Success of Devils scouting and development

By Andrew Clark
The teams that meet in the Stanley Cup Finals this past June have something in common, besides from being excellent hockey teams with great players. Both the New Jersey Devils and the Colorado Avalanche have made some excellent draft picks, developed the prospects’ talents and abilities in the minor leagues, and have fostered and advanced their careers in the NHL. Arguably, the Devils have one of the best General Managers in professional sports today on a wide variety of levels in Lou Lamoriello. Without him, the architect of the system, the Devils would not have been so successful. Along with the assistance of Dave Conte, head of scouting and Claude Carrier, assistant director of scouting, the Devils have established an exceptional network of scouting throughout Europe, Russia, and North America including the collegiate ranks. They know what they are looking for in potential players, draft them and develop them in the juniors or in the AHL. It is very obvious that the success of the franchise depends upon it, however, what might not be too obvious is that the secret of the Devils success lies within the second round of every entry draft.

First, when a team like the New Jersey Devils experience so much success and accomplish so much, you are not going to be drafting high in the first round every year. Two Stanley Cup Championships, another Finals appearance, an Eastern Conference Finals birth, and several Atlantic Division Crowns, all of this since the early ‘90’s, is going to place you no higher than number 20 or 25 for your first selection. Since 1990, the Devils have only had two picks in the top 10 overall, Scott Neidermayer was number 3 in 1991 and Lance Ward was #10 in 1996, but he was never signed by the Devils and redrafted by the Panthers in 1998. With your draft pick placement like this, you are forced to do your homework and rely on late first rounders through the third and fourth rounds to replenish your stock in the AHL and look for the next franchise players.

Let’s face it, the NHL entry draft every year is one big gamble anyway. With the exception of the top five to ten picks, which are mostly likely to be shoe-ins for having All-Star careers, you are gambling the future of the sport, your team, your fans’ loyalty and ultimately your job as GM with about ten 18 year olds who some scout thinks might one day make a good hockey player in the professional ranks. Now, every once in a while you might get a late first round pick that turns out to be an excellent franchise player. For example, Marty Brodeur was selected in 1990 at the 20 spot, but on the other hand, Trevor Kidd was selected nine spots in front of Marty during the same draft. Besides, is there too much pressure placed on first round draft picks? Throughout the league, young prospects are selected early in the draft, some by horrible teams, others by mediocre clubs and are told the future lies with you. These guys are hockey players, not superheroes fighting evil villains and trying to save the world from destruction. Within the Devils organization, Petr Sykora was selected early in the first found and was told, since we have no centers, you are our guy. Petr did not respond to that well and adjustments were made. This past year, Adrian Foster was selected late in the first round. Central Scouting, because of limited action due to injuries, did not rank him. There is very little pressure for Foster to become something great and if he doesn’t, well, he will just probably be an interesting side note and moved to the “what ever happened to” list. But if he blossoms and turns things around, Lamoriello and company will look like geniuses for finding that diamond in the rough.

This past draft was an excellent example of how well the Devils come prepared every year to the festivities and they know what has to get done. New Jersey had two first round picks, numbers 24 and 28, and most fans thought that they would get two solid picks early in the draft. Instead, the first of the two was traded to Florida for picks 44 and 48 overall. It was an excellent move and two potential beauties in Igor Pohanka and Toumas Pihlman were selected. So why not trade that late first round picks for two or three other picks in the second or third rounds, especially if your organization is already deep, you have done your homework and you have an excellent system to develop these players. The Devils had one more pick coming up and the Panthers were without a first round selection. With the pick, they obtained the rights to Lukas Krajicek, a defensemen playing in the OHL. Also, they are a team that needed this pick because they need the help as soon as possible and don’t have the capabilities or resources for player development like the Devils.

Over the past ten entry drafts, dating back to 1992, the Devils have had 20 second round picks. Twice, in 1996 and in 2000, there were four picks each year, and in 2001, the Devils had three second round selections. Of the twenty picks, four are currently on the Devils roster, another four have seen action in a Devils sweater, another two could make the squad, and all but four are still affiliated with the Devils organization in one way or another.

The most notable second round pick by the Devils came in 1994 with the 51st pick of Czech born Patrik Elias. Probably the worst draft or group of players available for the draft, with the exception of Ed Jovanoski and Oleg Tverdosky who went one and two, in recent history. After players like Radek Bonk, Brett Lindros, Vadim Sharifijanov, Deron Quint and Wade Belak were selected, the Devils some how pulled a gem in Elias. It did take a year or two of development, but Patrik scored career highs in goals, assists and points this past season (40-56-96) and led the Devils in scoring while being selected to the Czech Republic Olympic squad for next winter. Sergei Brylin (‘92), Jay Pandolfo (‘93) and Colin White (‘96) are the other second round draftees who make their presence felt on the Devils roster. The three players, a good 2nd line winger, a decent defensive forward who kills penalties, and the gritty Ken Daneyko replacement all show how important it is to draft well, especially after the first round.

But the future of the Devils organization rests with several other second round picks. Pierre Dagenais, Stan Gron, and Mike Commodore have seen action in New Jersey, all last year, and could act as the replacements for Alexander Mogilny and Sean O’Donnell. Pierre was drafted twice by the Devils, the first in 1996 at the 47th spot. When the Devils could not sign him, he re-entered the draft and was selected again in 1998. Pierre has played three seasons in Albany and has performed very well. This past year he saw action in nine NHL games and tallied five points. Commodore, selected 42 overall in 1999, saw action in twenty Devils’ contests early in the 2000-01 campaign before joining the River Rats for 41 games. Mike, who stands at 6’4 and weighs 225 pounds scored one goal against Tampa Bay and helped out on a couple of others and is ready to become a permanent fixture in New Jersey. Stan Gron saw action when the roster was thin due to injuries and he brought some excitement to the depleted squad. However, Gron still remains a long shot at staying up in the NHL.

Two other second round draft picks that should be mentioned will be making their North American Professional Debut for the Devils this year. First, the Swedish standout Christian Berglund, #37 overall in 1998, has recently signed a contract after spending four years in the Farjestad’s system between the Elite league and the Junior ranks. The twenty-one year old winger, with his excellent offensive skills and smooth skating style led his team in scoring over the past season was ranked in the top twenty for scoring in the SEL. Christian will be in tough competition to be the Alexander Mogilny replacement with Dagenais and Former BC standout Brian Gionta. Although he seems to be the long shot, he will turn some heads and make some great plays for the Devils when finally given the opportunity. In 1999 with their second 2nd round pick, the Devils selected tough guy Brett Cloutheir who has competed for Kingston in the OHL since 1998. Brett is big, strong, tough and loves to fight. Recently, he added a scoring touch to his resume and now he looks like a promising prospect. Although he won’t make the Devils for another year or two, he brings much needed size to Albany and extra power down the road.

In the 2000 and 2001 entry drafts, the Devils had an amazing seven 2nd round selections, and all were used very wisely. Forwards Teemu Laine from Finland, Russian Alexsandr Suglobov and fellow University of Minnesota defensive teammates Matt DeMarchi and Paul Martin will all be excellent players in the Devils organization in a few years. Laine is getting great experience in the top Finnish league for Jokerit and at the World Juniors, at only age 18, very impressive. Suglobov has been bounced around in the Russian leagues appearing in games for Yaroslav, St. Pete’s and Ufa. He seems very promising and will continue to develop over the next two or three years in Russia. Paul Martin and Matt DeMarchi are valuable to the future of the Devils. Martin is an excellent offensive-minded defensive and DeMarchi is a very strong, solid and versatile defensemen who will make a great fit into the organization. The aforementioned Pohanka and Pihlman, both selected in 2001 add to an already deep prospect pool. Pohanka is playing in the WHL for Prince Albert and has posted some impressive numbers thus far. He is a big tall centermen who can score some goals and can play on the special teams, something that is not too common with the Devils right now. Pihlman is playing in Finland for JYP and it was rumored during the past season that the Devils would select him. He should fit into the Devils system in a couple of years as a chippy 3rd line-checking winger. The Devils also acquired Defensemen Viktor Uchevatov playing in Russia for Lokomotiv. He is big, strong and plays a solid defensive game, but he is years from coming over to North America.

It is very impressive when you have so many high draft picks over the course of a couple of years, but what is more remarkable is that so many prospects are still in the system. Of the twenty picks, only four do not have connections with the New Jersey Devils. Two years ago, Michigan standout Brendan Morrison was traded to the Vancouver Canucks before having a sound tenure in the organization. Scoring 84 points for the Rats in ’97-’98, Morrison tallied 81 points over parts of three seasons for the Devils. After a bitter contract dispute with management, he was shipped out west with Denis Pederson before the trading deadline in March of 2000. Defensemen Josh DeWolf, and wingers Wes Mason and Nathan Perrott are the other 3 former draftees of the second round.

The New Jersey Devils are the premier prospect selection, development and retention club currently in the NHL. Their ability to recognize specific needed and desired talent from such a large prospect pool is uncanny. The Devils and the front office are second to none in this regard and their track record and the future as a major threat and contender in the NHL year in and year out speaks for itself. All in all, these simple observations represent the success of the franchise, the current status of the organization and what terrain lies ahead on the path towards more Stanley Cup Championship banners.