Devils Top 20 prospects, Spring 2009

By Jared Ramsden

As has often been the case lately, there was quite a bit of movement throughout the Devils prospect rankings, including a new face at the top of the list with 2008 first-round choice Mattias Tedenby taking over from fellow Swede Nicklas Bergfors. But there is only one new face this time around, with David Wohlberg debuting. Only two players (Matt Corrente and Mark Fayne) retained their previous rankings from the 2008 fall prospect re-ranking, while Jeff Frazee made the biggest jump, moving up from 19th all the way to 11th.

While the Devils may have finished at the bottom of the Hockey’s Future’s recent organizational rankings, there is definitely some light at the end of the tunnel. The 2008 draft class infused a lot of talent into the system, as now five of the draftees from that class sit in the top 20, including three in the top 10. This group still lacks in star quality, but a solid cast of support players possessing great two-way skills are pushing their way through the system, giving the Devils some hope for the future.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Mattias Tedenby, LW
2. Nicklas Bergfors, RW
3. Matt Corrente, D
4. Matt Halischuk, RW
5. Brandon Burlon, D
6. Nick Palmieri, RW
7. Patrice Cormier, C
8. Alexander Vasyunov, LW
9. Tyler Eckford, D
10. Petr Vrana, C
11. Jeff Frazee, G
12. Mike Hoeffel, LW
13. T.J. Miller, D
14. Mark Fayne, D
15. Anssi Salmela, D
16. David Wohlberg, C
17. Adam Henrique, C
18. Nathan Perkovich, RW
19. Vladimir Zharkov, RW
20. Mark Fraser, D

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

1. (2) Mattias Tedenby, LW, (7.5 C), 19, HV 71 (Sweden)
Acquired: 1st round, 25th overall, 2008 NHL Draft

There has finally been a change at the top of the Devils prospect rankings as Tedenby has leapfrogged past countryman Nicklas Bergfors to earn the top ranking in the organization. At the age of 19, Tedenby is already in his second full season in the Swedish Elite League, and though his numbers are low, the experience he’s getting playing against men in the top league in Sweden will be invaluable to him in the future. Devils fans got a glimpse of what he had to offer at the World Junior Tournament this past winter in Ottawa, as he got chance to show off his world-class speed and tenacity. While some players might be hindered by being under-sized, he compensates for that with a tireless work ethic and world-class offensive tools. Tedenby is proof that big things do come in small packages, and his elite level of skill will be very welcome in New Jersey down the road.

2. (1) Nicklas Bergfors, RW, (7.0 C), 21, Lowell (AHL)

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

Bergfors finds himself in an unfamiliar spot, as he finally lost his status as top prospect in the system. However, that does not at all diminish the young Swede’s overall value in the organization. With his 22nd birthday right around the corner, Bergfors is a rare breed in that he already has 3.5 full seasons of minor pro experience. The top right winger in the system is blessed with a tremendous offensive skill set and the ability to play at both ends of the rink. He has put his injury-plagued 2007-08 season behind him as he has already surpassed his numbers from last year with 36 points in 42 games, compared to the 27 he put up in 66 games last year. He also saw action in eight NHL games this season, and scored his first career NHL goal. There should be a few roster spots up for grabs in New Jersey next season with some possible free agent departures, and Bergfors should be one of the top candidates to claim one of those spots.  

3. (3) Matt Corrente, D, (7.0 C), 20, Lowell (AHL)

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

While Corrente somewhat disappointed with his poor training camp performance this year after stealing the show the previous two years, he has made a smooth transition to pro hockey, and thus his ranking remains unchanged. The top defense prospect in the system has good puck-moving skills, but plays an aggressive, rough and tumble style that endears himself to his teammates. Corrente has 14 points through 48 games, and leads the Lowell Devils with 117 PIM’s. He also boasts an impressive +5 rating, good enough for second best on the team, but tops among Lowell blueliners. New Jersey’s current group of blueliners aside from Paul Martin lack that star quality, and while Corrente may not turn into a stud defenseman, he is well on his way to developing into a well-rounded second pairing defender. 

4. (7) Matt Halischuk, RW, (6.5 B), 20, Lowell (AHL)

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

Though his debut season in the pro ranks was rudely interrupted by an MCL injury to his knee, Halischuk has shown enough before and in his return from the injury to move up into the top five group of Devils prospects. Highlighted by a four-goal, five-point performance in only his second AHL game and a two-goal, two-assist performance in early February, Halischuk’s 11 goals are good enough for fourth-best on Lowell, despite only suiting up in 25 games. It took him a while to regain his swagger after missing just over two months due to the knee injury suffered in early November, but with 12 points in nine February games, he is back on track. Halischuk has all the intangible qualities that all teams crave in their prospects: an off the charts work ethic and great determination. Combine those traits with his speed, two-way skill, and top-notch penalty-killing ability, and it’s easy to see why the Devils are high on Halischuk. He already received a one-game audition in New Jersey earlier this season, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him on a checking line with the big club as early as next year. 

5. (8) Brandon Burlon, D, (7.0 C), 18, University of Michigan (NCAA)
Acquired: 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2008 NHL Draft

Another prospect who was dogged by an early-season injury, but has made an significant impact since his return is Burlon, who moves up three spots to round out the top five Devils prospects, quite a feat for a player who was just drafted this past summer. An ankle injury delayed the start of his freshman season at the University of Michigan, but he stepped right in and has not missed a beat playing on the Wolverines top defense pairing with Chris Summers(PHO). He has 13 points through 25 games and has one of the best plus/minus ratings on the team. Burlon’s mobility and puck-moving ability are his standout traits, but he is also more than capable in his own end, something that he will no doubt get even better at as he gains experience and fills out his frame. He will likely play a couple more seasons at Michigan before turning pro, but the overall upside Burlon possesses bodes well for his long-term potential.

6. (5) Nick Palmieri, RW, (7.0 C), 19, Belleville (OHL)
Acquired: 3rd round, 79th overall, 2007 NHL Draft

Palmieri’s early-season trade from Erie was exactly what the doctor ordered, as he is now with one of the OHL‘s top teams in the Belleville Bulls. Though the Otters were improving, the three seasons before that were tough on Palmieri mentally as the team was constantly near the bottom of the standings, so going to a winning team in Belleville has improved Palmieri’s overall morale. Though he struggles with consistency occasionally, when he is on the top of his game, the burgeoning power forward can be tough to stop. Palmieri knows how to put the puck in the back of the net as evidenced by his 23 goals through 53 games with both Erie and Belleville. The physically imposing winger stands at 6’2, 212 lbs, and is only going to stronger and he matures. His development appears to be right on track, and though he will be eligible to return to junior as a 20-year-old next season, the possibility exists that he could turn pro. 

7. (9) Patrice Cormier, C, (7.0 B), 18, Rimouski (QMJHL)

Acquired: 2nd round, 54th overall, 2008 NHL Draft

Cormier has put his injury-plagued 2007-08 season behind him, and is having a very steady year across the board. Playing for the Memorial Cup host Rimouski Oceanic, Cormier has been an all-around force, putting up nearly a point per game with 44 points in 46 games. He leads the team with 96 PIM’s, and is tied for tops on the team with a +12 rating. He’s been deadly in the face-off circle, often winning more than 50 percent of his draws on a nightly basis. He was deployed in a checking line role for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships, a role that he thrived in. A jack of all trades, master of none, Cormier plays a power game, and is able to do so effectively with his 6’1, 200 lb frame. In terms of all-around ability and two-way play, there might not be a better player in the system right now than Cormier.  He is moving up the ranks quickly and should find a home in New Jersey in the not-too-distant future. 

8. (6) Alexander Vasyunov, LW, (7.0 C), 20, Lowell (AHL)

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

Vasyunov decided early on this season that his limited role and ice time in Russia was hindering his growth as a player, so much to the Devils delight, he decided to sign on the the dotted line and cross the pond to come to North America in late October. He got off to a blistering start, scoring eight goals in his first 15 games in Lowell, but has cooled off considerably, tallying only one goal in his next 30 contests. It’s safe to say the adjustment to North American hockey has been a little rocky at times, but the Devils just have to be pleased that one of their prized offensive prospects finally made the choice to turn pro and come to North America. Getting the rest of this season under his belt, combined with a full off-season to prepare for the 2009-10 season, should help Vasyunov’s development immensely. 

9. (12) Tyler Eckford, D, (7.0 C), 23, Lowell (AHL)

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

While his numbers aren’t likely going to catch many eyes, Eckford has had a relatively smooth transition to the professional ranks after a standout 2007-08 season at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and thus earned himself a spot among the Devils top 10 prospects. Eckford is one of the top scoring rookie blueliners in the AHL, as he has posted 22 points, including 20 assists through 50 games. His plus/minus rating has taken a dip over the course of the past dozen games or so, as he now sits at a -12, but some of that can likely be chalked up to fatigue due to the significant increase in games, as he has already played 10 more contests than he played in any NCAA season at UAF. It took a while for Eckford’s defense to catch up to his high offensive skill level while in college as well, so there is no need to be alarmed. Considering he was a seventh-round draft choice all the way back in 2004, he has come a long way and definitely has a future in New Jersey if he continues on his current development path.

10. (4) Petr Vrana, C, (6.0 B), 23, Lowell (AHL)

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

As was somewhat expected, Vrana made the New Jersey roster as the 13th forward out of training camp, and an injury in late October to off-season acquisition Brian Rolston allowed him to get into the line-up on a regular basis. He scored a goal in his first NHL game, but that was the only point he recorded in 16 games with the big club. After being sent on a conditioning assignment to Lowell in early December, he was later sent down by New Jersey after clearing waivers. In 14 games with Lowell, he’s recorded nine points. Vrana, the 2007-08 scoring leader for Lowell,  was unable to convince New Jersey coach Brent Sutter that he was ready to assume a major role with the club, and though he still has promise as a skilled and tenacious two-way forward, his long-term future with the organization is a little more up in the air at this point than it was when the season started, hence his drop in the rankings. 

11. (19) Jeff Frazee, G, (7.0 C), 21, Lowell (AHL)

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

What a difference a year makes for Frazee. After a terrible junior season at the University of Minnesota, Frazee almost had no choice but to turn pro after losing his starting job half-way through the 2007-08 season. He started the season in the ECHL, but after New Jersey lost all-world goaltender Martin Brodeur for three to four months with a torn elbow tendon, Scott Clemmensen was recalled to New Jersey and Frazee was summoned to Lowell where it was presumed he would split the duties with Dave Caruso. However, even though his numbers have dipped slightly as of late, he took the starting job and ran with it. He has more than eased concerns about his development within the organization with a fantastic pro debut and has shot back up the rankings. Frazee was Lowell’s representative at the All-Star Game, and recently set a franchise record with his 21st win. His goal against average stands at 2.63, while his save percentage sits at an impressive .922, good enough for fourth best in the AHL. While the Devils will likely add a goaltender or two in the off-season, it won’t be due to Frazee’s play.

12. (13) Mike Hoeffel, LW, (6.0 B), 19, University of Minnesota (NCAA)

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

Hoeffel got off to a bit of a slow start this season, but he started to pick things up just before the World Junior Tournament. He was deployed in a energy role for Team USA, a role perfectly suited to his skill set. Once he returned to the Golden Gophers, he took his game up another notch, racking up points in bunches. He just recently scored his 10th goal of the season, surpassing the nine that he scored last year. Those 10 goals are good enough for third best on the team. Hoeffel plays sound, two-way hockey, and is a major reason why he fits in so well with the organization. The checking winger has some offensive ability, but will likely settle in at the next level as a shutdown defensive specialist, cut from the same cloth as Jay Pandolfo. While he doesn’t have a ton of upside, he is one of the safest prospects in the system.

13. (10) T.J. Miller, D, (6.5 C), 21, Northern Michigan (NCAA)
Acquired: 4th round, 176th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

Unfortunately for Miller, his season has already come to an end due to a hip injury. The Northern Michigan blueliner tried to play through the injury, but was unable to do so. He skipped a mid-December set of games and returned to play against Michigan Tech just before Christmas, but it was determined after that series that he needed season-ending surgery. Miller only got into 16 games this season, putting up two assists and posting a -6 rating. The injury is obviously a bit of a setback for Miller, but he still has plenty of upside as one of the more well-rounded defensemen in the system, hence why he only slipped a few spots in the rankings. Miller may have considered turning pro at the end of his junior season, but now he’s more likely to return for his senior year in 2009-10.

14. (14) Mark Fayne, D, (6.5 C), 21, Providence College (NCAA)
Acquired: 5th round, 155th overall, 2005 NHL Draft 

Fayne is having a steady, yet unspectacular season for the Providence Friars, who have been struggling for the majority of the season. He has already bested his totals from last year, with three goals and five assists through 28 games. The big burly rearguard moves well for a man of his stature, and plays in all situations for the Friars. Fayne’s development is right on pace. He might be ready to turn pro at season’s end, but could just as easily return to Providence for his senior season.

15. (18) Anssi Salmela, D, (6.5 C), 24, New Jersey/Lowell

Acquired: Signed as free agent, May 2008

While he hasn’t made as huge an impact in New Jersey as some initially thought he might, Salmela has slowly but surely made strides as he acclimatizes to North American hockey. He made the Devils out of training camp, but was eventually sent down to Lowell. Since then, he has been riding the Lowell-New Jersey shuttle. Despite only playing in 36 games for Lowell, he still leads all blueliners there in scoring with eight goals and 15 assists, including three power-play markers. In the 17 games he’s played with New Jersey, Salmela hasn’t had a ton of ice time, but usually gets a significant amount of action on the power play. He has been exactly as advertised so far, a mobile defenseman with good puck-moving skills. He’ll likely continue to ride the Lowell-New Jersey shuttle depending on injuries and what New Jersey decides to do at the trade deadline. 

16. (NR) David Wohlberg, C, (6.0 B), 18, University of Michigan (NCAA)

Acquired: 6th round, 172nd overall, 2008 NHL Draft

Easily the most pleasant surprise of the season has been the outstanding play of Wohlberg, who debuts at the 16th spot in the Devils top 20 group of prospects. The University of Michigan freshman started off slowly, playing on a checking line early in the season, but was given an opportunity to play in a more offensive role and has been on a scoring tear ever since. He has been humming along at almost a point-per-game clip since being promoted to the Wolverines top-six group of forwards and took home CCHA Rookie of the Month honors in December. Wohlberg leads all Wolverine freshmen in scoring and currently sits third on the team with 13 goals and 14 assists in 34 games. He has shown his versatility by playing on the wing since moving up into the top six, and has still shown the same sharp defensive acumen despite playing in a more offensive role. Considering that this is only Wohlberg’s freshman season, it’s scary to think how much better Wohlberg could get as he gains more experience.

17. (20) Adam Henrique, C, (6.5 C), 19, Windsor (OHL)

Acquired: 3rd round, 82nd overall, 2008 NHL Draft

Henrique is the last of five prospects who moved up three spots in the rankings, jumping up from the bottom of the rankings up to 17th. Despite missing some time mid-season with an injury, he has already surpassed his point totals for last season with 55 points in 48 games. Henrique has thrived in more offensive role, but also continues to be a shut-down defensive presence down the middle for the Spitfires, who are heads and shoulders the most talented club in the OHL and a viable threat to go all the way to the Memorial Cup. He possesses great hockey sense at both ends of the rink and has added an element of physicality to his game as he is more involved in the trenches than he was last year. Henrique is the type of player who will likely get more notice the deeper the Spitfires go into the playoffs. As he continues to grow into his frame and get stronger, he should become even more dominant defensively, a trait that will keep him in the good graces of the Devils organization. Expect Henrique to continue to make his move up the prospect ladder as he matures and gains more experience.

18. (15) Nathan Perkovich, RW, (6.5 C), 23, Lake Superior State (NCAA)
Acquired: 8th round, 250th overall, 2004 NHL Draft

Perkovich has taken another bit of a slide down the rankings, but again like last time, an infusion of more talented players in the system has lead to more depth in the system, and therefore, a player like Perkovich is going to slip some. Perkovich hasn’t had to carry as much of an offensive load for the Lakers as in seasons past, but still has had a productive season nonetheless. He is fifth overall in scoring for LSSU with 19 points through 30 games, including eight goals. Six of those eight goals have come on special teams, four via the power play and two short-handed tallies, which lead the club. Perkovich is a gifted offensive player who knows how to put the puck in the back of the net, yet he still needs to round out the rough edges in his game, namely his play in his own end. The most important thing Perkovich needs to do if he wants to evolve into a legitimate goal scorer at the pro level is put more weight on his lanky frame and get stronger. A return to the Lakers for his senior season is likely in the offing for him, though there is an outside chance he might turn pro.

19. (17) Vladimir Zharkov, RW, (6.0 C), 21, Lowell (AHL)
Acquired: 3rd round, 77th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

It might be suprising to some to see Zharkov ranked this low, considering how well he has adapted to North American hockey after signing with the Devils over the summer. His ranking is more a reflection the huge improvement by the likes of Frazee, Wohlberg and Henrique than of Zharkov’s long-term upside. Those players, along with others that are ranked ahead of him have also have a higher ceiling than he does. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have good long-term potential, as evidenced by his statistics in the AHL with Lowell. His most impressive stat thus far has to be his gaudy +17 rating, which is easily tops on the club. Zharkov has been pretty steady throughout the season with his offensive contributions as well, as he leads all Lowell rookies in scoring with 10 goals and 16 assists, which is also fourth-best on the club. He’s probably the best skater in the system, boasting a great start-up stride and acceleration gear. Zharkov is quickly turning into a very effective two-way player and should he continue to develop as he has this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get into a few games in New Jersey as early as next season.

20. (11) Mark Fraser, D, (6.0 B), 22, Lowell (AHL)
Acquired: 3rd round, 84th overall, 2005 NHL Draft

Fraser sees himself in a very unfamiliar spot, right at the bottom of the top 20 list. After routinely being right smack dab in the middle of the rankings, the influx of talent has pushed Fraser down the rankings. He is currently in his fourth full year with Lowell, and is having another one of his typical steady, yet unspectacular seasons. Through 54 games, he has three goals and nine assists, -4 rating and 98 PIM’s. An alternate captain, Fraser is emerging into a leader as he is one of the more veteran prospects for Lowell. He plays a no-nonsense, stay-at-home defensive game, and excels playing a physical brand of hockey. Fraser received a seven-game audition in his first season of professional hockey, but has yet to see any NHL action since then. He has pretty much peaked in terms of his overall development, but that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t have a future in the organization. He has the ability to be a steady bottom pairing defender, but just needs to get that chance to prove himself. That chance could come as soon as next season, and if he doesn’t get it with New Jersey, he might have to get it with another organization.

Missing the cut

Corbin McPherson, D (6.0 C), 20, Colgate (NCAA) – Another pleasant surprise in the organization has been the play of McPherson. A relative unknown over the course of the last two seasons, the sturdy 6’4, 210 lb stay-at-home blueliner has had a fantastic freshman season at Colgate, showcasing his mobility and skating skills. He only has four assists through 32 games, but has gotten better and better with each passing game.

Tony Romano, C (7.0 D), 21, Peterborough (OHL) – Romano’s has had a huge rebound season as an overager in the OHL with Peterborough, as he has shattered his paltry 22-point total of last season. He currently is scoring at better than a point per game clip with the Petes with 62 points in 56 games. He has 32 goals, 11 of which have come on the power play. He has put himself back in the good graces of the organization and is now a likely bet to sign with the Devils at season’s end. He is still a boom or bust prospect, but he has got his development back on track.

Kory Nagy, C (6.0 C), 19, Oshawa (OHL) – Nagy was the surprise selection of the the Devils 2008 draft class as he wasn’t even ranked by Central Scouting, but he has validated the Devils choice with his best season to date with the Generals. With 15 goals and 32 assists through 54 games. That’s more points than he produced in his previous two seasons combined. Despite his impressive offensive totals this year, Nagy isn’t expected to develop into a goal scorer. He is a hard-working, responsible forward, who is a pretty safe bet to develop into a steady fourth-line checker, the kind of character player that all teams need to be successful.