Defense and goaltending main strengths in New Jersey Devils top 20

By John Iadevaia

Reid Boucher - New Jersey Devils

Photo: Forward Reid Boucher is coming off a breakout season in the OHL, where he managed 62 goals in 68 games. (courtesy of Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Even prior to a wild and unpredictable 2013 off-season, the New Jersey Devils were going to see a lot of competition on their NHL roster from young prospects, most notably on defense, where the organization is deep and skilled. Despite the amount of veteran depth on paper in the organization, several forwards in the system could also fight their way into the NHL lineup.

1. (1) Jon Merrill, D, 8.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2010

In Jon Merrill's final year with Michigan, Wolverines coach Red Berenson praised his growth in maturity as Merrill recuperated from a vertebra injury. Upon his return, Michigan made a run to the CCHA championship game. A week later, Merrill was playing in Albany, standing toe-to-toe against the pros. In 12 games in the AHL, he recorded a goal and seven assists.

As he enters training camp in the fall, the biggest knock on Merrill's game will be experience. Due to a team suspension in his sophomore year and vertebra injury in his junior year, he has missed the equivalent of a full season of hockey. But despite these setbacks, his return always sparked the Wolverine's play to another level. Even if Merrill does not make the NHL roster out of training camp, he should at least see time as an injury call-up.

2. (4) Damon Severson, D, 7.5C       
Drafted 2nd round, 60th overall, 2012

Entering his fifth season with the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL, Damon Severson has developed into an exceptional player who could one day become a top-four defenseman. The 18-year old is coming off a 52 point season (10 goals 42 assists and a plus-43 rating) in Kelowna's record breaking season that saw them win 56 of 72 games. Though Severson has put up good offensive numbers, his low-risk style has made him equally as dangerous to go against in his own end. He has an active stick on top of strong positioning and shows no fear using his 6'2 200 pound frame as a physical presence. He will even fight if necessary. With one more year in juniors, Severson should look to improve his breakout passes and continue to add strength. He will be competing for a spot on Team Canada's World Juniors squad this season.

3. (5) Reid Boucher, LW, 7.5C        
Drafted 4th round, 99th overall, 2011

There is a lot of excitement surrounding Reid Boucher's upcoming rookie pro season. Since he scored 62 goals in the OHL 2012-13, Boucher has Devils fans hoping he will be a homegrown star. He will all but assuredly start the 2013-14 season in the AHL where he appeared in 11 games at the end of last season. In his short stint in Albany, he notched three goals and two assists.

A fairly undersized forward, Boucher was not afraid to take contact in juniors, but this coming season he be playing against grown men who are bigger, stronger, and faster. If he can make those adjustments, he could very well develop into a solid top-six forward in the NHL.

4. (2) Scott Wedgewood, G, 7.5C    
Drafted 3rd round, 84th overall, 2010

When the Devils acquired goaltender Cory Schneider, it created a question for the organizations future goaltenders. Now instead of fighting it out for the starting job when Martin Brodeur retires, their goaltending prospects will be competing for Schneider's backup spot. Among the four goaltenders in the system, Scott Wedgewood remains the most highly regarded.

His stats do not show how vital he truly was last season for the now-defunct Trenton Titans. In 48 games played, the Ontario native had a 20-22-5 record. He finished with a .900 save percentage, a 3.22 goals against average, and one shutout. He was frequently the Titans best player as well. Wedgewood also played five games in Albany, posting a 2-2 record, a .886 save percentage, and a 3.47 goals against average. He will share the crease with Keith Kinkaid in the AHL this upcoming season.

5. (3) Alexander Urbom, D, 7.0B      
Drafted 3rd Round, 73rd overall, 2009

Urbom had an unspectacular 2012-13 season that saw him focus on fine-tuning his overall game. He contributed eight assists, sat in the penalty box for 64 minutes, and was a minus-three rating through 68 regular season games. The young Swede may not be in Albany for much longer however as he does not require much more grooming in the minors. The bulky defenseman is quite mobile, allowing him to lead the rush offensively and pinch in when needed to create scoring opportunities. He projects ultimately as a possible complementary second-pairing defenseman.

6. (6) Eric Gelinas, D, 7.0C     
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2009

The Ottawa native succumbed to bad luck before Albany's season started in 2012-13. He was struck in the jaw by a puck in the final pre-season game, sidelining him for the first few weeks and he was sluggish upon return. He persevered however and rediscovered his game in the winter. He ended the season with six goals and 16 assists. He also made his NHL debut against Pittsburgh on April 25th, performing quite well against Evgeni Malkin's line.

Though Gelinas does not have the offense skill of a player like Merrill he carries the puck with enthusiasm and is a strong skater. He will lead the rush up the ice and insert himself into the play offensively. He has a hard slapshot which can spread out the defense and makes him an effective weapon on the powerplay. Over his two years in Albany, Gelinas has matured as a blueliner. There might still be some rawness to his game, but he has made tremendous strides to where he is today. He will be among several defensive prospects competing for an NHL roster spot in training camp.

7. (NR) Steve Santini, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2013

Smart, patient, and possessing quality hockey sense, Steve Santini has all the essentials to become a top four shutdown defenseman. A solid skater, the 6'2, 207 pound blueliner is responsible in his own end and shows great awareness of where he is relevant to the play. He would be ranked a little higher if it was not for his lack of an offensive game. Last season with the US National Developmental Team, he played in 25 games and added five assists and was a plus-six. It was the U18 tournament this past Spring however, where his profile rose. His excellent play earned him the IIHF honor as the Best Defenseman of the World Junior Championship. In August he earned a spot on the United States 2014 World Juniors team that will compete in Sweden. The 18-year old will start his junior career at Boston College for the 2013-14 season.

8. (8) Stefan Matteau, C, 7.0C       
Drafted 1st round, 29th overall, 2012

The former first round pick hopes to build off a year split between the Blaineville-Boisbraid Armada of the QMJHL and the NHL. Matteau stood out on his junior squad through most of the season, but had an untimely end to his season. In a second round playoff series against Baie-Comeau, Matteau got in an argument with his head coach following a game and was suspended indefinitely by the club. In 17 NHL games, he scored once, added two assists, picked up six penalty minutes, and posted a minus-one rating. The power forward proved he could handle the physical nature of the pros by battling against experienced players in the dirty areas. His 6'2 210 pound frame also gives him an advantage protecting the puck for himself and his linemates.

It could be another busy year for the Devils forward. In August, Matteau earned a spot with the United States World Junior team that will compete in Sweden. A return to New Jersey is not out of the question depending on the health of the team's older forwards.

9. (7) Reece Scarlett, D, 7.0C      
Drafted 6th round, 159th overall, 2011

Since being selected in the sixth round in 2011, Reece Scarlett has blossomed as a prospect. He has managed back-to-back 49 point seasons over the last two years and has also continued to improve his play in his own end.

As he prepares to enter the pros, the 6'1 178 pound Scarlett must continue to add strength. While is still on track to become a scoring second-pairing blueliner, he must take steps to adjust to the physicality of the next level. He is expected to start the 2013-14 season in the AHL.

10. (11) Blake Pietila, LW, 6.0B     
Drafted 5th round, 129th overall, 2011

Pietila was one of the most improved Devils prospects last season. The high energy forward earned a gold medal with Team USA at the World Junior Championship and proved to be a vital role player on the penalty kill (89.3 percent; 25-of-28) as well as a shutdown forward, chipping in two goals and a plus-five rating. The winger continued his stellar play when he returned to Michigan Tech where he ended up with 14 goals, 10 assists in 35 games. For his efforts, the team awarded him the Merv Youngs Award as Michigan Tech's most valuable player.

Resembling Jay Pandolfo, Pietila's stock continues to rise. He has already improved his transition game and stick work considerably since he was drafted and if he continues to build upon his offensive numbers in his final two years at college, he could be a sold NHL player.

11. (9) Keith Kinkaid, G, 7.0C     
Free Agent Signing, 2011

Since being signed out of Union College, Kinkaid is proving to be another one of GM Lou Lamoriello's savvy undrafted signings. Aided in the crease by his size, agility, and reflexes, Kinkaid can move laterally quite well, but his best attribute is his puck-handling ability. The 6'3 180 pound goaltender stays square to the shooter, displaying no fear of challenging them while maintaining his posture.

Kinkaid was the better goaltender for Albany in 2012-13 outplaying former partner Jeff Frazee. He recorded a 21-17-6 record with a .905 save percentage and a 2.72 goals against average and two shutouts. He made his NHL debut on March 5th in a relief appearance against the Tampa Bay Lightning and stopped 12 of the 13 shots he faced.

While Wedgewood appears to be the likely candidate to become the eventual Devils back-up, Kinkaid has made it a competition. He continues to battle for playing time and shows why he has earned his spot within the system.

12. (10) Brandon Burlon, D, 7.0C   
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2008

Burlon looked noticeably more confident and comfortable in his second year with Albany. In 2012-13, he had 16 assists and 17 points, second among Devils defenseman. For a player that plays a vanilla style of hockey, he was one of the standouts in an otherwise tough year for the AHL affiliate. His skill-set and style is similar to that of current Devil defenseman Andy Greene. He will compete for a spot in New Jersey, but it is likely to benefit him if he remained in the minors for more experience.

13. (14) Seth Helgeson, D, 6.0B    
Drafted 4th round, 114th overall, 2009

Seth Helgeson may develop into a reliable bottom pairing blueliner one day, but he still has much to learn. Helgeson is coming off his senior year in Minnesota, where he blocked 46 shots and racked up 62 penalty minutes. Afterward, he played four games in the AHL with the Albany Devils. He had no points, a plus-two rating, took seven shots on goal, and served one penalty. He is not a flashy player, but plays a safe, simple game, using his size to rub opponents out along the boards while taking away space with an active stick. His skating has improved over the years to where it is no longer a weakness. In Albany, he will have to continue to develop his puck handling. He can make outlet passes, but he must get more comfortable carrying the puck from his own zone.

14. (12) Maxime Clermont, G, 7.0D    
Drafted 6th Round, 174th overall, 2010

After two seasons in the ECHL, Clermont continues to struggle to develop consistency in his game. In 2012-13, he played in 41 games for the Elmira Jackals, posing a 20-13-5 record. With the likely battle between Wedgewood and Kinkaid in Albany, it may be another year before he has a chance to compete for an AHL job.

Clermont is technically sound, aggressive and uses his frame to cut down angles. His rebound control is pretty good, but he needs to do a better job of tracking the puck through screens and scrambles around the net. He also has to learn to mentally lockdown games; whether after giving up a bad goal or shutting the door when his team is pressed.

15. (13) Blake Coleman, C/W, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 75th overall, 2011

A gritty, hard-working center, Blake Coleman had a disappointing sophomore season, managing only managed nine goals and 10 assists in a mostly bottom-six role. Still, his team finished atop the CCHA standings in the regular season. Coleman remains a long-term project for the Devils who could evolve into a hard-hitting depth scorer. In order to do that however, he must remain confident and decisive with the puck.

16. (15) Curtis Gedig, D, 6.0C      
Drafted 7th round, 204th overall, 2009

Curtis Gedig is not likely going to ever develop into an impact player, but he is starting to build a resume as a dependable defenseman. In 2012-13, Gedig logged major minutes for Ohio State University, blocking 57 shots, and finishing with three goals, 12 assists and a plus-six rating. Gedig will return to the Buckeyes for his senior year in 2013-14. He projects as a steady, stay-at-home defenseman who can be used in key situations.

17. (16) Graham Black, C, 6.0C     
Drafted 5th Round, 135th overall, 2012

Graham Black tallied 24 points and 26 assists, registering as one of the Swift Current Broncos top scorers, but it is his play away from the puck that is his greatest asset. When not chipping in offensively, Black is often deployed as a shutdown forward and is very good at using his speed on the forecheck. While Black's all-around game will make him an appealing bottom-six player, he is an inconsistent scorer. He could also stand to add some strength and mass to his 6'0 175 pound frame.

18. (18) Artur Gavrus, LW, 7.0D       
Drafted 6th round, 180th overall, 2012

Gavrus ended 2012-13 with great momentum. He retjoined the Owen Sound of the OHL in January after playing the first half of the year in Belarus and in the final eight games of the regular season, he notched eight goals and 11 assists. He added nine points in the postseason before the Plymouth Whalers eliminated the Attack in the second round. Health was the biggest factor in his success in 2012-13. His high-risk style makes him a potent threat on the ice so long as he remains in top condition. Over the summer, his rights were traded to Oshawa, but it appears he will not play in North America. Instead, the Belarus native will remain in his home country to play with HC Dinamo Minsk of the KHL. Because of this, his path to the NHL remains uncertain.

19. (17) David Wohlberg, C, 6.0B      
Drafted 6th round, 172nd overall, 2008

The speedy Wohlberg did not see a lot of game action in 2012-13, appearing in 36 AHL games, most of which were towards the end of the season. A speedy, two-way forward, Wohlberg does not possess great size, but is tough, hard-working, and plays hard in front and behind the net.

As the centerman enters his second season in Albany, Wohlberg has the chance to chisel a role for himself. But with a surge of other prospects arriving in Albany, he will have to fight throughout 2013-14 season to stay in the lineup.

20. (NR) Ryan Kujawinski, C, 6.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2013

There is a lot to like about Kujawinski. The forward plays hard in the offensive zone thanks to his dynamic skating and puck possession. He is hard to dislodge from the biscuit before he unleashes his shot on goal and has also grown into a skilled player in the faceoff circle. In 66 games with Kingston, he scored 17 goals, 31 assists, 40 penalty minutes, and a minus-12 rating.

Kujawinski can be difficult to stop, but his inconsistencies in 2012-13 were also well documented. He had a hard time playing against veteran teams and players, while also struggling at times to string together good shifts. The 6'2, 204 pound prospect will return to the Frontenacs for his fourth year in the OHL.