The winds of change have swept across the entire New Jersey Devils organization. General Manager Ray Shero and Head Coach John Hynes are relying on the organization’s stash of underrated prospects to rise to the challenge during this transitional period. Most of these players saw this new attack-oriented system firsthand at Development Camp in July, and are all in favor of the change.
There is a new top prospect on the list, but he might have to wait his turn. After years of being passed over for older players, the veteran prospects in the system will now get a fair chance to earn an NHL job this fall. A few prospects still have something to prove, but this new era will give them the chance to restart their development and get back on track.
20. (20) Ben Thomson, LW, 5.5 B
Drafted 4th round, 96th overall, 2012
Last but not least is Ben Thomson, who was one of the organization’s best rookies last season. The power forward had to fight his way into the Albany lineup early in the season, but eventually, he became a staple in the bottom-six and excelled as an energy forward. He also chipped in 16 points in 67 games along with 97 penalty minutes. That fighting mentality has helped Thomson progress this far in his career, and may be what helps him crack the Devils roster in the near future.
19. (15) Miles Wood, LW, 6.5 C
Drafted 4th round, 60th overall, 2013
Since being drafted in 2013, Wood has taken positive steps in his development. His USHS domination and performance at the World Junior Championships with Team USA show he is a competitor no matter what role he plays. At Development Camp, Wood said he sees himself as a top-nine forward in a supporting role who can contribute with and without the puck. This fall, he will begin his collegiate career at Boston College where he will be tested each night, showing us exactly the type of quality that he possesses.
18. (11) Ryan Kujawinski, C, 6.5 C
Drafted 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2013
After years of inconsistent play, Kujawinski became a constant scoring threat throughout the 2014-15 season. After netting 13 goals and 10 assists in 27 games with a struggling Kingston squad, he was traded in January to North Bay where he finished the regular season with 21 goals and 15 assists in 36 games. He also added nine points in 15 playoff games.
The centerman could not escape the injury bug, but he did not allow it to hurt his performance as he still found ways to stay noticeable on nights when he did not score. It is a good sign of growth from Kujawinski who must now show his experience as he begins his pro career.
17. (14) Alexander Kerfoot, C, 6.5 C
Drafted 5th round, 150th overall, 2012
Last season was a breakout year for Kerfoot. Centering one of the best lines in college hockey between Jimmy Vesey and Kyle Criscuolo, Kerfoot’s playmaking and creativity were on display as the engine for Harvard University’s offense. He tallied eight goals and 22 assists in 27 games and scored 1.11 points-per-game pace. There is plenty of upside regarding the centerman, but questions persist about his health. Kerfoot acknowledged that he needs to continue building up his strength in order to overcome concerns over his physicality.
16. (17) Joseph Blandisi, C, 6.5 C
Free agent signing, 2015
The last transaction made by former General Manager Lou Lamoriello was signing Joseph Blandisi back in January. It could turn out to be his last great act for the club if the 21-year old continues to grow. After overcoming the coxsackie virus in 2014, Blandisi had a remarkable final season with the Barrie Colts. He was named the OHL Player of the Year after leading the league with 52 goals (10 shorthanded) and finishing with 112 points in 68 games. His puck skills are terrific, but it was also impressive to watch the diminutive forward compete for the puck in the dirty areas. Blandisi is in a good situation, as the Devils look to their young players for growth, but it remains to be seen exactly what role the Ontario native will be best suited for in the pros.
15. (10) Graham Black, C, 6.5 C
Drafted 5th round, 135th overall, 2012
Not to be lost in the whirlwind of change surrounding the organization is the speedy Graham Black. The forward did not see consistent ice time in Albany until the winter where he became a staple on the second/third line in the second half of the season. He was able to display his talent with the puck but he primarily played a two-way role, which is likely what he would become in the NHL. A sports hernia injury ended his season early, but he finished with 14 points in 46 games. His recovery will be 100 percent by training camp but he still has to continue growing his all-around game.
14. (8) Reece Scarlett, D, 6.5 C
Drafted 6th round, 159th overall, 2011
Scarlett is another player who will benefit from the change in philosophy and could see an increased role going forward. In spite of a poor start to last season, the offensive defenseman played strong in the second half, quarterbacking the power play and generating even strength chances. He set a new career high with 25 points in 57 games and improved defensively in his own zone. With Albany getting younger and the Devils system shifting to suit his style of play, Scarlett will be relied upon this upcoming season to become a leader on and off the ice.
13. (18) Raman Hrabarenka, D, 6.5 C
Free Agent Signing, 2013
Hrabarenka has quietly grown into one of the better defensemen in the system. Signed out of the QMJHL in 2012, the blue liner’s calling card has been his punishing physical presence. Outside of him and Seth Helgeson, this is an element New Jersey is lacking on defense. It is not a shock then that he plays a good defensive oriented game, but the 6-5, 235 pound prospect has also shown his skill with the puck and set career highs in 2014-15 with nine goals, 18 assists and 27 points in 47 AHL games with Albany.
When training camp opens, Hrabarenka will be competing against Helgeson and Vojtech Mozik for either one or two remaining spots on New Jersey’s defense. The Belarus native appears to be the slight favorite because he can make a difference with or without the puck. Coach Hynes has recognized Hrabarenka’s potential but feels he needs to establish an identity that will get him into the NHL lineup.
12. (5) Seth Helgeson, D, 6.0 B
Drafted 4th round, 114th overall, 2009
In this new age of hockey where skating and skill are more prominent than ever, Helgeson is amongst a breed of defenseman that is becoming rare in the NHL. The 6’4, 215 pound stay-at-home defenseman brings a physical element, delivering punishing hits and winning puck battles against power-forwards.
Once again, he was the anchor on Albany’s defense in 2014-15, logging heavy minutes while adding 12 points in 49 games. However, he possesses minimal offensive skill other than a hard shot. His skating, while good for his size, was exposed last season when he played 22 games in New Jersey. With his experience, improvements, and defined role, Helgeson could get a trial run in the NHL this season.
11. (12) Blake Pietila, C, 6.0 B
Drafted 5th round, 129th overall, 2011
There is much to like about the way Blake Pietila plays the game. He is expected to contribute as a bottom-six forward thanks to his relentlessness and versatility to battle all over the ice. It is unlikely, but if his offensive skills can transfer from college to the pros, Pietila could become an important role-player. In his final season at Michigan Tech, the centerman contributed 30 points in 40 games as a team captain as the Huskies made the NCAA Tournament. He also won around 60 percent of his face-offs and excelled at even strength.