The playoffs were in reach going down to the last couple of weeks of the regular season for the Lowell Devils, but ultimately they came up short, missing the playoffs by eight points and finishing sixth in the Atlantic Division with a record of 35-26-2-7. It was an up and down year for Lowell, filled with long winning streaks and losing streaks. Despite missing out on the post-season, there were many positives during the year, most notably the play of many of the top prospects in the system, which should bode well next year for Lowell, as well as the parent New Jersey.
Perhaps the most positive development this season in Lowell was the play of first-year goaltender Jeff Frazee, who silenced his many critics after a tumultuous finish to his collegiate career at the University of Minnesota last year. He almost had no choice but to turn pro after losing his starting job as junior, but the Devils still believed he had the talent to succeed, and just needed a change of scenery and some pro-level coaching. After starting the season in the ECHL with Trenton, Frazee was summoned to Lowell to replace Scott Clemmensen, who was needed in New Jersey. Frazee initially split time with Dave Caruso, but it didn’t take him long to secure the job and run with it.
Frazee broke a handful of team records, including wins (28), shutouts (4), games played (58) and minutes played (3407). A six-game winning streak in late November and early December was also a franchise best mark. The Devils lone AHL All-Star representative posted a 2.62 goal against average and a sparkling .920 save percentage, which is all the more impressive considering he faced upwards of 30 or more shots most nights.
There was never doubt about the athletic ability and overall talent Frazee possessed, but he was wildly inconsistent during his collegiate career and seemed to have trouble with the mental part of the game. With his stock in the organization plummeting, Frazee needed to get himself back on track this season, and he did just that and then some. Being the only goaltending prospect in the system, the Devils needed to see what Frazee had, and he proved to them that he’s indeed still a prospect. He will head into next season as Lowell’s clear-cut No. 1 goaltender and will look to build off the success he had this year.
Up front, Nicklas Bergfors bounced back in a big way after an sub-par and injury-plagued 2007-08 season. The fourth-year pro suited up in 66 games, and along the way, set career highs in goals (22), assists (29) and points (51). His 22 goals, 12 of which came on the power play, lead the team and his 51 points was second best, just two behind minor league vet Jon DiSalvatore. After going the whole month of December without a point, Bergfors finished strong, collecting 36 of his 52 points from January until the end of the season. He was recalled to New Jersey for a month when the big club ran into injury problems early in the season, and scored his first career NHL goal.
There were many doubting Bergfors’ ability after seeing his numbers dip since his splashy 2005-06 pro debut as an 18-year-old in the AHL when he put up 40 points. However, many of those doubts were put to rest as the 22-year-old Bergfors was able to find some consistency to his game, and was often the biggest offensive threat for Lowell. While Bergfors may have been surpassed by Mattias Tedenby as the top prospect in the organization, he is still blessed with a tremendous amount of natural offensive skill and it appears he is on the cusp of graduating to the NHL. He should receive a legitimate chance to land a regular spot in New Jersey next season, possibly in the top six group of forwards, if pending UFA Brian Gionta does not return.
Youth was served up front in Lowell this season, with the likes of Vladimir Zharkov, Alexander Vasyunov, Matt Halischuk and Michael Swift making significant impacts in their first seasons of professional hockey. The most pleasant surprise of those aforementioned four probably would have to be the play of Zharkov. With 11 goals and 23 assists in 69 games, Zharkov finished fourth on the club with 34 points, which was a new Lowell franchise mark for points in a season by a rookie. His most impressive stat though would have to be his +23 rating, easily the best mark on the club, and tied for tops among AHL rookies. In 60 of his 69 games, he was an even or plus player, quite a feat on a team that gave up its fair share of goals.
The ultra speedy, two-way right winger adapted to the North American game seamlessly after coming over from Russia and might need less development time in the minors than originally thought. While it might be a stretch to see him as a regular in New Jersey next season, don’t be surprised to see him get into a handful of games in 2009-10, before challenging for a full-time role with the big club in 2010-11.
Another Russian made some waves in his North American pro debut for Lowell, but unlike Zharkov, he didn’t start the year there. After languishing and failing to see much ice time with his team in Yaroslavl (KHL), Vasyunov and the Devils decided that it was in his best interest to cross the pond, and in late October, made his AHL debut. Though the 20year-old was quite streaky (starting and finishing strong, while suffering through a one goal in 31 games drought during mid-season) he still managed 15 goals in 69 games, good enough to tie for fourth best on the club and tops among Lowell rookies. His +3 rating was quite solid, considering his lack of defensive acumen.
Vasyunov put on his display of elite offensive skill and speed on a regular basis and he scored some spectacular, breathtaking goals in his first year as pro. New Jersey had been trying for sometime to get his name on a contract and get him to North America with his development sagging in his native Russia, and were finally able to do so, and it looks like they may have found a gem. Players of Vasyunov’s ilk don’t grow on trees and the Devils have to be excited at what he showed in his first year as a pro, and what he might have in store for 2009-10. He’ll likely still need another full season of development in the minors, maybe two, but the blossoming sniper is giving the Devils something to be excited about in the near future.
Despite missing just over two months of game action with a sprained MCL, Halischuk had a stellar rookie pro season. It started with a bang, as he scored his first four professional goals in just his second game, tying franchise marks for goals and points in a game. The rest of his season was filled with peaks and valleys, but in 47 games, he managed to score 14 goals and 15 assists, and finish sixth overall in team scoring. He also impressed New Jersey enough early on to earn a one-game audition in October against the Maple Leafs, in which he didn’t disappoint, picking up an assist in the contest.
Halischuk is the epitome of what the Devils crave in their forwards, and he has the added bonus of possessing those intangible qualities that you just can’t teach: a tireless work ethic and boundless energy. He has above average hockey sense at both ends of the rink and is a top-notch skater who also has the skills to be an elite penalty killer in time. He has moved very quickly through the system and it would not be surprising to see him in New Jersey to start next season.
Swift was signed as an undrafted free agent at the end of the 2007-08 season after capping a great junior career in Niagara, and though he struggled initially to carve out a role with Lowell, he persevered and eventually secured a regular spot in the line-up. In 52 games, he recorded 12 goals and 15 assists and posted 50 PIM’s, along with a +2 rating, one of only five Lowell players to finish on the plus side. Swift emerged into an effective two-way player for Lowell as the season wore on, and should continue to get better with more pro experience.
Third-year pro Patrick Davis posted career-best totals, while also emerging as one of the team leaders. In 74 games, Davis scored 13 goals and 17 assists, for a tie for fifth place in team scoring with Pascal Rheaume. While he appears to be on the verge of being passed on the depth chart by more talented players, Davis still has a shot for a career in the NHL in the future, though he still needs more development time in the minors.
It was a trying season for Petr Vrana. He started the season in New Jersey and played in 16 games, but he failed to earn the trust Devils head coach Brent Sutter. So the dependable two-way Czech forward, and 2007-08 Lowell leading scoring leader, cleared waivers and was returned mid-season. Upon his return to Lowell, he scored nine points in 14 games, but then suffered a broken leg which sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Vrana’s future with the organization appears to be cloudy at best and it’s up in the air if he will be re-signed over the summer.
Brad Snetsinger started the season in Lowell, but struggled to earn a regular line-up spot and carry over his scoring prowess that he showed as a junior, scoring only once in eight games, and was reassigned to the Devils ECHL affiliate in Trenton. However, he responded well over the course of the rest of the season with Trenton, and gained some confidence and regained his offensive touch. He scored a point-per-game clip, with 49 points, 21 of which were goals. The Devils appear to be taking their time with Snetsinger, but there is no need to rush him at this point. However, after adapting well to the ECHL, he should be ready for full-time duty in Lowell next season.
There were also a couple of first-year players in Matt Corrente and Tyler Eckford who suited up for Lowell on the blueline this year, both of whom are highly regarded prospects in the Devils system. The Devils first-round draft pick in 2006, Corrente suffered through an injury-plagued final season of junior last year, but was able to put together a relatively healthy and solid pro debut this year. Corrente’s 162 PIM’s were second on the team to only Pierre-Luc Leblond‘s 216. In 67 contests, he displayed a good all-around game, as he recorded six goals and 12 assists, to along with a steady +1 rating.
After two great training camps, there was a thought that Corrente might have a shot to open the season in New Jersey this year, but he was unable to make an impact and was dispatched to the AHL, which at this point looks to be a good move for his long-term development. Along with being a physical and nasty presence on the blueline, he also displays the ability to carry the puck up the ice and put a few points on the board. He might be best served to play another full season in the minors, but after making such a smooth adjustment to the pro game, he might not need much more time there and could very well challenge for a spot on New Jersey’s blueline this fall.
Eckford’s season was a little rocky at times, but the former forward, by all accounts, still had a solid rookie season in the AHL after a spectacular finish to his collegiate career at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Despite a team-worst -16 rating, Eckford took a regular shift on the Lowell blueline, suiting up in 72 games, recording two goals and 25 assists, to go along with 59 PIM’s. He also quickly established himself as one of Lowell’s most reliable shoot-out specialists.
Perhaps no prospect has come as far as Eckford has since being selected by the Devils in the seventh round, way back in the 2004 draft. In his first year as a pro, the silky-smooth skater showed an ability to move the puck up the ice and contribute offensively. He showed that he still has things to learn defensively, but it might be the same kind of transition that he had to make in college, as he became remarkably better in this own end each season in the NCAA. As he continues to learn the nuances of the defensive game and put some muscle onto his frame, he should continue to develop into a solid two-way rearguard who has the ability to thrive in the more wide open NHL. He will need another full season of seasoning in the minors, but he is on the right development track and should be in New Jersey very soon.
Third-year pro Mark Fraser emerged as a leader on the Lowell blueline this year, especially for the likes of Corrente and Eckford. The tough as nails rearguard had 152 PIM’s, 17 points and a respectable -5 rating in 74 games this season. While it appears that he is being passed on the depth chart by new faces in the system, there is still a future in New Jersey for the type of game Fraser plays. He will never be an elite, top four rearguard, but he still has the ability to be an effective depth defenseman, should he get the opportunity.
Olivier Magnan quitely put together his best season as a pro. He improved a lot in the plus/minus department, going from an awful -32 rating, to a much more respectable -3 rating. He suited up in all of Lowell’s 76 games, scoring two goals and eight assists to go along with 66 PIM’s. The well-rounded blueliner has made steady, yet unspectacular progress since being selected in the fifth round of the 2006 draft. While not as talented as other prospects in the system, if he continues to improve as he has each of the last two seasons in the AHL, he should remain a viable prospect in the organization.