With a rash of injuries to the parent New Jersey Devils, the Lowell Devils haven’t been able to ice their best line-up on a nightly basis. However, that hasn’t stopped the club from getting off to one of the best starts in team history. Through 34 games, Lowell sits tied for second in a highly competitive Atlantic Division with a record of 19-12-3.
Lead by new head coach John MacLean, Lowell has had no problem finding the back of the net, as the team ranks second overall in the league with 112 goals scored. The power play has been on fire all season long, as Lowell leads the league in power-play efficiency just below 25 percent. The goaltending and defense haven’t been spectacular, but have been good enough with a high-flying offense leading the way. The team has found a nice blend of AHL experience with Ben Walter, Stephen Gionta, Tim Sestito and Brad Mills to go with their young, up and coming first and second-year pro players, and a long-awaited berth in the playoffs could well be in order.
With injuries to NHLers Patrik Elias, David Clarkson and Dainius Zubrus through the first three months of the season, many Lowell forwards have been able to show what they have at the NHL level. Vladimir Zharkov, Matt Halischuk and Sestito have all seen extended stints in New Jersey so far this season.
Zharkov, who turns 22 in January, was leading the baby Devils in scoring with 20 points in 22 games before his recall to New Jersey in late November. He has not looked out of place and has fit in very nicely at the NHL level with his elite speed and two-way play, seeing time with Elias and Brian Rolston. Though he has yet to score his first NHL goal, Zharkov has six assists in 13 games and an impressive +6 rating. Despite his strong play, with the return of Clarkson and Zubrus in the coming weeks, Zharkov may be dispatched back to the AHL. He’s shown the he’s almost ready to make the full-time jump to the NHL, but may have to bide his time in Lowell for the rest of the year before challenging for a full-time roster spot next year.
Halischuk cracked the Devils line-up out of camp and essentially forced soon to be hall of famer Brendan Shanahan off the roster with his strong pre-season play. While Halischuk was in and out of the line-up and seeing sporadic ice time throughout the first three months of the season, he was showing signs of improvement before being sent back to Lowell when Elias made his return to the line-up. In 20 games at the NHL level, Halischuk scored one goal and an assist to go along with a -4 rating. While he could have probably stuck full time in the NHL, the Devils opted to give him a little bit more development time in the minors, and thus far, the 21-year-old winger has responded favorably to the demotion, scoring three goals and five assists in eight games. Much like Zharkov, Halischuk will likely spend the majority of the rest of this season in the minors before making the full-time jump to the NHL level next season.
Despite a slow start to the year, 21-year-old Russian sniper Alexander Vasyunov has shown good progress in his second season of pro hockey at the AHL level and has moved near the top of the team scoring chart. After only recording three points in the month of October, Vasyunov, often paired with AHL veteran, and team-leading scorer Walter, has since found some offensive consistency, scoring seven goals and 11 assists in 23 games. In a mid-December game against Springfield, he recorded his first career pro hat trick. Vasyunov’s development appears to be on the right course, and though he’ll likely need another season in the AHL next year, he should get a look in New Jersey sooner rather than later.
Though he does have a team-worst -9 rating, Nick Palmieri has made a fairly smooth adjustment thus far to the pro game after finishing up his junior career in the OHL last season with Belleville. The 20-year-old winger has shown glimpses of his offensive potential this year, with 10 goals and nine assists in 30 games this season. Those 10 goals are tied for second best among AHL rookies. The Devils have no need to rush Palmieri, who has a nice blend of size, speed and skill for a man of his stature. Another full season or two in the is likely in order for the future power forward.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise early on this season has been the play of first-year forward Nathan Perkovich. The 24-year-old, who was an accomplished goal scorer in his four years in the NCAA with Lake Superior State, has seen his goal-scoring prowess convert nicely to the pro game. He had to fight for a full-time spot in Lowell through the first month of the season, but has since been a regular in the line-up. He sits seventh overall in team scoring with 18 points in 25 games (8 goals and 10 assists) and also boasts and impressive +8 rating and 33 PIM’s. Though he is older than most of the other Devils prospects, if he continues to score goals, he will eventually be given a look.
Yet another AHL rookie, Brad Snetsinger, has earned himself a full-time roster spot in Lowell after spending the majority of last season in the ECHL with Trenton, where he led the team in goals. Though he hasn’t found the score sheet much since a three-goal month of October, Snetsinger, 21, still has a respectable 11 points in 27 games. The former junior scoring star has not yet ironed out his defensive game or found consistency.
Michael Swift, a 22-year-old center, doesn’t get the attention that the more naturally skilled players on the club get, but that hasn’t stopped him from chipping in with some timely goals. He has been a regular in the line-up, providing leadership, grit, intensity and some strong two-way play. With 17 points, including 10 goals in 30 games, he is putting up respectable totals and should match or better his numbers from last season. Swift has the intangibles that some of the other prospects in the organization don’t have, which will help in his continued development.
First-year pro Kory Nagy is getting his feet wet in the ECHL with Trenton this season, with an eye towards moving up to Lowell full time next year. The speedy, hard-working and defensively sound 20-year-old center has recorded four goals and seven assists in 29 games to go along with a -1, near the best on the team. Nagy has the requisite tools to fit in like a glove in New Jersey, but he will need a few years of seasoning in the minors.
Just like up front, injuries to the parent club have created the opportunity for many youngsters to get a chance to strut their stuff at the NHL level. Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya both suffered serious injuries late in October, but the exceptional play of Mark Fraser, Matthew Corrente and Tyler Eckford has enabled New Jersey to not miss a beat.
Lowell has not missed a beat though with Fraser, Corrente and Eckford all seeing time in New Jersey this year. Led by first-year find Matt Taormina, AHL vets Rob Davison and Cory Murphy, and some help from the ECHL’s Trenton Devils (namely Matt Cohen), Lowell has survived and played well without some key blueliners for most of the year.
The 21-year-old Corrente was off to a fantastic start in his second season in Lowell, scoring nearly at a point-per-game clip with 11 points in 15 games (3 goals and 8 assists), before being recalled to New Jersey. It took him a few games to get into the line-up, and he actually made his debut as a forward, but he filled in capably as the sixth defenseman once he got into the line-up. Aside from his 15 PIM’s (three fighting majors), he was held off the score sheet in those seven games, but displayed his physicality and toughness in limited minutes. Since the return of Oduya in early December, Corrente has served as the extra defenseman for New Jersey and has not played since December 4th. He will likely fill that role until Martin is ready to return in late January, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get sent down to play a few games with Lowell so he doesn’t get rusty. Regardless of where he ends up or how much he plays while he’s still in New Jersey, he’s making a case to be considered for a regular spot next season.
Another second-year pro has got off to a fantastic start for Lowell as Eckford parlayed a red-hot mid-November stretch that earned him player of the week honors at the AHL level into a three-game recall to New Jersey. Eckford, 24, registered his first NHL point, an assist during his short stint with the big club. He has since been returned to Lowell, and picked up right where he left off where he and Taormina quarterback the AHL’s best power play. In 29 games, Eckford sits tied for third in team scoring with five goals and 16 assists, and sits tied for eighth overall in scoring by AHL defensemen. A nice combination of size and skill, Eckford is on pace to shatter his career high for points, but more importantly, he has seen a huge reverse in his plus/minus rating. After finishing with a team-worst -16, he actually leads Lowell in that category thus far this season with a +13 rating. Eckford is right on par with Corrente in terms of development and should be ready to fight for a roster spot in New Jersey as soon as next season.
Olivier Magnan may not have the pedigree of a Corrente or Eckford, but he playing steady, solid minutes for Lowell, while also providing leadership and timely offense with two goals and eight assists through 30 games. He may not get past the AHL level, especially with so many blueline prospects blossoming in New Jersey’s pipeline, but as Mark Fraser proved this year, he could come out of nowhere and surprise in a year or two.
A scary pre-season AHL incident that saw Jeff Frazee take a skate to the neck delayed the Devils top goaltending prospect’s debut this season after a fantastic first pro year with Lowell that saw him shatter many team records. He got off to a slow start once he returned from the injury, allowing 12 goals against in his first three starts, but has since found his groove, winning seven of his last 10 starts. In 13 games, he has a 7-6-0-1 record to go along with a 2.53 goals against average, .909 save percentage and one shutout. He is currently splitting time with seasoned minor-league veteran Mike McKenna, and thus far the duo has proved to be very effective for Lowell. With Frazee starting to get back into a rhythm, expect him to see a little more action during the second half of the season. The only goaltending prospect in the system, Frazee, 23 has improved by leaps and bounds since his NCAA days.