Injuries and inconsistency impacting New Jersey Devils’ minor league system

By John Iadevaia
Seth Helgeson - New Jersey Devils

Photo: Defenseman Seth Helgeson has split the 2014-15 season between the AHL and NHL. Helgeson was picked in the fourth round of the 2009 NHL Draft. (courtesy of Dan Hamilton/Icon Sportswire)

 

The problems of the Albany Devils mirror those of their parent team the New Jersey Devils. Since the start of the 2014-15 season, both clubs have been mired by injuries and inconsistency.

Following a great 7-1 start in October, Albany fell hard in November with a 4-6-4 record, and the team currently sits at 12-9-1-4. Scoring has become an issue as the goals seemingly dried up when the calendar changed to November. Most of the forward corps remains the same from last year, the same veterans are still producing, but the young players that played big roles last season, including Reid Boucher and Stefan Matteau, are not getting it done so far.

Around the time the production started fading, injuries started to pop up with the NHL and AHL clubs. Players were recalled, shifted, and shuffled in and out of the lineup to compensate for the losses. Where the injuries and call-ups are felt hardest are on the blue line as Raman Hrabarenka and Reece Scarlett have both missed time to injury, along with many veterans. Not having Seth Helgeson‘s calming presence is also an adjustment the team is getting used to. This has presented players like Joe Faust with extra playing time but has stripped the unit of its versatility and depth.

Despite all these factors, the Devils are hanging tough with 29 points in 26 games, battling in the thick of it for playoff contention. If Albany is to make a serious push for the postseason in the second half of the year, they will need their injured players back to full health as well as their underachieving players to find their quality form.

AHL

Reid Boucher, LW, 21

Entering training camp, Boucher worked hard to show he could crack New Jersey’s lineup. By all accounts, he had a good showing, but he was unable to beat a veteran out of a job and was sent back down to Albany. Whether his confidence was hurt or just very unlucky, the 22-year old winger had struggled in the first quarter of the season. Through 22 games, he has only scored five goals and seven assists on 57 shots.

Boucher has been recalled twice already to New Jersey on an injury replacement basis. He has played in four NHL games but has zero points and six shots.

Graham Black, C, 21

As the season has progressed, Graham Black has become more comfortable in his new surroundings. It was a bit of a grind at the beginning, but the 21-year old centerman has impressed Albany Devils coach Rick Kowalsky with the way he is quickly picking up on the pro game. As a result, he is receiving more ice time within the top-nine forwards. Following his first healthy season of hockey in juniors, the Saskatchewan native is playing with noticeable confidence in his game. He is doing a better job protecting the puck, picking his spots when to shoot with his decent range and using his explosiveness wisely in all three zones. After 20 games, he has five goals, three assists, and a plus-three rating.

Stefan Matteau, C/LW, 20

Like Boucher, Matteau has struggled. He appears to be dealing with confidence issues and at times has shown a reluctance to get involved physically when he would normally charge head first into traffic. Through 22 games, Matteau has only one goal and seven assists. Another concern is how he is losing the puck when he normally does a good job of protecting it. In the past few weeks, he appears to be finding his identity again. When he puts everything together, Matteau can make a difference on the ice and help dictate play. That needs to happen consistently if Albany hopes to stay in the playoff hunt.

Ben Thomson, 21, LW

Outside of Damon Severson, the next best rookie to assimilate to the pros has been the physical Ben Thomson. Since the season started, he has been a mainstay in the Devils lineup serving dutifully in the bottom-six. In 24 games, he has three goals, three assists, and 35 penalty minutes.

Ben Johnson, LW, 20

Coming off his final season at Windsor, Johnson reestablished that he can become a useful player in the pros. Where that may take him remains to be seen. The first year pro is low on the depth chart in Albany’s forward depth and has not played much. When he has taken the ice, he has been utilized in a bottom-six role. He has one goal in nine appearances. Similar to David Wohlberg, Johnson’s speed is his best asset that he uses to forecheck hard and put pressure on the defense. While he was able to put his offensive skills and skating together in juniors, he needs to continue to evolve his style in order to be more than a third line energy forward. That includes learning how to win one-on-one battles in the pros, bulking up, and finding ways to create more scoring chances.

Seth Helgeson, D, 24

Following a successful first year in Albany, Helgeson further impressed Devils management during training camp and was one of the last ones cuts from the final roster. While in Albany, he continued his stalwart defensive effort as one of the Devils top blueliners. It was only a matter of time before the big defenseman received a call-up to New Jersey. That opportunity eventually came a few weeks after the season began.

Helgeson had a memorable NHL debut on November 11th, adding his first assist in New Jersey’s 3-1 win over his hometown team the Minnesota Wild. He has appeared in 14 NHL games, while averaging around 13 minutes a night.

Raman Hrabarenka, D, 22

Hrabarenka has emerged from the shadows of the organization’s depth to become a productive defensemen for Albany. With the departure of Helgesen and Severson making the New Jersey lineup out of camp, Hrabarenka has become one of Albany’s top blueliners. The Belarus native plays in all situations, delivering hits as hard as his slap shot. He was leading the Devils’ defensemen in scoring with 14 points before suffering an upper-body injury in late November. Prior to that, he was shuffling defensive partners as the roster began to thin out from call-ups and injuries.

Reece Scarlett, D, 21

Scarlett has spent much of the fall on the sidelines due to a lower body injury. In fact, he appeared in only eight games since going down with an injury. Albany’s powerplay was not the same in Scarlett’s absence, as they missed his ability to move the puck. He recently returned to action on December 14th.

Joe Faust, D, 23

With injuries piling up across the lineup, Faust has seen his playing time increased. He made his season debut on November 13th as the rash of injuries started to befall the team. Faust’s usual partner has been Brandon Burlon, but the lineup has been in such flux that he has had a different partner on more than one occasion. Faust is not going to wow with his offensive skills (only 1 assist through 12 games). What he does well is provide good bottom paring minutes, sound defensive coverage at even strength and on the penalty kill. Given the Devils depth on defense, Faust faces long odds to crack the New Jersey lineup.

Scott Wedgewood, G, 22

Wedgewood had a good start in October but Keith Kinkaid eventually took over Ablany’s starting role as he did last season. In 11 appearances, Wedgewood is 4-4-1 with a 3.34 goals against average and a .876 save percentage. With Kinkaid recalled to New Jersey, Wedgewood now has the chance to establish himself as Albany’s starter. This should help him refine his game. Plus, it will not hurt to have veteran Scott Clemmensen to learn a few things from.

ECHL

The Elmira Jackals and the New Jersey Devils are no longer affiliates, thus, the team currently has no ECHL affiliate. The only Devils prospect in the ECHL is goaltender Maxime Clermont. The Montreal native is tending the crease for the Orlando Solar Bears but is currently the backup in a three goaltender rotation. In nine appearances, he is 5-3 with a 3.76 goals against average and a .873 save percentage, which is much lower than his career numbers. Clermont just has not adapted well to the pros as he continues to underwhelm at the AA level. At this point, it is safe to question whether he has what it takes to reach the NHL, or even if he has a future within the organization.

Non-Minor League Prospect Update

It has not been the best of times for the New Jersey Devils, but Severson continues his steady play. November saw him cool off offensively but the coaching staff remains confident in the youngster’s abilities, giving him ample ice time in all situations. After 32 games, the Manitoba native has four goals and eight assists. He remains a workhorse on the top-pairing with Andy Greene, averaging about 23 minutes of ice time and around 30 shifts a night.

After a slow start to the year with five points, Ryan Kujawinski erupted for 15 points in the month of November. He stepped up his overall play in all areas and looked like the impact player offensively that he has shown he could be. It appeared that he was starting to put everything together until he received a hit to the head area on December 5th against Belleville. He has been sidelined ever since.

Defenseman Steve Santini and left winger Miles Wood were named to the preliminary Team USA Roster for the World Junior Championship which will be held in Montreal, Quebec. Santini has been out since October after receiving wrist surgery, but the Team USA captain is expected to be cleared in time for the WJC.

New Jersey Devils Prospect of the Month

Alex Kerfoot - New Jersey Devils Prospect of the MonthIn a time of resurgence from Ivy League schools, Harvard has started strong to become one of the nation’s top teams early in the 2014-15 campaign. There are many elements that have blended together to make the Crimson of the more surprising teams early in the year. From an offensive standpoint, Alex Kerfoot is one of their catalysts. Through 10 games, Kerfoot has 11 assists, 15 points, and a plus-10 rating.

Part of his strong start echoes back to his work in the offseason. Unable to finish another season last season, as well as Devils prospect camp, due to injury, the British Columbia native put in a lot of work in the weight room to strengthen his body and improve his overall fitness. Tagged along with his natural playmaking ability, Kerfoot was primed for a solid start when Harvard hit the ice.

Recently, Kerfoot picked up a minor injury in early December, but he should be back when Harvard restarts play against the Russian Red Stars on December 28th.