After staving off the inevitable, the New Jersey Devils are fully invested into a transitional period. This comes as long-time general manager Lou Lamoriello steps aside for Ray Shero to steer the franchise. While Lamoriello will still have his say as the club’s president, Shero has begun to shift the organization in a new direction. Now with Head Coach John Hynes in place, Shero will focus on the upcoming 2015 NHL Draft in Sunrise, Florida. He will have his hands full as he begins to rebuild the farm system and select players that match his new vision for the Devils as a fast, attacking squad.
Top Ten Prospects
1. Damon Severson, D
2. Reid Boucher, LW
3. Steve Santini, D
4. Stefan Matteau, LW/C
5. Seth Helgeson, D
6. John Quenneville, C
7. Blake Coleman, C
8. Reece Scarlett, D
9. Scott Wedgewood, G
10. Graham Black, C
The core issue within the organization continues to be the goal scoring, most notably up front. The only forwards the Devils have drafted since the 2004-05 lockout that are currently on the team are Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique and Jacob Josefson. This has been New Jersey’s Achilles heel for a long time. Below the NHL level, the organization has just one dedicated right winger in Connor Chatham. The goaltending pool has suddenly thinned out, but it is not a priority compared to the forwards.
Unlike the task that lies ahead for the offense, the Devils are in good shape on the back end. Starting in the crease, Cory Schneider is as reliable a goaltender as there is in the NHL. While the team around him struggled throughout 2014-15, he gave them a chance to win every night. The same went for Keith Kinkaid, who established himself as a capable backup. He provided the same performance in goal whenever Schneider needed a rest.
In front of both goaltenders is a young defense that continues to get better. Damon Severson and Adam Larsson—the crown jewels of the organizations recent draft history—each took a step forward in their development as top-four, two-way defensemen. Andy Greene remains the anchor on the first pairing, while Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas remain in the team’s plans despite their inconsistencies last season. With more prospects waiting in the pipeline, management appears in the market to flip some of their prospect defensemen for young forwards.
It is not all doom and gloom for the Devils forwards. The organization has plenty of depth forwards, including Blake Coleman, Stefan Matteau, John Quenneville, Graham Black, and Blake Pietilla. All are versatile two-way players who can contribute offensively in a secondary role.
Offensively skilled forwards continue to elude an organization that once prided itself on its strong drafting and development program. Low draft positons, coaching changes, a preference for safe two-way forwards, and an over-reliance on older veterans have all played a role in New Jersey’s struggles to develop creative goal-scorers. Reid Boucher, Ryan Kujawinski, Alexander Kerfoot, and Miles Wood are the only forwards who have shown much promise, but they have just as good a chance of flaming out like many before them.
Regarding the right wing position, the last prospect to see consistent time in the NHL was Nick Palmieri in 2011-12, before he was traded to Minnesota. Since then, the Devils have relied on free agency to fill the right side of the ice.
While the goaltending situation appears solid in New Jersey, the depth pool is in flux. Anthony Brodeur was let go, while Maxime Clermont remains un-signed. Scott Wedgewood will be 23 in August, yet could continue to pressure Kinkaid for the back-up job if his performance dips.
Those expecting a stark departure from the team’s conservative drafting habits should be cautious of the managerial change. Ray Shero’s drafting tendencies are similar to Lou Lamoriello’s, but he does find himself in a different situation than in Pittsburgh.
When he was the general manager of the Penguins, he selected nine defensemen in the first three rounds of the draft between 2006 and 2013. Of those picks, Derrick Pouliot, Olli Maata, Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait are all NHL players. However, Shero’s focus on using early round picks on defensemen left him with limited options in terms of talented forwards.
Shero also shares Lamoriello’s propensity for taking American and college players, usually in the middle rounds. Likewise, he sees merit in taking skaters who can play a two-way game. Many of them are good for a supporting role, but Pittsburgh’s inability to develop another top-six forward was a problem. With New Jersey, he will have time and freedom to mold players to meet his team’s identity.
Hockey’s Future Staff Mock Draft Results
6. Pavel Zacha, C/LW, Sarnia Sting (OHL)
It would not be a wrong choice if the Devils chose Mathew Barzal instead of Zacha. While Barzal’s all-around style fits the mold of the Devils new identity, the Czech centerman has a higher ceiling and the potential to become a dominant NHL center.
Zacha is the high-scoring talent that New Jersey has needed for some time. He possesses great puck skills, and is one of the best shooters in the draft. Not only does he have a dangerous wrist shot, but surprisingly, his one-timer is quite good for his age. He might not be as good a playmaker as Barzal, but he can still generate opportunities for his teammates.
Zacha is also a quality skater with good explosiveness in the neutral zone, which is complimented by his 6’3, 210 pound frame. That gives him an advantage amongst the other top-ten prospects. Zacha has already shown he can combine all these ingredients to become a scary assignment for a defender on the rush. He is aggressive and can protect the puck well, but needs to improve his consistency in the defensive zone.
Interestingly enough, Zacha’s style of play falls in line with a winger’s mindset so there is the option that the Devils, who love their versatile forwards, could shift him to the wing alongside a more responsible centerman like an Adam Henrique or John Quenneville in the future.