Devils organizational depth analysis, Fall 2009

By Jared Ramsden

The Devils are an organization known for their stability and consistency year after year, except when it comes to coaching. While it was thought that Brent Sutter was the long-term answer, and perhaps even a candidate to eventually take over from GM Lou Lamoriello down the road, he ended up leaving after only two seasons behind the bench and was replaced by a familiar face in Jacques Lemaire, who just completed a nine-year run with the Minnesota Wild.

While the common thought outside the organization was that this move would negatively impact the offensive progress of young players such as Zach Parise and Travis Zajac. However, early on this year, Lemaire has blended his infamous defensive “trapping” style with an up-tempo, puck-moving game and so far, the results have been promising.

There was also a coaching change for the Devils AHL affiliate in Lowell. Former New Jersey assistant John McLean was given the reins of a team desperately hoping to end a long playoff drought. He’s joined by assistants Kevin Dean and Chris Terreri, both of whom spent the majority of their hockey careers in the organization. The Devils also have their own ECHL affiliate in Trenton.

Despite being ranked near the bottom of Hockey’s Future’s Organizational Rankings yet again, there has been substantial improvement in the drafting and development of prospects over the course of the past five seasons, especially the last two years. The Devils have depth at all positions except goaltender, but lack the star quality that other teams possess. 

This is a system that is slowly on the rise, and for the first time in quite a while, the Devils are starting to see some of their fruits coming to bear this year. Lamoreillo decided to let a handful of established veterans leave over the summer, in order to give some of the youth an opportunity. Nicklas Bergfors and Rod Pelley have not looked out of place early and appear to have sewn up regular spots in the line-up. Matt Halischuk, Pierre-Luc Leblond and Mark Fraser also made the team, and though they haven’t played much, all three are gaining valuable experience at the NHL level.

Over the course of the next few seasons, expect to see a continuing influx of these eager, up and coming prospects being infused into a New Jersey line-up that has an established core to help guide these young players and ease them into their NHL careers.

Left Wing

With the exception of two late-round selections from the 2009 draft class, and a couple of position changes, the Devils stable of left wing prospects remain relatively unchanged from last year. Mattias Tedenby and Alexander Vasyunov headline this group.

Tedenby is undoubtedly the organization’s most prized prospect. The supremely talented Swede has a tremendous offensive skill set, and gave the Devils a brief tease of what he has to offer over the summer at the team’s prospect development camp where he dominated at times with his blazing speed and tantalizing puck skills. He had a phenomenal playoff in Sweden last year, and while he’s struggling to get regular ice time on a strong HV-71 squad in the Swedish Elite League this year, he has a ton of potential. He has an out clause in his contract with HV-71 next year, and it would be surprising if he didn’t cross the pond. A top-six spot in New Jersey awaits, and that could come as early as next season.

It was hard to get a good read on the progress of Vasyunov until he decided to leave his homeland so he could further develop and hone his skills in North America after signing with the Devils in October of last year. Now going into his first full season in North America, the Russian sniper could really take off after an up and down pro debut with Lowell last year. He has the hands of a natural goal scorer, and possesses game-breaking offensive ability. He’s lacking in the defensive aspect of the game, and he will need to show some defensive aptitude in order to advance to the next level, but there is no doubt what his future with the team is, and that is to be a goal scorer. He is still a classic boom or bust prospect, but the Devils have the luxury of not having to rush him, with Parise and Elias manning the port side at the NHL level and Tedenby ahead of him on the depth chart. It will be another season or two before the Devils know if Vasyunov can be that 25-30 goal scorer at the NHL level.

2007 top pick and second round draft choice Mike Hoeffel is going into his junior season at the University of Minnesota, and while there is some debate as to what type of player he could eventually develop into, he best fits as a speedy, hard-working two-way winger, much like current Devil left winger Jay Pandolfo in his prime years. Hoeffel thrives as a rugged and physical forechecker, as he displayed at the World Juniors last year. He does show some offensive glimpses from time to time, but he is simply not a natural finisher. He would probably benefit from playing out his four full years of college eligibility, but he is a candidate to turn pro at the end of this season. Hoeffel doesn’t have huge upside, but is a fairly safe bet to reach his long-term potential.

Brad Snetsinger’s pro career started slowly last year, but all it took was some seasoning at the ECHL level with Trenton for him to get some of his offensive swagger back. While he is capable of playing a two-way game, he showed in junior that he could the puck in the back of the net, and just needed a little more development time before being ready to play full time in the AHL. After netting 21 goals in 49 games with Trenton, Snetsinger’s next step was to crack Lowell’s line-up this year. He did just that and in the early going, looks to be adjusting well. He’s a prospect who will require patience, but could pay dividends down the road.

It will be some time before the Devils know what they have in 2009 fifth-round pick Derek Rodwell as he still has one more season left to play in the Alberta Junior Hockey League before he begins his collegiate career at the University of North Dakota next year, a place where the Devils have had great success developing players as of late. He’s got decent size, plays physical, and seems to have some two-way ability. Right now, he looks similar in style to Hoeffel, though that could change as he matures and fills out his frame.

Though the season is still in its infancy, the Devils may have a potential all-around diamond in the rough in John-Sebastien Berube. The 2008 seventh-round pick appears to be well on his way to surpassing his offensive numbers from last season, and has delivered some strong performances thus far for Rouyn-Noranda in the QMJHL. The Devils knew he could fight when they drafted him, but it appears that he has more to offer, and it looks as though he could eventually develop into effective role player at the NHL level.

Kory Nagy graduated to the pro ranks after a strong final season of junior with Oshawa. It looks as though he will be taking a similar career path as Snetsinger, spending the majority of his first pro season in the ECHL with Trenton. He showed the ability to score in junior, but his NHL future lies as an energetic, hard-working pest.

Perhaps the Devils see some of Berube in Ashton Bernard, one of the QMJHL’s most feared fighters. For the time being, his future lies as an enforcer. He will need to improve his skating and all-around play to be considered a legitimate NHL prospect.

Right Wing

The Devils have not added any right wingers to their system since last year, so much like the left wingers, there wasn’t much change here, aside from a couple of position changes. The top two right wingers on the depth chart, Bergfors and Halischuk are currently both in New Jersey with the Devils, while Vladimir Zharkov is not far away from joining them.

It seems like Bergfors has been in the organization forever, but he was able to start in the AHL at the ripe age of 18. And now after four full seasons of developing in the AHL, he has finally made the next step and appears to be well on his way to cementing himself as an NHL regular. With five points through nine games this year, he is steadily gaining the confidence of Lemaire and is getting regular minutes in the top six and on the power play. The Devils appear to have taken the perfect approach with Bergfors, letting him develop in the minors and not rushing him to the NHL.

The Devils knew Bergfors couldn’t develop on the third or fourth line in the NHL, so they were patient, and waited for a spot on a scoring line to open up, which is exactly what happened when Brian Gionta departed via free agency. Each passing game, Bergfors is looking more and more comfortable, digging out loose pucks from the corners, making smart passes and showing off his quick and tricky shot. He’s going to get better and better as the season progresses, and will be a big part of the Devils future going forward.

Perhaps no prospect has rocketed through the system as fast as Halischuk, who was a relative unknown when the Devils drafted him in the fourth round of the 2007 draft. The Devils scouts appear to have done their homework on Halischuk though as he is on the cusp of becoming an NHL regular. Despite having last season interrupted by a knee injury, his rookie pro season was a rousing success and a strong showing in training camp earned him a spot in New Jersey to start the season. While the speedy, hard-working, two-way winger has been in and out of the line-up early on, it’s only a matter of time before he’s taking a regular shift on the third or fourth line. His never say die attitude is contagious.

After a splendid finish to his junior career, Nick Palmieri is starting off his pro career in the AHL with Lowell. He benefited greatly from an early season trade to the powerhouse Belleville Bulls and seemed to regain the passion and intensity in his game that he lost while playing for lowly Erie for three seasons. The best power forward prospect in the organization will not be rushed by the Devils because as is often the case with big, goal-scoring forwards of Palmieri’s ilk, they take a little longer to develop than others. He has great hands, and as he continues to fill out and adjust to the pro game, may really take off. After a year or two in the AHL, Palmieri will likely be ready for prime time.

Zharkov may not have the offensive flair and pizzazz of Vasyunov, however, he is a lot closer to making the jump to the NHL than his countryman. One of the best skaters in the organization, Zharkov plays an energetic, up-tempo style, and displays good awareness at both ends of the rink. The move from Russia to North America has really fast tracked his development and after one full season in North America, plus a standout training camp where he really stood out among his peers, Zharkov likely will get a few looks at the big-league level this season, before making a serious run at a full-time NHL gig next season. He likely won’t ever be a top-six forward, but he has the tools to emerge into an elite two-way third liner.

One of the most underrated and overlooked prospects in the system, Nathan Perkovich was taken all the way back in the eighth round of the 2004 draft, and has quietly developed into quite the sniper. After three years in the USHL, and three years in the NCAA with tiny Lake Superior State, Perkovich finally made the jump to the pro ranks this season. The lanky 6’5 winger is not the best skater and is still raw in some facets of the game, especially defensively, however, he has a great set of hands and knows how to find the back of the net. Given the fact that he is already 24, Perkovich will have to make a relatively quick adjustment to the pro game, because if he can’t carry over his goal scoring prowess to his level, his value as a prospect will diminish quickly and he will be passed by others on the depth chart.

Vili Sopanen is one of the true wild cards in the organization. Drafted in 2007, he has had two fairly productive seasons with the Pelicans in the Finnish elite league, and has the size and raw goal-scoring ability to develop into an effective power forward. He is currently in the midst of his third full season over in his native Finland. The upside and promise is there, but until he chooses to cross the pond, it’s hard to really know what the Devils have in him.

A bit of an enigma, Patrick Davis has reached somewhat of a crossroads in his professional career. He showed great offensive skill and talent while in the OHL, however it has yet to fully translate to the pro ranks. He has shown it in spurts, and did see his numbers jump a touch last year, but not enough to be considered a legit prospect in the organization. Going into his fourth full AHL season, he must show more this season, or he will risk turning into a career AHL’er.

Myles Stoesz was acquired as part of the deal that saw the Devils acquire Niclas Havelid last season. He’s strictly an enforcer, and his skating is poor. Combine that with the fact the Devils have better pugilistic prospects ahead of him, and coming up behind him, and his long-term future isn’t  bright.

Center

With the addition of 2009 first-round draft choice Jacob Josefson, center is a position that gets stronger and stronger for the Devils. Things haven’t looked this good down the middle in quite some time. Patrice Cormier has quickly emerged into an elite two-way force in his short time in the organization and Adam Henrique broke out last season in a major way for the Memorial Cup Champion Windsor Spitfires. Throw in University of Michigan sophomore David Wohlberg and the underrated David McIntyre and it appears that what was once a position devoid of talent and depth is now the exact opposite.

Not since Travis Zajac have the Devils had a center ice prospect of Josefson’s caliber and as good as Zajac has become, Josefson actually has the potential to become and even better player. He is a smart, highly-skilled pivot who excels at both ends of the rink. He has good hands, top-notch playmaking skills and while he’s not known as a goal scorer, he does have the ability to put the puck in the back of the net. His hockey IQ is also off the charts, as he has the ability to make those around him better. Going into his third full season in the Swedish Elite League, Josefson is mature beyond his years, and likely could have made the jump to North America this season. The Devils will be content to let him develop in the SEL this season, but it’s not inconceivable that the Devils will sign him and get him over to North America as early as next year. By the 2011-12 season, he could easily be centering one of the Devils top two lines.

Many teams will be kicking themselves for letting Cormier slide to the Devils midway through the second round of the 2008 draft. He was able to stay relatively healthy all season long and as a result, the aggressive, all-purpose center posted a great season for Rimouski. Cormier plays a gritty, take no prisoners approach on the ice, and is able to contribute in just about every facet of the game. Whether it is scoring a timely goal, throwing a bone-crushing check, winning a key faceoff, or sacrificing his body to block a shot, Cormier is able to positively impact the game for his team. At worst, Cormier will develop into an elite third line center, but he has the potential to be more than that, as his skill set should translate very well to the next level.

On a loaded Windsor Spitfire club, Henrique quietly flew under the radar and posted career-high numbers across the board last season, breaking out in a major way. He continued his stellar play into the post season and Memorial Cup, where he tied for the tournament lead in scoring. Henrique is a very similar prospect to Cormier in that he is very well versed in all aspects of the game. He added the grit and intensity that caused some teams to shy away from him at the draft table in 2008, and is quickly making a name for himself in an organization that prides itself in developing responsible two-way players. And he still has the ability to get better. He is a top-notch third line center in the making.

The untapped offensive abilities of Wohlberg didn’t take long to come to fruition, as he quickly moved his way up to the top line at Ann Arbor in his freshman year, and was one of the Wolverines top scorers posting 30 points in 40 games. Already an elite defensive player, Wohlberg’s offense caught up to his defense very quickly as the Devils appear to have another two-way force on their hands. The Devils have the luxury of being patient with him, as he will likely spend at least two more seasons at Michigan before turning pro. His long-term upside is high.

Michael Swift may be undersized, but he more than makes up for it with his work ethic and tenacity. He took a while to get comfortable in his first pro season with Lowell last season, but by year’s end, he was taking a regular shift and contributing across the board. He likely won’t ever put up the type of numbers he put up in junior, but if he continues on his current career path, he has the ability to develop into an effective role-playing energy forward after a few more years in the AHL.

Someone who’s had his rights traded three times last season might not seem likt much of a prospect, but that is far from the case for McIntyre who was acquired from Anaheim last season for the seldom-used Sheldon Brookbank. Continuing the Devils trend of stockpiling two-way centers, McIntyre is an intriguing blend of offense, sandpaper and sound defensive play. He led the Colgate Red Raiders in practically every offensive category last season, and now in his senior season, he could be poised for even bigger and better things. While it’s tough to say if his offense will carry over to the next level, he has enough other skills to offer to at least emerge into a quality checker once fully developed.

Kevin Cormier, the older brother of Patrice, is going into his second season in the Devils organization after being acquired from Phoenix. At this stage in his career, he is strictly a minor-league enforcer and it’s likely he won’t become much more than that as his long-term upside is very limited.

Defense

While this group lacks star quality and a potential top-pairing blueliner, there is plenty of depth here, and four more defenders were drafted this past summer to add to a group that has some very intriguing and promising prospects. Matt Corrente and Tyler Eckford are the best of the bunch and both are currently in their second full seasons in the AHL. Brandon Burlon offers perhaps the most upside of the group, while 2009 draftees Eric Gelinas and Alexander Urbom are just scratching the surfaces of their vast potential.

Corrente adjusted quite well to his first full season of minor-pro hockey last year, displaying a rugged, all-around game after a somewhat disappointing pre-season. He didn’t get into any pre-season games this year, but by no means does that mean that the Devils are down on him. In fact, another full season in the minors could be just what the doctor ordered before Corrente reaches the NHL full time. He offers a good mix of skills at both ends of the rink, but he is most noted for his abrasive, physical play and willingness to drop the gloves, as evidenced by his 161 PIM’s last season. He’s developing just as expected, and could be in line to earn a spot in New Jersey next season where he should eventually turn into a menacing, two-way, No. 3 or 4 blueliner.

It took him a little while to find his groove after an early-season injury, but Burlon really took off once he shook off the rust and had a splendid freshman season at the University of Michigan. He is perhaps the best skater among the Devils group of blueliners, as he has fantastic mobility, both forwards and backwards. While he tends to lean towards a more offensive style of play, he is capable in his own end of the rink, and will only get better there as he matures and gains experience. He’s probably a couple years away from turning pro, and will likely need a season or two in the minors, but there is no denying his outstanding long-range potential.

Despite some growing pains throughout the season, Eckford had quite a splashy debut in Lowell last season, showing off his offensive skill set to a tune of a respectable 27 points in 72 games. The converted forward has developed slowly and steadily since being selected all the way back in the seventh round of the 2004 draft. He has great size and showcases his great puck skills on a nightly basis and has excelled as a shootout ace as well. Eckford’s defensive play needs a little more fine tuning, but he’s continuing on the right development path and like Corrente, he should be in line to fight for a spot in New Jersey as early as next season.

It may be a little early to consider a 2009 draft pick a steal, but Urbom’s performance at the Devils prospect camp in July, and his excellent showing at training camp has already elevated his status among other defense prospects in the organization. The Devils threw him into a pre-season game despite being in his first training camp and only being 18 years of age. He’s already 6’4 and nearly 220 lbs and is quite effective physically. He plays a very mature, responsible, two-way game, though he does slant a little more towards a stay-at-home style. Urbom is currently playing this season for the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings, the CHL’s Memorial Cup host, so the experience he will get this year in his first year playing hockey in North America will be invaluable to his future. He’ll need a few years, but has the makings of solid mid-pairing blueliner.

Gelinas was able to standout on a subpar Lewiston Maineiacs team last season and get himself drafted in the second round by the Devils. While still very raw at this stage of his career, he has absolutely tremendous upside, and in three to four years, he could turn out to be quite a find. He is a strong skating blueliner with good offensive instincts, which can be traced back to his days of playing forward. In his own end, he’s responsible, but will become even better in this area with more experience. He’s a true wildcard, who should at worst develop into a third or fourth blueliner, but has the potential for even more.

Miller missed the majority of last season with a hip injury. He was poised to have a big season, and likely would have turned pro this year, but another season of hockey at Northern Michigan was deemed the right course of development for the rearguard this season. Miller is a well-rounded blueliner who contributes in all facets of the game. His numbers may not show it, but he does have quite a bit of untapped offensive potential lurking. He’s been a bit of a forgotten man among an increasingly crowded group of blueliners, but he’s ready to bounce back this year and should sign with Devils after this year.

Fayne will be leaned on heavily this season, his senior year, and be asked to help guide and provide leadership for a very young Providence Friars squad. Fayne is a big, strong defensive-minded rearguard, who has steadily improved his mobility and foot speed each season at Providence. He isn’t known for his offense, and likely never will be, though there is some upside there. He should sign with the Devils at season’s end, but will likely need a couple of years of the minors before being NHL ready. He’s a good bet to turn into steady bottom-pairing blueliner.

It’s been quite an interesting journey for Fraser, who made his NHL debut all the way back in 2006-07, but had to wait until this year to get a chance again. Despite missing the majority of the pre-season with a concussion, he stuck around, and once deemed healthy, was activated from injured reserve and is still on the NHL roster. The stay-at-home blueliner has loads of intangibles and plays a robust, physical brand of hockey. He’s already peaked as a prospect, and likely isn’t going to get much better than he is now, but he has the ability to evolve into a fundamentally sound No. 5 or 6 defenseman.

Corbin McPherson was a relative unknown in the Devils organization until he put his name on the prospect radar with an impressive freshman season at Colgate for the Red Raiders. He logged major minutes, and grew increasingly more confident as the season wore on. He skates incredibly well for a 6’4, 210 lb defender, and once he learns how to fully use his imposing size to his advantage, watch out.

Delahey is going into his fourth and likely final junior season in the WHL with the Regina Pats, and is looking to finish on a high both personally and with the team that vastly underachieved last season. Delahey is a jack of all trades blueliner who provides good leadership as well. He’s a high upside guy who will need some development time in the minors, but has the potential to develop into something good.

At only the age of 18, Seth Helgeson already has NHL-caliber size, standing at an imposing 6’4, 220 lbs. Once he gets stronger and finishes filling out his frame, he should be very difficult to play against. He has surprisingly good skill and good puck-moving skills, but thrives in his own end playing a sound positional game. He’s not close to reaching his full potential, and it’s uncertain exactly what that will be. He’s currently a freshman at the University of Minnesota.

Another 2009 draftee, Curtis Gedig was one of the youngest players available to draft this season, so he is a long-term project at this early stage of his career. He currently playing in the BCHL with Cowichan Valley, and still is undecided on if he’s going to the NCAA or going the CHL route. He’s already got good size, and has a good offensive skill set, but it will be a few years until the Devils have an idea of what kind of blueliner he could develop into.

Harry Young is the kind of player who often gets written off, but he oozes leadership and intangibles. The tough as nails defensive stalwart captained the Windsor Spitfires to a Memorial Cup championship last season and is currently with the Spitfires for his overage season. Should he put together another steady season, he should earn himself a contract with the Devils at the end.

Magnan is already going into his fourth professional season with the Devils organization, and while there are more talented players ahead of him on the depth chart, he’s slowly improved each season. He had a good training camp and preseason, and showed some versatility by playing on the wing. He’s got his work cut out for him, but he’s not out of the long-term picture just yet.

Goaltending

Surprisingly, the Devils didn’t not draft a goaltender this past draft, and again go into this year with only one goaltending prospect in the system in Jeff Frazee.

Frazee had a lot to prove after a not so great collegiate career at the University of Minnesota. He started off in the ECHL with Trenton, but when injuries struck, he was promoted to Lowell and after a short adjustment period, he took the starting goaltending job and ran with it, shattering a handful of franchise records en route to a huge bounceback season. It was imperative Frazee do so to regain his standing as a prospect. His strong rookie pro season alleviated many concerns that the team had about him, and he is now back in the good graces of the organization.