The New Jersey Devils have cooled off from their surprising start to the season. For the most part, the veterans have been the ones getting it done in Newark, but there have been a handful of prospects that have received opportunities with the big club. For the most part, the rookies have not taken full advantage of the opportunity presented to them. In the best interest of the franchise, some prospects are on the slow path so they can take on bigger roles in the future.
Stefan Matteau, W, 21
Stefan Matteau is in a difficult situation with New Jersey. Because he signed a one-way contract in the summer, the power forward was going to play with New Jersey this season or else risk being exposed to waivers if he was sent down to Albany. There was plenty of room for him in the bottom-six during training camp with only a few veterans that he could have beaten out. Unfortunately, that has not occurred as the Chicago native has shown little improvement since the start of the year.
When Matteau has played, he has not been effective or imposed himself into the game. He has not looked strong along the boards, showing signs of the issues he had early last year in Albany where he shied away at times from the puck. There have been good moments as well, but there is a reason the veterans are playing over him in the lineup. The Devils need more from their bottom-six forwards so there is still an opportunity for Matteau, but he has to earn the confidence of head coach John Hynes.
Reid Boucher, LW, 21
Like Matteau, it was expected that Reid Boucher would compete for a job in New Jersey this season. While the winger made the opening night roster, he only played three games before he was assigned to Albany on October 21st. Boucher has struggled to seize the opportunity in the early stages of his NHL career. This was not different than his previous stints where he created little and went unnoticed through much of his time on the ice.
Fortunately, the assignment to the AHL spurred Boucher, as he has been in fine form for Albany. He is receiving top-six minutes, contributing as an impact player and is a reason why the team has been successful through the first half of the season. It is probably wise the Devils have left the 22-year-old in the AHL so he can build his confidence and consistency.
Joe Blandisi, C/W, 23
When Travis Zajac suffered an injury spell, the Devils called up center Joe Blandisi. The rookie has adjusted to the pro style and was playing quite well prior to his promotion on December 10th. The Ontario native performed admirably and showed signs he could warrant staying with the big club. Coach Hynes shared those similar sentiments, but rationalized Blandisi’s return to the AHL on December 17th was for the 21-year old to continue his development into a future impact player and not try to survive the rest of the season in the NHL.
Damon Severson, D, 21
Playing in his second NHL season, the recently graduated Damon Severson remains one of the Devils best day-to-day defenseman. Offensively, he leads all Devils defenseman in scoring and has done well to create chances and shots on goal. He is a player that has adapted well to Coach Hynes’ faster system, which suits the blueliner’s style of transition play. Defensively is where Severson still needs work but he is coming along. There have been moments where he has blown coverages or looked exposed. Those are not too often as the former Kelowna standout has played steady for the most part.
With Adam Larsson’s rise, Severson has had to adjust to playing in a second or third pairing role more often this season. His defensive partner has also changed a few times but Jon Merrill has been his usual partner.
World Junior Championships Update
Three Devils prospects participated in the World Junior Championships with none of their respective teams advancing past the quarterfinals.
Pavel Zacha was presented a stage to show he had reached the next level in his development given his impressive first half performance with Sarnia. Unfortunately, he re-aggravated a lower-body injury in the Czech Republic’s opening game against Russia which caused him to miss the next two games in the group stage. He did return for the Czechs final two games, but he was hampered somewhat and only produced an assist in the three games he dressed.
Mackenzie Blackwood rarely looked like himself during the short tournament which saw Team Canada bow out in the quarterfinals. What did not help his cause was the fact he was coming off an eight-game suspension for slashing Sudbury Wolves forward Danny Desrochers in an OHL game on December 4th. The 19-year old’s first game of the tournament did not come until Team Canada’s third game against Team Switzerland. Blackwood made 23 saves to help Canada win 3-2 in the shootout over the Swiss.
He started the next game against Sweden which saw Team Canada take 10 minor penalties. This put Blackwood in a tough spot as he could only make 27 stops in Sweden’s 5-2 victory over Canada. Finally came the game against Finland where Canada overall played undisciplined once again but this time against a Finland team which had the best power play in the tournament. Blackwood was not good and failed to stop the bleeding as Finland beat Canada 6-5.
It was a not too much of a surprise that John Quenneville made Team Canada’s roster given his performance in the first half of the WHL season. He was used on all four lines, including one with Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner. In the five games he played for Canada, he managed a goal and an assist. Quenneville returns to Brandon with a positive outlook and the confidence that might boost him further for the rest of the season.
Prospect of the Month: Blake Speers
Blake Speers was stuck in the muck through the first month of the 2015-16 season, but has really come alive since November. Sault Ste. Marie is not a very good team this season, and October showed that as Speers had to adjust to being the new go-to option with the losses of many key contributors from last year’s squad.
As the season has progressed, Speers has adjusted and has been deploying the style of play he is comfortable with. Spearheading the attack on the top-line, the centerman has seen his scoring touch slowly return, but his playmaking ability has grown, showing he can be a dual-threat with the puck. His skating has shown a steady rise as he tries to become more of a two-way player.
December was where Speers found his second gear. He boasted four multipoint games, three of them with at least three or more points. Best of all, the Ontario native is doing this all at even-strength with only one power-play goal on the season. By the end of December, he finished with 15 points in 10 games, and in January, he added another 12 points in 12 games. He currently leads the Greyhounds in scoring with 50 points. He is maintaining a point per game pace and has won over 57% of his faceoffs.