Devils Top 20 prospects, Spring 2008

By Jared Ramsden

With graduations (Andy Greene and David Clarkson), major disappointments (Jeff Frazee and Tony Romano), and new additions to the list (Brad Snetsinger and Matt Halischuk), there was no shortage of movement in this edition of the Devils Top 20 prospect rankings. But remaining at the top of the list is Nicklas Bergfors, where he’s been ever since Zach Parise gave up the spot in 2006. Nipping at his heels is defenseman Matt Corrente, who is head and shoulders the best defense prospect in the Devils organization.

At first glance, there do not appear to be any prospects in the Devils system that stand out or possess the ability to become stars at their positions. However, there are some talented players with unique skill sets that have enough talent to emerge as full-time NHLers in the not too distant future.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Nicklas Bergfors, RW
2. Matt Corrente, D
3. Petr Vrana, C
4. Nick Palmieri, RW
5. Alexander Vasyunov, LW
6. Kirill Tulupov, D
7. Barry Tallackson, LW
8. Mark Fraser, D
9. T.J. Miller, D
10. Mark Fayne, D
11. Nathan Perkovich, RW
12. Tyler Eckford, D
13. Brad Snetsinger, LW
14. Matt Halischuk, RW
15. Mike Hoeffel, LW
16. Vladimir Zharkov, RW
17. Jeff Frazee, G
18. Tony Romano, C
19. Patrick Davis, LW
20. Rod Pelley, C

Key: Rank (rank change), name, position, (Grade), age

1. (1) Nicklas Bergfors, RW, (7.0 B), 21

Acquired: 1st round, 23rd overall, 2005 NHL Draft

The sublimely skilled Swede easily remains the top prospect in the organization. However, it has been a roller coaster season thus far for Bergfors. He was able parlay a strong training camp and pre-season into an opening night roster spot with New Jersey, but a shoulder injury suffered in his first NHL game, followed by an injury to his other shoulder upon his return to the AHL, resulted in him getting off to a sluggish start to the season. Those two separate shoulder injuries are the main reason for Bergfors’ sub-par numbers thus far (9 goals and 21 points through 50 games). He has been able to find his stride with Lowell though as of late, as he has started to put up points on a more regular basis. His -1 rating stands out on team that struggles defensively. Assuming he remains healthy, he should be able to finish off his season in Lowell in much better fashion than it started, and should again challenge for a regular spot in New Jersey’s line-up next fall.

2. (1) Matt Corrente, D, (7.0 C), 19

Acquired: 1st round, 30th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

Corrente hung around NHL camp until the last few pre-season games before being sent back to junior and is big reason why he remains in second spot right behind Bergfors. He could have very well moved into the top spot if not for the development time lost during a couple of untimely injuries and an eight-game suspension while with the OHL’s Niagara Ice Dogs this season. Corrente has only been able to suit up for 21 games. In those games, he’s scored 15 points, put up 64 PIM’s and a +3 rating. He has just recovered from a broken thumb, and should be returning to action for the Ice Dogs in time for the start of the post-season. When in the line-up, Corrente has been an impact player on the Niagara blueline, playing a rough and tumble style that endears himself to his teammates. Though he has missed a significant chunk of the season this year, the Devils are very high on Corrente. The Devils are deep on the blueline, but that won’t prevent them from giving Corrente a serious chance next season at making the team if he proves that he is ready for the challenge.

3. (6) Petr Vrana, C, (6.5 B), 22

Acquired: 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2003 NHL Draft

Vrana is in the midst of having a much anticipated breakthrough season with the Lowell Devils. He is finally turning into the type of impact player that the Devils envisioned with they drafted the versatile Czech forward in the second round of the 2003 draft. He is among the league leaders in assists with 35, currently leads Lowell in scoring with 47 points in 65 games and was Lowell’s lone all-star representative earlier in the season. Vrana fits the Devils criteria of being a responsible player at both ends of the rink, but it wasn’t until this season that he was finally able to mature and blossom offensively. His ability to play either wing or center, combined with his speed and high skill level has many in and around the organization thinking they might have a Sergei Brylin clone in the making. His strong and steady play this season in Lowell has moved him up to third spot in the prospect rankings, and he now also appears ready to take the next step in his hockey career by challenging for an NHL roster spot as soon as next season.

4. (14) Nick Palmieri, RW, (7.0 C), 18

Acquired: 3rd round, 79th overall, 2007 NHL Draft

The biggest riser in the rankings, Palmieri moved up 10 places in the rankings to claim a spot in the top five. One of the few bright spots on the OHL’s bottom feeding Erie Otters, Palmieri is quickly moving up the organizational depth chart. Despite a bout of mononucleosis that sidelined him earlier in the season, Palmieri is second on the Otters in goals with 27 and is sits fourth overall in team scoring with 44 points in 47 games. He has also shown a nasty side to his game, as evidenced by his 112 PIM’s. A 6’2, 205 lb power forward in the making, Palmieri made a strong impression in New Jersey during the pre-season, so much so that the Devils signed him to a three-year entry-level contract back in the fall. Once he wraps up the regular season in Erie, the Devils will likely send Palmieri to the AHL to get some minor pro seasoning. The Devils haven’t had many prospects come around lately with the type of goal scoring potential that Palmieri has exhibited thus far in his short time in the organization, hence his big jump up the prospect rankings.

5. (8) Alexander Vasyunov, LW, (7.0 C), 19

Acquired: 2nd round, 58th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

It’s been difficult again for Vasyunov to get regular ice time in the Russian Super League, but he played well in the junior aged edition of the Summit Series over the summer and had a strong showing at the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge. He showed the skill and pure goal-scoring ability that prompted the Devils to draft him and as a result, moves into the fifth spot in the rankings. He was primed to play a significant role for team Russia at the World Junior Championships this past winter as well, but an injury suffered just before the tournament kept him off the roster. In 20 RSL games for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, he has four goals. Vasyunov is still a major wild card at this point in his development, as he has the ability to put the puck in the net, but is suffering in terms of his overall development by not seeing more ice time in Russia. It is paramount that the Devils convince Vasyunov to come over to North America next season to further refine his skills.

6. (10) Kirill Tulupov, D, (7.0 C), 19

Acquired: 3rd round, 67th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

Moving up four places in the prospect rankings, Tulupov’s progress has accelerated after an early season trade from Chicoutimi to Victoriaville. Though he only has 15 points on the season thus far through 55 games, his presence on the Tigres blueline has often been noticed by opposing players on a nightly basis with his mean and downright nasty physical play. He has to be considered one of the QMJHL’s most devastating body checkers. He often looks like a wild colt on the ice, and though you might think he sacrifices his positioning looking for the big hit, his +2 rating on one of the QMJHL worst teams is a testament to his steady defensive play. His style of play is similar to that of current Devils defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski. Standing at 6’3, 220 lbs, Tulupov already has an NHL-sized body. If he continues to maintain his outstanding physical game and continues to improve his overall defensive play over the course of the next few seasons, the Devils should have themselves a big time thumper on the blueline in the not too distant future.

7. (7) Barry Tallackson, LW, (7.0 D), 24

Acquired: 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2002 NHL Draft

With a team-leading 21 goals for Lowell through 56 games, Tallackson is putting a sub-par 2006-07 behind him. Though his -22 rating leaves much to be desired, Tallackson’s is doing what the Devils envisioned when the drafted him way back in 2002 and that’s putting the puck in the net. The budding power forward has an awesome blend of size and skill, but still has bouts of inconsistency that are preventing him from reaching his full potential. He had a short stint in the NHL earlier this season, but failed to stand out. Tallackson has been in the Devils system for quite some time now, and has had a good season. But he is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end and with other talented wingers pushing their way up through the system, his long-term future with the team is up in the air.

8. (7) Mark Fraser, D, (6.5 B), 21

Acquired: 3rd round, 84th overall, 2005 NHL Draft

Out of all the prospects in the Devils organization, Fraser is perhaps the closest to graduating full time to the NHL. However, the abundance of defensemen the Devils currently have at the NHL level has afforded them the luxury of taking their time with him. The Devils liked what they saw from Fraser last year both in the AHL and in a couple of brief NHL stints, and he has carried over his strong and steady play from last season into this year with Lowell. He’s suited up in 63 of Lowell’s 64 games, accumulated 14 points, a respectable -5 rating and 87 PIM’s, which is tops on the team. At 6’4, 220 lbs and getting stronger, Fraser is strong skating stay-at-home defenseman who is not afraid to get his nose dirty and play a physical brand of hockey. Should an opening or two be available on the Devils blueline next season, don’t be surprised to see Fraser as one of the frontrunners for the job.

9. (15) T.J. Miller, D, (6.5 C), 21

Acquired: 4th round, 176th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

Miller moves up six places into the top 10. Though it might not show up the scoresheet, Miller has been one of the most reliable defenders for Northern Michigan this season and has made incredible strides defensively. A co-captain for the Wildcats, he has eight points, 47 PIM’s and a +3 rating through 37 games this season. The 6’4, 200 lb Miller has a great package of skills, including great mobility for a man of his stature and top-notch puck skills. From his freshman season to sophomore season, Miller has quickly evolved into the all-around defenseman the Devils hoped he would develop into when they drafted him. As he continues to get stronger and gain more confidence, Miller should be ready for pro play.

10. (12) Mark Fayne, D, (6.5 B), 20

Acquired: 5th round, 155th overall, 2005 NHL Draft

While not the most spectacular defenseman, Fayne is a solid, steady stay-at-homer who is having a good sophomore season for the Providence Friars and slips in just behind Miller in the rankings, though the two aren’t separated by very much. Through 36 games for the Friars, Fayne has recorded two goals and four assists to go along with a -8 rating and 14 PIM’s. Though those numbers are down from his freshman season, Fayne has notably improved in other facets of the game. The big, burly 6’3, 220 lb defender has become much stronger in the trenches, using his intimidating size to his advantage while also improving his game reading ability. Fayne is another one of the Devils more well-rounded defenders quickly making a name for himself in the organization. Much like Miller, Fayne’s upside is tremendous and he is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential.

11. (13) Nathan Perkovich, RW, (6.5 C), 22

Acquired: 8th round, 250th overall, 2004 NHL Draft

Proving once again that it doesn’t matter your draft placement, Perkovich followed up a great freshman season with a just as impressive sophomore campaign at Lake Superior State where he again led the Lakers in goal scoring with 17. The eighth-round draft pick of the Devils back in 2004, Perkovich had even better numbers this season with 25 points in 36 games compared to the 15 goals and 7 assists he put up in 42 games in 2006-07. The lanky 6’5, 200 lb sniper is a great skater and has great hands around the net as evidenced by his 32 goals in his first two years at LSSU. While he is still a little rough around the edges and needs to get stronger, the best may still be yet to come for Perkovich.

12. (17) Tyler Eckford, D, (6.5 C), 22

Acquired: 7th round, 217th overall, 2004 NHL Draft

Eckford had bounced around the lower half of the top 20 list the past few seasons, but after leading all CCHA defensemen in scoring with 8 goals and 23 assists for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks this season, the third-year collegiate blueliner deservedly moves up five places in the rankings this time around. The offensively gifted Eckford finished second in team scoring and had a terrific year all around for the Nanooks. The Devils knew Eckford would be a bit of a project type of draft pick when they selected him late in the 2004 draft as he was converting from forward to defense, but it looks as though their patience with him has paid off in a big way. He is a fantastic skater, moves the puck well and over the course of the past three seasons at UAF, has improved by leaps and bounds defensively. The Devils might let Eckford return to UAF for his senior season next year, but the Devils will surely considering signing him and turning him pro after the season he just had.

13. (NR) Brad Snetsinger, LW, (6.0 C), 20

Acquired: Signed as free agent, Dec. 2007

Despite not even being in the organization to start the season, Snetsinger makes his debut in the prospect rankings at 13th. The reason for him being ranked so highly already is quite simple; he’s a goal scorer, something of high value. The 6’2, 187 lb left winger is currently second in team scoring for the Windsor Spitfires with 35 goals and 52 assists, and those 87 points are good enough to have him sitting 13th overall in the OHL scoring race. At 20 years of age, Snetsinger appears to be a bit of a late bloomer, but there is no questioning his ability to put the puck in the net. He is also responsible defensively, something that is a must if you want to have a future in New Jersey. After the untimely and tragic death of team captain Mickey Renaud last month, the Spitfires will be on mission in the post-season and look for Snetsinger to be one of those players to help lead the way.

14. (NR) Matt Halischuk, RW, (6.0 C), 19

Acquired: 4th round, 117th overall, 2007 NHL Draft

After playing a strong supporting role on Team Canada’s gold medal winning entry at this past winter’s World Junior Championships, and currently averaging well over a point per game with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, Halischuk comes in at No. 14 on the prospect rankings, an impressive feat for a player not even ranked in the top 20 to start the season. Despite missing a good chunk of the season due to his time at the World Juniors and a high ankle sprain that saw him miss over a month of action, he sits fifth in scoring for Kitchener with 55 points, 42 of which are assists, in only 38 games. Halischuk’s maximum effort and high-energy play help to compensate for his lack of size (5’11, 173 lbs) as does his ability to produce offensively. As the CHL’s host team for the Memorial Cup, the Rangers are locked and loaded for a long playoff run, which will be great for the long-term development of Halischuk.

15. (20) Mike Hoefell, LW, (6.0 C), 18

Acquired: 2nd round, 57th overall, 2007 NHL Draft

Hoefell has moved up five places on the prospect rankings as a result of an impressive freshman season at the University of Minnesota. Through 38 games, the strong-skating and defensively-sound left winger sits in a tie for fourth on the Golden Gophers in scoring with 7 goals and 10 assists, including a team best two shorthanded goals. The Devils nabbed Hoefell in the second round of last summer’s entry draft after a late-season knee injury caused his stock to slide. At this point, he looks like a great value pick by the Devils and their scouting staff. Projected to be a physical, two-way checking winger in the mold of Jay Pandolfo, Hoefell’s offensive numbers have been all the more impressive considering this is his freshman season. He’s still a few years away from the NHL, but so far, his development is right on track.

16. (16) Vladimir Zharkov, RW, (6.0 C), 20

Acquired: 3rd round, 77th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

Just like fellow Russian Alexander Vasyunov, it is hard to get a real good read on Zharkov’s development with the limited action he has seen this season playing in the Russian Super League, so his ranking remains the same. His numbers are up from last season, with five goals and two assists, but he’s only suited up in 30 of CSKA Moscow’s 57 games. It was thought that he might get an opportunity to play for Team Russia’s entry at the World Juniors, but was passed over for a second straight year. Zharkov is arguably the best skater of any player in the Devils system, and has a good offensive skill set. He plays with a bit of an edge to his game and though still raw defensively, shows a willingness to help out in his own end. However until he crosses the pond and comes over to North America, it’s hard to really know what the Devils have in Zharkov.

17. (4) Jeff Frazee, G, (6.5 D), 20

Acquired: 2nd round, 38th overall, 2005 NHL Draft

After starting for Team USA at the World Juniors last season and having two passable seasons at the University of Minnesota, big things were expected from Frazee this year as he was given the chance to be the Golden Gophers No. 1 goaltender. It has not been the season Frazee and the Devils had anticipated though as he has had by far the most disappointing season of any Devils prospect in the organization. After allowing two goals from beyond center ice (only one of which counted due to an off-sides call), Frazee lost his job as Minnesota’s No. 1 goaltender in mid-January and has yet to suit up in another game since. Frazee has the talent and the ability to be a great goaltender, but his alarming lack of focus and inconsistency is holding him back. The Devils aren’t ready to give up on him just yet, but the organization can’t be 100 percent confident in his ability to be the goaltender of the future after how he’s performed lately.

18. (5) Tony Romano, C, (6.5 C), 20

Acquired: 6th round, 178th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

One the Devils most hyped offensive prospects, an off-season move from the NCAA to the CHL was supposed to take Romano’s offensive game to new heights, especially with the high-powered OHL’s London Knights. To date though, it has been a challenging season for him. Through 63 games, Romano has only 10 goals and 10 assists and has gone through some lengthy goal-scoring droughts. After scoring in three straight games in mid-January, he’s only registered one assist in the Knights’ past 21 games. Off-season shoulder surgery is part of the reason for Romano’s sub-par play, but he simply has too much talent to be struggling as much as he has been. It could just be a small setback and the speedy and dynamic scoring center drafted in 2006 reappearing soon.

19. (18) Patrick Davis, LW, (6.0 C), 21

Acquired: 4th round, 99th overall, 2005 NHL Draft

Davis has seen a bit of a bump in production for Lowell after somewhat of a rough go of it in his first year as a pro. He’s been able to stay healthier this season and through 47 games, he’s scored seven goals and 10 assists, a point off his 18 points from last year. He remains a work in progress though, as he’s still striving for consistency. His -18 rating suggests he still needs work on his defensive game, but the plus/minus stat is a bit misleading on a Lowell team that gives up more than its fair share of goals. Davis has more talent than he has shown thus far in his short minor pro career, and the Devils are banking that as he matures, gets stronger and gains experience, the offensive punch he showed while in junior will come to fruition. But until he does that, he remains near the bottom of the rankings.

20. (19) Rod Pelley, C, (5.5 B), 23

Acquired: Signed as free agent, July 2006

Pelley made the Devils out of training camp as a fourth-line checking center and was well on his way to graduating off the Devils prospect list all together. However after his 54th game in February, he ended up being a healthy scratch for three straight games and was then sent down to Lowell for a handful of games to get in some playing time rather than continuing to sit in the press box in New Jersey. He has since been recalled, but has yet to suit up in another game. A drop off in physical intensity was the main culprit behind Pelley being sat out of the line-up. Pelley has likely peaked as a prospect and is probably not going to be more than checker at the NHL level, but all that being said, he is still in the Devils long-term plans.
Missing the cut

Ivan Khomutov, C (6.0 C), 22 – Is back on the map after being MIA last season. He has 10 goals and 27 points for Lowell through 59 games.

Sean Zimmerman, D (6.0 C), 20 – After struggling early, the stay at home blueliner has found his groove in Lowell.

Vili Sopanen, LW (6.0 C), 20 – The 6’4, 209 lb. Finnish winger appears to have some scoring touch; 15 goals and 30 points for the Pelicans in 54 games.

No longer eligible

Andy Greene, D (Graduated) – Has had to fight to remain in the line-up on a nightly basis due to the Devils being nine deep on the blueline, but does not look out of place at the NHL level. He eats up a lot of minutes and moves the puck well.

David Clarkson, RW (Graduated) – Physical and aggravating, Clarkson has evolved into a solid checking line forward, while chipping in offensively with eight goals and 12 assists on the season thus far. He currently leads the Devils with 162 PIM’s.