At the beginning of the season, the Devils had expected at least one rookie or two to make an impact with the big club. On the blueline, where the Devils had lost the likes of Ken Daneyko to retirement and Oleg Tverdovsky to free agency, was where this impact was expected. Highly touted collegiate prospects David Hale and Paul Martin were signed over the summer and were expected to be given a fair shot to compete for jobs with the Devils. They were in competition with veteran Tommy Albelin, newcomer Sean Brown and career minor leaguer Ray Giroux. To the surprise of many, both Hale and Martin made the cut at the beginning of the year, and as the season progressed, both improved noticeably. Martin in particular stepped up to the plate when Scott Stevens went down with a concussion in early January. Here is a brief rundown of the Devils 2003-04 rookie class.
Paul Martin, D, 2nd Round Pick, 62nd overall, 2000 NHL Draft
Paul Martin was expected to contend for roster spot during training camp, but most thought his development would be best served to start his pro career at Albany with the River Rats. However, the former University of Minnesota star made the cut for opening roster and stuck with the big club all year. Early on, it was a bit of struggle for Martin, which was to be expected. He was in and out of the line-up, but he often displayed the puck moving skills and skating ability that made him such a highly touted prospect.
As the season progressed, Martin’s confidence grew and it showed in his play and coach Pat Burns began to find it impossible to take him out of the line-up. When Scott Stevens was lost in early January, Martin slowly saw his minutes increase and by season’s end, he was on the top defense pairing with Scott Niedermayer and was playing 25-26 minutes a night. For the season, Martin logged an average of 20:06 minutes per game. He dressed for 70 games, scored 6 goals and 18 assists for 24 points, was +12 and only had two minor penalties all season long. Martin’s development curve is way ahead of schedule and look for his numbers and confidence to grow even more next season.
David Hale, D, 1st Round Pick, 22nd overall, 2000 NHL Draft
David Hale was expected to make his NHL debut in New Jersey after being signed over the summer and although it was not a splashy debut, it was a solid one. The former North Dakota Fighting Sioux captain along with fellow rookie Paul Martin were in and out of the line-up early on, but as injuries struck the Devils blueline, Hale saw increased action. Hale, the expected heir apparent to Scott Stevens, did struggle at times and down the stretch and was rotated in and out of the line-up with veterans Sean Brown and Tommy Albelin. He seemed to hit the rookie wall near season’s end, but still displayed a solid around game.
Known for his physical play, Hale seemed tentative at times and must show more of a mean streak to remain in the line-up on a regular basis. Hale saw action in 65 contests this year and averaged an even 15:00 of ice time a game. He failed to register a goal, but chipped in with 4 assists, posted a solid +12 rating and 74 PIMs. Now that Hale has one full NHL season under his belt, he now knows what he has to do to maintain a regular spot on the Devils blueline, and he should have little problem doing that next season.
Other rookies who made their NHL debuts this season were forwards Alexander Suglobov and Tuomas Pihlman. Suglobov, a slick skating and highly skilled right winger made a very quick transition to the North American game and earned a brief one game audition with New Jersey. He was held off the scoresheet. Suglobov would have likely seen more action had he not injured his wrist. Suglobov’s scoring prowess will see him in New Jersey in the very near future. Pihlman, a rough and tumble Finnish power forward saw limited action on the checking line in two NHL games fairly early on in the season. He, like Suglobov, was held off the scoresheet. The Devils will welcome Pihlman’s combination of size, strength and scoring in New Jersey once he is ready to make the jump to the NHL full time.