New Jersey Devils 2011 draft review

By Jared Ramsden
Photo: Fourth round pick Reid Boucher was one of the youngest players in the 2011 NHL draft. (Photo courtesy of DJ Powers/HF)

The New Jersey Devils were in unfamiliar territory, drafting inside the top 10 for only the third time in the last 20 years. Winning the draft lottery elevated them from eighth all the way to fourth and when all was said and done, the first three picks fell perfectly and enabled the team to nab a potential franchise defenseman. Much like when they took Scott Niedermayer third overall all the way back in 1991.

The Devils had six selections in total and selected three defenseman, two left wingers and one center. True to form, four of the six choices were American-born players (including three players that played in the USHL). The other two picks were a Swede and a Canadian as the team took a rare dip into the WHL.

Adam Larsson, D – Skelleftea (SWE)
1st Round, 4th Overall
Height: 6’3 Weight: 200 lbs

To anyone who watched the Devils play last year, it was obvious the team desperately needed some help on the blue line. Someone who could be a workhorse. Someone who possessed great hockey sense and composure. Someone who could lead the rush up the ice and play on both special teams units. Enter Swedish phenom Adam Larsson, a potential top pairing defenseman, who fell into the waiting arms of the GM Lou Lamoriello and Chief Scout David Conte fourth overall.

Upon first glance at his numbers, one might not be overly impressed. But there is much more to Larsson’s game than numbers. He logged major minutes and played with uncommon poise for a player of his age in a league against men. In his third full season playing for Skelleftea in the Swedish Elite League, the right-shooting Larsson played second fiddle offensively to David Runblad (OTT) scoring one goal and eight assists to go along with 41 penalty minutes in 37 games. He also put on a dominating performance for the Swedes at the World Junior Championships, scoring a goal and three assists in six games.

Simply put, there aren’t very many holes in Larsson’s game and many scouts and draft analysts feel he is ready to make the jump to the NHL. He is the complete package, capable of taking over a game with his size, skating and elite two-way skills. He’s likely not going to contribute elite offensive numbers from the backend, but he is more than capable of rushing the puck end-to-end, making great stretch passes with his superb vision and unleashing a hard and accurate point shot.

Larsson himself admitted he wasn’t surprised that he fell to fourth in the draft, but at the same time also said that he wanted to be the number one pick. The fact that the Devils landed a guy who could have been the first overall pick and was the consensus top defenseman in the draft was a fantastic break for a team that needed a blueliner like Larsson in the worst way. Does he jump right into the NHL next season? It’s absolutely not out of the question. Think of Red Wings great Nicklas Lidstrom, who just happens to be the guy that Larsson models his game after, when projecting what Larsson has the potential to become in the not-too-distant future.

Blake Coleman, C – Indiana (USHL)
3rd Round, 75th Overall
Height: 5’10 Weight: 198 lbs

The Devils went a little off the board with their pick in the third round that they acquired from Dallas in the Jamie Langenbrunner trade, and somewhat ironically, they took a native Texan by the name of Blake Coleman. A ’91 birthdate, Coleman was passed over last year but it was going to be harder this year for NHL clubs to pass on a guy who lead the USHL in scoring, was named both USHL forward and USHL player of the year and became the first player in the league since Tomas Vanek to record over 90 points in a season.

Coleman played a rambunctious physical game on the left wing in 2009-10 and recorded 10 goals and 18 assists in 58 games split between Tri-Cities and Indiana. This past season, he was moved to center, and there he took his game to another level, scoring 34 goals and a whopping 58 assists in 59 games to go along with an eye-popping plus-52 rating. Yes, he was one of the older players in the league as a 19-year-old, but even at that age, those numbers were mighty impressive. Coleman’s physical game toned down somewhat playing the middle playing a more offensive role for Indiana, but he still managed 72 penalty minutes and wasn’t afraid to drop the gloves if necessary.

While Coleman’s game improved tenfold with his move to center, his style and physical make-up seem to translate better to the wing, which is likely where his future lies as a pro. His game is all about grit, effort and tenacity, and that is how a lot of his offense is generated. His finesse skills, skating and play with the puck have improved a lot over the past two seasons in the USHL, but that’s not his bread-and-butter. However, the improvement in those areas combined with his other skills has turned him into an effective player and an intriguing prospect. His defensive play still needs some work, but that is another area that Coleman progressed in this season.

Coleman might not have a very high ceiling as a prospect, but he has an intriguing array of skills that could translate well to the next level as an energy/checking line type with the ability to chip in offensively. If he continues to work on his foot speed and defensive play, think of a John Madden style of player as a pro-level comparable. Coleman will head off to a good program at the University of Miami-Ohio this fall where the Devils will let him mature and round out his game for the next three-to-four years.

Reid Boucher, LW – USA U-18 Team (USHL)
4th Round, 99th Overall
Height: 5’9 Weight: 192 lbs

The pick of undersized sniper Reid Boucher in the fourth round by New Jersey could very well prove to be one of the best value picks of the draft. One of the youngest players available this year (he made the eligibility cut-off by one week), Boucher had no problem finding the back of the net for the USA Under-18 Development Team, scoring 24 goals to go along with 19 assists in 49 games. He continued his goal-scoring prowess at the U-18 World Junior Championship while playing on the top line with Rocco Grimaldi (FLA) and Jonathan Miller (NYR), scoring eight times (many of the clutch variety) in six games, enhancing his draft value even further.

Boucher’s best assets are his deadly accurate shot, his lightning-quick release, and his soft hands. It could be argued that he had some of the best natural finishing skills in the entire draft. More quick than fast, Boucher has good vision and knows where to park himself on the ice in order to get quality chances in the offensive zone. He doesn’t let his size keep him from battling for loose pucks as he does not shy away from traffic and has no problem physically engaging with much bigger opponents. He isn’t always going to win those battles, but it’s encouraging that he doesn’t back down. His defensive game is still a work in progress, but he has plenty of time to polish up that aspect of his game.

The bonus the Devils get with the selection of Boucher is that they get an extra year of development with him before he goes to college. The Michigan native committed to Michigan State at the age of 15, but won’t start his career with the Spartans until 2012-13. The Sarnia Sting own his CHL rights, but Boucher’s heart seems to be set on his home-state college. He likely will play this season with the USHL’s Youngstown Phantoms. With the natural goal scoring prowess Boucher possesses, this has the potential to be a home-run pick. New Jersey can afford to be patient with him and let him ripen in college.

Blake Pietila, LW – USA U-18 (USHL)
5th Round, 120th Overall
Height: 5’11 Weight: 189 lbs

The Devils made it three straight picks from the USHL (and three straight sub-six footers) with the selection of physical hard-nosed left-winger Blake Pietila, a teammate of Boucher’s on the US Under-18 squad. He was drafted right about where most scouting publications had him rated. Though he was deployed in checking-line role for much of the season, he still managed to produce respectable offensive totals of 13 goals and nine assists in 52 games. At the Five Nations Cup in February, he showed a little more offensive flair as he exploded for five goals and two assists in four games.

Pietila is never going to be confused for a finesse, offensively gifted player. In fact, his ceiling isn’t really that high. But he is a smart, hard-working grinder who competes hard every shift and relishes getting involved physically. His speed and quickness, which was once a big weakness, has improved exceptionally to the point where it can now be considered a strength. Short, stocky, and built like a fire hydrant, Pietila excels as a forechecker and is able to create turnovers due to his high hockey IQ and anticipation. Not surprisingly, he is also a top-notch penalty killer.

Originally committed to Northern Michigan, Pietila changed his commitment to Michigan Tech to play with his brother (who transferred from Northern Michigan) and cousin and will suit for the Huskies starting this fall. While the selection of Pietila may not excite many, he has the perfect skill set to thrive as a kamikaze style checking winger with a modicum of offense to his game. Perhaps he will develop more offensive at the collegiate level, but if he doesn’t, that shouldn’t affect his long term potential. Teams need players like Pietila in the lineup to be successful.

Reece Scarlett, D – Swift Current (WHL)
6th Round, 159th Overall
Height: 6’0 Weight: 164 lbs

As good a value as the Devils got with Boucher in the fourth round, it could be argued that the selection of Reece Scarlett from the Swift Current of the WHL was an even better value in the sixth round. Despite a down season, Scarlett was still projected by some to go as early as the second round. This is a classic case of the Devils taking the best available player as the value here was too good to pass up.

Scarlett played in all situations for the Broncos this season, shouldering a lot of responsibility and often playing upwards of 30 minutes a night. He led all Swift Current blueliners in scoring with six goals and 18 assists in 72 games. Though his minus-37 rating is definitely an eye-sore, it is more a reflection of the team he played on and also shows you how heavily the team relied on him. The heavy workload caught up to Scarlett as the season progressed as his small frame gradually wore down. He was invited to play at the World Under-18 Championship for Team Canada but had a below average showing, which can again be partially attributed to the fatigue factor.

The strengths of Scarlett’s game revolve around his mobility, puck distribution skills, and defensive zone awareness. He uses his stick well while defending and is sound positionally in his own end. He has some quality offensive skills, but he didn’t get a chance to showcase them very often this season for a Broncos team that struggled to put up much offense and was severely lacking in overall skill. What Scarlett must do to take his game to another level is bulk up and pack on some much needed muscle to his spindly 164 lb frame. He was often physically overmatched against bigger and stronger opponents. Adding strength will also go a long ways to improving his stamina and ability to absorb a heavy workload.

There is a lot to like about Scarlett’s game as he has puck moving skill and a lot of raw projectable upside, which explains why the Devils couldn’t pass him up here. While he clearly didn’t have a great season, playing on a struggling Broncos team contributed a great deal in that regard. He will return to Swift Current this fall where he will again be counted on heavily on what should be an improved team. His upside is that of a potential fourth or fifth defenseman capable of contributing in all facets.

Patrick Daly, D – Benilde-St.Margaret (Minn H.S.)
6th Round, 189th Overall
Height: 6’0 Weight: 180 lbs

With the Devils final selection of the draft, they selected Minnesota High-School Prep defenseman Patrick Daly from Benilde – St. Margret’s. He was unranked by Central Scouting. In 25 games, Daly recorded three goals and a whopping 34 assists, which was good enough to get him nominated for the prestigious Mr. Hockey Award that is annually handed out to the top high school senior in the state of Minnesota.

Daly’s standout tool is his elite level skating skill, which in this day-in-age is a great tool for a defenseman to have if he wants to have success at the next level. As his numbers last year indicate, he is also offensively skilled with good on-ice vision and passing skills. He also uses his high-end skating and mobility to help him keep good position and defend. Not the most physical player, that’s something Daly can work on as he puts on some muscle and fills out his frame.

In the seventh round, making a selection like Daly is low-risk, with the possibility of a significant high-reward should he pan out. Off to Wisconsin to join a strong Badgers program as a true freshman this fall, the Devils will give Daly all the development time he needs to reach his full potential.