New Jersey Devils sport deep pool of defensive prospects

By John Iadevaia
Damon Severson - New Jersey Devils

Photo: Damon Severson had 12 points in 32 games before being sidelined with an ankle injury. (Image courtesy of Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

 

Unless the New Jersey Devils go on a miracle run, the club will miss the postseason for the fourth time in the last five seasons. Change is imminent as the oldest team in the NHL will need to replace departing veterans with younger players.

In Albany, Reid Boucher and Stefan Matteau have had inconsistent years, while Reece Scarlett and Graham Black have stepped up for the club. College seniors Blake Coleman and Blake Pietila are producing for their respective schools, while newcomer Joseph Blandisi is in the thick of the OHL scoring race.

1. (2) Damon Severson, D, 7.5 B
Drafted 2nd Round, 60th Overall, 2012

Severson ascends to the perch as the top prospect in the Devils system, and for good reason. Severson made it difficult for coaches to cut him in training camp, forcing his way onto the opening night roster. Since then, he has been paired with Andy Greene to form one of the most effective even-strength defensive pairings in the NHL. As the season began to slip away, former head coach Peter DeBoer gave the rookie more ice time. However, his left ankle suffered a hairline fracture during a game against Washington on December 6th. He remains on the injured reserve list, but should return before the season ends. Through 32 games, he has amassed four goals and eight assists. 

2. (3) Reid Boucher, LW, 7.5 C
Drafted 4th Round, 99th Overall, 2011

Although Boucher had a great December, scoring seven goals and two assists in 10 games, he has had an inconsistent season. Back in the fall, he was called up to New Jersey and had an opportunity to get into the line-up.  He only played in four games before returning to Albany when his hot streak began. He is still generating chances, but his finishing ability has not been as strong as it was last season. In 44 games, he has 12 goals, 23 assists, a minus-5 rating and 116 shots on goal. With New Jersey’s playoff hopes dwindling, a call-up could be warranted to get Boucher some more NHL minutes.

3. (7) Seth Helgeson, D, 6.5 B
Drafted 4th Round, 114th Overall, 2009

In terms of development, it has been a growing year for Helgeson. He started the 2014-15 campaign well, and was recalled to the big club shortly after Bryce Salvador suffered a lower-body injury in the fall. He played in 21 games, adding two assists, a plus-3 rating and 16 penalty minutes. Unfortunately, he had trouble adjusting to the speed of the NHL game and made some of some defensive miscues. Eventually, he returned to Albany to work on his flaws. Through 22 games, he has two assists, a plus-2 rating and 31 penalty minutes.

4. (12) Reece Scarlett, D, 6.5 B
Drafted 6th Round, 159th Overall, 2011

Though he started the season poorly, the coaching staff has since been very pleased with the 21-year old defenseman—and he has become an important figure on Albany’s blueline. While he has been a bit unlucky in terms of goals (one goal and 16 assists this season), Scarlett is being utilized in multiple roles. The Devils could always use another offensive defenseman waiting in the wings, but Scarlett has done a better job shutting down physical forwards.

5. (9) Graham Black, C, 6.5 B
Drafted 5th Round, 135th Overall, 2012

Since overcoming Graves’ Disease, Black has been able to develop unhindered. Thus far, his rookie campaign in Albany has proceeded well. Moving between the second and third line, he has created scoring chances and generated shots on goal—showcasing his skills in the process. The center has scored 12 points in 28 games and has been one of the better forwards in the Devils system this season. He recently missed over a month of action due to a wrist injury, but has returned to the lineup.  

6. (5) Steve Santini, D, 7.0 C
Drafted 2nd Round, 42nd Overall, 2013

The next best defenseman down the pipe is bruising Steve Santini who has become one of the better blueliners in Hockey East. A wrist injury on October 25th forced him to miss 16 games with Boston College, and he was unable to heal in time to suit up for Team USA at the World Junior Championships. The Mahopac, NY native resumed his duties on January 10th, which allowed the younger defensemen to return to their usual roles. As long as Santini continues to develop steadily, he should become a notable top-four NHL defenseman.

7. (4) Stefan Matteau, LW/RW, 7.0 C
Drafted 1st Round, 29th Overall, 2012

This has been a tale of two seasons for Stefan Matteau. Simply put, the first half of the 2014-15 season was lackluster. During the fall, his confidence was low; he shied away from the physical areas and lost the puck a lot, though he is normally a good possession player. By the end of December, he only had nine points. Slowly but surely, he put his game back together and returned to his edgy playing style. He bounced back in January, contributing eight points and playing in all situations.  With the high likelihood of there being openings in New Jersey next season, Matteau needs to be ready if or when he is summoned back to the NHL.

8. (6) John Quenneville, C, 7.0 C
Drafted 1st Round, 30th Overall, 2013

The Brandon Wheat Kings are one of the stronger teams in the WHL this season, thanks to balanced output across their lineup. John Quenneville is not relied upon as much to score, but throughout the season, his production has slowly declined. Granted, injuries have played a role, but usually the older players in junior put up more points. After 45 games played, he has scored 16 goals and 21 assists. He is still projected as a second/third line center, but it is concerning that his offensive capabilities seem to have plateaued.

9. (10) Blake Coleman, C, 7.0 C
Drafted 3rd Round, 75th Overall, 2011

Coleman picked up where he left off after last year’s breakout junior year with a strong start in 2014-15. In his first 12 games, the center had 15 points and was one of the leading scorers in the nation. His production has slowed down since, but he continues to contribute on a deep Miami squad with 22 points in 24 games. Coleman plays in every situation and can be used on different lines as needed. He is also third in faceoffs in the NCAA, winning over 64% of them.

10. (11) Scott Wedgewood, G, 7.0 C
Drafted 3rd Round, 84th Overall , 2010

With New Jersey’s goaltending seemingly settled, the question could be asked: What becomes of Scott Wedgewood? No one knows what the future holds, but Wedgewood has made the best of his situation. While his stats—a 2.91 goals against average and .900 save percentage in 23 games–might not reflect this, the Ontario native has raised his compete level in his second season with Albany. Wedgewood seems to have an edge over Maxime Clermont and veteran Scott Clemenson, but starts will be more precious down the stretch as Albany battles for a playoff spot.

11. (16) Blake Pietila, C, 6.0 B
Drafted 3rd Round, 71st Overall, 2014

Just like last season, Pietila found his offensive rhythm following the holiday break. He scored 15 of his 24 points in January and was twice named the WCHA Offensive Player of the Week. The Michigan Tech captain has been one of the more consummate competitors in college with his strong two-way play. Despite converting to center last season, he has excelled in the circle, winning roughly 60% of his face-offs. Pietila will likely become an effective bottom-six forward in the pros, similar to the John Madden mold.  

12. (14) Ryan Kujawinski, C, 6.5 C
Drafted 2nd Round, 42nd Overall, 2013

While not having the breakout year as some thought he would, Ryan Kujawinski has brought consistency to his game. The big centerman has played well since November and has kept his form, even after missing most of December with an injury. He was traded from the Kingston Frontenacs to the North Bay Battalion on January 5th, but the move has helped Kujawinski—and he is a threat to score every night. After 17 games with North Bay, he has nine goals and eight assists (40 points overall). It’s unclear whether Kujawinski will be a second or a third line center, but perhaps we are now seeing signs that he can handle that higher role.

13. (NR) Alex Kerfoot, C, 6.5 C
Drafted 5th Round, 150th Overall, 2012

Kerfoot has been nothing short of impressive during Harvard’s incredible season that has seen them rank first in the country. Kerfoot centers the top line with Jimmy Vesey and Kyle Criscuolo to form one of the most productive trios in college hockey. In fact, Kerfoot was so effective that he led the nation in points-per-game for much of November and December. However, he suffered an upper body injury on December 6th and missed eight games. The center returned for Harvard’s 4-3 double-overtime loss to Boston University—where he scored the game’s first goal. In 13 games, he has 16 points and a plus-10 rating. 

14. (8) Joshua Jacobs, D, 7.0 D
Drafted 2nd Round, 41st Overall, 2014

Making the jump to college can be daunting for freshmen, but Jacobs has jumped into the fire and is adapting well. Michigan State’s inexperienced defense corps had many question marks, but it has grown into a solid group. Jacobs himself has undergone change. The former Indiana Ice captain used to play at a higher pace earlier in the season, but he has become more poised and waits for his chances instead of gambling. That is a sign of maturity, and we will see more of the same as Jacobs gets older and better-rounded.

15. (18) Miles Wood, LW, 7.0 D
Drafted 6th Round, Overall, 2013

Wood surprised the hockey community this winter when he was selected to join Team USA at the World Junior Championships. Though he did not make a huge impact at the tournament, he proved he belonged among the top players in his peer group. For the rest of this year, Wood will help league-leading Noble & Greenough fulfill their postseason aspirations. In 11 appearances with the team, he has 19 points and is scoring 1.73 points per game. This is a league he has dominated in the past, so it is expected that Wood plays like an offensive extrovert.

16. (17) Raman Hrabarenka, D, 6.0 C
Free Agent Signing, 2013

A rather unknown free agent signing back in 2013, Hrabarenka has surprisingly progressed into one of the organization’s better minor league defenseman. In fact, Lamoriello recently referred to him in January as the best defenseman in the AHL at the time. It is very possible that he could battle his way to a bottom-pairing role in the NHL.

17. (20) Connor Chatham, RW, 6.0 C
Drafted 3rd round, 71st overall, 2014

As Plymouth remains in the bottom half of the OHL standings, Connor Chatham has been a bright spot. Thanks to his consistent work ethic, he has been given a much larger role this season. He is third on the team in points per game, with 13 goals and 18 assists and 40 penalty minutes. As a future bottom-six forward, the 6’4, 225 pound monster can certainly bring intensity to the game, but further growth of his offensive side would benefit his cause.

18. (15) Ben Johnson, C, 6.5 D
Drafted 3rd Round, 90th Overall, 2012

Johnson remains low on the depth chart, and has made only 24 appearances this season with Albany. He has been useful in a forechecking role because of his speed, but with only two points, his offensive game needs to improve. If Johnson gets to the NHL level, it will be as an energy forward.

19. (NR) Joseph Blandisi, C, 6.5 D
Free Agent Signing, 2015

This year, Blandisi has taken a big step toward accomplishing his NHL dreams. He has been a key component in Barrie’s offense and showed glimpses of what he might accomplish in the NHL. Through 51 games, he has scored 36 goals and 46 assists. At this time, the 6’0 192 pound center is projected to become a strong bottom-six scorer, but his development this season could change that perception—if he can carry that momentum into the pros.

20. (NR) Ben Thomson, RW, 5.5 C
Drafted 4th Round, 96th Overall, 2012

In Thomson’s first season with Albany, he has mainly been featured in the bottom-six—providing the team with some much-needed ‘oomph.’ In 45 games, Thomson has 12 points. The organization severely lacks talented forwards, but players like Thomson ensure the Devils will have depth in place when that talent emerges.