In 2004, the Devils were unable to follow up the success of their championship in 2003, and were ousted in the first round of the playoffs. They did however, have another stellar, 40+ win, 100-point regular season, which meant that they would be drafting near the bottom of the first round yet again. However, just like the year before when they moved up to draft Zach Parise, the team saw a player that they wanted, so they traded up to ensure that they got him. They gave up a third rounder to move up to the 20th slot in the first round and selected Travis Zajac, who early on his NHL career has established himself as a bona fide top-six forward.
Having already given up a second and third rounder at the trade deadline to acquire Viktor Kozlov and Jan Hrdina, that left the Devils without many selections, as they did not make their next pick until late in the fifth round. The Devils ended up making seven total picks, and the only one who has established himself as an NHL regular is Zajac. Of the 252 games played by this draft class, 244 come from Zajac, while the other eight come from Pierre Luc-Leblond, who while considered a prospect by NHL standards, is not by Hockey’s Future. Three of the players drafted are still prospects in the system, including Tyler Eckford, one of the top defense prospects in the organization, while the other three can be safely labelled as busts. Considering the team got Zajac, and still have three prospects from a draft where they didn’t make their second choice until the fifth round, the 2004 draft can be considered a moderate success.
Travis Zajac, C – 1st round, 20th overall (Salmon Arm, BCHL)
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games Played: 244
The Devils traded up with the Dallas Stars, sacrificing their third round draft choice, in order to move up and select Travis Zajac, a center who’d just come off a spectacular season with the BCHL’s Salmon Arm Silverbacks. Just like 2003 when the team traded up to select star winger Zach Parise, the move to trade up and draft Zajac has paid huge dividends for the Devils, as he has quickly emerged into a top-flight center. Zajac, along with linemate, and Calgary Flames 2004 first round choice Kris Chucko, tore up the BCHL, scoring a whopping 43 goals and 69 assists in the regular season to go along with another 23 points in 14 playoff games. Scouts flocked to see Zajac and Chucko that season, and the Devils obviously took notice of the play of the 6’2, 205 lb centerman.
It was off to the University of North Dakota for Zajac in 2004-05, where he was a top player for the Fighting Sioux, leading the club as a freshman with 17 goals, and finishing third on the club with 36 points. His follow-up season on a loaded UND squad that included the like of Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie and Drew Stafford was even better, as he finished second in club scoring with 47 points, just one behind Stafford, while leading the team in assists with 29. After his stellar sophomore season, and two games for the Devils AHL affiliate in Albany, the Devils and Zajac decided that he was ready to turn pro.
It was assumed that Zajac would need at least one year of seasoning in the AHL before contending for a full-time roster spot in New Jersey, but after an impressive training camp and pre-season, Zajac cracked the 2006-07 opening night line-up and did not look back. He was one of the top performing NHL rookies that season, finishing with an impressive 17 goals and 25 assists in 80 games, playing on the Devils second line with Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner. Zajac had a trying sophomore season, dipping to 14 goals and 20 assists, struggling to find any consistency during the season. He did suit up in all 82 games, but by the end of the Devils post-season run that year, he was relegated to the fourth line. Zajac came into the 2008-09 season determined to put his disappointing sophomore year behind him, and he did just that, putting together a career-best season. He, along with Parise and Langenbrunner, formed one of the NHL’s most formidable and potent top lines in the league, scoring 20 goals, and 42 assists in 82 games. His point totals, along with his strong two-way play paved the way to an impressive and team-best +33 rating.
Firmly entrenched in New Jersey as a top-six forward, the best could still be yet to come from Zajac, who is set to cash in big time this summer as a restricted free agent. The Devils will make sure to lock up him up long term, as he will be a key cog for the club in the future.
Alexander Mikhailishin, D – 5th round, 155th overall (Spartak, Russia)
Status: NHL Bust
NHL Games Played: 0
The Devils had an extremely long wait in between picks due to GM Lou Lamoreillo’s wheeling and dealing, and when they finally got to pick again in the fifth round, they selected giant Russian defenseman Alexander Mikhailishin. Mikhailishin was known as a physical, defense-first, stay-at-home type of blueliner, and standing at 6’4, 207 lbs, he was an imposing figure on the blueline. While his skating and mobility needed some work, the Devils hoped that in time, he would fill out his frame and develop into a serviceable depth defenseman. However, Mikhailishin had a difficult time getting into the Russian Super League, suiting up in only 6 games in 2004-05, the only time he has seen any action in the top men’s league in Russia. He toiled for second and third division Russian teams since that season and not since.
The fact that the NHL’s style of play evolved into a more faced-paced game made Mikhailishin quickly fall out of the Devils plans. He can easily be put down as an NHL bust.
Josh Disher, G – 6th round, 185th overall (Erie, OHL)
Status: NHL Bust
NHL Games Played: 0
The Devils dipped into the OHL for some goaltending depth with their sixth round choice when they selected Erie Otter Disher. Disher had a stellar rookie season for the Otters, and to the surprise of some, grabbed the starting job and ran with it. He played in 63 games and set a new team record in minutes played while recording 26 wins, a 2.86 goals against average, a .906 save percentage and five shutouts. His play and numbers improved in 2004-05, as his goals against dropped, and his save percentage improved. Going into the 2005-06 season, Disher was hoping to continue his stellar play and earn himself a contract with the Devils. However, his numbers slipped significantly, seeing his GAA go up almost by one full goal and his save percentage dip below .900. There was some interaction with New Jersey in this period where they tried to remake his style, but it didn’t turn out favorably.
After the Otters missed the playoffs, he played a few games in the ECHL and AHL, but that would be the only pro hockey Disher would end up playing as he was not offered a contract by the Devils He did not play hockey in 2006-07, but returned to action last year in the CIS ranks with Dalhousie. He can safely be labelled as an NHL bust.
Pierre-Luc Leblond, LW – 7th round, 216th overall (Baie-Comeau, QMJHL)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games Played: 8
The Devils had back-to-back selections in the seventh round, and with their first choice, they selected tough as nails left winger Pierre-Luc Leblond from the Baie-Comeau Drakkar of the QMJHL. Coming off a 198 PIM rookie season in the "Q", it was obvious the Devils liked the pugilistic ability Leblond possessed. 2004-05 was much of the same, as he bumped up his PIM total to 229. Leblond turned pro for the 2005-06 season, though since he wasn’t signed to an NHL deal, he technically was property of the Devils AHL affiliate in Albany. He split the season with the UHL‘s Adirondack Frostbite and Albany, racking up a combined 295 PIM’s in 58 games. He spent all of 2006-07 with the Devils ECHL affiliate in Trenton, pilling up 183 PIM’s, and 13 points in 52 games. In 2007-08, he played half a dozen games in Trenton, but spent the majority of the season in the AHL with Lowell. He recorded a combined 144 PIM’s in 42 games.
In 2008-09, Leblond was the surprise of training camp and pre-season for the Devils, sticking around until the bitter end of the pre-season after making a big impression on New Jersey head coach Brent Sutter with his tough and gritty style of play. The big, burly winger spent the majority of the season in the AHL with Lowell, where he put up 216 PIM’s and 10 points in 60 games. However, he was called up to New Jersey on a couple of occasions during the season, suiting up in eight games, recording an assist and 22 PIM’s. Leblond has come along way since he was drafted, and while he still faces a tough hill to climb to become an NHL regular, he made quite an impression this year and might just carve out a niche role as an energetic, physical fourth line enforcer.
Tyler Eckford, D – 7th round, 217th overall (South Surrey, BCHL)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0
GM Lou Lamoriello and Chief Scout David Conte took a bit of flyer with their second seventh round pick when they selected Eckford out of the BCHL. A converted forward, Eckford was quite raw, but possessed good skating skills and offensive upside. After scoring 37 points in 58 games in 2003-04, Eckford turned his game up a notch as he exploded for a 22-goal, 43-assist season in 2004-05, en route to leading South Surrey to the BCHL Championship. Eckford’s next stop was the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he would spend the next three seasons. Each season, Eckford got progressively better in all areas of the game, putting up his fair share of points, along with becoming bigger, stronger, and more confident in his defensive zone play. He scored 18 points in 2005-06, 22 points in 2006-07, and finished his collegiate career in style as a junior in 2007-08, recording 31 points in 35 games, leading all NCAA defensemen in scoring.
After three years of solid development at UAF, Eckford made the jump to the professional ranks, signing with the Devils after his junior season. It was a bit of an uneven season for Eckford as he spent the entire season in Lowell with the Devils AHL affiliate, but all in all, he made a relatively smooth adjustment to the step up in competition. He suited up in 72 games for Lowell, and was the top-scoring blueliner for the club, recording two goals and 25 assists. His -16 rating was the worst on the team, but that can all be chalked up to learning the nuances of the pro game.
The 6’3, 215 lb Eckford has emerged as one of the top defense prospects in the organization, and as a seventh round pick, the Devils have to be absolutely thrilled with how he’s developed thus far. He’s a strong skating blueliner with the size and offensive skills to help New Jersey’s blueline in the not too distant future. He’ll likely need another year in the AHL to round out the rough edges in his defensive play, but expect him to challenge for a full-time role on the Devils blueline in 2010-11.
Nathan Perkovich, RW – 8th round, 250th overall (Cedar Rapids, USHL)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0
The Devils took another project type of player when they selected 6’5, 195 lb Perkovich. The lanky right winger scored only eight points in his draft year, but the Devils must have been enticed by his size, and by the numbers he put up while playing high school hockey in Michigan. Perkovich returned to the USHL in 2004-05, this time for the Chicago Steel, where he again only managed eight points, six of which were goals. His third time through the USHL circut saw Perkovich finally break through offensively, as he led the Steel in scoring with 28 goals and 24 assists in 56 games, to go along with 121 PIM’s.
Perkovich moved on to the collegiate ranks in 2006-07 with Lake Superior State. He had an outstanding freshman season for the Lakers, leading the club in rookie scoring with 22 points, and co-leading the team with 15 goals. 2007-08 was much of the same for Perkovich, as he again led the club in goal scoring with 17 goals, and finished third in overall scoring with 25 points. On a Lakers team that struggled to score, Perkovich accounted for nearly a quarter of the team’s offensive output. His junior season at LSSU was a bit uneven at times, but he finished strong. His 12 goals were second best on the club, and his 24 points placed him fourth overall on the team. At the end of the season, Perkovich suited up for a few playoff games for the Devils ECHL affiliate in Trenton, scoring a goal and four points in six games.
It’s not likely a question of if the Devils sign Perkovich, but more of when. He could return to LSSU for his senior season, but if the Devils feel he is ready for the next level, they could sign him this summer and turn him pro. While he is still a little raw, and needs to continue to get stronger, Perkovich has proved over his three years at LSSU that he can score goals, as he has 44 goals combined over that time. He is not a top-flight prospect in the organization by any stretch, but for an eighth-round draft choice, he has emerged into a legitimate NHL prospect. He is still a few years away from challenging for NHL duty, but he is on the right track to having a future in the league.
Valeri Klimov, D – 9th round, 282nd overall (Spartak, Russia)
Status: NHL bust
NHL Games Played: 0
With their last choice, the Devils dipped into Russia again, selecting another big defenseman in Valeri Klimov. The 6’3, 202 blueliner actually skated alongside fellow Devils draftee Mikhailishin for Spartak in 2003-04. He is a standard stay-at-home defenseman. Since his draft year, he has put on 25 lbs of muscle, but has not received consistent ice time, thus hampering his development. There is no statistical record of him playing in 2007-08, or this past season, but the Devils retain his rights.