Devils Top 10 Prospects
1. Niklas Bergfors, RW
2. Travis Zajac, C
3. Petr Vrana, C
4. Barry Tallackson, LW
5. Jeff Frazee, G
6. Ivan Khomutov, C
7. Ahren Nittel, LW
8. Aaron Voros, RW
9. Tuomas Pihlman, LW
10. Jason Ryznar, LW
Continuing a common theme from the past few years, the New Jersey Devils still are in need of upgrading their defensive depth throughout all levels of their organization. The loss of Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens, two towers of power that were staples for the team for the last decade, really hurt the overall effectiveness of the Devils defense and as a result, the group was very inconsistent. The signings of UFA blueliners Dan McGillis and Vladimir Malakhov before the start of the regular season proved to be a colossal failure, and the Devils were forced to add Brad Lukowich and Ken Klee at the trade deadline for depth.
Paul Martin and David Hale both made huge strides this season, especially Martin, and should be staples on the Devils backline for the foreseeable future. Brian Rafalski, Richard Matvichuk, Colin White, and Lukowich also will likely return leaving the Devils with a good, but not great core for next season. What the Devils could use on the blue line is another mobile, puck-rushing threat and someone to use on the second power play unit. Rafalski and Martin are capable offensively, but the likes of Matvichuk, White and Lukowich should not be seeing the ice in power play situations.
This summer, it is of utmost importance for the Devils to re-sign impending UFA Patrik Elias. For a team that can at times have difficulty scoring, the Devils can ill afford to let their most talented player leave via free agency. With Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez both RFA’s and Jamie Langenbrunner a UFA, it may be difficult with the Devils potential salary cap problems to retain all four of the aforementioned players.
Even if the Devils are able to retain their top four scoring forwards from last season, secondary scoring is still a concern. The Devils relied too heavily upon Gionta, Elias and Gomez for offensive output at times and failed to receive consistent support from the secondary forwards. Zach Parise is likely to improve on his numbers from last season, but should Langenbrunner depart, that leaves the Devils with very few options to help put together a second scoring line. Whether it’s a playmaker or a sniper, the Devils must find help for the second line via free agency or trade to give the team some scoring balance. Players like Sergei Brylin, John Madden and Jay Pandolfo are valuable to the team and do chip in with the odd goal now and then, but they can not be counted on to be second line players.
Should the Devils not re-sign seldom-used UFA backup goaltender Scott Clemmensen, they will have to look outside the organization for Martin Brodeur’s caddy. Brodeur again appeared in 70+ games and while some believe he could use more rest during the regular season, the Devils will continue to ride the coattails of their franchise player until he proves incapable of handling such a heavy workload.
When looking at the organizational depth chart, it is easy to see where the Devils strengths lie. Up front, the Devils are loaded with many quality prospects, both at center and on the wings. With Travis Zajac deciding to turn pro after only his second collegiate season, the Devils new AHL affiliate in Lowell will be strong up the middle with Zajac, Petr Vrana and Ivan Khomutov, all of whom still have room to improve, but show plenty of promise. All three also still have a lot of time to reach their full potential. Swedish centerman Alexander Sundstrom, son of former Devil Patrik Sundstrom put together a solid 2005-06 season after battling a knee injury the season previous and is one to keep an eye on over the next couple years.
The Devils also have a plethora of talented wingers rapidly moving through the system and all of them show the ability to potentially fill many different roles and bring a wide variety of skills to the table. The most talented of the bunch appears to be 2005 first round choice Niklas Bergfors. The 19-year-old Swede was fast tracked by the Devils to the AHL, and despite being the youngest player in the league, he did not look out of place finishing with 40 points in 65 games, including 17 goals. The Devils will not rush him, but will definitely not hold him back if he shows that he can contribute at the NHL level.
The Devils picked up Jason Wiemer at the trade deadline to get bigger and more physical up front. While they don’t have much in terms of size at the NHL level, there are quite a few burgeoning big men that are close to challenging for jobs in New Jersey. Perhaps the closest to cracking the big club is Barry Tallackson. Tallackson is not only big, but possesses silky smooth skills for a man of his stature. He, along with two-way winger Tuomas Pihlman and defensive-minded Jason Ryznar all saw brief stints in New Jersey this past season and will push for regular NHL employment this fall. A couple other sizeable wingers have NHL potential, but are not quite ready to make the jump just yet. Ahren Nittel shows promise as a goal scorer but must show more consistency and Aaron Voros has a future as an enforcer who can also contribute on the score sheet, as evidenced by his 16 goals.
Another forward to keep an eye on is David Clarkson, a feisty and fiery leader who does everything asked of him. Signed as a free agent this past summer, Clarkson showed the ability to score, set-up, hit, fight and had it not been for season-ending injury, he may have lead the Devils AHL affiliate in Albany in scoring. Patrick Davis, a 2005 draftee and 35-goal man, had an excellent season in the OHL and just recently signed an entry-level contract with the Devils. Stephen Gionta, brother of Devils leading scorer Brian Gionta made an impact in his brief stint with Albany after graduating from Boston College, including a three-goal performance in his AHL debut. Both will battle for playing time with the Devils new AHL affiliate in Lowell next fall.
One brief glance at the top prospect list of the Devils and it is easy to see that the team is in dire need of adding some impact prospects on the blue line. Matt DeMarchi and Anton Kadeykin both once offered great upside, but both now have seen their development regress significantly. Mark Fraser, who just recently signed with the Devils, is the team’s highest ranked defender, yet does not even crack the top ten prospects list for the Devils at Hockey’s Future. Fraser, a third round pick of the Devils in 2005 shows great intangible qualities and does have an NHL future, but he grades out as more of a role playing second or third pair defenseman.
The signing of NCAA graduate Andy Greene does help some, but there is not much to get excited about after him. Greene, a University of Miami-Ohio graduate and winner of the CCHA’s best offensive defenseman and defensive defenseman awards in his senior season, will likely start off next season in the AHL, but with his advanced age and maturity, he could challenge for a regular role on the Devils blue line as soon as 2007-08.
Bryan Miller looked solid in his first pro season, but he missed the majority of the second half of the season with a shoulder injury, an injury that has plagued him in the past. Tyler Eckford and Mark Fayne offer hope for the future, but they are both still very raw and that future is likely at least three to four years away. Beyond that, the Devils lack any potential impact blueliners. Players like Sean Zimmerman, Zach Tarkir and Alexander Mikhailishin still have room to grow and develop but are by no means safe bets to reach the NHL. The Devils must address this glaring deficiency in their system by drafting one or two high end, impact defensemen.
While the Devils do boast an abundance of forwards with NHL potential, aside from Bergfors and perhaps Davis, the Devils could stand to use a bit of an upgrade in terms of pure goal scoring prospects. Former prospect Alexander Suglobov offered an intriguing package of goal scoring ability, but he was dealt to the Maple Leafs at the trade deadline for journeyman defender Ken Klee. The Devils would be wise to scour the draft in hopes of landing a potential goal scorer.
In net, things are starting to get very thin. Former first round draft choice Ari Ahonen patiently bided his time in the minors, but after a frustrating season in Albany that saw him miss considerable time with a groin injury, he will be playing next season in his native Finland. Frank Doyle was a great offseason pick up, but he is already in his mid-twenties and can not be considered a prospect. With Josh Disher not signing at the June 1 signing deadline, Jeff Frazee and Jason Smith are the only other two goaltenders currently in the system. Look for the Devils to draft a goaltender this year to give the system a little more depth.
Having success in the regular season usually relegates the Devils to drafting in the later portion of the first round, and this year is no different as the team will be selecting 25th overall. As a result of that tendency, the team most often will go with the best available player. Draft day wheeling and dealing is also not uncommon for GM Lou Lamoriello. If the Devils see a player they like, they will not hesitate to make a move up the draft board and in turn they will not hesitate to trade back to accumulate more picks.
New Jersey usually takes a chance on at least one European per draft and lately have also shown a tendency to lean towards OHL players. The most obvious trend when looking at past Devils drafts is that they seem to have a fondness for drafting NCAA-bound players, as they have taken two or more collegiate or future collegiate players in each of the past four entry drafts.
Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result: David Fischer, D, Apple Valley
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