There were low expectations for the New Jersey Devils entering the 2015-16 season. With a core of returning players that struggled to generate offense last season, along with a new head coach and his system, there was likely to be some adjustment period. Now, the Devils are in the playoff hunt battling for a wild card spot.
The team has surprised many with their offensive output and quick assimilation to John Hynes’ new system. Not to be outdone is the franchise’s minor league team in Albany. The AHL Devils have come out strong and are playing very similar to their parent club: the offense is bountiful, the defense and goaltending are dependable and special teams are some of the best in the league. Once again, a new class of rookies is making an impact on the scoreboard. What has been most impressive is that Albany continues to produce results despite the injury bug hitting most of the roster.
Reid Boucher, LW
Entering the 2015-16 campaign, the Devils planned to give Reid Boucher an opportunity in New Jersey. He was in the lineup on opening night but his NHL stint was not long. Unable to make an impact and take advantage of his situation, the Devils sent him down to Albany for playing time. Fortunately, the winger has responded well to the transaction and has become a consistent threat in Albany’s lineup.
In the past, Boucher has struggled to be a nightly contributor but this season he has shown he can be a factor even when he does not find the scoresheet. He has averaged about four shots per game through 17 games and has tallied 10 goals and 15 points. With New Jersey’s good start and surprising offensive output, management has made a good decision to let Boucher stay in Albany. He does not have much more to learn in the minors, but by staying a consistent scorer, it will help fortify his confidence when he returns to the NHL.
The first six games of Joseph Blandisi’s pro career were not that good due to his exposed weakness in the defensive end. Over the next 12 games, the former OHL Player of the Year started to round out his game. His commitment to defense and playing a two-way game allowed him to find offensive success, claim a spot in the top-six forwards and go on a bit of a hot streak, scoring five goals and eight assists over a 12 game span.
The Markham, Ontario native is also not afraid to go to the dirty areas to battle for the puck and assist his teammates—which explains his team leading 43 penalty minutes, including his first pro fight against 6-foot-7 Lehigh Valley Phantoms defender Sam Morin. Blandisi was recalled to New Jersey on December 10th to fill the void for the injured Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac.
Blake Coleman, C/LW
Former Devils Head of Scouting David Conte once said that Blake Coleman’s play in college would help him transition to his role in the pros. That has been the case thus far, as the Texas native performs his duties as a power forward in the top-six. Three things that Coleman does well is bring consistent energy, getting in on the forecheck and being responsible in the defensive zone. The points have come—seven through 14 games to be precise—but his character and performance represents the team identity that the Devils are trying to establish. Unfortunately, Coleman injured his shoulder on November 27th when Binghamton’s Mark Fraser collided with him. Fraser was suspended two games for the hit, but Coleman remains out indefinitely.
Blake Pietila, C/LW
Since opening night, Blake Pietila has been featured in the lineup for all but two games, which he missed due to a hamstring injury. The stocky forward has played in the bottom six, mainly alongside Ryan Kujawinski and Ben Thomson in an energy role—to great effect. The former Michigan Tech standout has four goals and three assists though 20 games, but he has already established himself as an all-situations player like he did in college. His relentless effort makes him useful on the forecheck at even strength as well as boosting Albany’s special teams, most notably the penalty kill.
Ryan Kujawinski, C/W
With Graham Black sidelined with an injury, Kujawinski has done well in his spot on the third line. The forward has switched between left wing and center along with Pietila and Thomson. Where his size was an advantage in juniors, now he must match his brawn against equally sized opponents when he battles along the boards as well as playing down low near the net. Yet Kujawinski has learned quickly, eased along thanks to Albany’s strong performance to start the year. Through 17 games, he has scored two goals and three assists.
When the Devils signed Vojtech Mozik over the summer, the initial perception was that the organization gained a skilled offensive defenseman that might take some time to develop defensively. But as we approach the winter months, Mozik has shown he can be a two-way player. Through his first 19 games as a pro, the blueliner has produced and helped generate chances with one goal, seven assists and 37 shots. Yet the Czech Republic native has focused on being well rounded and has shown he can be responsible without the puck. As such, Mozik is second in the AHL in plus/minus with a plus-16 rating.
Lost in all the excitement of Albany’s great start is the play of Seth Helgeson. He has not been a standout like Blandisi and Mozik but he remains the anchor on the blue line with his sturdy, responsible play on defense. The Minnesota native has played in every game this season, providing five assists, a plus-10 rating and 39 penalty minutes. It seems Helgeson has learned from his short stint in the NHL last year as his performance has shown growth this season. He remains one of the first to likely be called up in the case of an injury.
Ken Appleby, G
Last but not least is Ken Appleby who has done nothing but impress since joining the Devils over the summer. Assigned to the Adirondack Thunder of the ECHL, the North Bay, Ontario native is having a good start to his pro career. He has been in quality form since the season started and has received the lion’s share of starts to help guide the Thunder to first in their division. In 13 appearances, he is 10-2-1 with a 1.83 goals against average and .937 save percentage. Those numbers see Appleby as one of the top puck stoppers in the ECHL.
Other Minor League Prospects
A few key players are still on the mend but should return from injury soon. Goaltender Scott Wedgewood made his season debut this December after recovering from a high ankle sprain he sustained in the preseason. Graham Black and Raman Hrabarenka each sustained a lower body injury and have only been featured in a handful of games.
Ben Thomson continues to provide a shot in the arm in Albany’s bottom six. He has usually played alongside Pietila and Kujawinski at even strength and has seen time on special teams. Through 19 games, he has five points, 33 shots, a minus-5 rating and 30 penalty minutes.
Reece Scarlett has played in 13 games but has only contributed two points and had 10 shots on goal. The defenseman has seen time on all three pairings but has yet to make the same impact offensively like he has in the past. He has also missed a few games due to an ankle injury.
Meanwhile, Ben Johnson has been away from organization and hockey overall while he deals with legal problems. He will join the Adirondack Thunder this winter.
Notable Non-Minor League Prospects
One of the newer Devils in the system is Blake Speers, who is in top form with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. The forward is receiving top-line minutes and is producing at a high rate to lead the team in scoring. In 28 games, he has seven goals, 19 assists, producing just under a point per game and has won about 57-percent of his faceoffs. Speers will need to continue to improve his two way play as he is a team worst minus-14 rating.
Meanwhile, Mackenzie Blackwood and John Quenneville were invited to Team Canada’s World Junior Selection Camp. Blackwood is considered to be Canada’s starting goaltender entering camp. However, he will serve an eight game suspension for December following a match penalty for slashing a Sudbury Wolves player. That will see him miss the first two games at the WJC but he can participate in pre-tournament games and the medal round.
Prospect of the Month: Pavel Zacha
Since our last update, Pavel Zacha has really turned it on with Sarnia. It seems the forward has found his quality form and is starting to dominate the competition like many anticipated he would. The middle of November was when he started to get hot with a two goal performance against Guelph followed by a 5-point standout night a week later against Niagara. Only three games into December and Zacha already has accumulated nine points. He leads the team in scoring with 30 points as the Czech Republic native is playing his best hockey at the right time.