New Jersey Devils relying on youth movement to spearhead new direction

By John Iadevaia
Photo: Stefan Matteau signed a two year, one-way contract with the Devils in July, showing the young forwards is certain to be a part of the team's plans going forward. (Courtesy of Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Photo: Stefan Matteau signed a two year, one-way contract with the Devils in July, showing that the young forward is certain to be a part of the team’s plans going forward. (Courtesy of Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

 

 

How times have changed in a year’s span. Last season the New Jersey Devils were a veteran laden team fighting to get back to the postseason. That push was derailed by the team’s inefficient offense and ineffective powerplay. The Devils would miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, ushering in a massive overhaul in personnel and management over the summer. New general manager Ray Shero and new head coach John Hynes will rely on the franchise’s prospects to bring the Devils back to the model franchise they once were.

Damon Severson looks to take the next step in his second year in New Jersey while Pavel Zacha, Stefan Matteau and Reid Boucher will battle in training camp to make New Jersey’s opening night roster. Elsewhere, Blake Speers could be in for a big season, Joshua Jacobs makes the transition from college to the junior ranks, while Steve Santini hopes to bounce back from a hindered sophomore season.

Pro

Top Pro Prospect
Damon Severson, D, New Jersey Devils

Going into this season, Severson has the makings of a future leader. Since Shero has taken charge, the defenseman’s role on and off the ice has elevated in the eyes of management and his teammates. With a year of NHL experience under him, he served as a mentor to many of the team’s prospects during the summer Development Camp, especially for the organization’s newest top prospect Pavel Zacha. On the ice, Severson will be relied upon as the spear of the assault in Coach Hynes’ fast, attacking, support system that will rely on the blue liner’s transition and puck skills to generate chances.

Severson still has much to accomplish, but the 21-year-old defenseman showed last season why is one of the Devils’ key players moving forward. His performance in training camp earned him a roster spot on opening night where he was paired with veteran Andy Greene. The duo was one of the better defensive pairings in the NHL throughout the fall, with Severson garnering Calder Trophy recognition. More importantly, he generated scoring chances on a team that struggled to find the net. He also saw time on both the power play and penalty kill. Unfortunately an ankle injury in December forced him out of the lineup until March when the Devils were well out of contention of the playoffs.

A new generation of Devils is about to enter the NHL and Severson will be one of their leaders, guiding this young group in a new direction.

NHL Bound Prospect
Stefan Matteau, C/RW, New Jersey Devils

The Devils reaffirmed their trust in Stefan Matteau over the summer by signing the forward to a two-year, one-way contract. With the buyout of Dainius Zubrus, it appears the edgy winger has a clear chance to make the team out of training camp. However, it will not be that simple as Hynes and Shero will make Matteau earn his position or else risk being sent back down to Albany, but this time exposed to the waiver wire.

The concern with Matteau is that he has not developed the way the organization had hoped. Originally opined to be a skilled power-forward back in the 2012 draft, Matteau was pushed into the NHL too early, then returned to his QMJHL team, the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, where he had a controversy in the playoffs and was suspended. The past two years Matteau has spent in Albany with a few unimpressive call-ups to New Jersey and inconsistent play in the AHL. Confidence is key because when he has it, Matteau will play the hard-nosed hockey needed to win games. But when he does not, he has not been effective in the physical areas, which is what happened in the first half of the 2014-15 season. Unlikely to become the top-six power-forward he was originally perceived to be, Matteau can still develop into a strong secondary player who can retrieve pucks and play in all situations across the ice. 

Offensive Breakout
Reid Boucher, LW, New Jersey Devils

No prospect may benefit from the Devils’ new identity more than Reid Boucher. In the past two years with the organization, he has been unable to capitalize on his opportunities to stay in New Jersey. Outside of a 22-game stretch in his rookie year in 2013-14 where he scored two goals, the winger has received short call-ups, merely due to injury reason, not merit. Last season, he scored once in 11 NHL games. In Albany, Boucher has proven to be a streaky scorer due to his fluctuating confidence. Last season with Albany, he only scored 15 goals and 30 points in 62 games. Playing within the team’s defensive system has limited his potential for offensive growth, but all that has changed this summer.  

With Shero and Hynes in charge, installing a new up-tempo style, Boucher will have a legitimate chance to make the New Jersey roster. It should be no surprise that Boucher himself is happy to play in this new system. This fresh start will let the 22-year-old play to his full offensive potential and the patience from management to learn from his mistakes. It is likely he will be with the Devils on opening night as the team focuses on their younger players to step up. If Boucher can play consistent hockey, he will start to secure a full-time NHL job.

Junior

Top Junior Prospect
Pavel Zacha, C, Sarnia Sting (OHL)

This is a prediction that could end up getting egg on this writer’s face, but there is a good chance that Pavel Zacha will be returned to the OHL. He is going to compete in training camp and make a strong case to make New Jersey’s roster, but it would serve him best to get another year of experience playing a full season of North American hockey. Between a suspension, injury, and international duty, the Czech Republic native only suited up in 33 games for Sarnia. However, in that small sample size, he scored 37 points and was quite dominant in many games. Zacha proved hard to contain with his combination of size, speed and skill with the puck. In the postseason, he also showed off his defensive play by being matched up against Connor McDavid in more of a shutdown role. He limited the future superstar’s chances in a tight series that showed he can play on both sides of the puck.

There is no doubt Zacha has the physical tools to compete in the NHL as well as the skills to become a star player. However, the Devils are in no position to rush their top prospect into the NHL just for short-term success.  Previous examples with Adam Larsson and Stefan Matteau’s slow development curves should give management pause before giving Zacha an NHL job right away. The extra season in junior will allow the forward to flesh out his play with and without the puck and gain more confidence later in the season. He will not be alone as he would play alongside a fellow Devils’ prospect. 

New Team in 2015-16
Joshua Jacobs, D, Sarnia Sting

Prior to the 2014 NHL Draft, Joshua Jacobs had committed to Michigan State, a program he felt was the right fit for him on and off the ice. The Spartans were not the powerhouse they once were, but the offensive-defenseman wanted to be a part of what head coach Tom Anastos was building. From the start of the season, Jacobs received plenty of ice-time and blended in well with a young defensive unit that was one of the best in the Big Ten Conference. Throughout the season at East Lansing, Jacobs developed his defensive game and become a more responsible player.

However, as the 2014-15 season went along, Jacobs became unhappy and did not see eye-to-eye with Anastos. He cited that it was a different atmosphere and culture to what he imagined coming in. Despite his unrest, he finished second among the Spartans’ defensemen with nine points (all assists), was the only freshman on the team to play in all 35 games and was selected to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team.

When the season was over, he left Michigan State and signed on with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting. The Sting are known to play a high-tempo style, which should compliment his own skills. It may also help him transition to the pros in the future as the Devils organization shifts to a similar fast, attacking system like the Sting. Despite the change of scenery, Jacobs appreciated his time at Michigan State and acknowledges it helped him grow as a player and a person.

Offensive Breakout
Blake Speers, C/RW, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds

The 2015-16 appears promising for Blake Speers. The skilled forward will have a chance to build upon a successful 2014-15 season where he finished sixth on the team in scoring with 67 points. Not only was he solid offensively, but showed he can play well defensively as well. Still, Speers’ strength lies in the offensive zone with his slick hands and good puckhandling skills, along with his ability to drive the play forward through all three zones complimented by his smooth skating. His hockey sense—his best trait—allows him to recognize a play before it happens and adjust accordingly to create the scoring chance.

With the departure of some of the veteran Greyhounds, Speers appears to be ready for his best season yet. He will be given more responsibility, including increased ice time and a role on the top line. He still aims to improve his defensive game, but the 2015-16 season offers the chance for Speers to show himself as pure scorer who can keep the pressure on the opposition. If all goes well, he could break into the top-20 scorers in the OHL. 

Amateur

Top Amateur Prospect
Steve Santini, D, Boston College

Entering his junior year, Steve Santini has an important season ahead of him. Now an upperclassman, the New York native will become an assistant captain as a young Boston College squad. This should not be a problem as Santini has shown he can step up and lead players from the blue line. He would have been one of the captains in last year’s World Junior Championships for Team USA had it not been for a wrist injury. He picked it up in a preseason game in October before receiving surgery soon after. Santini would eventually return in 2015, but he never seemed to be himself. During Devils Development Camp, he admitted the injury hurt his ability to perform to the best of his abilities. In 22 games, he had five points, 20 penalty minutes and a minus-2 rating.

Despite the change in the organization, Santini plans to remain with the Devils going forward. He enters 2015-16 back to full health in what could be his final year in college, but it remains to be seen. The 20-year-old defenseman is one of the best defensive specialists in the nation but needs to continue to develop his all-around game. He will also serve as a mentor to fellow Devils prospects Miles Wood and J.D. Dudek who begin their college careers at Conte Forum this fall.

Offensive Breakout
Brett Seney, LW, Merrimack College (Hockey East)

While Jack Eichel was the freshman sensation of the 2014-15 college season, Brett Seney was flying under the radar. Playing for Merrimack College does not draw the same eyes as someone at Boston College, but opponents had to follow Seney on the ice very closely. That is because the British Columbia native was always a threat to take off with his blistering speed and outskate defenders to create scoring chances. He was one of the fastest skaters in Hockey East and excelled in transition situations. In his first 23 games, he tallied 23 points but a lower-body injury slowed him down in February, resulting in him scoring only three points in the final 11 games of the season.

With a full year under his belt and coming off his first Development Camp with the Devils, Seney seems eager to start his sophomore season. Opposing teams will likely try to physically intimidate the 5-foot-9, 170-pound winger, but Seney has shown he is not fazed by opponents playing the body on him. He merely has to outpace them and find open space to use his wrist shot. While he has to improve his strength and defensive play, Seney is now the Warriors’ go-to scorer and should receive ample amounts of ice time and opportunities to make a difference.

Europe

Unsigned for 2016-17
Artur Gavrus, LW/C, Dinamo Minsk (KHL)

It was another lackluster season for Gavrus as he struggled to contend for playing time with Dinamo Minsk of the KHL. The same issues he faced in his first year in the KHL pestered the Belarus winger throughout 2014-15. Despite given ice time earlier in the year, Gavrus was not consistent and generated few chances while providing little in return from his play away from the puck.  In addition, he was unable to stay injury-free yet again. This resulted in him only playing in 36 games while adding 9 points in a bottom-six role. The forward was scratched on numerous occasions and was even sent down to Dinamo’s minor league teams later in the season.

Fortunately for Gavrus, he continues to play well on the international stage. At the IIHF World Championship, he scored two goals and three assists for Belarus and was one of the tournaments better forwards. In 17 other games he dressed for his country, he added four goals and six assists.

Earlier in the summer, Gavrus was going to move to the Finnish Elite League. However, in August, he mutually parted ways with his Finnish club and rejoined Dinamo Minsk for another year in the KHL. He could return to North America where his style of play may benefit from the system change within the Devils organization. There is also as much a likelihood Gavrus never gets signed and remains in Europe.