New Jersey Devils boast massive contingent of collegiate defensemen

By Jared Ramsden
Photo: Drafted 38th overall in 2010, Jon Merrill immediately became one the top prospect in New Jersey’s prospect pool. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The Devils had 10 players suit up for NCAA squads this season, but none were more impressive than 2010 top pick Jon Merrill who had a standout freshman season at the University of Michigan

NCAA

Brandon Burlon, D, 21
Acquired: 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2008

Burlon’s junior season has been fairly unspectacular for the most part, but he’s been much sharper than he was in his freshman season. He has played a steady game on the blue line, often lining up on the Wolverines second defense pairing, playing in all situations, while posting five goals and 13 assists through 38 games. His impressive plus-14 rating is currently tops amongst all Michigan blueliners as the team continues to play in the NCAA‘s Frozen Four Tournament. Burlon was also named as an Honorable Mention to the 2010-11 CCHA All-Conference Team.

Standing at 6’0 and shade under 190 lbs, the 21-year-old possesses great mobility and has improved his defensive play throughout his three years in Ann Arbor. He continues to develop the two-way skills that should help him thrive once he decides to turn pro. Burlon could return to Michigan next year for his senior season, but he and the Devils could also decide that he is ready to turn pro. He likely won’t develop into an upper-echelon defenseman at the next level, but he has the makings of a perfect multi-purpose, mid-pairing defender once he reaches his potential.

Joe Faust, D, 19
Acquired: 4th round, 114th overall, 2010

Faust was originally scheduled to start his collegiate career with Princeton, but backed out as he hoped to get a chance to play closer to his home state of Minnesota, where he had great success playing high-school hockey. Faust ended up choosing to lace up his skates with the Wisconsin Badgers, but he had a hard time earning regular minutes there amongst a deep group of defenseman and took a bit of a backseat in his freshman season with the team. He managed to get into 20 games and post a respectable plus-four rating, playing with different partners on Wisconsin’s third defense pairing. He didn’t record a point in his first 14 games, but managed his first two collegiate points (including his first career goal) in his remaining six games.

The short and stocky Faust possesses good offensive skills from the blue line and sees the ice very well. He makes crisp passes and outlets and has a point shot that packs some punch. He is still learning how to defend properly in his own end, which is something that will come along as he matures and absorbs the coaching that he gets while in college. Faust will likely play a much bigger role with the Badgers in his sophomore season and earn some more responsibilities with Jake Gardiner (TOR) turning pro and senior Craig Johnson graduating. The Devils will take their time with Faust and will likely have a better idea of what they have once he gets to play a more minutes and a more significant role on the Wisconsin blue line.

Curtis Gedig, D, 19
Acquired: 7th round, 204th overall, 2009

After two years in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League, Gedig moved on to the NCAA and the Ohio State Buckeyes where he recently just wrapped up his freshman season. He was thrown right into the fire, playing amongst the Buckeyes top four defenseman all year long while also getting to play on both the power-play and penalty kill on a regular basis. In 34 games, Gedig recorded 12 assists, a plus-three rating and six penalty minutes.

It’s taken a while for Gedig to make a name for himself, but after one year of college hockey, it looks like the Devils may have found themselves another well rounded defense prospect. The former seventh round pick still has some filling out to do, but he appeared to pick things up very quickly as a freshman and didn’t wilt under the extra responsibility. Gedig plays a relatively low-risk, no-frills style of game. He doesn’t have many standout traits, however he makes a good first past out of his end and will jump into the play on occasion by rushing the puck up the ice. As he fills out his lanky 6’3 frame, he should become even harder to play against in his own end. He is a bit of a long-range project, perhaps in the Mark Fayne mold, and will return to Ohio State for his sophomore season with likely even more responsibility and ice time being given to him with the Buckeyes losing a handful of senior defenseman to graduation.

Seth Helgeson, D, 20
Acquired: 4th round, 114th overall, 2009

Perhaps no other Devils collegiate prospect saw more improvement from one year to the next than Helgeson did this year as his development at the University of Minnesota under the tutelage of head coach Don Lucia resulted in a strong sophomore season. He was elevated to the Golden Gophers top defense pairing with senior Cade Fairchild (STL) where he excelled playing a physical shutdown role. He played in 36 games, scoring a goal and six assists to go along with a plus-seven rating. He also led the team in penalty minutes with 66.

While the Devils prospect cupboard is well stocked with some future offensive minded, puck-moving defenseman, Helgeson brings a contrasting style to the table. He loves to use his 6’5, 220 lb frame to his advantage while defending. Not only does he use that size physically, but his long reach also aids him in his own end. A prototypical stay-at-home defenseman, Helgeson does skate well for his size and is able to handle and move the puck competently. He is not a finished product yet, and as he continues to mature, he will only become even more difficult to play against. The Devils have to like what they’ve seen from Helgeson in his first two years of college and at this point, it looks like the best may still be yet to come.

Mike Hoeffel, LW, 22
Acquired: 2nd round, 57th overall, 2007

His stats don’t jump out at you and never really did in any of his four years at the University of Minnesota, but Hoefell was very consistent in his collegiate career. This year, he managed to lead a low-scoring Golden Gophers team in goals with 13 (including six on the powerplay) and finished third in overall points with 24. He suited up in 35 games and boasted a solid plus-nine rating. The senior winger played on the top-line for most of the year with fellow senior Jay Barriball (STL) and a variety of different centers, while logging key minutes on both special teams units. Not surprisingly, he was quickly inked to a three-year entry-level contract by the Devils once his senior season came to a close.

Hoefell doesn’t have a very high ceiling, but he has the physical tools to eventually evolve into a prototypical third-line two-way checker at the pro level. He has good size (6’2, just under 200 lbs) and speed, is well schooled defensively and isn’t afraid of playing a physical style. Hoefell doesn’t have great finesse or natural offensive skill, but he packs a powerful shot and is quite effective around the net providing screens and pouncing on loose pucks. Hoefell’s contract kicks in next season, but he will play on an amateur try-out contract with the Devils AHL affiliate in Albany for the rest of the year, where he will get a brief preview of what life is like in the AHL before taking on it full time next season. He’ll need at least one full season on the farm before getting a look in New Jersey.

Jon Merrill, D, 19
Acquired: 2nd round, 38th overall, 2010

Recently named the Devils top prospect at Hockey’s Future, words can’t even begin to describe how well Merrill’s first season in the college ranks has gone. It didn’t take him and senior defenseman Chad Langlais to gain some chemistry as they quickly emerged as the Wolverines top defensive duo. For a freshman, Merrill picked things up very quickly and earned the trust of coach Red Berenson right from the get go. Through 40 games, Merrill leads all Wolverine blueliners in assists (17) and points (24). He also boasts a healthy plus-nine rating to go along with 59 blocked shots. The accolades Merrill has received thus far this year can be counted on more than one hand. He won a bronze medal on the American entry at the World Juniors, was named CCHA rookie of the week twice, named to the CCHA all-rookie team and named to the all-CCHA second team to go along with being nominated for the CCHA’s Rookie of the Year, Offensive Defenseman of the Year and Defensive Defenseman of the Year.

The Devils stole Merrill in the second round of this past summer’s draft and at this point it seems pretty safe to say that the team has themselves a bonafide top pairing defenseman in the making. Already solidly built at 6’3 and nearly 210 lbs, the poise and hockey smarts Merrill has put on display as a freshman is quite remarkable. He skates well in all directions, shows no fear in rushing the puck up the ice and was given the task of quarterbacking the Wolverines powerplay, something he did with relative ease with his great distribution skills and shot. While still a little raw defensively, Merrill is sure to evolve further and learn how to use his sizable frame to his advantage with more experience. It’s hard to believe he’s just 19, but Merrill has the skill set that the Devils are desperately lacking on the blue line right now and while it might be tempting to rush him, bet on him returning to Michigan for his sophomore season before possibly turning pro after the 2011-12 season.

Corbin McPherson, D, 22
Acquired: 3rd round, 87th overall, 2007

It was a bit of a rough season for McPherson and his Red Raider teammates as they struggled for the majority of the season. His team-worst minus-19 rating was the worst on the club and looks bad on paper, but when you play on a team that gives up many more goals than it scores, the end result is a team with many minus players. He logged a fairly heavy workload and saw action on both special teams. He also produced a career best 10 points (four goals and six assists) in 41 games. Two of the goals were game winners.

Getting a read on McPherson was slightly difficult this year given that he played on team that didn’t have much success, but he has slowly started to evolve into a better rounded defenseman. Standing at a towering 6’4, 210 lbs, McPherson jumped into the play more and was more involved offensively this season as evidenced by his stats than in his first two years at Colgate. He also continues to improve his positioning in his own end while using his sizeable frame and reach to keep the opposition at bay. There are still parts of McPherson’s game that are raw and developing, so it might be in his best interest to return to Colgate for his senior season next year before turning pro. He’s been progressing at a nice rate since being drafted in the third round by the Devils in 2007 and still has a lot of untapped potential waiting to blossom.


Derek Rodwell, LW, 20
Acquired: 5th round, 144th overall, 2009

After spending three years in the Alberta Junior Hockey League with the Okotoks Oilers, Rodwell moved on to the NCAA to play for the University of North Dakota this season. His freshman year has gone about as well as could be expected, as Rodwell has managed to carve out a niche in a checking line role for a Fighting Sioux team that is still competing in the Frozen Four Tournament. In 38 games, he’s recorded five goals (including one shorthanded) and four assists to go along with a plus-two rating. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but considering it’s his first year at UND and the fact he didn’t see near the ice time that he was used to seeing in the AJHL, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Rodwell’s style of play and eventual long-term upside is similar to that of Hoeffel, who was talked about at length earlier. Solidly built at 6’2, 200 lbs and still growing into his frame, Rodwell’s bread and butter is his strong skating and willingness to get involved physically. He does possess some offensive skill, albeit it is somewhat limited. He’s the type of player that thrives going to the net hard and battling for loose pucks and rebounds. With the Fighting Sioux expected to lose some forwards to graduation next year, the opportunity will be there for Rodwell to get a more prominent role next season. He’s likely to max out his remaining college eligibility as the Devils have no need to rush him at this time.

Joe Sova, D, 22
Acquired: Free agent, March 2011

The newest member of the Devils organization is Joe Sova, who recently signed with the club after completing his junior season at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Arguably the Nanooks best all-around defenseman for the past two seasons, Sova played on the top defense pairing all season long and was that second highest scorer for UAF with four goals (three of which came with the man-advantage) and 20 assists in 37 games. He posted an even plus/minus rating and showed his feisty side by leading the club in penalty minutes with 60.

A big, mobile defenseman who moves really well with the puck, the area Sova has improved in the most in his time at UAF has been in how he is now using his 6’3 frame to his advantage. He can be physical and deliver some very solid checks, but he’s also using it more effectively in shutting down opposing players as well as protecting the puck better when he has it. His positional play has also improved. Sova makes good decisions and he’s become smarter about when to and not to jump up into the play. He also has a bomb of a shot too. The Devils have historically had a good rate of success signing collegiate free-agents who have contributed at the next level (Brian Rafalski, John Madden, Andy Greene, and Rod Pelley) and they hope that with Sova, they’ve found another un-drafted gem.


David Wohlberg, LW/C, 20
Acquired: 6th round, 172nd overall, 2008

Wohlberg has having a great bounce back year after an uneven sophomore season at the University of Michigan, but unfortunately a broken collarbone suffered in the Wolverines first playoff game brought his season to an abrupt halt. He bounced around the top two lines for most of the season, playing with the likes of Louie Carpousso (OTT) and Carl Hagelin (NYR), but no matter where he lined up, he managed to produce. In 37 games, he lit the lamp 15 times, which trailed only Hagelin. Aside from an eight game pointless drought, Wohlberg was a consistent contributor.

One of the Devils prospects who doesn’t get a lot of hype, Wohlberg is one of the more well-rounded forwards in the organization because of his versatility and ability to play at both ends of the rink. When you mix in his top-notch speed and quickness, you have a player who fits the mould of what the Devils look for in a prospect. He may turn pro next year, but it is unknown at this time what route he will go. If he does return to Michigan for his senior season, he would likely be the go-to guy on offense with the Wolverines likely to lose some seniors to graduation.


Europe

Mauro Jorg, RW, 20
Acquired: 7th round, 204th overall, 2010

The only Devils prospect currently residing in Europe, Jorg spent his second straight full-season playing for HC Lugano of the Swiss Elite League in 2010-11 and while his numbers are quite pedestrian, it’s impressive for the soon-to-be 21-year-old to be taking a regular shift in a professional hockey league of any kind. Dressing in all 50 of HC Lugano’s games, he recorded three goals and nine assists to go along with 26 penalty minutes. In four playoff games, he was held scoreless.

At this point, Jorg might not have much left to prove over in Switzerland, and if he is serious about pursuing a career in North America, he may want to think about crossing the pond sooner rather than later. Jorg skates and handles the puck well, but is often hesitant to shoot. At this point, it’s still difficult to say what type of prospect Jorg might develop into, but he will eventually have to come to North America to help enhance his value in the organization.