The New Jersey Devils have always relied on a core of hardened veterans to see them through. But change is in the air as those experienced players enter the twilight of their careers, while a new generation of Devils players come of age.
The youth movement will start on defense, with some of the organizations top prospects ready to show they can make the jump from the minors to the NHL. Further down the pipeline there are many up-and-comers who are rounding out their game at the junior and amateur levels.
It has been a wild journey for Merrill. After a stellar rookie season at the University of Michigan, he dealt with some maturation issues and bad luck. The blueliner played the equivalent of one season in his sophomore and junior years due to a team suspension followed by a vertebra injury. Despite these setbacks, he continued to develop well. Merill left Michigan after his third year to begin his pro career and played very well in his 12 appearances with Albany, recording a goal and seven assists.
In the past, the question has not been if Merrill could make the next level, but when. That might be answered this fall as the 6'3 200 pound defenseman is a favorite to claim a spot on the Devils blue line.
Unsigned for 2014-15
Maxime Clermont, D, Albany Devils (AHL)
Clermont has not been able to find his rhythm in his first two years in the ECHL. The primary starter for the Elmira Jackals, Clermont lacked consistency between the pipes and his struggles came to a head in the postseason, where he split goaltending duties with Ian Keserich in a disappointing first round loss.
The 21-year old goaltender has a chance to change his fortunes this upcoming season. With Jeff Frazee gone, Clermont and Scott Wedgewood will compete for a spot in Albany. A strong showing at training camp by the Quebec native could open the door for an AHL job. More importantly, he could gain the confidence to turn his game around.
Reid Boucher, LW, Albany Devils (AHL)
Last season, Reid Boucher stepped up to become the go-to goal scorer for the Sarnia Sting, finishing with 62 goals through 68 games. Once the Sting's season was over, Boucher joined Albany for the final 11 games of the season, notching three goals and two assists.
Now the 20-year-old forward must learn to adjust at the next level against bigger, more physical defenders who will not give up space as easily. Though a bit undersized, Boucher was never afraid to take contact in the OHL and his goal-scoring instincts are top-notch. Given the organizations need for offense, he will remain on the Devils radar. Albany will be his likely starting spot before he gets a shot with the big club.
Entering his final season in the WHL, Severson has become a go-to blueliner on both ends of the ice. He played a role in Kelowna's franchise record season that saw the Rockets win 56 of 72 games. A stalwart defender, Severson can quickly transition up the ice to create scoring chances.
Severson is one of the Devils top prospects, and should become an NHL player one day. But with Merrill, Eric Gelinas, and Alexander Urbom high on the depth chart, the 19-year-old might have to wait. Regardless, having another potential top-four defenseman bodes well for New Jersey's depth.
Unsigned for 2014-15
Myles Bell, LW, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
Shifting from defense to forward may have been the best move of Myles Bell's career. He fully utilized his booming shot, offensive skillset, and smooth skating to lead Kelowna in scoring with 38 goals and 93 points . He became a force at the junior level, is still adapting to his new position.
Bell's team status for 2013-14 is still undecided. At 20 years old, he is eligible to turn pro or remain with his junior team for his fifth and final year. With a high amount of prospects entering the pro ranks, the Devils may be inclined to let the forward finish out his time with Kelowna. It would not hurt considering he needs more experience playing his new position.
Ryan Kujawinski, C, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
Kujawinski seemed to rediscover his offensive touch after he was traded to Kingston from Sarnia in 2011-12. Much was expected of him last year, but his inconsistencies through 2012-13 hampered his ability to become a constant threat. Returning for his third year in the OHL, he should be hungry to push himself to the next level.
The physical center plays an effective possession style by using his size and strong skating. Combine all that with his high skill level and he is a player that can take control of games. The Frontenacs have talent surrounding Kujawinski, but it will be up to him to overcome his sporadic play. If he does, Kingston becomes a more dangerous team.
Top Amateur Prospect
Blake Pietila, LW, Michigan Tech Huskies (WCHA)
The Michigan Tech standout had a year to remember. He won a gold medal with Team USA at the World Junior Championship, and then continued his strong two-way play at the college level with the Huskies, earning the Merv Young Award as team MVP. Over the summer, he was a standout at the Devils development camp.
With two years remaining in his college career, Pietila is likely to become a high energy depth forward. He will be a leader on the squad and should be able to play in all situations of the game. If he can improve his offensive ability, Pietila could be in future considerations for a bigger position with the Devils.
Blake Coleman, C, University of Miami RedHawks (NCHC)
Coleman succumbed to the dreaded sophomore slump with the RedHawks, following a solid freshman campaign. Expected to take the next step in his development, he failed to lockdown a top-six position, managing only nine goals and 10 assists.
The 21-year-old projects as a middle of the lineup forward, who creates scoring chances by out-working opponents and competing in the tough areas for the puck. In order to earn a larger role with the team, Coleman must be more responsible with and without the puck, which has been an issue for him to date.
Freshman to Watch
Steve Santini, D, Boston College (Hockey East)
In four of the last five drafts, New Jersey has selected a defenseman in the second round. The first three, Gelinas (2009), Merrill (2010), and Severson (2012), appear destined to become future NHL players. Santini, a second round pick in 2012, may continue that trend.
Santini was one of the best shutdown defenseman amongst his draft class. He spent two years with the US Developmental Team chewing away at top pairing minutes. For an 18-year-old, he possesses a great mind for the game, similar to that of Merrill. The 6'2, 207 pound defenseman excels in his own end, displaying great zone awareness while adjusting to the play before it unfolds. He will begin his NCAA career in Boston College this fall.