Jon Merrill tops New Jersey Devils spring top-20

By Jared Ramsden
Photo: Drafted in the second round, Jon Merrill sits the New Jersey Devils‘ new top-20. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The Devils group of prospects may not be spectacular to the untrained eye, but upon closer inspection, there appear to be a lot more future NHL’ers developing and waiting in the wings than most casual observers might notice.

Mostly due to injuries, but also done out of necessity, eight of the players on this edition of the Devils top 20 prospects are either playing regularly at the NHL or have already had a taste of the NHL at various points throughout the season. That doesn’t even include Russian right-winger Vladimir Zharkov, who is fast approaching his 65th NHL game, and thus, will be left off the list due to his pending graduation from prospect to graduated status.

The first wave of Devils prospects are crashing into the NHL this season, and there will likely be another wave coming next season. The team will look to infuse these youngsters into a lineup that still has plenty of experience to help insulate them and not force them into roles that they are not ready for.

While there was some internal shuffling with the rankings, there are only three new additions to the list and they all slide in towards the bottom of the group. This could be the last time in a while there is a lack of new blood on the list as many of these players will likely graduate to the NHL over the course of the next couple of seasons.

It has been a bit of a rough ride for Devils fans this year (aside from the recent surge), but there is a lot to be excited about in the future as many of these fresh-faced rookies will continue to look to make their mark and forge out long-term careers in the NHL.

1. (4) Jon Merrill, D, 8.0 C
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2010

The Devils were without a first round pick at the 2010 draft, but it appears as though they have found first round value in the second round with the selection of Merrill, who is flourishing as a freshman at the University of Michigan. He is easily the best defense prospect the Devils have had in the organization in quite some time. Playing on the top defense pairing with Chad Langlais and quarterbacking the Wolverines power-play, Merrill was thrown right into the fire at the start of the season and has not looked out of place, quickly earning the trust of Michigan head coach Red Berenson. Merrill leads all Michigan defensemen with 21 through 34 games. He also was one of the top performers for the bronze medal winning American team at the 2010 World Junior Championships this past winter.

Standing at 6’3, and now just over 200 lbs, Merrill has taken the NCAA by storm, and likely has more than a handful of NHL teams shaking their heads, wishing that they hadn’t passed over him in the draft. The smooth-skating, mobile blueliner has shown the ability to rush the puck up the ice and is often the trigger man on the power-play with an above average shot that he isn’t afraid to show off. While he is often in good position in his own end, he still has to get stronger and learn how to be a little more assertive physically, all of which will improve as he fills out his frame and gains experience. There are some who are speculating that Merrill could turn pro after this season, but it would likely be in his best interest for this potential top-pairing defenseman to play at least one more season with the Wolverines.

2. (1) Mattias Tedenby, LW, 8.0 C
Acquired: 1st round, 25th overall, 2008

Tedenby was just barely edged out by Merrill for the top billing amongst Devils prospects, but essentially, he and Merrill are 1A and 1B. The diminutive Swede started the season off in the AHL with Albany, but aside from a brief stint back there over the NHL All-Star break, he has been up in New Jersey since November 10th. Overall, he has appeared in 38 games, and recorded seven goals and seven assists in his time with the big club. Since Jacques Lemaire has taken over the team, he has seen his ice-time curtailed and even was a healthy scratch for six straight games, but overall it has been a good year for his development, as Tedenby is being molded into a more well-rounder player under the watchful eye of Lemaire. He has played both left and right wing, but for the most part, he has played on a line with veteran center Jason Arnott, while also seeing spot duty on the power-play.

Despite being coddled and brought along slowly at the NHL level, Tedenby has shown a lot of flash and high-end skill in limited minutes. He is very quick on his skates, is a tremendous stick-handler, and despite his small stature, he has not been afraid to get his nose dirty and get involved physically. He is the most dynamic offensive prospect the team has had since Zach Parise burst on to the scene, and by this time next season, he could very well be a fixture as a top-six winger. His overall potential and upside is through the roof, and what we are witnessing this season is hopefully just the tip of the iceberg.

3. (2) Jacob Josefson, C, 7.5 C
Acquired: 1st round, 20th overall, 2009

The soon-to-be 20-year-old Josefson is the top dog amongst the Devils center prospects. Despite a great training camp, Josefson started the year in the AHL with Albany, but was quickly summoned to New Jersey after only one AHL game. He made his NHL debut October 15th against Colorado and was just getting himself acclimatized when he suffered a thumb injury in late October that sidelined him until January. He was returned to the AHL after he was fully recovered, where he recorded three goals and nine assists in 18 games.

Josefson plays with the smarts and poise of a veteran, and at this point, it appears all he really needs to do in order to become a regular at the NHL level is to get stronger and grow into his frame. He is an elite playmaker, knows how to protect the puck, and is already very well-schooled defensively. He is the type of player that should thrive under the tutelage of Lemaire, and it looks as though he should slot perfectly into the role of second-line center in New Jersey in the very near future.

4. (3) Alexander Urbom, D, 7.5 C
Acquired: 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2009

The top rated blueliner in the organization, Urbom was given a long look in training camp as a 19-year-old, fresh off a fantastic season in the WHL with the Brandon Wheat Kings. He made New Jersey’s opening night roster, but after six games, the team felt it would be in the best interest for his long-term development to go down and play in the AHL with Albany. Aside from a couple of emergency re-calls, that is where he has spent the majority of the year. It’s been a bit of a bumpy road at times for Urbom defensively, but it’s important to keep in mind that the Devils could have decided to keep him in junior again this year, but thought that he didn’t have much left to prove there. He leads all Albany defenseman in scoring with a goal and 14 assists through 51 games to go along with a minus-seven.

A lot was expected of Urbom after his sensational junior season, but perhaps the expectations were a little too high for a player that has just turned 20 and is in his first season of professional hockey. There is no doubting the fact that he has the size (6’5, and well over 200 lbs) and skills to be a top four, two-way rearguard, but he still has a little ways to go as far as learning how to play defensively and use his imposing size to his advantage. Perhaps he may not arrive to the NHL as fast as some initially expected, but that is not a slight at all to him. The organization still has high hopes for him as he still has the long-term potential and upside to eventually be a great player at the next level.

5. (10) Brandon Burlon, D, 7.0 C
Acquired: 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2008

Burlon’s stock has jumped and dropped a lot over the past year, but he’s back on an upswing as he is playing at a much higher level as a junior than he did last year as a sophomore for the University of Michigan. While he definitely isn’t as flashy of his teammate and fellow Devils prospect Merrill, Burlon has quietly gone about his business on the Wolverines second defense pairing, playing in all situations, while posting five goals and 13 assists through 36 games to go along with a stellar +11 rating, which tops amongst all Michigan blueliners.

The soon-to-be 21-year-old possesses great mobility and continues to show improvement at the defensive end of the rink. He is developing the two-way skills that should help him thrive at the next level, and is coming along about as well as the Devils could hope at this point. He does have the option of returning to Michigan next year for his senior season, but there is also the possibility that he and the Devils might decide that he is ready to turn pro. Regardless, he appears to be on an upward development curve and could slot in nicely as a mid-pairing defenseman in New Jersey in two to three seasons.

6. (9) Adam Henrique, C, 6.5 B
Acquired: 3rd round, 82nd overall, 2008

There was some thought that Henrique would crack the Devils right out of junior, but in reality, it was definitely in his best interest to start his foray into professional hockey at the AHL level and at this point it looks like it was the right decision. Henrique has made quite a splash as an AHL freshman, and continues to force his way up the Devils prospect rankings at Hockey’s Future. Through 52 games leads the team with 18 goals and sits second behind Anderson in points with 35. He leads the team with six power-play goals and has a respectable +1 rating.

The Devils knew they had a good one in Henrique after watching his development over the course of his junior career with the Windsor Spitfires, but they have to be even more pleased how quickly he has adjusted to the pro game. Not only has Henrique shown the ability to score at the next level, he still is rock solid in his own end and has all those intangible qualities that make him arguably the most well-rounded prospect in the organization. It’s safe to say he’s developing exactly like the Devils hoped he would when they drafted him and if he doesn’t get a look at the NHL this year, it’s almost a stone-cold lock that he at least gets a look next year. It even wouldn’t be a surprise to see him make the jump full time.

7. (6) Eric Gelinas, D, 7.0 C
Acquired: 2nd round, 54th overall, 2009

Gelinas had a great training camp in New Jersey with the Devils and actually stuck around for an extended look before being returned to junior. There is a good chance that he will get an opportunity to play deep into the post-season and possibly even play for the Memorial Cup now after being traded at the QMJHL trade deadline from Chicoutimi to the powerhouse otherwise known as the Saint John Sea Dogs. Gelinas has already surpassed his point total from last year (11 goals and 28 assists in a combined 55 games), and has seen a drastic reversal in his plus/minus rating since the trade (minus-10 in 35 games with Chicoutimi and plus-23 in 20 games with Saint John). Going from one of the worst teams in the league to one of the best teams in the league will tend to do that to a plus/minus rating.

Definitely not a finished product just yet, Gelinas has the size, skating ability and offensive skill set to be a special player. The forward-turned-defenseman, still has a ways to go in terms of his play in his own end, but the raw ability is there and he is in the right organization to help him maximize his potential. Working with someone like Scott Stevens can only help him learn to play better defensively. The long-term upside is tremendous, but he might need a little extra development time to help harness his full potential.

8. (8) Nick Palmieri, RW, 7.0 C
Acquired: 3rd round, 79th overall, 2007

After a fantastic freshman AHL debut last season that saw him find the back of the net 21 times, it was a little bit of a puzzling start to the season for Palmieri who only recorded four goals and an assist through the first two months of the season in Albany. Just when it appeared that he was about to break out of his early season doldrums, he was called up to New Jersey at the end of December (coincidentally right after the Devils fired John MacLean and hired Lemaire) and has since been a regular staple in the lineup. He’s been getting prime ice time too, playing on the Devils top line with Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk. In 22 games, he’s scored six goals and added three assists, and has done a very good job of using his big bodied frame to drive to the net to create traffic and pounce on rebounds.

Barring a sudden change of heart by Lemaire, it appears as though Palmieri has sewn up a regular spot in the lineup for the rest of this season, and possibly beyond. Lemaire has been very complimentary of his play ever since his re-call. He wasn’t performing well at the AHL level, but he has been utilized much more effectively by Lemaire as he is using him in a way that is taking advantage of his great size/skill combination. Not only is Palmieri playing well in the offensive zone, he is also playing well in his own end. It looks like the Devils may have hit one out of the park with Palmieri as he is living up to his potential as top six power-forward.

9. (5) Matt Corrente, D, 7.0 C
Acquired: 1st round, 30th overall, 2006

Corrente took a bit of a tumble down the rankings this time around, but a lot of that has to do with the progress some of the younger prospects have shown in the organization. While he has more or less established himself as an NHL regular, he still hasn’t completely carved himself out a role. The biggest thing right now that is preventing Corrente from progressing as a pro is his inability to stay healthy. He has suited up for 22 games in the NHL with the Devils this season, a number which would likely be significantly higher if not for the malady of injuries he’s dealt with this season. He’s recorded six assists, a minus-five rating and 44 penalty minutes in those games. He is currently sidelined by a shoulder injury that he suffered in mid-January, and there is no exact timetable for his return.

At this point, Corrente still has an upper hand over other prospects in the system, but he by no means should feel comfortable as there are other prospects that will be nipping at his heels and will be pushing for a spot in New Jersey very soon. He does a little bit of everything well, but he is in a tough spot because he has to play a tough, aggressive and assertive style in order to be an effective player. That has hindered his ability to stay healthy and further develop and refine his skills at the NHL level. The jury is still out to an extent on what Corrente’s long term potential is, but if he is able to stay healthy, he is very likely to forge out a steady, yet unspectacular NHL career.

10. (10) Alexander Vasyunov, LW, 7.0 C
Acquired: 2nd round, 58th overall, 2006

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Vasyunov’s ranking remains status-quo. The Devils are quite deep with wingers at both the NHL and AHL level, and it looks like he is the odd man out for the time being. He did receive an extended look in New Jersey earlier this season and showed well in spurts, especially when given the opportunity to play with top-line players. In 18 games, he scored a goal and recorded four assists. Aside from several intermittent recalls, he has remained in Albany where he has scored four goals and seven assists in 31 games.

It appears as though the Devils and Vasyunov have hit a cross-road in their relationship. While Vasyunov has shown marked improvement in his two-way play since coming to North America, there doesn’t appear to be any room for him in New Jersey right now, and it is definitely something that could linger into next year. For a player of his skill-set, one would expect his AHL numbers to be a lot higher than they are right now, but he really doesn’t have much to work with down in Albany. He’d likely be thriving playing in the NHL with more skilled players, much like Palmieri is currently doing. It will be interesting to see if he gets another shot this year, and even more interesting to see what happens with him next year. A change of scenery might be the best thing in order for him to reach his full potential.

11. (7) Jeff Frazee, G, 7.5 D
Acquired: 2nd round, 38th overall, 2005

Another victim of younger prospects pushing their way through the system, Frazee is actually having a fairly respectable season numbers wise, aside from a rough stretch in early November when he gave up 19 goals in four games. He has a 9-11-3 record with a 2.77 goals against average and .904 save percentage and had pretty much assumed the number one goaltending job in Albany until suffering a knee injury in early January. He has just begun skating again and should be returning to the line-up in the not-too-distant future.

Is Frazee the future number one netminder in New Jersey? At this point, it is still very much up for debate. He has yet to really get into much of a rhythm after a sensational AHL debut two seasons ago, but the athletic netminder has shown in spurts that he might have what it takes to succeed at the next level. It will be interesting to see what New Jersey does with their goaltenders throughout the organization next season. Frazee has the luxury of being the only goaltending prospect currently playing pro in the system, but that likely isn’t going to be the case next year, and you can bet that the Devils will likely add more goalies to the system with Martin Brodeur starting to show signs of wear and tear. Frazee is a prospect the bears close watching over the next six months.

12. (19) Scott Wedgewood, G, 7.0 C
Acquired: 3rd round, 84th overall, 2010

The biggest riser amongst all the Devils prospects this time around is Wedgewood, who was thrust into the starter role for the Plymouth Whalers this year after being the understudy to Matt Hackett (MIN) for the previous two seasons. He has started to show signs of fatigue as the season nears a close, but that can’t be a huge surprise given that he’s already played in 49 games, which are 25 more than he played the past two seasons combined. Capped by a sizzling month of November that saw him earn OHL goaltender of the month honors (7-1, 1.65 goals against average, .947 save percentage and one shutout), Wedgewood has compiled a record of 27-16-1 to go along with a 2.91 goals against average, .910 save percentage and two shutouts.

Wedgewood was considered a bit of a surprise third-round selection last summer by the Devils, but he has not disappointed in his first season as the Whalers starting netminder and responded very well to the increased workload. The hybrid-style goaltender has been a workhorse for the Whalers and the team will likely continue to ride him as hard as they can for the rest of the season and into the playoffs. The Devils have only recently started adding more goaltenders to their organization and Wedgewood’s continued strong development will keep him in the conversation as a potential goalie of the future in New Jersey.

13. (14) Matt Taormina
, D, 7.0 C
Acquired: Free agent, 2010

It was a great start the season for Taormina as he persevered through training camp, getting better and better each game and getting a chance to start the season in New Jersey with the Devils. While the team got off to a terrible start, Taormina was often the lone bright spot, logging upwards of 20 minutes a night and getting lots of power-play time. However a sprained ankle suffered in mid-November in practice sidelined him indefinitely, and he has only recently begun practicing again after suffering a set-back in his rehabilitation that required minor surgery when a fracture was discovered. Before the injury, Taormina suited up in 17 games, scoring three goals and two assists and a minus-two rating.

A somewhat forgotten man, Taormina showed very well before being sidelined by his ankle injury. Despite being undersized, his puck-moving skills and ability to contribute on the power-play were a great asset to a Devils team that has not generated much offense from their defenseman this season. It’s not yet known when or if he will come back this season, but it will be interesting to see how he gets utilized once he returns given that Lemaire has not had an opportunity to work with him yet. Taormina is 24, so his long-term upside isn’t as high as others in the system, but don’t forget about him just yet. He still has a future at the NHL level.

14. (13) Maxime Clermont, G, 7.0 C
Acquired: 6th round, 174th overall, 2010

Clermont has had a bit of bounce back year in the QMJHL with Gatineau, helping him stay relatively stable in his standing amongst other prospects in the organization. He struggled somewhat in his draft year, which lead to him falling to the sixth round, where the goalie-needy Devils gladly scooped him up. He’s been a work horse for the Olympiques, playing in 45 games and nearly 2,500 minutes. Clermont has already surpassed his win total from last year as he has a 25-10-1-4 record to along with a 2.55 goals against average, a .896 save percentage and tidy four shut-outs.

With Gatineau fighting tooth and nail in a very competitive QMJHL, Clermont will be relied upon even more by the Olympiques as the play out the stretch and prepare for the post-season. He’s showing the potential to be a starting goaltender in the future, and it’s very likely that the talented, athletic and competitive netminder may turn pro next season. He has a slight leg up on Wedgewood in that he is eligible to play pro next year, but in reality, there isn’t much separating the two at this point. The Devils will likely continue to add goaltending prospects to the stable over the next few years, but Clermont is doing his part to make himself noticed this year.

15. (16) Mike Hoeffel, LW, 6.0 B
Acquired: 2nd round, 57th overall, 2007

Hoeffel’s range in the prospect rankings hasn’t fluctuated very much the past few seasons, a testament to his steady play, and also a testament to the Devils ever-improving system that has prevented him from make a substantial jump up the rankings. In his fourth and final season at the University of Minnesota, Hoefell has been playing on the top-line for most of the season for the Golden Gophers and is tied for the team lead in goals (12) with senior Jay Barriball (STL). Five of those goals have come with the man advantage. He also stands third in overall team scoring with 23 points and boasts a plus-eight rating.

While Hoefell will likely never emerge as more than a third-line forward, he has the skill-set to be an effective player at the next level. He is an above-average skater with great speed and a powerful shot, and portrays as a jack-of-all-trades, master of none type of player. His finishing ability and finesse skills are what hold him back and will limit him as a pro. That all being said, there are enough tools in the tool box to be excited about Hoeffel’s potential as a prospect. He will turn pro at the end of his senior season and is likely a couple of years away from being ready to challenge for a full time spot in the NHL.

16. (20) Mark Fayne, D, 6.5 C
Acquired: 5th round, 155th overall, 2005

Without a doubt the biggest surprise of any Devils prospect this year has been the quick rise and emergence of Fayne. He wasn’t amongst the group of blueliners considered to crack the team out of training camp, and started his professional career in the AHL with Albany. He got off to a strong start (one goal, three assists and a plus-five rating in 18 games) and was summoned to New Jersey in late-November with the parent club struggling and needing reinforcements on the blueline. He played as well as could have been expected in his NHL debut, but it wasn’t until Jacques Lemaire took over that Fayne’s game really took off. In 36 games, he’s recorded three goals and seven assists and owns a solid plus-six.

He may be playing slightly over his head, but under the tutelage of Lemaire, Fayne’s development has been rapid and very impressive. The mobile 6’3, 215 lb blueliner plays a safe game in his own end and does so with a calm and cool poise that bellies his age and relative lack of experience. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been his development offensively. He won’t scare anyone with his shot, but he always seems to find a way to get it through no matter what. Lemaire has been using him on the power-play a lot, and a big reason for that is because of his penchant for getting his shots through. He’s formed an effective defense pair with veteran Henrik Tallinder and at this point in the season has firmly entrenched himself as an NHL regular.

17. (NR) David Wohlberg, LW/C, 6.0 C
Acquired: 6th round, 172nd overall, 2008

Wohlberg has been on the bubble the past few seasons, jumping on and off the list, but has had a strong junior season thus far at the University of Michigan to help him climb back into the rankings. While his linemates have changed a fair bit, Wohlberg has been a staple in the Wolverines top-six group of forwards. His 14 goals through 36 games are second on the Wolverines behind senior Carl Hagelin (NYR).

While he likely won’t match the numbers he put up as a freshman or a sophomore, Wohlberg’s forte when he was drafted by the Devils was his defensive smarts and ability to play with an edge. He was drafted as a center, but has spent the majority of his collegiate career being deployed as a left-winger where he can use his elite speed to wreck havoc on the opposition. He is a very similar prospect to Hoeffel in that he does a little bit of everything well, but doesn’t quite have enough flash or offense in his game to be considered a future top-six forward. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him turn pro after his junior year, but it definitely wouldn’t hurt his development to return to Michigan next season as a senior.

18. (18) David McIntyre, C, 6.0 C
Acquired: Trade from Anaheim, March 2009

McIntyre always seems to get lost in the prospect shuffle, but is quietly going about his business in his rookie pro season in the AHL with Albany. He’s suited up in a team leading 56 of Albany’s 57 games, and while his offense has tapered off somewhat, he still has respectable season totals of nine goals and 12 assists. He played well in his first dose of AHL action last season after completing his four year collegiate career at Colgate and it shows in his steady play in his first full season in the league.

As is the case with many of the forward prospects towards the end of the top 20 prospects list, McIntyre’s bread and butter is his ability to play a strong two-way game while adding in a pinch of feistiness. He was a prolific scorer in college and while it hasn’t quite translated to the next level, he’s definitely no slouch in that area either. Already 24, McIntyre’s ceiling is not as high as other in the system and he will have to continue to show progress towards the end of this season and into next year to keep him on the Devils prospect radar.

19. (NR) Seth Helgeson, D, 6.0 C
Acquired: 4th round, 114th overall, 2009

Helgeson has taken a significant step forward in his development as a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, which helped elevate him into the Devils top 20 group of prospects for the first time. He’s been given much more responsibility this season by head coach Don Lucia. Helgeson has been on the Golden Gophers top defense pairing since the start of the season with senior Cade Fairchild (STL), playing the physical, stay-at-home defensive role to perfection while letting Fairchild play the role of offensive defenseman. He has suited up in 32 Golden Gopher games, while scoring one goal and six assists to go along with a plus-seven rating and a team leading 66 penalty minutes.

When evaluating Helgeson, one has to look past the raw numbers, because he is never going to be a big point producer. What Helgeson does bring to the table is size, strength and physicality. And lots of it. Standing at an imposing 6’5, 220 lbs, it’s scary to think that Helgeson is still growing into his frame and will continue to get stronger as he matures. He moves well for a man of his size and though offense is not his forte, he makes a good first pass and handles the puck relatively well. What you see is what you get with Helgeson. A potential shut-down defenseman in the making.

20. (NR) Curtis Gedig, D, 6.0 C
Acquired: 7th round, 204th overall, 2009

Rounding out this edition of the top 20 is Gedig, the third new entrant to the list. In his first year at Ohio State, Gedig has made a very smooth transition to the NCAA ranks after spending two seasons in the BCHL. A staple in the Buckeyes group of top four blueliners, Gedig has logged major minutes as a freshman and also seen extensive action on both special teams units. In 32 games, he has recorded 12 assists and plus-three.

One of the youngest players eligible for the 2009 draft, the Devils took a flyer on Gedig in the 7th round, knowing that he would have plenty of time to develop and to fill out and grow into his lanky 6’3, 190 lb frame. He plays a safe and simple style for the most part, but he has also shown the ability to make a crisp first pass a rush up the puck up the ice. He’s slowly learning how to use his size to his advantage, and as he fills out his frame, he should eventually become even more proficient in that area. It’s still tough to say how high exactly Gedig’s potential is, but he’s making a good impression as a freshman and will be an interesting prospect to track over the next couple of seasons.