Lockout or no lockout, it is not likely that many of the New Jersey Devils minor-pro prospects would be in line for a promotion to the NHL. Having graduated a handful of players over the past couple of years like Adam Larsson, Adam Henrique, and Mark Fayne to name a few, the NHL roster is well stocked with established veterans and young up-and-comers.
The Devils AHL and ECHL prospects can focus on their development without the pressure of pushing for an NHL job, while the remainder of the prospects will hone their skills in the CHL, NCAA, and Europe.
Here are some Devils prospects to keep close tabs on over the course of the 2012-13 season:
Top Pro Prospect
Scott Wedgewood, G, Albany Devils (AHL)
Though it is not set in stone whether he will play in the AHL or ECHL due to the glut of goaltending prospects in the organization, Scott Wedgewood is now the top dog amongst all the Devils pro prospects. He was eligible to play another season of junior, but he really didn't have a lot left to prove as a 20-year-old in the CHL.
Of the Devils four goaltending prospects, Wedgewood has the highest upside. He does not have the prototypical size of many of today's top goalie prospects, but he is a technically sound netminder with quick-twitch reflexes and above average puck-handling skills. He was a bit of an unknown when the Devils drafted him back in the third round of the draft in 2010, but he's emerged as the top choice to replace the great Martin Brodeur once he likely hangs up his skates after his two year contract expires.
Brandon Burlon, D, Albany Devils (AHL)
Brandon Burlon could have returned to the University of Michigan for his senior year last season, but he felt like he was ready to turn pro. There is often a period of adjustment needed for many first-year pro prospects and he is a classic example of that being true. He was in-and-out of the line-up throughout much of the regular season, which was partly due to the fact that the team often had too many healthy defenseman on the roster. He finished the year with a pedestrian one goal and eight assists in 57 games.
Though he is not a standout amongst the Devils group of top-notch defense prospects, Burlon still is one of the better prospects in the organization. He lacks a true standout skill, but he's a well-rounded, defenseman with above-average four-way mobility and has the ability to contribute at both ends of the rink. Going into year two as a pro, he should be more comfortable and as a result, don't be surprised to see his play improve significantly.
Mike Sislo, RW, Albany Devils (AHL)
The player likeliest to benefit the most from an extended NHL lockout amongst the Devils minor-pro prospects has to be Mike Sislo, the lone true right-winger in the system. After recording nine goals and 18 assists in 59 games with Albany last year, it would not surprising to see him at least double those totals. Not only is his former University of New Hampshire linemate Phil DeSimone with the Albany organization now, but both Adam Henrique and Jacob Josefson will be in the AHL until the NHL lockout is lifted. That means Sislo, who should be ticketed for top-six duty, will likely be paired with one of those two talented centers. That will serve as a big help for Sislo's production, which should shoot upwards in his second season as a pro.
It was an extremely close call with fellow WHL blueliner Reece Scarlett, but Damon Severson takes home the title of the Devils top junior prospect. Drafted with the 60th overall pick in the second round of the 2012 NHL draft, Severson likely would have been drafted even higher if not for the bevy of talented 2012 draft eligible defensemen available this past June.
The 6'2, nearly 200 pound right-shooting defenseman recorded seven goals and 30 assists for the Rockets last season, while providing physical and sound two-way play throughout the season. Going into his third full season of junior this fall, expect Severson to become even more difficult to play against as he fills out his frame and continues to gain confidence in his puck-rushing and puck-handling abilities.
Graham Black, C, Swift Current Broncos (WHL)
After recording 50 points in his first full WHL season, Graham Black appears poised for even bigger and better things in the 2012-13 season. The Broncos let Black marinate in the Saskatchewan Midget Hockey League in 2010-11 after acquiring him from the Edmonton Oil Kings before unleashing him last year. As an 18-year-old in his first year of junior, his adjustment was not going to be like that of a 16-year-old rookie, but the 50 points and confidence that Black played with was still impressive nonetheless.
On a burgeoning Broncos team eager to make the playoffs, Black will play a big role as the top center on the team. Though it will be a team effort to try and help replace last years leading scorer Taylor Vause and his 83 points, Black will shoulder a lot of that responsibility along with the likes of Coda Gordon (CGY) and Adam Lowry (WPG). A point-per-game season is not out of the question for him.
Not only is it a new team for Stefan Matteau, but it's a brand new league for the Devils 2012 first round draft choice as he makes the jump from the US National Under-18 Team to the QMJHL this season. He was originally scheduled to play in the NCAA at the University of North Dakota, but he had a change of heart and decided to go play for Blainville-Boisbriand, where his father Stephane is an assistant coach. The move to the CHL makes perfect sense for the big-bodied Matteau, as his abrasive, physical style of play is more suited for major juniors.
Top Amateur Prospect
Jon Merrill, D, Michigan Wolverines (CCHA)
Despite missing half of his sophomore season at the University of Michigan last year, Merrill didn't miss a beat after being re-instated into the lineup in January after playing for Team USA at the World Juniors. The return of Merrill to the fold had a trickle-down effect on the Wolverine defense core, lessening the load on everyone as he quickly showed the elite form that he showed as a freshman. He finished with 11 points and a plus-11 rating in 19 games.
The only thing stopping Merrill from becoming an elite pro defenseman is himself. The game comes easy to him, which is a testament to his skill, hockey sense, and game processing ability. He probably could have turned pro this fall had he really wanted to, but he made the smart choice to return to Michigan for his junior year in what will likely be his final season of collegiate hockey.
Derek Rodwell, LW, North Dakota Sioux (WCHA)
After a solid, yet unspectacular freshman season at the University of North Dakota, Derek Rodwell was hoping to increase his production and continue his development as a prospect in his second year of collegiate hockey. The strong skating winger got off to a sluggish start though, struggling to find his groove and before he could get back on track, he suffered a shoulder injury in late January that required season-ending surgery. The Devils may not be flush with forward prospects, but Rodwell would still be best served by putting together a strong junior season in order to get himself back on the prospect radar and to prevent other prospects from passing him on the depth chart.
Blake Coleman, C, Miami (Ohio) Redhawks (CCHA)
With last years leading goal scorer Reilly Smith (DAL) turning pro in 2012-13, the Redhawks will have to look elsewhere for offense and sophomore forward Blake Coleman will be one of many players that will look to help pick up the slack. After leading the USHL in scoring in 2010-11, Coleman adjusted quite well to the NCAA last year, posting good all-around numbers (12 goals, 11 assists, plus-13, 56 penalty minutes).
Coleman might not be the most naturally skilled player, but he finds ways to produce due to his tenacity and work ethic, and should be even more productive as a freshman. Those traits also lead to him being a difficult player to play against as he can easily get under the skin of an opponent. His numbers will not likely spike as sharply as they did from year one to two from when he was in the USHL, but still expect to see a significant jump in production this fall.
Top European Prospect
Artur Gavrus, LW, HK Neman Grodno (Belarus)
The Devils went into the 2012-13 season without a European prospect after the rights to Swiss forward Mauro Jorg were not retained, but that is very likely to change as left-winger Artur Gavrus looks set to return to his native Belarus this year after spending last season in the OHL with the Owen Sound Attack. Gavrus showed a lot of flash and high-end skill last season, scoring 37 points in 45 games, but missed a significant amount of game action with a wrist injury and two concussions. Perhaps that played into his decision to return to Europe where his small frame will not be subjected to as much abuse as it would in North America.