Young blood enters New Jersey Devils top 20 prospects list

By John Iadevaia

Photo: Another fine product of the HoneyBaked Hockey Club, Joshua Jacobs will join the Sarnia Sting for the 2015-16 OHL Season. (Courtesy of Patrick Green/Icon Sportswire)

Photo: Another fine product of the HoneyBaked Hockey Club, Joshua Jacobs will join the Sarnia Sting for the 2015-16 OHL Season. (Courtesy of Patrick Green/Icon Sportswire)


10. (4) Stefan Matteau, LW/RW, 7.0 C
Drafted 1st round, 29th overall, 2012

Stefan Matteau has had a frustratingly slow development. His offensive game has not progressed as the team hoped. It is starting to look more and more that the 21-year old may not be suited to become a top-six forward, but he can still chip in as an effective third line player with his skill and willingness to throw his body around. Matteau has grown since his draft year, but he needs to maintain his confidence throughout the season in order to be effective.

New Jersey’s management appears committed to seeing the edgy-Matteau succeed. They re-signed the power forward early in the summer to a one-way, two year contract, then later bought out the final year in veteran Dainius Zubrus’ deal. Matteau clearly has the chance to make the team out of camp, but he will have to earn it or risk being put on waivers back to Albany.

9. (NR) Blake Speers RW, 7.0 C
Drafted 3rd round, 67th overall, 2015

The Devils made a wise choice taking Blake Speers when he fell to them in the third round. Projected as a second round pick, the winger has the makings of a goal-scorer with his good puck skills, skating and quick release. However, he spent a lot of effort in 2014-15 improving his defense to show he can also play a two-way game. This is his biggest strength—his smarts. Speers is not the biggest forward—it was a big reason he dropped in the draft—but he can see the play develop ahead of time and knows where to be on the ice, whether he has the puck on his stick or not.

Speers acknowledged at Development Camp that he is prepared if his offense does not carry him to the NHL, but he believes it is his best attribute and fully believes in his abilities. In 2015-16, Speers has the potential for a breakout year as he will take on more responsibility with the Greyhounds.

8. (13) Joshua Jacobs, D, 7.0 C
Drafted 2nd round, 41st overall, 2014

On the surface, it appeared that Jacobs had a successful freshman year at Michigan State last year. He jumped into the lineup at the start of 2014-15, earned big minutes and made improvements on his defensive game. Unfortunately for the young defenseman, he was not happy with his role and did not see eye to eye with head coach Tom Anastos.

Jacobs departed Michigan State after the college season ended and will join the Sarnia Sting of the OHL beginning this fall. That one year of college will help him in his development, but now the Michigan native will play in the Sting’s pro-style, offensive system. The offensive-defenseman will be better suited here and may get to play alongside fellow prospect Pavel Zacha.

7. (6) John Quenneville, 7.0 C
Drafted 1st round, 30th overall, 2014

We are still waiting to see John Quenneville take that next step in his development. The centerman is still on course to become an all-around player in the pros, but the sluggish development of his offensive game continues to cast a shadow on his ceiling. Last season, multiple injuries affected his ability to develop his scoring, which led him to him contributing only 17 goals and 30 assists in 57 games in the regular season. Yet he found redemption in the playoffs by tallying 19 points in 19 games for Brandon, once again becoming a dependable go-to option in the postseason. Entering his final year of junior hockey, it will be interesting to see if Quenneville can become a consistent threat with the puck just as good as he is away from it.

6. (7) Blake Coleman C, 7.0 C
Drafted 3rd round, 75th overall, 2011

The final two years of Coleman’s college career were tremendous, but now the Texas native must replicate that success in the pros starting this fall. Through the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, the forward had a combined 39 goals, 28 points and 164 penalty minutes in 64 games. He may be listed at 5’11, 194 pounds, but Coleman plays the game bigger than his size indicates and does an effective job battling down low.

He also showed in college he can be pretty dominant with his puck skills and shooting. The centerman was arguably the best faceoff specialist in the country last season, winning around 64 percent of his draws. If he reaches the NHL, it is likely he could play anywhere below the top line, but he will need a few years in Albany to adapt to the pro level.

5. (2) Reid Boucher, LW, 7.5 C
Drafted 4th round, 99th overall, 2011

Two years ago, Reid Boucher entered the pros riding a wave of optimism following his 62 goal campaign with Sarnia in 2012-13. Expected to become a top-six forward in the NHL, the winger’s development has been unsatisfyingly slow to watch. The issue has been Boucher’s flux in confidence which has made him wildly inconsistent and too much of a streaky scorer. For example, he finished the 2014-15 season with 15 goals and 15 assists in 62 games, but seven of those goals came in the month of December.

Fate may be working in Boucher’s favor now with the installation of Hynes and his fast, attacking, supportive system. The Michigan native is one of many prospects in the system who will benefit from this change in philosophy as he can now focus on his offensive abilities and less on playing a two-way gam—which he is not suited for.

4. (NR) Mackenzie Blackwood G, 7.5 C
Drafted 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2015

While Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid have New Jersey’s net secure for the foreseeable future, the system’s goaltending depth has quickly dried up. Scott Wedgewood graduated while Anthony Brodeur and Maxime Clermont were not re-signed over the summer. At the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Shero addressed this need by selecting the top-ranked North American goaltender, Mackenzie Blackwood.

The 6’4 Blackwood is a modern goaltender who plays a strong butterfly style, combining size with incredible athleticism. Consistency is another strength, as he posted a 33-14-1-1 record with Barrie to go along with a 3.09 goals against average and .906 save percentage. He is calm and poised no matter the score but he still needs to improve his stickhandling and staying on his feet longer. It will be years before Blackwood is in serious discussion for New Jersey’s top goaltending job, but he should be fully developed when he is ready to challenge for it.

3. (3) Steve Santini, D, 7.5 C
Drafted 2nd Round, 42nd Overall, 2013

While the Devils are changing their identity from defense to offense, they still need to rely on steady, responsible defensemen to help them win games. That is where Santini slots in as one of the more promising prospects currently developing. During his time with Boston College and Team USA, the blue liner has proven to be a talented defenseman who can log heavy minutes, provide an intimidating physical presence, and someone who carries himself like a leader. He does not have a lot of offensive upside, but that matters little as he will be relied upon to shut down the opponent’s top scorer when he makes the pros.

2. (1) Damon Severson, D, 7.5 B
Drafted 2nd Round, 60th Overall, 2012

Amongst a season of turmoil, Severson’s development into a key player was a silver lining in 2014-15. He gave a spark to the Devils on the rush and generated plenty of chances from the blue line. Before he suffered an ankle injury in December, he was one of the more exciting rookies in the league. He finished the season with five goals and 12 assists in 51 games.

In the span of a year, Severson has quickly matured on and off the ice. The 21-year old defenseman has become an important player for New Jersey and a leader for the younger prospects within the organization. Now with the Devils becoming a faster, more offensive oriented team, Severson will be able to reach his full offensive potential to benefit his club starting this fall.

1. (NR) Pavel Zacha C, 8.0 B
Drafted 1st Round, 6th Overall, 2015

For the first time in ages, a forward is the best prospect in the Devils system and his name is Pavel Zacha. The centerman is the first player the organization has drafted who could become a legitimate star goal-scorer. When you watch Zacha play, he resembles Alexander Ovechkin in how he uses his combination of size, skill and passion to overwhelm defenders and generate scoring chances. The Czech Republic native will not become the next Ovechkin in the NHL, but he can become a difference maker for his own team.

After long negotiations, Zacha finally signed his first pro contract with New Jersey in August. It would probably be best if the 18-year-old forward spent another season in junior with Sarnia, but he will be given every opportunity in training camp—and probably the first nine games of the regular season—before the organization makes their decision to keep him in the NHL or not. Regardless of which option they go with, Zacha has a bright future ahead of him.

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