Several New Jersey Devils collegiate prospects developing into impact players

By John Iadevaia
Photo: Steve Santini is has bolstered Boston College's blue line after coming back from a wrist injury during his sophomore year. (Courtesy of Richard T. Gagnon/Getty Images)

Photo: Steve Santini is has bolstered Boston College’s blue line since returning from a wrist injury during his sophomore year. (Courtesy of Richard T. Gagnon/Getty Images)

 

Look up and down the New Jersey Devils line-up, and you will find many former NCAA athletes. Under Lou Lamoriello, the organization has prided itself on developing players from the collegiate pool into influential NHL players. Despite the Devils’ struggles in the last decade at the draft, the college pipeline has remained a valuable source of talent.

Meanwhile, the European theater has dried up from a failure to develop prospects to their full potential. Only two players from overseas who were drafted in the last ten years, Jacob Josefson and Adam Larsson, are playing on the Devils roster.

As of now, the Devils have multiple players in the NCAA who could become important pieces for the future. However, their lone European prospect continues to toil overseas.

NCAA

Steve Santini, D, Boston College (Hockey East)
Drafted 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2013

Santini tops the list as the system’s best college prospect and remains on course to become a top-four defenseman in the NHL. Though a wrist injury caused him to miss the 16 games, including the World Junior Championships, he made his return on January 10th. During his absence, Boston College struggled in the defensive end, so his return was welcomed as he brought balance back to the blue line with his stay-at-home style.

His physical presence adds snarl to the Eagles blue line and strengthens the team’s resolve in its own end. Santini is usually paired with Michael Matheson but has also played with Noah Hanifin—forming a good blend of offense and defense from the back end. With Santini back in form, Boston College has earned some close one-goal victories, displaying a new doggedness that will help them in the postseason.

Blake Coleman, C, Miami University (NCHC)
Drafted 3rd round, 75th overall, 2011

While Blake Coleman has not become the offensive force many thought he would, the Texas native has developed into one of the best two-way forwards in college hockey this season. He scored 15 points by the end of November, but since then, has only scored 10 more points. In spite of that, he remains a threat in the offensive zone, putting pressure down low in the dirty areas while putting over three shots per game on net. He is also using his physical strengths to both protect the puck and take it from opponents, benefiting both special teams.

Coleman’s best attribute may be that he is a positive possession player. He has shown prowess in the faceoff circle, where he has won 62.3% of his draws—the second-best rate in the nation. He has also made his teammates better, generating more chances for than against, as evidenced by his plus-15 rating. With playoff hockey underway, Coleman has stepped up his game. He posted 8 points in Miami’s three game weekend series  win over Western Michigan, allowing the Redhawks to push on to the NCHC Frozen Faceoff.

Blake Pietila, C, Michigan Tech (WCHA)
Drafted 5th round, 129th overall, 2011

After making the switch from the wing to center last season, Blake Pietila has found a new gear and increased his compete level. The move has allowed him to harness the full potential of his skating ability and strong play away from the puck. Surprisingly, he is actually one of the better drawmen in the NCAA, winning 60% at the dot. When you include his relentlessness, fire-hydrant frame, and ability to play in all situations, the Devils might have themselves another John Madden in the making.

The concern for Pietila is whether or not his offensive skills will make the transition to the pros. He has been a streaky scorer throughout college, and this year is no different. The Michigan native started strong before going a month and a half without a point, only to erupt for 15 in January. The fact that much of his production has come at even strength is a sign that he has grown since last season.

Alex Kerfoot, C, Harvard University (ECAC)
Drafted 5th round, 150th overall, 2012

Kerfoot has brought his game to another level, utilizing his playmaking ability and awareness with the puck to create numerous chances and goals. He has shown creativity, something the Devils system lacks from most of their forwards. The centerman has played a big role in Harvard’s impressive season and formed one of the best lines in college hockey with Jimmy Vesey and Kyle Criscuolo. The productive trio has helped power the Crimson to big wins over current top-ten teams, and has them in the running for a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Unfortunately, Kerfoot’s shoulder issues appear to have resurfaced yet again. Back in December, he suffered an upper-body injury which sidelined him for the next eight games. Later, on March 6th, he suffered a right shoulder injury against Brown on March 6th. Although he was seen afterwards in a sling, he managed to return a week later, potting a goal and an assist against Yale.  Through 24 games, he has scored eight goals and 18 assists.

Joshua Jacobs, D, Michigan State (Big Ten)
Drafted 2nd round, 41st overall, 2014

Since Tom Anastos took over at Michigan State, the program has been rebuilding from the blue line up. The fruits of his labor are now on display this season as the Spartans have grown into a solid defensive corp. For Jacobs, he has hit the ground running and bought into his head coach’s philosophy. The offensive-minded defenseman has only scored seven assists in his freshman year, but he has still been impressive amongst a well-regarded group of blue liners.

Rather than remain a one-dimensional blue liner, he has improved his overall game, and can now play a more responsible role defensively. He leads the team with 64 blocked shots and has played on the top pair alongside junior Travis Walsh. He has also become more patient, waiting for the right moment to strike rather than making the risky play.  Jacobs will likely stay all four years at Michigan State which should help him build upon his offensive strengths while becoming more well-rounded and mature.

EUROPE

Artur Gavrus, LW, Dinamo Minsk & Dinamo-Moloddechno (KHL and Belarus)
Drafted 6th round, 180th overall, 2012

Artur Gavrus has looked surer of himself this season, but he has continued to struggle in physical situations, and is constantly getting knocked off the puck. He has averaged 12:05 minutes, but has not generated enough offensive pressure to be effective. While he scored 9 points, an improvement over his rookie season in the KHL, his scoring has come in flashes. This has resulted in Gavrus becoming a healthy scratch on numerous occasions, including a span of about a month throughout January.

Worst of all, Gavrus’ health issues persist as he picked up a few injuries over the season, including a recent broken finger. Since the end of the regular season, the Belarus forward was sent down to Belarus to play for Dinamo-Moldechno in the playoffs.

PROSPECT OF THE MONTH: Ryan Kujawinski, C, North Bay Battalion (OHL)

Ryan Kujawinski - Kingston FrontenacsRyan Kujawinski is in fine form going into the OHL playoffs. This has been a good season for the centerman as he is becoming a more consistent scorer, producing at a near point-per-game pace. Since being traded in January from Kingston to North Bay, Kujawinski has 15 goals, 14 assists and a plus-11 rating for the Battalion. In total, he has 29 goals and 25 assists in his final OHL season. The Ontario native still has upside, and he has remained a threat even when he does not find the back of the net. A promising playoff performance would help Kujawinski’s credentials before he turns pro later this year.