Devils 2007 draft preview

By Jared Ramsden

Devils Top 10 Prospects

1. Nicklas Bergfors, RW
2. Matthew Corrente, D
3. Andy Greene, D
4. Alexander Vasyunov, LW
5. Petr Vrana, C
6. Jeff Frazee, G
7. Barry Tallackson, LW
8. Vladimir Zharkov, RW
9. Kirill Tulupov, D
10. Mark Fraser, D

Team Needs
 
The Devils immediate needs for the upcoming season are largely dependant on the future of two key unrestricted free agents: Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski. If the Devils lose their No. 1 center and top offensive defenseman, they will have to look to replace them immediately via free agency or through a trade.

Up front, New Jersey is in relatively good shape, but this area could take a major hit if the club fails to re-sign Gomez or find an adequate replacement, which would be no easy task. With the emergence of rookie Travis Zajac as the second line center, and the breakthrough 31-goal season by freshman center-turned-winger Zach Parise, the Devils were able to ice two legitimate scoring lines last season. With the likes of Patrik Elias, Brian Gionta and Jamie Langenbrunner joining Zajac and Parise for the 2007-08 season, the Devils should be able to score their fair share of goals. The return of Gomez next year would obviously make this unit even more formidable.

The Devils have one of the better checking units in the league with John Madden flanked by wingers Jay Pandolfo and Sergei Brylin. However, the Devils may retool their fourth line which more often than not saw very limited minutes, especially during the playoffs. With fourth liners Jim Dowd, Erik Rasmussen and Mike Rupp all due to become unrestricted free agents on July 1, the Devils could opt to bring all, some or none of the three players back to New Jersey. Rookie right winger David Clarkson made a favorable showing in limited time last season and should be in line for a full-time promotion next season. Cam Janssen brings energy and physicality to the line-up but he is best suited to be the 13th forward. This is an area that will be addressed through free agency.

The Devils have a solid, blue collar group of defensemen, but this is another area on the team that may see some changes. Though Rafalski is a pending UFA, the early buzz is that he would like to remain in New Jersey, which would be great news for the Devils. The Devils would love to see more consistency from Paul Martin, but he, along with promising Andy Greene give the Devils a couple of dependable and mobile puck movers from the back end. Colin White signed a long-term contract last summer and likely isn’t going anywhere, but Richard Matvichuk and Johnny Oduya could find themselves with new homes if the Devils decide to bring in some new faces. Brad Lukowich is also a UFA, and his status is uncertain. Look for GM Lou Lamoriello to scour the free agent market for a potential top four defender.

The Devils need for a backup goaltender isn’t a huge concern with Martin Brodeur being able to handle such a large workload. Scott Clemmensen could return next season, but he is a UFA, so the Devils could opt to go in a different direction there if they so desire.

Organizational Strengths
 
A lack of quality blueliners once was the biggest weakness in the organization. Now this is one of the strengths of the system. The Devils have addressed this need through the past few drafts and though there aren’t many top-end guys in this group, they now boast a solid, yet unspectacular group of budding young defensemen coming up the pipeline. The free agent signing of Andy Greene, combined with the drafting of players such as last year’s top pick Matt Corrente, Mark Fraser, Mark Fayne, Kirill Tulupov, Tyler Eckford, T.J. Miller and Sean Zimmerman, give the Devils a plethora of defense prospects moving through the system. They each bring a wide range of skill sets to the table but they also all possess one thing in common — great upside. While that upside might not be reached by every single prospect, the Devils have accumulated enough depth that more than a handful of these prospects should pan out at the NHL level.

Though not as big a strength now that Zajac has graduated to the NHL, the Devils still have some promising prospects at center. Petr Vrana still battled through some bouts of inconsistency in his second full season at the AHL, but he did improve in his sophomore pro season and he appears to be ready to take a big step forward in year three of pro hockey. His versatility and two-way skills are what the Devils desire in their forwards. Tony Romano, a sixth-round pick of the Devils last June, showed plenty of razzle dazzle and offensive flair in his first year with the Cornell Big Red. Next season though, Romano will bring his skill set to the high powered London Knights of the OHL where a 100-point season doesn’t seem completely unreasonable to expect. Rod Pelley showed well in his first full pro season, even getting a taste of the NHL with New Jersey. Not the most spectacular prospect by any stretch, a strong training camp and pre-season could earn him a fourth-line spot in New Jersey to start next year.

Much like their defense, the Devils stable of goaltending prospects hasn’t been anything to write home about the past few years. While depth is still lacking, but not necessarily a huge concern with Brodeur showing no signs of slowing down, the Devils have found a couple of netminding prospects with some long-term potential. Jeff Frazee still had to split time at the University of Minnesota in his sophomore season, but the starting job should be his to lose next year. He also played a big role in helping Team USA bring home a bronze medal at the World Junior Championships. While still rough around the edges, Frazee has great long-term upside. Jason Smith is set to turn pro after a standout collegiate career at Sacred Heart and UFA signing Jordan Parise got better and better as the AHL season wore on last year and should be line for even more starts next season.

Organizational Weaknesses

The Devils have some potentially good prospects on the wings, but there seems to be a risk associated with the majority of them, especially the higher echelon types. Nicklas Bergfors is still only 20 years old and already has two full seasons in the AHL under his belt, but he did not have as strong a second pro season as the Devils would have hoped. Russian draftees, both in 2006,  Alexander Vasyunov and Vladimir Zharkov possess an abundance of skill, but both also had sub-par seasons in Russia and appear to still be boom or bust prospects at this point. Patrick Davis fought through some injuries last season, but he also appears to be a boom or bust prospect. After great pro debuts, Barry Tallackson and Jason Ryznar went through the motions in year two in the AHL. Their long-term futures with organization are on shaky ground and both need to put forth better showings next season. With so much uncertainty amongst the majority of their top right and left wing prospects, expect the Devils to use more than a few of their 2007 draft picks on some wingers. Depth at all the forward positions appears to be a concern in the system and that needs to be addressed at this coming draft as well.

As has been the case before, the Devils system still is lacking in quality goal scorers up front. While there is great upside with the likes of Vasyunov and Tallackson and a few pleasant early surprises thus far from the likes of Tony Romano and Nathan Perkovich, the Devils need more skill in the system. With the NHL becoming much more based on speed and skill, this need must be taken care of sooner rather than later.

While the Devils have great depth on defense, they don’t have many defensive prospects, aside from possibly Corrente who have the look of a potential top pairing guy, and to even put Corrente in that high regard right now is a bit of a stretch. It will be hard without a pick until late in the second round to get a defenseman of quality.

In goal, the Devils have some quality goaltenders coming up, but there still isn’t much depth in the system. Don’t be surprised to see the Devils draft a goaltender later on.

Draft Tendencies

New Jersey will not have a first-round selection at the draft in Columbus as it was sacrificed to San Jose in the Vladimir Malakhov trade to help get the Devils under the salary cap last season. That pick has since been moved to St.Louis. The Devils do have an extra third-round choice, acquired from the Flames in the David Hale trade.

With the Devils often picking near the end of each round, the team often goes with the best available player, regardless of position. With that in mind, the Devils are often quite unpredictable on draft day and with below average depth and a dearth of top-end talent in the system, the Devils could go in many different directions this year. Don’t rule out the possibility of a few draft day deals either as Lamoriello has shown that he is not afraid to make a move to get a player that he covets.

The Devils like to pluck players from the CHL, but they have leaned heavily towards American-born and college-bound players in the past. Since 1998, the Devils have selected at least two players bound for the NCAA or players who already were playing in the collegiate ranks.

The Devils and their scouting staff headed by chief scout David Conte, will also not hesitate to dip into Europe, and when they do select Europeans, they most recently have developed a fondness for drafting Russian-born players. The past four drafts, the Devils have selected seven Russian players. This is somewhat of an unusual tactic with the difficulty many NHL teams have had lately in trying to sign and bring Russian born players over to North America.

Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result: No first-round selection (traded to St.Louis via San Jose)

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future.  Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.