Good starts aplenty for New Jersey Devils prospects in the CHL

By John Iadevaia
Photo: Josh Jacobs has six assists in 13 games during his OHL debut with the Sarnia Sting, just three short of the nine he had for Michigan State University in 2014-15. (Courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Photo: Josh Jacobs has six assists in 13 games during his OHL debut with the Sarnia Sting, just three short of the nine he had for Michigan State University in 2014-15. (Courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

 

 

Since taking over the franchise, General Manager Ray Shero and Head Coach John Hynes have instituted a new mindset for the New Jersey Devils franchise. That change in thinking has seen the parent club grow closer together and compete hard each night. The organization’s prospects have learned from that as well, following a development and training camp with the new staff.

Across the farm system, the Devils prospects as a whole are doing well, showing there is more to the system than once thought. This article will focus on the organization’s junior prospects in the CHL, as well as discuss non-junior players who have stood out, followed by the prospect of the month.

OHL

Blake Speers, RW/C, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Acquired: 3rd Round (66th Overall) 2015

Sault Ste. Marie saw many key contributors depart following the 2014-15 season, opening the way for Blake Speers to become the team’s go-to scoring option. After going scoreless for the first two games of the season, the hometown kid found his rhythm against the Guelph Storm with a three assist effort. The Greyhounds have had a rough start to the season, but Speers is doing a good job of providing the team with an offensive outlet. Through the first 18 games, he has four goals and 11 assists.

Overall, the Greyhounds have struggled to keep the puck out of their net and given up far too many chances, and Speers needs to improve on his defensive work. His minus-13 rating is the worst on the team; more a result that he is receiving lots of ice time, but an indication that he can improve away from the puck. Speers also participated in the CHL Canada Russia Series as a part of the Team OHL roster that defeated Russia 3-0.

Colton White, D, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Acquired: 4th Round (97th Overall) 2015

Speers’ teammate Colton White has seen his role increase throughout his junior career. This season might be the toughest because the Greyhounds overall are not a strong team. The back end especially has been the Achilles heel for Sault Ste. Marie due to a series of miscues and a lack of production.

White, an alternative captain, has been one of the team’s most consistent players while playing in a more expanded role than years past. In the first four games of 2015-16, the blue liner had four points, but has only added four more (one goal, seven assists in total) through 18 games. He is also the quarterback on a power play unit that ranks last in the OHL at 12-percent. While White himself has performed well, he has succumbed to a few defensive miscues as the Greyhounds have conceded 71 goals through mid-November.

Pavel Zacha, C, Sarnia Sting
Acquired: 1st Round (6th Overall) 2015

After he was returned to juniors before the end of training camp, Pavel Zacha went on a tear. He scored five goals and two assists in his first two games for the Sarnia Sting before he cooled off for two games. The Czech Republic native leads the team in points-per-game (0.93) with 14 points in fifteen games played.

Could Zacha be doing more? Possibly, but Sarnia is not an offensive dynamo like Kitchener and Windsor who have the talent to score goals at will. Zacha is still gaining positive marks from junior scouts who are awed by his confidence with the puck and his complete package of size, speed and skill. His shot seems to have developed since the start of the season. While he a contributor for the Sting, the centerman is also working on his overall game, including face-offs (52%), improving defensively and staying disciplined (26 penalty minutes already so there is work to do there).

Joshua Jacobs, D, Sarnia Sting
Acquired: 2nd Round (41st Overall) 2014

Sticking with the Sting, defenseman Joshua Jacobs is in his first season of junior hockey since departing Michigan State at the end of last season. Jacobs is performing well on the second pairing with Alex Black but is still adjusting to his new surroundings. The Michigan native had some moments in October where he did not play up to his standards (Kitchener on October 22nd for example). Yet Jacobs has had more good days than bad. Prior to that contest on the 22nd, he scored 3 assists, had 8 shots, and a plus-4 rating in the three previous contests.

Since the start of November, he has looked more poised and comfortable playing in Sarnia’s fast system that suits his style of play. Through 18 games played, he has one goal and 10 assists along with a plus-1 rating. As Jacobs gets more accommodated with Sarnia, his defensive play should get better, and his overall game will start to shine.

Connor Chatham, RW, Flint Firebirds
Acquired: 3rd Round (71st Overall) 2014

Following two seasons with the Plymouth Whalers, Connor Chatham joined the Flint Firebirds in an expanded role. The power forward got it going with eight points in his first nine games. Unfortunately, since playing Ottawa on October 16th, he has scored only three assists in nine games. Chatham is playing in all situations and continues to provide a physical element as he tries to get back on track scoring-wise. 

The highlight of Chatham’s season did not occur on the ice but in the owner’s office. On November 8th following the team’s shootout victory over Oshawa, owner Rolf Nilsen unexpectedly fired Head Coach John Gruden and his staff. Chatham joined his teammates who marched into Nilsen’s office and quit the team to protest the decision. Nilsen apologized the next day and rehired the entire coaching staff. Only then did the players agree to rejoin the team.

WHL

John Quenneville, C, Brandon Wheat Kings
Acquired: 1st Round (30th Overall) 2013

Looking to bounce back from an injury plagued 2014-15 season, John Quenneville wanted to start the season on the right foot for the Brandon Wheat Kings. A good showing at Devils training camp carried over to juniors as the centerman has been in fine form. He tallied 11 points in his first four games, in which he scored three points or more in three of them. He would have a three game goal streak later in October and end the month with a three point game.

Quenneville has tried to focus on becoming a more consistent contributor, but he has done well to come up in big spots for the Wheat Kings. Through 16 games, he has nine goals, 11 assists, 1.25 points-per-game, and a plus-10 rating. Something that will help Quenneville is staying in the lineup and avoiding injury. That is easier said than done, as he picked up an upper-body injury in early November, which resulted in him missing three games as well as the CHL Canada Russia Series.

Ryan Rehill, D, Kamloops Blazers
Acquired: 5th Round (131st overall) 2014

The Kamloops Blazers find themselves on the bubble of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Leading the team from the backend is Ryan Rehill, who is an assistant captain and one of the team’s more dependable defenders. What he does well is chew heavy minutes on the top pairing alongside Ondrej Vala. He has also chipped in with nine points through 16 games, which is about halfway towards his career high of 20.

Rehill is known for his blood-and-guts effort to fight for 60 minutes and stand up for his teammates. He is vital to the Blazers’ successful penalty kill (83%) which has been one of the best units in the WHL. He has also racked up 44 penalty minutes, five of which belong to a fight on October 7th against Maxwell James of the Tri-City Americans.

Brandon Baddock, LW, Edmonton Oil Kings
Acquired: 6th Round (161st Overall) 2014

Baddock could have joined the Albany Devils over the summer, but New Jersey felt it was best for his development to go back to junior for his overage season, where he could continue to improve and gain confidence offensively. Over the years, he has shown growth in his offensive game and has stepped up in a leadership role. Before the season began, Baddock was named captain of the Edmonton Oil Kings, a team that is relatively young with few NHL draft picks.

The Oil Kings have gotten off to a slow start and are on the bubble fighting for a wild card spot. Baddock is receiving plenty of ice time along with power play and penalty kill minutes. Through 21 games, he has six goals, three assists and 40 penalty minutes, but has yet to fight this season. Baddock is leading by example on the ice and hopes another good year will result in an NHL contract by season’s end.

Mackenzie Blackwood, G, Barrie Colts
Acquired: 2nd Round (42nd Overall) 2015

We delve between the pipes to find Mackenzie Blackwood excelling in his fourth season with the Barrie Colts. Since the Devils returned him to junior, the Thunder Bay native has done nothing but perform terrifically. In 18 starts, he is 12-6 with a 2.45 goals against average, a .927 save percentage and two shutouts. He is amongst the OHL’s best goaltenders and can be found in the top three in most of the stats categories.

Much of Blackwood’s success can be attributed to his workhorse mentality. He has played in all but two games this season, but it should come as no surprise for those that know him. Considered one of the most athletic prospects amongst his draft class, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound puck stopper focuses hard on his off-ice training to handle a heavy workload. Barrie Head Coach Dale Hawerchuk has had no worries leaning on his veteran goaltender.

Blackwood sealed his inclusion in Team Canada’s selection camp for the World Junior Championships with a stellar performance in the CHL Canada Russia Series. He stopped all 25 shots and made a few great saves in the third period to help Team OHL win 3-0 over Russia.

Best Non-Junior Prospects

Similar to their parent club, the Albany Devils have been a bit of a surprise to start the year. While the team overall has played well from top to bottom, two Devils in particular have been quite impressive. Joe Blandisi has played with an edge and appears motived every time he is on the ice. The centerman has been an offensive sparkplug and has received promotions in the lineup from the third to second to the first line. Blandisi has demonstrated that his skill is matched by his work ethic, which has resulted in him playing in every situation. He scored the game-winning goal in overtime against Lehigh Valley on November 14th and had two powerplay goals the week before against Syracuse. In 13 games, he has 11 total points on the year, second behind Mike Sislo for the team lead.

Like Ben Thomson last season, Blake Pietila is another fourth liner making a difference early on. The stocky forward has four goals and three assists through a month and a half of the season, but he has already established himself as an all-situations player. His relentless effort makes him useful in an energy role as well as a pest at even strength and on the power play. Questions were asked if he could transfer his offensive skills from college to the pros, but so far so good for the Michigan native.

Prospect of the Month: Miles Wood

Miles Wood - New Jersey DevilsIn the past few months, Miles Wood has taken a big step in his development. After finishing his prep school career, he stood out during Devils Development Camp before joining Boston College in the fall. Normally, freshman do not become impact players, but Wood has quickly assumed that role for the Golden Eagles alongside classmate Colin White.  The duo has been thrust into the spotlight following the departure of Jeremy Bracco, and they have shown no signs of slowing down.

In 10 games, Wood has four goals and eight assists, scoring 1.20 points-per-game—along with 32 shots and a plus-6 rating. Opponents have had a hard time slowing him down due to his skating, size, power and puck skills. As he continues to receive top-line minutes, the expectations for Wood have risen. If he keeps this up throughout his college career, the Devils may have another top-six scoring forward waiting in the pipeline. Not bad for a fourth-round draft pick.