After hiring Head Coach John Hynes earlier in the month, General Manager Ray Shero proclaimed he would mold the New Jersey Devils into a fast, attacking, supportive team. The 2015 NHL Draft provided him with the chance to put his own stamp on the team and begin rebuilding the Devils farm system. The organization entered Sunrise, Florida with six selections and needs at almost every position, most notably at forward.
For the most part, Shero and the Devil’s scouting department did a good job addressing their basic needs. They grabbed an elite scorer in Pavel Zacha, who is the first Czech-born player the Devils have drafted since Petr Vrana in 2003. New Jersey selected two more forwards, a defenseman, and the top-ranked North American goaltender in Mackenzie Blackwood. While the team did pass on some talented forwards, they added a skilled player at every position. Shero attempted to trade back into the first round when Matthew Barzal dropped to 16th, but the New York Islanders edged him out for Edmonton’s first round pick and selected him.
New Jersey also came away with an NHL player when they acquired right winger Kyle Palmieri from Anaheim in exchange for the 41st overall pick and a 3rd round pick in 2016. They also traded down from their second-round pick, at 36th overall, with Ottawa and obtained the 42nd pick. They also had the option at either the 109th in the fourth round or the Senators’ 2016 third-round pick. They chose the latter and will have an extra third round pick in 2016.
Pavel Zacha, C/W, Sarnia Sting (OHL)
1st Round, 6th Overall
Height: 6-3 Weight: 210 lbs
It has been a long time since New Jersey drafted a player who had the potential to become a dynamic offensive force. Devils management was all smiles when they took to the podium and selected Pavel Zacha, the 6’3, 201 pound centerman from the Czech Republic with the 6th overall pick.
Right away, Zacha becomes New Jersey’s best prospect and adds a big weapon to a thin arsenal of offensive firepower. His three strengths are his shot, skating and physical play. Combine all three and you have a dangerous player for defenders to stop one-on-one. He also does a good job at protecting the puck, and his defensive game continues to get better. He has said that he models himself after Ryan Getzlaf because he plays a two-way game.
The Czech Republic native spent last season learning the North American game with the Sarnia Sting, where he scored 34 points (16 goals, 18 assists) but missed some time due to injuries, multiple suspensions, as well as his duties to his country for the World Junior Championship.
Before coming to North America, Zacha played for Liberec in the Czech Republic in 2013-14. He credits his teammate and former NHLer Petr Nedved for preparing and advising him on how to become a professional player.
“Last season when I was playing in Czech he was in every practice with me and every game I would watch him play,” Zacha said.
“The first thing I think about Petr Nedved is he came to me the first day when I was in the locker room. I was in the corner just listening to all the guys and he came and (said) whatever I need just ask him and he’ll help me with it. He was a player who played in the NHL for so long and he helped me a lot and then whatever I did in practice what he didn’t like he’d just come and tell me. He tried to help me not only on the ice, but off the ice he helped me prepare for games.”
New Jersey has said there will be opportunities for young players to compete for roster spots in training camp. That includes Zacha. It is likely he will be returned to the Sarnia Sting, but there is a good chance management gives him a long, good look and lets him play the nine game minimum in the NHL before returning him to juniors. At worst, he learns a few pointers from his idol, Patrick Elias.
You can hear more of Zacha’s comments following his selection by the Devils at the 2015 NHL Draft in this Hockey’s Future video.
Mackenzie Blackwood, G, Barrie Colts (OHL)
2nd Round, 41st Overall
Height: 6-4 Weight: 215 lbs
Originally slated to pick next at 36th, New Jersey traded down with Ottawa to 42nd and selected goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood of the Barrie Colts. There were some notable forwards still on the board when the Devils made their selection in the second round, but they addressed a growing need in their system by taking the top-ranked North American goaltender in the draft.
Blackwood actually started out as a defenseman before he decided to don the goaltender’s armor at age 12. Despite being a late bloomer, it did not take long for the big man to get accustomed to his new positon. At age 16, he won the starting job for the Barrie Colts and has held it since then. In 2014-15, he went 33-14-2 with a 3.09 goals-against average and .906 save percentage. He also stepped up in the postseason with a .922 save percentage in nine games, helping the team advance to the second round.
At 6’4, Blackwood has the ideal size of a modern goaltender. He plays a good butterfly style, taking away the bottom of the net with his legs and giving the opposition very little to shoot at. His prior experience on the blue line makes him quite mobile for his size and able to make lateral movement across the crease. The Thunder Bay native plays a controlled game which means he can guide rebounds where he wants them to go, but does a good job of recovering and getting squared to the puck quickly. While he is capable of playing the puck, Blackwood admits he can still improve that facet of his game as well as reading the play.
“A fellow player that I played with last year, Joseph Blandisi, who was drafted there, he really liked it,” he told the media. “It’s an honor to be picked there. The depth (that they have). If they feel that I am good enough to be picked for their organization, then I feel pretty honored to be a part of that.”
While New Jersey’s net is secured with Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid, Blackwood will be given plenty of time to develop into a starter.