The New Jersey Devils were back in a familiar position this season, drafting right near the end of the first round after advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. While the common thought was that this would be an opportune time for the Devils to give up their first round draft choice as part of the punishment for Ilya Kovalchuk's contract, GM Lou Lamoriello decided to keep the pick.
The Devils had seven picks in total and selected four left wingers, two centers, and one defenseman. Four were Canadian-born players, two were American, and one was Belarusian. In a bit of a change from past drafts, the Devils went CHL heavy. Three choices came from the OHL and two came from the WHL. The other two selections came from the USHL and BCHL.
Stefan Matteau, LW/C – USA U-18 Team (USHL)
1st round, 29th overall
Height: 6'2 Weight: 210 lbs
Stefan Matteau suited up last season for the USA Under-18 National Development Team and in 46 games he finished fifth in team scoring with 15 goals, 17 assists and led the team with 166 penalty minutes. If not for a few on-ice incidents where his ferociousness got the best of him and led to a couple of suspensions, he likely would have put up even more points.
The son of former NHLer Stephane Matteau, the younger Matteau plays the game with a lot of energy, passion, and intensity. He uses his big, strong frame to play an in-your-face physical style along the boards and in the corners. While not blessed with elite level skill, he has decent hands and a heavy shot and knows how to create space for himself by protecting the puck in the offensive zone. He is well schooled defensively and should eventually emerge into a good penalty killer with his good speed and aggressive nature.
Originally a University of North Dakota commit, Matteau backed out a few months ago and decided to go the CHL route instead. He will play for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the QMJHL where his father is an assistant coach. His occasionally borderline style of play is better suited to junior hockey than the college game, so the majority of people in the hockey industry believe he made a good decision in that regard.
While he's not likely going to ever emerge into a top flight talent, Matteau is a fairly safe player to project. He could end up being a good complementary piece on a second line, but a more conservative and realistic projection would see him developing into a mean, physical, two-way third-liner who can help on the penalty-kill.
Damon Severson, D – Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
2nd round, 60th overall
Height: 6'1 Weight: 190 lbs
The Devils didn't expect defenseman Damon Severson to be available when their time came to make their pick in the second round. However, they had absolutely no problem snatching him up as his value at that spot was absolutely tremendous. In 56 games for Kelowna, he recorded seven goals and 30 assists. He also recorded 80 penalty minutes and a plus-six rating, which was best among all Rockets defenseman.
Severson is a well-rounded defenseman, who shows the ability to contribute at both ends of the rink. He tries to model his game after fellow Kelowna alum and current Nashville Predator star Shea Weber. He displays a very calm and poised demeanor with the puck, which helps accentuate his top-notch puck-moving skills. He's equally adept at launching an offensive attack with sharp outlet passing as he is rushing the puck up the ice with his good skating ability. He also has a heavy shot that he is not afraid to unleash. Defensively, Severson has the odd brain-cramp here-and-there, but is usually in good position to make the right play. He enjoys the physical part of the game, and as he continues to fill out his frame, he should become even more proficient in that regard.
Severson doesn't project as a first pairing defender long-term, but he does possess the requisite skills and all-around game to flourish as an all-weather, second pairing rearguard who can contribute on special teams.
Ben Johnson, LW/C – Windsor Spitires (OHL)
3rd round, 90th overall
Height: 5'11 Weight: 188 lbs
The last time the Devils drafted someone from the Windsor Spitfires in the third round, things turned out pretty well. With the selection of Ben Johnson, the Devils can only hope that he follows a similar career path to that of former Devils third-round pick and Windsor alum Adam Henrique. Johnson made the jump from tiny Calumet High School in Michigan to the OHL last season and although it took him some time to adjust, he had a great second half and finished the season strong. In 68 games, he scored 18 goals and 20 assists to go along with 44 penalty minutes and a minus-four rating for the Spitfires.
Johnson's best asset is his break-neck speed. He is a simply phenomenal skater and at times it looks effortless when he is blazing around the rink. He uses his speed to drive defenders wide and take the puck to the net and he'll also use it to forecheck and assert himself physically. Johnson is still quite raw in the offensive aspect of his game but the potential is there for him to become a consistent offensive force. Also of note is that he is the cousin of Blake Pietila, whom the Devils drafted in the fifth round of the 2011 NHL Draft.
It's hard to say just how good of an offensive player he will become, but he could get a top-six role in Windsor next season, so the opportunity will be there for him to advance that part of his game significantly. Regardless of how well his offense develops, his speed, energy, and physicality should at worst lend to a career as a tenacious, two-way third-liner.
Ben Thomson, LW – Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
4th round, 96th overall
Height: 6'3 Weight: 205 lbs
The most off the board pick of the day for the Devils came at the beginning of the fourth round when they selected 19-year-old Kitchener Rangers left-winger Ben Thomson. He didn't get drafted as an 18-year-old, but more than doubled his offensive output this season (19 to 41 points) and combined with his 137 penalty minutes and plus-22 rating, really put himself on the scouting radar.
Thomson's bread and butter is his size and physicality. That makes him very effective along the boards and in the corners as he is nearly impossible to knock off the puck when he is in on the cycle. Despite the fact that Thomson had a minor-breakthrough offensively last year, he's never going to be confused as a player with a lot of natural puck skills and creativity. He does skate well for his size, is responsible defensively and not surprisingly, will not hesitate to drop the gloves when the time calls for it.
There's no question Thomson has the lowest overall potential amongst all Devils prospects drafted this year, but he still has traits that could eventually see him develop into an effective fourth-line energy guy in the future.
Graham Black, C – Swift Current Broncos (WHL)
5th round, 135th overall
Height: 5'11 Weight: 173 lbs
With the selection of center Graham Black in the fifth round by the Devils, it marked the second straight 19-year-old the team picked and the first time the team selected two WHL players in the same draft since 2001. A late-bloomer, Black was acquired from the Edmonton Oil Kings by Swift Current in 2010. The Broncos sent him to Regina of the Saskatchewan Midget Hockey League for the 2010-11 season where he ended up leading the league in scoring. He then made a seamless transition to the WHL this past season, finishing fourth in Broncos team scoring with 50 points (17 goals and 33 assists) in 71 games, while boasting a respectable plus-three rating on a team that gave up a lot of goals.
Black isn't a flashy player, but he be did show the ability to contribute in all facets of the game with the Broncos this past year with his on-ice smarts and tenacious two-way play. He's an above-average skater with good vision, passing skills, and a sneaky shot release. However it's his play away from the puck that really stands out. He works tremendously hard in the defensive zone, and is a keen and responsible checker. He excels in the faceoff circle and shows a lot of grit and determination when it comes to helping out his team at the other end of the rink.
The development curve Black is on seems to be quite similar to that of fellow 2012 draftee Ben Johnson, though Black is a year older and appears to have a little more defensive acumen that Johnson does. He's going to have to fill out in order to help maximize his full potential but the talent and skills are there to emerge into a fine two-way, third-line center.
Alexander Kerfoot, C – Coquitlam Express (BCHL)
5th round, 150th overall
Height: 5'9 Weight: 153 lb
The Devils biggest wild-card on draft day came when they drafted small, but highly-skilled Alexander Kerfoot from the Coquitlam Express of the British Columbia Hockey League with their second pick in the fifth round. After running roughshod through the British Columbia Major Midget League in 2010-11 to a tune of 108 points in just 38 games, Kerfoot moved up to the BCHL level in 2011-12 and continued to produce. With 25 goals and 44 assists in 58 games, Kerfoot took home a lot of hardware in his first season in the BCHL. He was named the Costal Conference Rookie of the Year, Most Sportsmanlike Player and was also named to the BCHL's First All-Star Team and All-Rookie Team.
Kerfoot is blessed with a tremendous amount of natural offensive skill. His best attributes though are his on-ice vision and hockey sense. His elite-level puck skills are evident in the fact that he is both a good passer and finisher. While his skating isn't quite what you'd expect from a player of his size, he is still quick and elusive and it's an area that he's worked hard to improve on throughout his young career. Despite being undersized, Kerfoot battles all over the ice and is not afraid of physical play.
Kerfoot is a long-term project for the Devils, but they have plenty of time to let him marinate and develop. His CHL rights are owned by the Seattle Thunderbirds, but he's made his intentions pretty clear that he'd like to play in the NCAA. He hasn't chosen a college just yet, but Boston College, Yale, and Harvard are a few of the school he's known to be considering. In the meantime, he'll return to the BCHL.
Artur Gavrus, LW/C – Owen Sound (OHL)
6th round, 180th overall
Height: 5'9 Weight: 175 lbs
With their final selection of the draft, the Devils went back to the OHL for the third time when they selected Belarusian forward Artur Gavrus from the Owen Sound Attack. Like the pick of Severson in the second round, the Devils got great value with this selection. Gavrus is a player who was highly regarded in most scouting circles, but saw his draft stock plummet due to the fact he suffered two concussions over the course of the season. He was only able to suit up in 45 games for the Attack in the regular season, but still managed to score at just a little under a point-per-game with 37 points. He was only able to dress for one playoff game due to being injured.
Dynamic, highly-skilled, and blisteringly fast are just some of the words that best describe what Gavrus brings to the table. He's the type of player that can make elite plays with the puck at top-speed and lift fans out of their seats. He's shifty and elusive and shows great puck possession ability while in the offensive end. The biggest problem for Gavrus, as noted earlier, is his propensity to get hurt. He plays the game with a lot of jam, fearlessness and energy, which unfortunately lends to putting himself into situations that can compromise his health. The catch is, if he doesn't play that way he's not as effective.
Given his concussion issues, a lot of teams decided to pass on Gavrus, but the Devils felt he was too talented to pass up. There is absolutely no denying that Gavrus is a supremely talented offensive player with top-six skill. However what will ultimately determine if he'll make at the NHL level will be his ability to stay healthy. He can't change the way he plays, but at the same time, for his own self-preservation, he'll have pack on some muscle and get a little stronger.