Defensemen lead New Jersey Devils 2013-14 prospect awards

By John Iadevaia

Ryan Kujawinski - New Jersey Devils

Photo: When healthy, Ryan Kujawinski was very productive for the Kingston Frontenacs. Kujawinski was selected by the New Jersey Devils in the third round of the 2013 NHL Draft. (courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

With the 2013-14 NHL regular season drawing to a close, it is time to hand out some hardware. For the New Jersey Devils, it was another good season for many prospects. From Albany's rookie class spearheading the team's postseason run, to the success of many collegiate players, as well as Graham Black's stellar year, and the emergence of Miles Wood.

Hardest Worker: Graham Black, C, Swift Current Broncos (WHL)

For years, Black has dealt with Graves disease, a rare autoimmune disease that has hampered his development throughout his career. Even with this illness, he was able to perform at a high level on both ends of the ice. His offense was always the question mark due to his inconsistencies, but that might not be an issue anymore. Since he had surgery on his thyroid last February, he was able to put extra work in the offseason to improve his offensive game. It paid off as he recorded a team-leading 97 points, 43 penalty minutes, and a plus-minus rating of plus-18. He was able to maintain his energy throughout the season and put up record offensive numbers while maintaining his solid play away from the puck. Once his junior career ended, he signed an amateur tryout contract with the Albany Devils and will likely be signed to an entry-level contract during the summer.

Hardest Shot: Eric Gelinas, D, New Jersey Devils (NHL)

Gelinas represented one of the Devils best offensive options from the blue line. Much of it was due to his powerful shot from the point. He was best utilized as the team's powerplay specialist as his even-strength play dipped later in the year. He was always a menace to score or generate rebounds for his teammates to capitalize on.

Best Defensive Prospect: Seth Helgeson, D, Albany Devils (AHL)

With respect for Steve Santini, who had a tremendous rookie season at Boston College, Helgeson had similar success at the pro level with the Devils affiliate in Albany. The towering, shutdown defenseman is a physical force that is quite mobile for his size (6'5, 215 pounds), and he is extremely good in his own end. Positioning is one of strengths while he uses his long reach to close lanes and disrupt the puck carrier. His game-to-game consistency is noteworthy as he remains the only Devils player to appear in every game this season.

Fastest Skater: Blake Pietila, C/LW, Michigan Tech Huskies (WCHA)

Entering his junior year, Pietila was already a fast skater on the left wing. His coach decided to move him to center, a position he had not played since he was younger. The switch worked out as the new position benefits his high stamina and two-way style of play. Now he can use his speed in a more responsible role that requires him to keep moving instead of stagnating at times on the wing.

Prospect of the Year: Jon Merrill, D, New Jersey Devils (NHL)

It should come as no surprise that Merrill has become a full-time player in the NHL. To do so on a veteran laden defense like New Jersey is simply amazing. Through the injuries and mistakes, the Michigan native gained the trust of the coaching staff with his smart, responsible play. The way he uses his stick to disrupt opposing odd man rushes or defend a one-on-one match-up is noteworthy. He can make difficult passes in all three zones and get his shot on the net, even if it is to generate a scrum at the net. He excelled in the second half of the season as his confidence and ice time seemed to rise with each game. By April, he was logging heavy minutes, seeing time additional time at even-strength and special teams. On a few occasions, Merrill was the Devils best defenseman on the ice.

Close behind as an honorable mention is Reid Boucher. He was able to adjust to the pro level and proved to be a threat with the puck in the offensive zone. He recently passed 20 goals as a rookie, but needs more experience before he can become a full-time NHL player.

Breakout Player for 2014-15: Miles Wood, LW, Nobles and Greenough (Massachusetts Prep)

Wood has gone from an unknown player from the 2013 NHL Draft to one of the more fascinating Devils prospects. He took a big leap in his development in 2013-14, emerging as one of the top scoring forwards in the prep school leagues. The junior finished with 54 points in 29 games and earned MVP honors. One of his notable characteristics is his improved creativity, along with his ability to create time and room for him and his teammates.

After de-committing from Brown in February, Wood chose to join Boston College. He is scheduled to join the Eagles in the 2014-15 season.

Most Improved Prospect: Blake Coleman, C, Miami Redhawks (NCHC)

Following a disappointing sophomore year, Miami's coaching staff was confident Coleman would breakout in his junior campaign. Sure enough, the Texas native emerged as one of the Redhawks most explosive players. Using his combination of puck skill and strength, the forward proved hard to contain in the offensive zone and was able to create many chances by driving inside the traffic areas. Even after a shoulder injury in the middle of the year, he picked up where he left off and continued to be a presence up top. Coleman will return to Miami for his senior year.

Overachiever: Keith Kinkaid, G, Albany Devils (AHL)

With the acquisition of Cory Schneider last summer, along with the likely competition with fellow prospect Scott Wedgewood, Kinkaid entered 2013-14 with a chip on his shoulder. For the first half of the season, he was on fire between the pipes. He garnered plenty of recognition as he led Albany into playoff contention for most of the season. Kinkaid's poise and aggressive style helped to elevate his game, but his strong play receded and the team slumped in the late weeks of winter. This has allowed Wedgewood to take the starting job in the final push for the playoffs. Even with his handful of starts in the final month and a half, Kinkaid has been dependable to help Albany earn wins.

Underachiever: Alexander Urbom, D, Albany Devils (AHL)

Entering the 2013-14 season, Urbom was expected to compete for playing time on the New Jersey blue line. He did in fact start the season in the NHL, albeit with a different logo. The Washington Capitals claimed the Swedish defenseman off waivers to add a bruising, depth presence on defense. Urbom was serviceable, but he was unable to prove to Head Coach Adam Oates that he deserved more minutes than then other Capitals defensemen. He watched many games from the press level before the team decided to send him down. New Jersey then reclaimed him in January and sent him back to Albany. Urbom's stay-at-home presence was a welcomed edition to the Albany Devils, but his spot on the organizations depth chart is not as clear cut as before. With the emergence and graduation of many defensive prospects, it remains to be seen what the future holds for him.

High Risk/Reward Prospect: Ryan Kujawinski, C, Kingston Frontecs (OHL)

What makes Kujawinski the top candidate for this award is consistently inconsistent play. What that means is the uncertainty of what he will bring each night or each shift. There is no denying that the physical centerman has the skill and talent to become a top-six scorer. However, his streaky production and shaky play have clouded his future. Something good to take away from this season was that he broke his season high in goals with 23 and 41 points. That is not bad considering he amassed 48 points in 66 last season. Unfortunately, injuries hampered him throughout the year. Kujawinski will have one more year in the OHL to try and shake the injury-prone moniker.