Since the 2004 lockout, the New Jersey Devils system has not produced the same quality of prospects they were known for during their glory days. This is a result of different issues, like lack of picks, location on the draft board, or losing the magic touch to find late-round gems. But over the past seven years, management has slowly restocked the prospect pool where depth and quality are now returning NHL ready players.
Nowhere is that more evident than the current crop of defensemen ready to seize the mantle as the next generation of Devils defenders. There is still work to be done to address the forwards, especially the struggle to produce a high-scoring caliber forward. Yet progress is being made and the organization’s farm system’s stock appears to be trending up.
Reid Boucher showed improvement from last season during training camp, looking much quicker and more engaged in the preseason. Unfortunately, he was unable to force his way past the many veterans ahead of him and was sent down to the AHL. Nonetheless, it will motivate him to continue to knock on the door and build off his 22-goals from last season. At some point, Boucher is going to get called up to New Jersey and attempt to stay up. If he continues to grow, the 21-year-old could become the team’s first highly-skilled scorer in quite some time.
Then there is 20-year-old Artur Gavrus. The talented Belarussian winger is coming off a poor rookie year in the KHL where he only scored four points and was limited to 30 games due to injury. This year, he is off to a better start, notching four goals in 14 games and looks more involved offensively despite playing fourth line minutes. A productive, healthy season could usher his return to North America.
It seemed as though Miles Wood was going to accelerate earlier this summer to join Boston College but instead chose to play out his senior year for Noble & Greenough. The Golden Eagles commit has grown from a scrawny kid into a 6’2, 195 pound power forward. He was electric last year in the prep school league, scoring 53 points in 29 games, and remains arguably the best player at his level. His skating is complemented by his playmaking and hockey IQ, but his best trait might be his creativity.
Ben Thomson begins his rookie year with Albany after a solid postseason run with the North Bay Battalion. His 14 postseason points in the OHL, combined with 45 points from the regular season, have shown Thompson might be more than a bottom-six grinder.
Brandon Baddock resumes his duties with the reigning Memorial Cup Champion Edmonton Oil Kings. He is quite strong and tough to beat in puck battles, but he is best known for sticking up for his teammates by dropping the gloves.
Stefan Matteau is on the verge of reaching the NHL. Like Boucher, he did not make the cut due to the depth of veteran forwards ahead of them. Whenever Matteau is called up, he can fill in to almost any role on the Devils because of his versatility and that he has proven he can handle the physical rigors of the NHL. It also appears he has grown past his maturity issues as he now plays more responsible, smarter, in-your-face physical style. The former first round pick has also figured into one of Albany’s top producers. He scored a goal in Albany’s home opener while playing on the second line.
Developing in juniors are the balanced John Quenneville and erratic Ryan Kujawinski. Quenneville showed in the offseason he has the potential to become an NHL player. His combination of size and skill with and without the puck make him the ideal Devils forward. He was returned to Brandon and got off to a great start. Kujawinski continues his quest to conquer inconsistency in his final season with Kingston. The centerman has improved his goal-scoring, but needs to show he can contribute every day, even if he does not find the scoresheet. Through six games, Kujawinski has a goal and two assists in a balanced Frontenac’s offense.
Blake Coleman returns to a Miami lineup filled with NHL talent looking to reach the Frozen Four. They came close last season during Coleman’s 19 goal campaign that saw them fall to Denver in the NCHC championship. Coleman proved difficult to stop last year because he overpowered and outworked opponents in the offensive zone. The senior also has the puck skills and shot to finish those opportunities he created. A healthy, consistent season could see Coleman have his best collegiate season, which could help Miami be one of the last team’s standing come April.
Also graduating this upcoming season is Blake Pietila. The robust forward has evolved his game by shifting from left wing to center to further complement his two-way style of play. The move has seen Pietila reach a new level in all aspects of his game – his already strong play away from the puck, his skating, and being involved on offense. He is also prevailing quite well at faceoffs.
Alex Kerfoot had a good rookie year with Harvard until a late-season injury ended his year. The undersized forward had 14 points last year and will look to build on that as a sophomore. While he has good offensive attributes like vision, hockey sense and good skill with the puck, staying healthy and muscling up his 5’10, 175 pounds frame might be Kerfoot’s biggest goals going forward.
Further down the pipeline is Joey Dudek. After leading Kimball Union Academy to a school title with 44 points last year, he joined the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the USHL this season. Through four games, he has a goal and an assist. Dudek has elite-level skill with good vision and decision making that could make him a top-six playmaker in the future. He needs to get stronger and quicker on the ice, but he has shown in the past his commitment to improving his flaws. He will attend Boston College in 2015.
Meanwhile, Graham Black and Ben Johnson begin their quest to rise through the pro ranks, but they will have to contend with Albany’s forward depth to earn playing time. Since overcoming Graves’ disease, Black has a bright future if realized. The determined, two-way centerman that can provide a secondary scoring option. Meanwhile, Johnson’s development took an important step last year as everything seemed to click for him on both sides of the puck. His high energy and blistering speed can make him ideal for bottom-six duty but the Michigan native has yet to dress for Albany.
The curious case of the Devils right wing depth continues this year. Following the graduation of Mike Sislo, there was no dedicated winger in the system until the team selected Connor Chatham in the third round of the 2014 NHL Draft. While he is limited offensively, Chatham does everything else well, which could eventually lead to a role in the Devils bottom-six down the road. How the organization has recently addressed the lack of up-and-coming right wingers is a product of the Devils system. Their forwards are versatile where they can play center or either wing depending on the team’s needs.
The young blueliners that took part at New Jersey’s training camp all performed well and assured the organization of their quality depth on the blue line for the future. Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas, Adam Larsson, Damon Severson, and Seth Helgeson are all ready for NHL action, but only four of them made the cut.
While he sat out as a precaution earlier in camp, Merrill’s spot on the roster seemed certain. The smart defender was one of the best players in the final months of the 2013-14 season. Used in all situations, Merrill has matured over the years and can make a difference on both sides of the puck. The Devils hope the influx of youth to the blue line can create more scoring opportunities, something Merrill has experience in from his time at Michigan. Of the four defensemen under 23 years old, his spot appears to be the safest.
Severson had an outstanding training camp and has had a strong start to his NHL career. Unlike last year’s training camp, Severson was poised and played to his strengths, which is possessing and moving the puck quickly and creating chances. Severson will make some rookie mistakes but has looked fine otherwise. He was a plus-two on opening night against the Flyers while paired with veteran Andy Greene. His addition creates a tricky situation for the coaches to find enough playing time for the youngsters.
Just missing the cut but waiting in the wings is Helgeson. The 6’5, 220 pound defenseman is a punishing force on defense and plays a consistent, responsible game. He anchored Albany’s defense last season playing in 75 games, adding 10 points, 100 penalty minutes, and was a plus-12. The coaches utilized the defensive-defenseman on the penalty kill and late game situations in the preseason and were pleased with his results. Management feels he could be playing in the NHL right now but did not want a blue line of mostly inexperienced NHL defenders. For now, Helgeson will lead Albany’s defense until he is needed in New Jersey.
Reece Scarlett had a solid first year in the pros with six goals, 14 assists, 58 shots, and was a plus-11 in 48 games played in 2013-14. The Edmonton native arrived at camp this year bigger and stronger than ever to deal with forwards that try to knock him off the puck. Due to a large turnover of graduates on defense, Scarlett is now the only offensive defenseman remaining in Albany. As such, he inherits a ton of responsibility this season to create offense from the point, especially on the power play.
Since being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2012, Raman Hrabarenka has turned into an interesting prospect. He had a small breakout season last year with six goals and 15 assists. He has also been utilized more on the powerplay because he pinches and crashes the net along with having a good snapshot. The 22-year old will bounce around Albany’s eight-man defensive unit in 2014-15. However, with a lack of offense from the blue line, Hrabarenka could be in the line-up to be used on the powerplay. He will also be to create more chances at even strength.
Coming down the line is the talented Steve Santini. He had a great rookie campaign with Boston College which included a trip to the Frozen Four. The mean, bruising defenseman is good at throwing his body around the ice and being hard to play against overall. Devils management has acknowledged they look forward to the day the young American joins the organization. For now, he continues his development with the Golden Eagles while preparing to play once again for Team USA at the World Juniors Championship.
Joshua Jacobs begins his college career at Michigan State after a summer of uncertainty. Rather than go to the Sarnia Sting, he opted for the college route. That was probably the best decision for the 6’2 191 pound Jacobs because he is trying to create his own identity. He is a sound skater that moves the puck fluidly and can play solid defense. But the 18-year-old’s best traits are suited for scoring. He can push the tempo to generate even strength chances, protect the puck, and put shots from the point on net. Michigan State is counting on Jacobs to help ignite a Spartan Renaissance in East Lansing.
Up in Kamloops, Ryan Rehill will roam the blue line in his third WHL season. Known more for his defensive play, the Blazers defenseman is off to a good start after scoring a goal on opening night. Former Wisconsin defensemen Joe Faust begins his pro career this season. The stay-at-home defenseman will rotate in Albany’s eight-man group of blueliners. Alexander Urbom moved on to Europe to play in the KHL. New Jersey still own his rights if he chooses to return to North America.
It is going to be a crowded crease in Albany this year. With Scott Clemenson winning the back-up role behind Cory Schneider, the recently graduated Keith Kinkaid joins Scott Wedgewood and Maxime Clermont in the AHL. Clemenson could also join Albany if Kinkaid supplants him as New Jersey’s back-up. Because of that, Clermont may once again bounce between Albany and ECHL Elmira. It is hard to be confident with Clermont’s future when he has posted a sub-.900 save percentage and goals against average above 3.00 every season in the ECHL. While his small sample size with Albany is notable, it is unlikely he will prosper past the minor leagues. As for Wedgewood, he will remain in the AHL and receive the majority of the starts. However, the longer Kinkaid stays in Albany, the more playing time he may take from Wedgewood.
Meanwhile, Anthony Brodeur is now the starter for the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL. The second year goaltender had a good showing in training camp, including a 33-save performance during an AHL scrimmage. This is an important year for the young Brodeur to see if he can handle a heavier workload as the full-time starter. Thus far, he has three wins in seven games played while posting a 2.76 goals against average and .890 save percentage.