New Jersey Devils prospect depth to be tested this season

By John Iadevaia
Photo: Although defenseman Seth Helgeson got into 22 games with the New Jersey Devils in 2014-15, he began this season with the AHL’s Albany Devils. (Courtesy of Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Photo: Although defenseman Seth Helgeson got into 22 games with the New Jersey Devils in 2014-15, he began this season with the AHL’s Albany Devils. (Courtesy of Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

 

 

 

With new management comes a new direction for the New Jersey Devils. Under the guidance of General Manager Ray Shero and Head Coach John Hynes, the team is shifting its focus from the backend to the attack. The burden now falls onto the current crop of prospects within the system, most of whom were signed from the Lou Lamoriello era. They will be challenged to determine whether they are NHL players or hurdles for the next wave of players to surpass in this new era of Devils hockey.

Left Wing

It has taken some time but Reid Boucher and Stefan Matteau are finally playing in New Jersey.  Boucher should benefit the most as his offensive game suits the attacking style of play. Since he came to the pros, he has suffered from the same issue that besets goal-scorers: consistency. Last season, he scored only 15 goals and 30 points in 62 games, with seven coming in one month. Boucher is not the answer to New Jersey’s lack of goal-scoring, but he can be a piece of the puzzle. He is being given an opportunity to succeed, but now he has to make good on it and find the back of the net.

As for Matteau, he was signed to a two-year deal over the summer, so he is locked in with New Jersey. It is unlikely now that he becomes the top-six power forward he was originally projected to be in 2012, but he still retains his puck skills and can effectively create opportunities for himself and teammates with his body. He can also play in any spot in the lineup, top to bottom. So long as he is confident and sticks to his game, Matteau can be a good complimentary piece on the ice.

The past few months have been very good for Miles Wood. The winger had a good showing at development camp during the summer and appears to have hit the ground running at Boston College. It should not be a surprise given that he has had two years to learn from his veteran Devils teammates and has dominated the New England prep school league. With his big frame and high-end the talent, Wood should do well over the next four years in college and eventually reach his potential.  

Brett Seney brings an element of speed to the organization. He might be small and could spend some more time in the weight room, but there are not many defenders in the NCAA that can keep up when he skates through open ice. With his improving offensive skills and focus on improving his defense, Seney will be a player to watch in the Hockey East conference this season.

Ben Thomson saw his stock rise on the depth chart following his rookie year in Albany last season. The power forward became a staple in the bottom six, not only providing energy for the roster but pinching in with a few timely goals. He is someone to keep an eye on as the organization looks to get younger.

Rounding out the left wings is Brandon Baddock, who returns to the Edmonton Oil Kings to provide toughness to the former CHL Champions.

Center

The Albany Devils continue to benefit from a tidal wave of talent in recent years and no position will benefit more than center this season.

Former Miami Redhawk Blake Coleman was one of the more notable college players in recent memory, scoring 39 goals and 65 points in his final junior and senior seasons. The beauty to Coleman’s game is that he can do everything: score goals, impose himself with his big frame, win face-offs, and play responsibly. He will need fine-tuning in Albany before he sees time with New Jersey.

Joseph Blandisi has only been in the system since January, but already he has made quite the impression on the franchise. The 2014-15 Overage Player of the Year had a strong showing at development camp and almost made the New Jersey roster during training camp. He might be best suited in a second- or third-line role because he plays with an edge and backs it up with skill, whether he has puck the puck or not. Blandisi is going to get a chance with New Jersey in the near future, but it will suit him well to get acclimated in Albany beforehand.

Meanwhile, Ryan Kujawinski faces the next hurdle in his development. After years of erratic play, the Ontario native played consistent hockey towards the end of his junior career. There were some nights where Kujawinski was the best player on the ice. The challenge for him now is to show he can be a contributor in the pros. It shall be by using his combination of size, speed and offensive talent to generate scoring chances or using his body to build momentum for his team.

Blake Pietila may be a future third- or fourth-line center, but he should not be underestimated. He is one of the team’s best two-way forwards who excels away from the puck and does a good job killing penalties. The former Michigan Tech captain will play in Albany for a bit before he is ready for his NHL debut. It remains to be seen if his offensive skills can transfer to the pros, but his relentless effort in all three zones make him a must-have in the line-up.

Down in the CHL, a handful of Devils prospects are projected to become impact players in the pros. Right now, Pavel Zacha is the only player in the system who could be considered a future star player. With his combination of size, speed and talent, the Czech Republic native is a threat to score when he has the puck on his stick. His defensive game is also not to be underestimated. He was decent during training camp, but is not ready to handle the rigors of the NHL. A full season with the Sarnia Sting of the OHL will benefit Zacha and prepare him for another shot at joining the NHL ranks next season.

John Quenneville has picked up where he left off last season. After a tough 2014-15 regular season with Brandon that saw him deal with injuries and struggle to crack the scoresheet, the Alberta native stepped up in the postseason, scoring 19 points in 19 games. Quenneville is not an elite player, but he is good in all areas of the game. Look for a solid final season with the Wheat Kings for the center.

The recently drafted Blake Speers is an exciting player to watch. The Sault Ste. Marie center has the offensive talent and attributes that match up with the new system in New Jersey. However, he has shown a commitment to rounding out his game to become a two-way player. Speers might do better on the wing in the pros, but we will have to see if he can bring his scoring skills to the next level.

In the college ranks, Alexander Kerfoot looks to continue spearheading Harvard forward while Joey Dudek begins his Boston College career. Kerfoot is one of the few true playmakers in the Devils system, a pure offensive talent that the organization needs more of. He had a breakout year with Harvard in 2014-15 and proved to be one of the best set-up men in college hockey. Should he avoid the injury bug, Kerfoot will be an instrumental piece in a dynamic Harvard offense.

Across town, Dudek is amongst friendly company with fellow Devils prospects Steve Santini and Miles Wood. Dudek had a trying 2014-15 season as he struggled to adjust to the USHL after coming from the high school prep league the year before. He has similar traits to that of Kerfoot in terms of his playmaking, and is a decent puckhandler. As the Golden Eagles are a stacked team, Dudek will have to earn his stripes in the bottom six for the time being.

Artur Gavrus remains the Devils’ only European prospect. The Belarussian forward has had a confounding career, and it remains murky whether or not he will return to North America. For the past two years, Gavrus has not shown much improvement in the KHL, as he continues to struggle protecting the puck from bigger opponents and staying healthy. The area where Gavrus has done well are international competitions. If he can convert the confidence he shows while playing with a Belarus jersey to club play, there may be a chance for Gavrus within the organization.

Due to the influx of talent that Albany has received in recent years, Ben Johnson has fallen on the depth chart. His lack of growth has seen him drop as he is likely to become no more than a depth center in the pros.

Right Wing

In a short amount of time, Shero has made headway to add depth to the right wing, but the position is still short of talent and bodies. While many of the centers can slot in on the right side, including Speers and Matteau, Connor Chatham remains the only dedicated right winger in the system. The power forward fared well with the Plymouth Whalers in a top-six capacity for much of the 2014-15 season.

While he is more suited for a future bottom-six role in the NHL, it is good to know the 6-foot-2, 223-pound forward has some offensive skills to work with. New Jersey also acquired Bill O’Brien in a trade with Los Angeles before the start of the season. The 2014-15 AHL Most Valuable Player could not find a spot with the Kings, but will have an opportunity in New Jersey.

Defensemen

Despite the graduation of talent over the years, the organization still has plenty of top-end talent and depth on the blue line. If and when reinforcements are needed from the AHL, the Devils have three options to choose from: the offensive minded Vojtech Mozik, the responsible Seth Helgeson or the rounded Raman Hrabarenka. Mozik was signed over the summer to play in a seventh- or eighth-defenseman role to provide some extra skill from the backend. In 2014-15, the Czech Republic native notched 10 goals and 19 assists in 51 games with HC Plzen. He has the punch to create scoring opportunities, but has to work on his defense and further adjust to the pro lifestyle.

Then there is Helgeson, who excels away from the puck. He is a smart, dependable defender who can deliver punishing hits and separate opponents from the puck. He has grown from his previous experiences in the NHL, but needs to show he can handle speedy players in the pros. Finally there is Hrabarenka. The Belarussian defenseman can deliver the body and block shots, but he can also produce offense from the blue line and play on special teams. Coach Hynes likes the versatility of Hrabarenka, but needs the young blueliner to show him something that separates him from the other Devils defensive prospects. For now, they will all play in Albany until they are needed.

Looking ahead to the future, Steve Santini is the organization’s best defenseman. The New York native is in his third season with Boston College playing on the top-pair. He can log heavy minutes while providing strong defensive coverage and a physical presence. While his offensive side could use more work, Santini has the makings of a top-four defenseman in the pros. He will spend 1-2 more years in Beantown before he joins the Devils.

While Santini is the best defensive specialist of the group, Joshua Jacobs is the best offensive player. The blueliner spent last season at Michigan State developing his all-around game. However, he did not see eye-to-eye with his head coach and left college when the season was done. He joined the Sarnia Sting shortly after to play in an offensive system that suits his style of play. This will help him when he makes the jump to the pros with the Devils attacking system.

Reece Scarlett began his third year in Albany this season. His game relies on generating chances and quarterbacking the offense. Last year he set a new career high with 25 points in 57 games and improved defensively overall. Scarlett will be a staple in the AHL lineup, but still has to develop the physical side of the game.

Rounding out the bottom are Ryan Rehill and Colton White. Rehill is an honest player who patrols the blue line with a bit of nastiness does what is needed to stop the opposition. He does not receive too much ice time, but he provides leadership to the Kamloops Blazers and will continue to do so in 2015-16. White is not the gritty type, but he is smart and tactical. His positioning and stick placement allows him to break up plays and keep the puck in the offensive zone. His growing confidence and skills with the puck may open up new opportunities for the Ontario native. 

Goaltending

Surprisingly, this position saw more change than the skaters. Despite having locked up Cory Schneider to a long term contract, there was a point where there was zero depth in the system earlier in the summer. That is because Scott Wedgewood’s contract expired, while Maxime Clermont and Anthony Brodeur were not re-signed. Here is where Shero made a mark and restructured the depth in the crease—making  it stronger than it was.

At the 2015 NHL Draft, the Devils selected the best North American goaltender on the board in Mackenzie Blackwood. Shero was clearly thinking towards the future here as the organization now has its potential replacement for Schneider. The athletic goaltender is one of the best puck stoppers in junior but is still raw and needs refinement. That was evident during development camp and the preseason, but the signs are there that the Devils have a future crease talent waiting in the wings. 

Meanwhile, Wedgewood was re-signed by the organization and is the primary starter in Albany. While he may have lost the New Jersey backup job to Keith Kinkaid, Wedgewood is a capable goaltender. In the second half of 2014-15, Wedgewood stood tall in goal and helped Albany on their second half surge that just missed the postseason. 

Veteran journeyman Yann Danis was signed over the summer to add further depth in Albany, but the wildcard in the system is Ken Appleby. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound goalie spent the past three seasons with Oshawa (OHL), where he helped lead the Generals to the 2015 Ontario Hockey League and Memorial Cup championships. In spite of a 55-18-9 record with 9 shutouts and 2.28 in 92 regular season appearances, the 20-year old was never drafted. Impressive showings at development and training camp earned him an entry-level contract with the organization.