top-four blueliners.

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

Usually scoring 22 goals in your first pro season would be considered very good. Not for Boucher who was not satisfied with his inconsistency as a goal-scorer. He started last year strong in Albany with 10 goals and eight assists his first 21 games before being recalled to New Jersey. He added two goals and seven assists in New Jersey before being returned to the AHL. He struggled in the late winter before heating up towards the end.

Consistency will be Boucher’s focus this year as he tries to crack the New Jersey roster. He remains the most skilled forward in the organization and is likely to play in the top-six down the road. However, following the Devils active off-season, it might be another year in Albany for the Devils young sniper.

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

Last season was a necessary maturation year for Matteau in Albany. The hope is that he can eventually crack the Devils line-up in the next year or so. That might be difficult with the flood of veterans entering training camp, but the second year pro is determined to earn his way onto the Devils opening night roster.

Following his up-and-down rookie season, Matteau started on Albany’s bottom-six. The power forward soon worked his way up to the top line, and by seasons end, finished with 13 goals and 13 assists in 66 games. With his aggressive style of size and skill, the 20-year-old is adaptable to any role in the lineup, similar to that of current Devils forward Dainius Zubrus.

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

Santini is coming off a strong freshman campaign where he helped Boston College reach the Frozen Four. He received All-Hockey East Rookie Team honors along with three goals, eight assists, and 52 penalty minutes. The young blueliner will have a busy sophomore year by splitting time between college and most likely playing for Team USA at the World Juniors Championships.

He is projected to be a physical, defensive defenseman who can provide a good outlet pass. He plays with a lot of meanness on the ice, particularly in his own zone, and is good at using his 6’2 frame.

6. (NR) John Quenneville, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 30th overall, 2013

Rather than go for a risky forward late in the first round of the 2013 draft, New Jersey selected the well-developed Quenneville. He fits the Devils mold for a forward; a big, versatile, everyday player that is skilled in all three zones. And he still has room to grow in his remaining two years with the Brandon Wheat Kings.

The Devils hope he becomes a similar player to Adam Henrique, but before that happens, he still has some work to do to round out his game, which includes turning his skating into a strength.

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

With all the upheaval on the Albany blue line early last season, Helgeson benefited the most from the promotion. He quickly became the anchor on the Devils blue line thanks to his consistent effort, only missing one game all season. Since then, his stock has risen within the organization. Entering 2014-15, it is possible Helgeson starts as a top two defenseman in Albany. Thanks to his reliable, safe play, he can be paired with almost any defenseman in the lineup. He may have also earned himself a future call-up should injuries occur in New Jersey.

8. (NR) Joshua Jacobs, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 41st overall, 2014

Since 2009, the Devils second round assembly of defensemen have turned into promising prospects. With Merrill and Gelinas up in the NHL, along with Severson and Santini on the way, the organization has done a wonderful job of finding and developing their next wave of blueliners.

Jacobs follows the same trend with great long term potential. He proved himself last season by helping the Indiana Ice claim the USHL‘s Clark Cup championship. In 56 games, the Michigan native had five goals, 18 assists, and was a plus-37. He is also participated internationally representing Team USA in a few tournaments.

What is to like about Jacobs. His tremendous skating allows him to quickly change his positioning on the fly, participate in plays on both ends of the ice, and he is already 6’2, 193 pounds. He shares many similarities with former Michigan standout Jon Merrill, except for one. Jacobs will attend rival Michigan State when he joins the college ranks.

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

Coming off a 97 point season in Swift Current where he was in good health, Black is preparing to begin his pro career after signing an entry-level deal in the spring. It is well earned for the centerman who overcame an illness that nearly forced him to leave hockey.

During his time with Graves’ disease, Black’s metabolism was quite high, forcing him to lose weight in bunches and preventing him to sleep for days at a time. In one instance, he lost almost 15 pounds in two weeks and became too weak to do anything. It is a testament that he was able to play well when he could while suffering from it. Fortunately, it appears he has beaten it with radioactive iodine treatments. Now, he simply takes a hormone-replacement pill daily.

Black’s skills have developed on both sides of the puck enough to the point where he might develop into a dependable depth scorer in the bottom-six.

10. (14) Blake Coleman, C, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 75th overall, 2011

Coleman was one of the most improved prospects in the Devils system as he finally figured out his role in college. With his combination of puck skill and strength, especially in the traffic areas, he became difficult to contain by overpowering defenders in the offensive zone. He finished his junior year with 19 goals and 28 points in 27 games.

Despite missing about three months with a collarbone injury, his return in February spurred the Redhawks to the NCHC title game. They would knock out NCAA Tournament bound St Cloud State and North Dakota before falling to Denver in the conference championship game.

With a strong core returning to Oxford this year, Coleman will be at the forefront of the Redhawk’s offense yet again. The Devils scouts feel the power forward’s game will translate to the pros, but he still has to show 2013-14’s performance was no fluke.

11. (7) Scott Wedgewood, G, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 84th overall, 2010

Having lost the goaltender battle to Kinkaid, Wedgewood finds himself trailing on the depth chart. As Kinkaid and Scott Clemmenson contend for the backup role behind Schneider, the 21-year old goalie has some work to do to show he is still in the mix. Wedgewood admitted he put too much pressure on himself last fall in Albany as he struggled to adjust to the AHL level of competition. It took him a few months, but he eventually went on a hot streak to finish the year, contending with Kinkaid for starting time.

Going forward, Wedgewood will be given the chance to develop in Albany with either the veteran Clemmenson to help guide him or Kinkaid to spur him. His reflexes and technical skills remain his strength, but he struggled to track the puck and must improve that this year.

12. (11) Reece Scarlett, D, 6.5B
Drafted 6th round, 159th overall, 2011

Not to be overlooked by the defensemen above him, Scarlett is another useful player in the Devils depot of talented blueliners. Whereas Helgeson is on one end of the spectrum in terms of defensive defensemen, Scarlett is on the other side for being an offensive-defenseman. Albany’s special teams were boosted last year with him quarterbacking the powerplay. Away from the puck, he can manage in his own zone, but struggles against bigger opponents. He will continue to provide a good offensive spark for Albany as he continues to work on his complete game.

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

The upside with Bell remains sky high, but we will finally see if his offensive game can transition to the pros. In his final year of juniors, the former sixth round pick led Kelowna in scoring with 42 goals and 77 points in 69 games. Nine of those tallies were game winners. After a slow start, Bell’s offensive instincts kicked in. He was more dominant on the puck while showcasing his trademark slap shot. The former defenseman also showed he can drive the zone with his skating and solid lower frame to maintain possession.

Bell’s pro debut may have to wait as he had off-season knee surgery earlier in the summer. While his summer preparation his been limited while he recovers, Bell believes he will be ready to go when training camp opens.

14. (17) Ryan Kujawinski, C, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2013

Like Bell, there is a lot to like about how Kujawinski plays the game. He battles along the boards for possession, using his big frame to shield the puck and win the loose puck battles. That is only one tool he has in his toolbox. Next, his offensive prowess with the puck and ability to finish chances. On top of that, he can move around with his dynamic skating. Simply put, he has one of the highest potentials in the Devils system, but it remains unknown if he will ever reach it.

Last season, Kujawinski’s performance was up-and-down. He notched a career high in goals with 23 in 45 games. His coach praised him as the game’s best player on a few occasions, adding to the prospect’s criteria of dominant play. And yet there were instances where he was not a factor at all, although there were less of them that in years past. While it was good to see more consistency from the centerman, a hand and knee injury took their toll, forcing him to miss 20 games.

With one more year to go in Kingston, Kujawinski has to continue to play his style effectively on a night-to-night basis. It is not hard to imagine a breakout season in his final year with the Frontenacs, but that remains to be seen.

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

Dealing with legal issues from 2013, Ben Johnson put more time into honing his craft on the ice. His application to the game paid off for the Windsor Spitfires, as he scored 28 goals in 59 games. In his previous seasons, Johnson failed to utilize is breakneck speed to his advantage. But last year, it all came together for him on offense as well as defense, as he turned his dreadful minus-28 rating a year ago into a plus-18. That extra work also helped him adjust his game, including inserting himself in the right areas on the forecheck.

16. (13) Blake Pietila, C, 6.0B
Drafted 3rd round, 71st overall, 2014

Pietila made the transition from wing to center in his junior season with Michigan Tech. After a poor start, he suddenly caught fire when the calendar turned to 2014. He scored 19 points in the second half of the season and reached a career high in points (28) and assists (20) by the end of the year. The Huskies play also turned around as their captain figured out how to play his new position.

Becoming a centerman has made Pietila a better player and more valuable than what he was as a winger. Playing down the middle keeps him focused in all three zones with more responsibilities. Thankfully he has the stamina and skating motor to play for extended instances. He also started to use his body more on the forecheck, allowing him to obtain more possession for his team.

The only part of his overall game left to improve is his scoring. He will lead the Huskies in his senior year of college before likely joining Albany next season.

17. (NR) Raman Hrabarenka, D, 6.0C
Signed as a free agent, July 12th, 2013

When Merrill and Gelinas were recalled to New Jersey, Hrabarenka broke out in a limited role. Mainly he was put on the bottom pairing, he did rise at times up to the top-four with minor success. He also contributed with six goals and 15 assists, mainly with his snap shot from the point or by crashing the net for rebounds.

At 22-years old, Hrabarenka is still raw and needs to show he can handle tougher opponents. Like Helgeson, he plays a physical, punishing style that will knock opponents off the puck as well as blocking shots. He will continue to develop in his third season with Albany.

18. (NR) Miles Wood, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 100th overall, 2013

Wood’s transformation has been remarkable. Since being drafted last year, the winger took a big leap in his development by becoming arguably the best player in the prep school league. As a junior at Nobles and Greenough, he finished with 54 points in 29 games and earned MVP honors.

Once scrawny, Wood has grown into a 6’2, 195 pound power forward. Yet he is more finesse than physical. His frame allows him to work on his improving playmaking skills and hockey IQ. On many occasions, his head coach Brian Day praised Wood for his creativity as a scorer and playmaker. Yet it may be his fluid skating that is his best attribute.

It appeared Wood was going to accelerate this fall to play for Boston College, but now it seems he will return to Nobles & Greenough for his senior season.

19. (NR) Joey Dudek, C, 7.0D
Drafted 6th round, 152nd overall, 2014

The second of the Devils amateur players, Dudek is another promising young player with a long road to the pros ahead. Unlike Wood, Dudek needs to fill out his skinny body (5’11, 179 pounds), but that should come with training and maturity. Dudek managed 35 assists and 44 points in the New England Small School Prep league and his playmaking was the engine for Kimball Union Academy in their championship run. As the captain, he showed leadership with his team-first mentality and hard work to improve his game on the ice.

He will join the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL this fall, then join fellow Devils prospect Miles Wood in Boston College for the 2015-16 season.

20. (NR) Connor Chatham, RW, 6.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 71st overall, 2014

Rounding out the list is the energetic Chatham. A bit of a puzzling pick when the Devils selected him in the third round, the 18-year old does not address the teams need for skilled scoring forwards. What Chatham does present is a safe prospect that is likely to become a fourth line NHL player.

Chatham excels at playing a rugged, two-way style. He has the size (6’3, 225 pounds) and power to win battles in tight areas, and his skating allows him to move without hindrance and play hard on a consistent basis. Offensively, he is limited with a lack of creativity and skill with his hands. However, he plays his role quite well for Plymouth as an effective energy player.