New Jersey Devils own deep, diverse group of defensive prospects

By Jared Ramsden

Alexander Urbom - New Jersey

Photo: After paying his dues in the AHL for several seasons, defenseman Alexander Urbom is on the cusp of becoming a NHL quality defender. (Bill Streicher/Icon SMI)

In terms of strengths and weaknesses, not much has changed for the New Jersey Devils organization. They continue to be well stocked on the blue line, which is good for the future because, aside from Adam Larsson and Mark Fayne, the majority of defensman in New Jersey are on the wrong-side of 30. In between the pipes, the Devils have finally started to plan for future and have a solid group of goaltending prospects. Upfront is a bit of a different story. There is some decent depth at wing and center, but in terms of top-six ability, there is not much to get excited about.

The Devils have graduated a ton of forwards over the past few seasons, which explains the lack of depth in the organization. Expect the next wave of graduations over the next few seasons to be at defense and in goal, as the organization prepares for significant change at those two positions at the NHL level. In the meantime, expect the team to start attacking the lack of depth and top-end talent at forward in the upcoming NHL entry drafts and potentially through trades. 

Left Wing

There may not be much in the way of elite talent at left wing, but there is good overall depth at the position. The two wingers with the most upside are Reid Boucher and Blake Pietila, both 2011 draftees. Artur Gavrus (2012 draftee) and Harri Pesonen (2012 signing) both have a profound amount of skill, but they are both boom-bust prospects at this stage. Rounding out the group is Mike Hoeffel, Derek Rodwell, John-Sebastien Berube, Ben Thomson, and recently converted defenseman Harry Young.

Reid Boucher's ability to find the back of the net is well documented, and in a system bereft of much in terms of offensive minded wingers, his value is of a much more importance than if he was in another organization. He came into his second junior in much better shape than last fall and should be able to better the 28 goals he scored as a rookie in the OHL.

The offensive outburst from Blake Pietila last season as a freshman at Michigan Tech was a pleasant surprise, but at the same time, he never really had a chance to play in an offensive role while with the US National Development Team. Regardless of if he can continue to produce offensively at the next level or not, Pietila's speed, energy, tenacity and defensive acumen should help him eventually carve out a role as a two-way bottom six forward. 

Artur Gavrus is undersized and has a well documented injury history, which caused him to fall in the draft this past summer. However he is blessed with a tremendous set of offensive skills and can make things happen at high speeds, which is why the Devils took a chance drafting him in the seventh round. He somewhat surprisingly decided against playing another season of junior in the OHL with Owen Sound, instead returning to his native Belarus to play for the 2012-13 season. Now that he's returned to Europe, his future might be a little more cloudy that when the Devils initially drafted him.

The Devils took a chance on Harri Pesonen when they signed him this summer, seeing if his goal-scoring ability from the SM-Liiga in Finland would carry over to North America. Lockout or no lockout, he likely would have spent most of the season in the AHL trying to earn an NHL look in 2013-14. Meanwhile, Mike Hoeffel struggled slightly as a rookie pro in the AHL, but an early season injury essentially forced him to play catch up all year long. His upside is not overly high, but his size, speed, and physicality could make him a potential checking line candidate in the future.

Derek Rodwell's sophomore season at the University of North Dakota was cut short due to a shoulder injury that caused him to miss half of the 2011-12 season. Just having a healthy year will be crucial for Rodwell to keep himself on the Devils radar.

John-Sebastien Berube has yet to establish himself as an AHL regular, and going into his third year as a pro, he needs to stop riding the ECHL/AHL shuttle if he hopes to have a future with New Jersey. Meanwhile, Thomson was selected as an overager in the 2012 draft and has limited skill, but a lot of intangibles. He will have his work cut out for him to make it as a pro. Young was just moved to the wing position this fall, as he never really stood much of a chance as a defenseman in this organization. The reality is though that he is a long-shot to make it, regardless of his position.

Center

With four centers amongst the 2012 Devils draft class, this position is all-of-the-sudden drastically improved. What is also notable here is that three of the six prospects here have the versatility to play the wing. First round pick Stefan Matteau is one of those versatile players, and is arguably the most talented forward prospect in the organization. Blake Coleman is a bit of a second/third line tweener, but has a lot of offensive upside, while David Wohlberg is entering his first year as a pro. The rest of the 2012 draftees to join the returning crew of centers are Ben Johnson, Graham Black, and Alex Kerfoot.

Stefan Matteau may not have a lot of raw, natural skill, but he is quite the physical specimen and his decision to play in the QMJHL instead of college was a wise decision given his style of play. He does have the ability to find the back of the net and combined with his abrasive style of play, Matteau projects a nice complimentary piece as a top-nine forward. Think of him as a potential Dainius Zubrus, capable of playing multiple positions and multiple roles depending on the situation.

It is still a little hard to project what type of role Blake Coleman might play as a pro, but the early returns on his play since he was drafted in 2011 have been nothing but positive. He produced well offensively as a freshman and is poised to take on an even larger offensive role at the University of Miami (Ohio) this fall. He likely will never become more than an average defensive player, but his moxie, energy, and tenacity should help him eventually carve out a role as a pro.

Versatility is David Wohlberg's calling card. He played both center and wing and progressively got better offensively in his four years at the University of Michigan. His offensive boon did not come at the expense of his defensive play though as he continued to excel as a defensive stalwart and penalty killer. His speed is his best weapon and will be his calling card should he eventually make it at the NHL level.

The Devils took a chance on a youngster from the Windsor organization a few years ago in the draft. That players name was Adam Henrique and the decision has since paid dividends. Could Ben Johnson be the next Henrique? It is not entirely out of the realm of possibility as he does have a similar type of skill set. His offense is a work in progress, but he has a great work ethic and energy to burn.

Graham Black is the epitome of a late-bloomer. He blossomed quickly in his first year of junior hockey with Swift Current in the WHL as a 19-year-old, playing significant minutes and putting up his fair share of points. He's not just a one-trick pony though as he is well-schooled defensively and he can use his speed to give the opposition fits. Alex Kerfoot is blessed with a lot of raw, natural skill, but is more of a project at this point given that he is still playing in the BCHL. He's committed to Harvard starting next season and will be given plenty of time to develop.

Right Wing

Thin would be one-way to describe the Devils depth at right-wing. You could probably take it a step further and say there is not any depth at all with Mike Sislo as the only right winger listed on the Devils depth chart at Hockey's Future. Most wingers in general are likely more than capable of playing either the left or right side, but technically, Sislo is the only true right winger.

Sislo was signed as a collegiate free agent last year and while he was a line-up constant for the majority of the season, he faded as the season progressed after a fast start offensively. He did get progressively better over the course of his collegiate career so the hope is that he shows the same signs of progression in his second pro-season. Even if his offensive consistency does not come around, he does have some two-way ability and could potentially emerge into a checking-line forward.

Defense

The defense position again continues to be where the Devils possess the most talent and depth, with 14 prospect defenseman currently in the organization. There is a wide range of talent here too with some skilled offensive defenseman, strong two-way defenseman, and sound defensive defenseman.

The headliner of the group no doubt is Jon Merrill, but he is nicely complemented by Alexander Urbom, Eric Gelinas, and Brandon Burlon. Merrill has top-two potential, while Urbom and Gelinas could fit in nicely as mid-pairing guys. There are also two immensely talented defenseman toiling in the WHL in Damon Severson (2012 draftee) and Reece Scarlett (2011 draftee) who are both just starting to scratch the surface of their vast potential.

The top prospect in the organization, Jon Merrill had a tumultuous sophomore season at the University of Michigan that saw him miss half the season due to a team induced suspension. He flirted with turning pro after the Devils prospect camp, but ultimately decided that another season in the NCAA was best for his development. Unfortunately for Merrill, he suffered a broken collarbone during exhibition play and will likely be sidelined until mid-late December. Regardless, there is no doubting Merrill's sublime two-way skill. He has top-pairing upside written all over him.

Alexander Urbom doesn't have a lot of flash or pizzazz to his game, but he solidly built, competent with the puck on his stick and sound in his own end of the rink. He's on the cusp of becoming an NHL regular.

Eric Gelinas is not the polar opposite of Urbom, but definitely has a more offensive bend to his game and is coming off of a sensational rookie pro season in which he scored 16 goals. At the very worst, he has the skills to be able to potentially be an impact player on the powerplay.

Out of all of the Devils defensive prospects, Brandon Burlon does not get much attention, and a pedestrian freshman season in the AHL helped contributed to that. Burlon does a little bit of everything well, but does not have a real standout trait. With a glut of defenseman in the organization, Burlon needs to push forward and distinguish himself in his second pro year.

The Devils have not traditionally done well when drafting out of the WHL lately, but that could very well soon change if Damon Severson and Reece Scarlett both continue on their upward development curves. If not for the depth and talent of defensemen available in the 2012 draft, Severson likely would have been selected much higher than where the Devils snagged him in the second round. He is blessed with great two-way skill and as he physically matures, he will become quite a pain to play against in his own end. Scarlett had a breakout season offensively in 2011-12, and appears poised for even bigger and better things as a third-year junior player. His thin frame is a bit of a concern, but his two-way skill is undeniable.

As has been the case lately, the Devils continue to have a handful of defensive prospects marinating in the NCAA. Merrill is definitely the pick of the litter, but there are a few other players of note. Seth Helgeson is an impressive physical specimen, and has really improved his skating and footwork in his three-plus seasons at the University of Minnesota. He doesn't have a ton of upside, but he has the ideal set of skills to be a physical third-pairing blue liner. Curtis Gedig is a lot like Burlon in the fact that he does not have a standout trait, but does a lot of things well. He has been relied upon to play a lot in all situations for Ohio State since joining the program and will likely play a full four years of college before turning pro. Joe Faust should finally get a chance to play a more significant role as a junior at Wisconsin this fall, but he has a long road ahead of him with all of the other defenseman in the organization. Patrick Daly is still listed as a prospect, but he chose to leave the Wisconsin program after his freshman year and his hockey career is up-in-the-air.

Corbin McPherson did not have the most decorated collegiate career, but he developed well at Colgate and is currently in his first year in the AHL. He has a lot of size, but is going to have to continue to improve his skating in order to forge out a pro career.

If it seems like Matt Corrente has been around for a long time, it is because he has. When it looked like he was finally going to become a full-time NHL player in 2010-11, he got injured and has not been up to the NHL since. Injuries have hampered Corrente and are likely going to be the cause of his downfall.

Roounding out the defensive pool is Dan Kelly, who is the type of player who does what is asked of him night in and night out. He is strictly a defensive defenseman, but he is a loyal foot-soldier that always gives it all.

Goaltending

The Devils re-signed the veteran tandem of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg during the early part of the summer, inking both goaltenders to two-year contracts. What this essentially means is that the organization has two years to evaluate and develop their three young goaltending prospects in the minors before determining if they are deemed fit to step in as the heir apparent to Brodeur. Jeff Frazee is also still in the organization, but at the age of 25 and with four years of AHL experience, he is no longer prospect eligible at Hockey's Future.

With Frazee graduated, the remaining three goaltending prospects in the organization are 2010 draftees Scott Wedgewood and Maxime Clermont as well as 2011 collegiate free agent signing Keith Kinkaid. All three have turned pro and are plying their trade the AHL or ECHL.

The most experienced of the three goaltenders professionally is Kinkaid, who is coming off a steady, yet unspectacular rookie pro season in which he split time with Frazee in Albany. Given his age, he has a leg up on the other prospects in the organization, though his long-term upside may not be overly high. He is again sharing time with Frazee between the pipes in Albany, but it would not be surprising to see him eventually get the bulk of the starts, so as to see if he can handle an increased workload after fatiguing somewhat at times last year.

All of the sudden, the Devils minor-pro system has a log-jam of goaltenders with the graduation of Wedgewood to the professional ranks. The one problem with this is that there is only room for two goaltenders in the AHL. So not surprisingly, Wedgewood's pro career has begun in the ECHL with the Trenton Titans. He without a doubt has the most long-term upside of the three goaltending prospects and it wouldn't be surprising that if at some point this season, he forces his way onto Albany's roster.

Clermont began his pro career last year in the ECHL last year with both Kinkaid and Frazee in Albany. With the situation unchanged this season, and with more competition with Wedgewood now in the pros, Clermont is stuck in the ECHL again for the time being. He's currently being loaned out to the Elmira Jackals. It's going to be tough for Clermont to make a name for himself in the organization with the flood of goaltenders at the pro level, but competition often breeds success and Clermont did show flashes of greatness in junior.