Devils AHL prospects season review

By Jared Ramsden

Despite having their AHL affiliate miss the playoffs for the seventh straight season, the New Jersey Devils had to be pleased with the on-ice results Lowell had in the first year of their affiliation after New Jersey severed their ties with the Albany River Rats last summer. Off ice, the City of Lowell and the Devils were in the midst of a dispute over the lease at the home arena of the Devils that was just settled recently and will ensure the team stays in Lowell for 2007-08. However, the long-term future of the team and its affiliation with New Jersey is up in the air.

The Lowell Devils managed a 38-30-6-6 record, getting edged out by the Worcester Sharks for that last playoff spot in the Atlantic Division by five points. The Devils had quite a good run going mid-season, but faltered slightly down the stretch allowing the Sharks to pass them during the final two weeks of the regular season.

Coach Kurt Kleinendorst and assistants Kevin Dean and Chris Terreri had a blend of qualified NHL and AHL talent to go along with a cluster of first and second-year prospects to work with, many of whom were still trying to get their feet wet and gain the experience needed to take the next step to become NHL players. It was a learning experience for many involved, but the general feeling is that the coaching staff and the players worked well together during the course of the season.

Defensive play and discipline, both long-time staples of New Jersey Devil hockey were emphasized by the coaching staff throughout the season. Those standards helped the Devils remain in the playoff chase down right to the end of the regular season as the Devils were the least penalized team in the league and with 220 goals against, ranked eighth overall in team defense.

After just missing out on the post-season this year, the next step for Lowell is to make the playoffs next season, while continuing to develop prospects to promote to the parent club in New Jersey. There should be a lot of familiar faces back on the roster next season, along with a handful new pro prospects looking to prove their worth as professional hockey players.

Forwards

The Devils had plethora of first and second-year pro players on the roster, and it was a mixed bag of results for those prospects during the course of the regular season.

The most consistent performance of the season had to be that of  David Clarkson. Despite the fact he missed a couple of weeks in late March when he was summoned to New Jersey as an injury replacement, the second-year pro was second on the team with 20 goals in 67 games, behind only Chris Minard who led the team with 31 tallies. His 38 points was good enough to place him third among Lowell forwards and his 150 PIM’s lead the team. Clarkson plays an agitating and physical style and is able to contribute in a variety of ways as evidenced by his statistics. He is a great team player and has the intangible qualities to be an effective role player in the NHL for years to come. The undrafted free agent signing did not look out of place in his brief NHL stint, scoring three goals in seven games and it appears as though a spot for Clarkson in New Jersey next season is his to lose.

Another forward who was quite effective over the course of the season was first-year pro Rod Pelley, who like Clarkson, was also signed as an undrafted free agent. The former Ohio State University graduate made a seamless transition to the pro game, and his strong play did not go unnoticed in New Jersey as he was recalled on a couple of occasions to the big club to play the role of fourth-line center. In 65 games on the farm, Pelley had 17 goals, tied for third on the team with Ryan Murphy and was the leading rookie scorer on the club with 29 points overall. Pelley is a strong-skating forward who plays an in-your-face, grinding type of game. He does not shy away from the physical aspect of the game, getting involved in all the high-traffic areas. While not blessed with great offensive skills, he showed last season that he has the ability to chip in with the odd goal now and then. Pelley’s strong first year on the farm, combined with his steady play when up with New Jersey should earn him a long look in training camp next season. 

Barry Tallackson’s second season in the AHL was much more inconsistent than his first year on the farm, one in which he was arguably the best player on the team. It should be noted however that he did play the majority of the year with a wrist injury. In 58 games, Tallackson had 10 goals and 24 assists, placing him fifth among Lowell’s scoring leaders. There is no doubting the fact that Tallackson has great hands and a high overall skill level, but his intensity from shift to shift and game to game wanes occasionally, frustrating the organization. For such an imposing looking player, Tallackson’s physical involvement is almost non existent at times and his conditioning appeared to be an issue last year as well. Next season will be a very important year in Tallackson’s development. The tools are there, but he needs to show much more consistency and effort on a regular basis otherwise he will get passed by others on the depth chart.

After an electric first season as the youngest player in the AHL, many believed Nicklas Bergfors was in line for a big season. That never really came to fruition during the 2006-07 season though as Bergfors somewhat underachieved in his second year as a pro. After leading the River Rats in scoring last season with 17 goals and 40 points, Bergfors only produced 13 goals and 19 assists in 60 games. His underwhelming play was most apparent at the World Junior Championships where he was one of Team Sweden’s most disappointing players. Bergfors is blessed with a tremendous amount of natural skill, but his intensity and effort appeared to be in question at times last year. All that being said, it needs to be noted that Bergfors was fast tracked to the AHL as an 18-year-old last season and is still developing as a player and instead of doing it at the junior level where he’d likely be dominating, he is doing it in the AHL against older and more experienced competition. There is a chance Bergfors might play in his native Sweden next season but regardless of where he ends up in 2007-08, there is no need for New Jersey to panic about their top prospect just yet. He just might need a couple more years before he is ready to make the jump to the NHL.

Though the improvement wasn’t as dramatic as the parent New Jersey Devils might have hoped, Petr Vrana’s second season of pro hockey was much more consistent than his first. He found himself a healthy scratch frequently during the early part of the year but as the season wore on, Vrana earned the coaching staff’s trust and with it, earned more playing time. Vrana at times was even wearing the “A” as one of Lowell’s alternate captains. In 61 games, Vrana had 13 goals and 19 assists. Vrana isn’t always the most noticeable player on the ice, but he has the necessary skating and skill level to go along with the desire and dedication to eventually become an NHL player. His sound two way skills should also keep him in the Devils long term plans. Vrana likely needs one more full season at the minor league level before he will considered for a promotion to New Jersey.

Jason Ryznar’s second season in the AHL was much more trying than his first. After getting into a handful of games with New Jersey last season, he was in and out of the line up quite often, and missed a handful of games at the tail end of the season after suffering a nasty gash to his face from a skate. In 55 games, he scored five goals and five assists. Ryznar is a defensive minded, grinding type of forward with good penalty killing ability, however is overall skill level is somewhat lacking and he will have to work to the best of his ability if he is to make it to the NHL.

A pair of first year forwards both had up and down seasons. Patrick Davis got off to a great start but in large part due to an undisclosed injury, found scoring hard to come by in the second half. On the season, he had five goals and 13 assists in 41 games. Davis is similar to Barry Tallackson in that he has a great size and skill package, but needs to work on becoming more consistent. Stephen Gionta started slow, but seemed to find a bit of a comfort zone as the season wore on. In 67 games, he scored seven goals and eight assists. The speedy, pint sized winger showed great heart and desire throughout the season, and though he doesn’t have nearly the same offensive capability as older brother Brian, he does have an outside shot at forging out an NHL career if he can put together a couple more solid seasons in at the AHL level.

Tuomas Pihlman’s time in the organization appears to have come to an end after four seasons in North America. He showed great potential early on, but like many other prospects in the AHL, struggled with consistency. He recently signed a contract to play in his native Finland with JYP Jyvaskyla. Ivan Khomutov had an interesting season to say the least. Unhappy early in the season, he returned to his native Russia to play before returning late in the year to the Devils ECHL affiliate in Trenton for five games and then suiting up in Lowell’s last regular season game. His long term future in the organization is not certain at this point in time.

Defensemen

Andy Greene’s AHL stay may have been short lived, but he had a more than productive half season with Lowell, earning a spot on the All-Star team. Often partnered with veteran NHL defenseman Dan McGillis, Greene scored five goals and 16 assists in 52 games to go along with a solid +6 rating. Once David Hale was traded at the trade deadline to the Calgary Flames, Greene was promoted from the farm to New Jersey and played a regular shift down the stretch the last month of the season and was one of the Devils most consistent defenders in the post season. Greene has earned himself an NHL job for next season and should see an increase in his minutes and responsibilities.

First year blueliner Mark Fraser had an excellent pro debut, highlighted by a couple of appearances in New Jersey over the course of the season where he got more and more comfortable with each game. Fraser appeared in a team high 71 games for Lowell, scoring a goal and eight assists to go along with 73 PIM’s and a -5 rating. Fraser is a strong skating, steady defensive defenseman who makes good outlet passes from his own end. He is not afraid to play physical and will even drop his gloves on occasion should the situation merit it. Towards the end of the season, Fraser’s defensive play became spotty, however the Devils have to be satisfied with his first year of pro hockey. Fraser is close, but probably needs to get another full year of AHL hockey under his belt before being ready for a full-time gig in the NHL.

Once Greene was promoted to New Jersey, another defender in the organization earned a promotion. Olivier Magnan was summoned from the ECHL’s Trenton Titans to Lowell in early March and played well before being moved in and out of the line up with more experienced defenders such as Alex Brooks, Mike Mottau and Olli Malmivaara trying to help push Lowell into the playoffs. Magnan had a goal and nine assists in 45 games for the Titans before being recalled to Lowell where he scored a goal and an assist in 24 games to go along with a +2 rating. Magnan is a well rounded defender who is adept at moving the puck and playing physically. He is still a couple seasons away from reaching New Jersey, but he is an intriguing dark horse prospect to keep close tabs on over the course of the next two years.

Goaltending

Jordan Parise, the former North Dakota star got off to a bit of a sluggish start in his pro debut with Lowell, but as the season wore on, he appeared to get better and as a result, saw more action down the stretch, almost splitting time equally with Frank Doyle. He won nine of his last 15 starts, two of which were shutouts. On the season, he finished with a 17-12-2 record, a 2.68 goals against average and .915 save percentage. His rebound control was an issue early on, but extra time put in working with assistant coach Chris Terreri helped improve that area of his game dramatically. Parise challenged shooters on a regular basis by coming out of his crease and flashed a good glove hand. His lateral mobility and down low coverage was also exceptional. Parise started stealing time from second year netminder Frank Doyle and if the end of last season is any indication, it’s only a matter of time before he starts getting the bulk of starts for Lowell. He still needs two to three years in the minors before being ready for some NHL action.


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