In the 2003 draft, the New Jersey Devils showed that they were not afraid to move up in the first round to grab a player that they felt was too good to pass up. The 2004 draft was no different for New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello and Head Scout David Conte. With Dallas scheduled to pick in the No. 20 spot, the Devils felt that the player they had zeroed in on might not make it two more spots to the 22nd pick. So the Devils sacrificed a third round 2004 draft pick to move up to ensure that they got their man. That man was Jr. A scoring star Travis Zajac.
Dealing the pick resulted in leaving the Devils without a pick in the second, third, and fourth round of the draft. New Jersey did not make their next selection until late in the fifth round when they took Russian defenseman Alexander Mikhalishin. Mikhalishin, along with the remainder of the picks made by the Devils on the second day of the draft are mainly long-range type projects that will need plenty of development time.
Below is a summary of the seven selections the Devils made in the 2004 draft. The Devils selected two centers, two defensemen, two wingers, and a goaltender.
1st pick, 1st round, 20th overall, C Travis Zajac, Salmon Arm (BCHL)
It is not often that a player from Jr. A will get chosen in the first round of an NHL draft, but Zajac and his Salmon Arm linemate, Kris Chucko, both bucked that trend mainly because of the tremendous upside they both showcased during the 2003-04 season. Chucko went four picks after Zajac to the Calgary Flames. Some teams may have been hoping to see Zajac fall into their laps late in the first round, but New Jersey only waited until pick 20 in the first round to snag what may a diamond in the rough.
The Devils have somewhat of a reputation when it comes to drafting underrated talent like Zajac, and he doesn’t deny the fact that he might be one of those hidden gems that the Devils so often unearth.
“I could be, I think I’m a late bloomer,” said Zajac after being picked. “I think I didn’t start gaining weight and some height until the last couple years and that’s helped me out a lot. It’s helped me out in the crease and being able to control guys and be stronger on guys and get more scoring opportunities.”
Apparently Zajac wasn’t that shocked to become a Devil. When asked if he sensed New Jersey was interested in him, Zajac said, “A little bit, just because I met with them probably the most out of each team. And they’ve been known to take guys from North Dakota like Zach Parise. So it didn’t surprise me that much.”
Zajac was very happy to be picked in the first round and the fact the Devils moved up to select him made him feel very appreciated. “Oh that means a lot,” beamed Zajac. “That they appreciate your abilities and that you were the player. It means a lot.”
Zajac and linemate Chucko tore up the BCHL for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks this past season. Zajac more than doubled his 2002-03 offensive output, torching BCHL goaltenders to a tune of 43 goals and 69 assists for 112 points in 59 games. Obviously Zajac brings immense offensive talent to the table, but the 6’2, 205 lb centerman brings more to the table than just that. “I’m a big, physical forward who can beat guys one-on-one,” said Zajac when asked to describe his game. “Drive the puck to the net. I win the battles in the corners. Pretty offensively skilled, more of my game is offensive, but defensively I’m pretty sound. A pretty versatile player. Play in all situations.”
Zajac joins a very deep pool of talented centermen in the Devils organization. He has committed to the University of North Dakota for the 2004-05 season, where he will ironically try to help fill the shoes of the highly skilled and newly signed Devil, Parise. He also hopes to gain a spot with the 2004-05 US National Jr. Team that will try to defend their title on their home soil, in North Dakota.
“I’m going to be working hard this little while here, next month or so and try and get prepared for that and hopefully make a good impression on the coaches there and hopefully I start off the season good and maybe get a chance to play for them,” said Zajac.
2nd pick, 5th round, 155th overall, D Alexander Mikhalishin, Spartak (Russia)
The Devils had to wait all the way until late in the fifth round for their next selection. They used that selection on the towering Russian blueliner Mikhalishin. Standing at 6’4 and 207 lbs., Mikhalishin no doubt already had NHL caliber size and at only 18 years of age, will more than likely be able to add even more muscle to an already huge frame. Mikhalishin is a physical, stay at home defender who is very strong on the boards and in front of the net. His skating is alright for a man of his stature, but his mobility could use some work. He is likely not to develop much offense to his game despite possessing a hard point shot. Not an overly exciting prospect, Mikhalishin is a project type of defenseman who will need plenty of time to grow into his big frame. The Devils will be patient with him and let him develop in Russia.
3rd pick, 6th round, 185th overall, G, Josh Disher, Erie (OHL)
The Devils added some goaltending depth to the organization when they drafted Disher with their sixth round pick. Disher surprised some by grabbing the No. 1 job in Erie, and according to many, improved by leaps and bounds as the season wore on. He was a workhorse for the Otters in his rookie OHL campaign, playing in 63 games and setting a new team record in minutes played with 3,524. In those 63 games, he went 26-27-5 and posted 5 shutouts. The lanky 6’1, 164 lb Disher has been described as very athletic goaltender that comes up big in the clutch. He will return to Erie next year looking to build off an outstanding rookie season.
4th pick, 7th round, 216th overall, LW, Pierre-Luc Leblond-Letourneau, Baie-Comeau (QMJHL)
As his high penalty minute total would attest, the Devils likely see a potential enforcer in Leblond-Letourneau. With Baie-Comeau, he racked up 198 PIM’s in 63 games in his rookie QMJHL season, good enough for 12th in the league. Standing at 6’2, 208 lbs, the strong skating Leblond-Letourneau won’t likely be much of a goal scorer, as his 2 goals this season demonstrate, but he may have a future down the road as a fourth line agitator/goon. He will have to work on many other aspects of his game though if he is to eventually make it to the NHL.
5th pick, 7th round, 217th overall, D Tyler Eckford, South Surrey (BCHL)
Eckford was the second blueliner taken in the 2004 draft by the Devils. He possesses good size at 6’1, 205 lbs and will likely add more size and muscle as he further develops. He scored 7 goals and 30 assists for the Eagles this past season, showing some offensive upside for the future. Eckford is described as a strong skating two-way rearguard, who is not afraid to play the body as well. He is committed to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks next fall, where he will further develop his game.
6th pick, 8th round, 250th overall, RW Nathan Perkovich, Cedar Rapids (USHL)
The Devils took a chance on a project type pick here with the selection of the gangly 6’5, 195 lb. Perkovich. He did not play much with Cedar Rapids this past season, playing in only 35 games and scoring only 1 goal and 7 assists for 8 points. The Devils must see some size and skill upside in Perkovich, and hope that he will demonstrate some of that next year for the RoughRiders, and in the future for the Devils.
7th pick, 9th round, 282nd overall, D Valeri Klimov, Spartak (Russia)
With their last pick of the draft, the Devils went back to Russia to take Klimov. Devils scouts may have noticed him while watching his Spartak teammate Alexander Mikhalishin. Not too much is known about Klimov, but like his fellow countryman Mikhalishin, Klimov has a good sized frame at 6’3, 202 lbs, and will only get bigger. Likely another long-term prospect for the Devils pipeline.
Holly Gunning contributed to this article.
Copyright 2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without written permission from the editorial staff.