As the veteran-laden New Jersey Devils prepare for their quest for the Stanley Cup, the prospects of the organization continue their journey to play in the NHL one day. While opportunities await in the near future, a few notable players have the chance to establish or re-establish themselves this season.
There is Scott Wedgewood and his ongoing battle for New Jersey’s back-up role. Newcomer Damon Severson could push for a spot in the NHL. Blake Coleman hopes to show last season’s breakout performance was no fluke. Meanwhile, Blake Pietila, Ryan Kujawinski, and Artur Gavrus need to prove to team management they deserve to be signed to the pros. Finally, 2014 NHL Draft picks John Quenneville, Joshua Jacobs, and Connor Chatham look to take the next step in their development.
Damon Severson, D, Albany Devils (AHL)
Since being drafted in 2012, Damon Severson has been one of the best prospects in the system. It is easy to see why based on his stellar career in the juniors with the Kelowna Rockets. In 260 games, he scored 36 goals and 131 assists. He also had 32 points in 39 playoff appearances throughout his five year career in the WHL. At 6’2, 209 pounds, Severson already has the frame to transition to the next level, however, it is his skating and ability to move the puck that make him stand out.
Last season, Severson nearly made the club out of camp but showed that he needed one more year to develop in juniors. This year, head coach Peter DeBoer says Severson will compete for a roster spot in training camp, but will have to outplay fellow youngsters Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas, or Adam Larsson. If he does start the year in Albany, there would be a good chance to see him called up during the season.
Bounceback Pro Prospect
Scott Wedgewood, G, Albany Devils (AHL)
When the Devils traded for Cory Schneider at the 2013 NHL Draft, everyone knew he was to become Martin Brodeur’s successor. What was not known was who the number two goaltender would be. That competition was decided last year in Albany between Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood. A poor start to the 2013-14 season combined with the strong play of Kinkaid forced Wedgewood into a platoon, with Kinkaid seeing the majority of the starts. Over the summer, general manager Lou Lamoriello expressed his preference that Kinkaid become Schneider’s back-up in training camp.
By his own admission, Wedgewood said he could use another year in the AHL during the team’s development camp back in July. That has not a concession however as he is determined to assert himself back into the Devils plans in the crease. There is reason to believe he can. In 2013-14, he got better as the season went along, eventually seizing the starting role for two months until Kinkaid returned to form.
Unsigned for 2014-15
Myles Bell, LW/RW, Albany Devils (AHL)
As of this writing, Myles Bell has yet to sign with the Devils. It is a bit puzzling that training camp has started and there has been little known activity between both parties. Bell did have knee surgery during the offseason, so it might be more of a wait-and-see situation that depends on how he does at training camp. If and when he does sign his entry-level contract with the organization, he will begin his career in the minors with the team’s AHL affiliate in Albany or get assigned to ECHL Elmira.
Last season in Kelowna, Bell showed he can score than just using his slap shot. In his final WHL season, he led the Rockets with 42 goals and 77 points in 69 games. While his skating and ability to read the defense are a plus, the converted forward is still adjusting to his new position. Should the Devils choose not sign Bell to an NHL deal for the 2014-15 season, they still may sign him to an AHL contract.
John Quenneville, C, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
Leading the group currently in juniors is the recently drafted John Quenneville. He is the second cousin of Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville and currently plays with his brother, David, with the Brandon Wheat Kings. Only 18 years old, the centerman is very smart for his age which shows in the way he plays. He plays very well away from the puck, competes hard along the boards, and uses his big body to his advantage. While he is a hard worker away from the puck, he has shown patience and skill when he has the puck. Part of his game relies on getting his teammates involved with his playmaking skills, but he displayed good finishing ability throughout the year. He ended his second season in Brandon with 25 goals, 33 assists, and 71 penalty minutes.
The Devils hope one day that he becomes another Adam Henrique, a player that can be used in every situation. Until then, Quenneville will continue to develop in Brandon. The area he must focus on improving the most is his skating. Cultivating that will open up his two-way game when he reaches the pros.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Ryan Kujawinski, C, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
If his junior career ended right now, it is hard to say if Ryan Kujawinski would be signed by New Jersey. When he was originally drafted back in 2013, he was coming off a 48 point season with Kingston. A good year for the center but some critics felt he could have done better if he was more consistent. Drafted in the third round, he was projected to become a top-six forward, but it remains to be seen if he will reach his high potential. The inconsistency issue is not as prevalent as it was two years ago, but injuries he suffered at different points last season affected his play. Still, he did show improvement by finishing more of his chances, using his physical assets to create more opportunities and to protect the puck. Once again, he had his moments when he was the best Frontenac player on the ice. That ability to take over games is Kujawinski’s silver lining, but he must demonstrate he can be a consistent producer in his fifth and final year in the OHL. Yet the Devils might have to be lenient with him given the organizations lack of developing skilled scorers.
Connor Chatham, RW, Plymouth Whalers (OHL)
Relentless is a good way to describe Connor Chatham. The Illinois native gives a consistent effort night in and night out with his rugged, two-way style. Despite his 6’3, 225 pound body, Chatham can skate up and down the ice like a locomotive. While he plays the energy role very well, he has problems chipping in offensively due to his limited offense abilities. The past two seasons have seen him produce 66 points with the Whalers.
All that might change with the arrival of high-end scorer Sonny Milano (CLB). His acquisition will boost the Plymouth line-up top to bottom. This is unlikely to become a career altering season, but Chatham can take a big step in his development if he can show he can capitalize on his chances and expand his hockey mindset.
Blake Coleman, C, Miami Redhawks (NCHC)
Blake Coleman’s junior season at Miami University was arguably his best season of hockey since 2010-11 when he scored 92 points with the Indiana Ice and was named the USHL Player of the Year. It was not until last season that he figured out how to utilize his size, strength, and skill together. Everything seemed to click at once as Coleman was near unstoppable at times, scoring in bunches during weekend series and bullying his way throughout the offensive zone. At one point, New Jersey Director of Scouting David Conte praised the centerman’s improved play, noting that his physical, skilled style would likely be the role he would play when he turns pro.
However, during a December contest, Coleman suffered a collarbone injury which sidelined him for 11 games. Upon his return, the Redhawks were reenergized and went on a run to the NCHC title game. Coleman picked up where he left off and scored eight goals in the last six games of the regular season, with four two-goal games. He finished his junior campaign with 19 goals and 28 points.
In the offseason, Coleman considered forgoing his senior season to sign his entry-level contract with the Devils. Instead, he chose to return to Oxford, Ohio for his final season. Joined by a loaded Redhawks core alongside Barber, Austin Czarnik and Sean Kurlay, the group hopes to finish what they started and reach the NCAA Tournament. Coleman will draw more attention this year than ever before, but he is primed to have his best season yet.
Joshua Jacobs, D, Michigan State Spartans (Big Ten)
Rather than go north to the OHL, Joshua Jacobs and the Devils agreed that the college route was the best route to go for the young defenseman. Considering the team is flushed with defensemen in the pros, it makes sense that Jacobs takes his time to round out his game on both sides of the puck. He will begin his freshman campaign this fall with Michigan State. Even at 6’2, 193 pounds, he is still growing into his body. The NCAA will offer him the advantage of strengthening and being physically ready when he graduates.
Jacobs is a tremendous skater who can join the rush without sacrificing his defensive responsibility. He uses his stick well to take away spacing in his own zone and has also demonstrated his physicality at the lower levels. But Jacobs’s best asset is his offensive ability. He has a good shot from the point and excels in transition opportunities. As Michigan State looks to their youth to carry the load, Jacobs is in a good position to hit the ground running.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Blake Pietila, C, Michigan Tech Huskies (WCHA)
Blake Pietila is set to have his best season with the Huskies. He has been a consistent performer in his first three seasons for Michigan Tech, but the maturity and growth he has displayed is impressive. Originally a left winger, last year saw Pietila transition to center to better utilize his two-way play. He started 2013-14 off very slowly, but something clicked in the winter that saw him score 19 of his 28 points when the calendar turned onto 2014.
At this point of his career, Pietila is a near-complete player. He is a speedy forechecker and has plenty of stamina to burn. As demonstrated with Team USA at the World Junior Championship, he is a strong penalty killer with a fire-hydrant frame and a hard-work ethic. The only part left to improve on is his scoring. His consistency is evident with 24, 24, and 28 point totals – the majority coming at even strength mind you – in his three seasons with the Huskies. However, it is questionable if his offense can transition to the pros where it would be hard to see him in a role above a 3rd or 4th line energy player. Should he rack up points and show he can get involved in the team’s production more, Pietila becomes much more valuable to the franchise.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Artur Gavrus, LW, Dinamo Minsk (KHL)
This could be a make or break year for Gavrus. Since leaving North America for the KHL, the left winger’s play has regressed. No longer playing against players his own age, he left the CHL before last season and joined Dinamo Minsk. Unfortunately, things did not go well for him in 2013-14. Playing against more formidable opponents, he failed to establish himself as an effective scorer, averaging over 11 minutes of ice-time a game. He only scored one goal and added three assists in 30 games along with a minus-11 rating. Not only that, injuries once again took their toll, including one that forced him to miss the final month and a half of the season.
Rather than comeback to North America, Gavrus signed another one-year deal with Dinamo. The experience of last year should help him better adjust to the KHL, but his productivity will all depend on his health. However, another injury plagued, low production season could jeopardize his future with the Devils.