New Jersey Devils boast solid skill and depth on blue line

By Jared Ramsden
Photo: Reid Boucher is one of three 2011 draft picks to make their debut in the top 20, the others are Adam Larsson, and Reece Scarlett. (Photo courtesy of DJ Powers/HF)

One of the most telling signs of how the Devils prospects as a whole have improved and evolved over the past several years is that former perennial top prospect Matt Corrente, once a lock for the top 5, is barely hanging on as a top 20 prospect now.

This group of Devils prospects might be the best the team has had in quite sometime and many of them are on the cusp of becoming full time NHLers. In fact, by the time the next ranking comes around, more than quarter of this top 20 list could be graduated.

The overall depth and talent the organization possesses right now, especially on the blue line, is exceptional and gives fans a reason to be excited after a dismal 2010-11 season. The core of high-end defense prospects the team has accumulated is quite impressive and given that it is currently a significant weakness at the NHL level, the timing is nearly perfect.

Though not all these players will hit their potential, a lot of them that appear on this list will likely being playing prominent roles in New Jersey in the not too distant future as the team undergoes a small youth movement.

1. (NR) Adam Larsson, D, 9.0C
Drafted 1st round, 4th overall, 2011

Larsson not surprisingly makes his debut at the top of the list after being selected by the Devils in the first round this past summer, giving the organization by far and away its most talented prospect since Zach Parise was drafted in 2003. Larsson just completed his second full season in the Swedish Elite League with Skelleftea, logging major minutes in all situations and contributing at both ends of the rink. He had a goal and eight assists in 37 games and was also a force for Team Sweden at the U-20 World Junior Championship recording four points in six games.

Simply put, there aren’t many weaknesses in Larsson’s game at all. He is a calm and poised workhorse who excels at both ends of the rink. Playing against men in the SEL for the past two seasons will undoubtedly help him adjust quickly to the NHL game, something that will happen sooner rather than later. He is already signed, sealed, and delivered and will compete for a roster spot in New Jersey this fall. For a team that has lacked an impact top pairing defenseman since the days of Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens, Larsson is exactly what the doctor ordered.

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

If not for Larsson, Merrill would have likely been the top dog again amongst the Devils prospects. He had a fantastic freshman year at the University of Michigan, picking things up very quickly and put up tremendous numbers along with receiving numerous accolades and award nominations at the end of the season. Merrill played on the top pairing, recording seven goals and 18 assists in 42 games and also stood out for the American entry at the U-20 World Junior Championship, earning a bronze medal while putting up five points in six games.

The Devils appear to have pulled off a major heist by getting Merrill in the second round of the 2010 draft. He has a sensational package of skills, great size, and showed the ability to quarterback the Wolverines powerplay with relative ease. With a glaring lack of puck-moving defenseman on the roster right now, the temptation to turn Merrill pro might have crossed the Devils mind. However the right choice was to keep him at the University of Michigan for at least one more season, with an eye towards possibly turning pro in 2012-13.

3. (3) Jacob Josefson, C, 7.5B
Drafted 1st round, 20th overall, 2009

Josefson’s fine showing to close the last quarter of the NHL regular season kept him at his previous ranking. A thumb injury took him out of action for a couple of months early in the season, but after a brief stint in the AHL he was re-called to New Jersey. Then-Head Coach Jacques Lemaire quickly took a liking to the cerebral Swedish pivot and used him as a lineup regular down the stretch. In 28 NHL games, he recorded three goals and seven assists.

Playing with composure beyond his years, Josefson looks poised to take the next step in his development as a full time NHLer with New Jersey this season. More or less locked into the top-nine, the sublimely skilled two-way center will eventually settle into a top-six role in the future. The team actually now might get a glimpse of what Josefson can do in the top six earlier than they expected with the recent off-season injury suffered by Travis Zajac that will sideline him for at least the first month and half of the season.

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

The fact the prospect with arguably the most natural skill of all the Devils prospects dropped two spots in the rankings is just one example of how much the overall talent pool of the organization has improved. Tedenby initially had trouble cracking the lineup on a regular basis after Lemaire took over for the fired John MacLean, but by the end of the year he had earned the trust of Lemaire and showed great improvement in his play away from the puck. In 58 NHL games, Tedenby scored eight goals and 14 assists and finished the year playing for the Swedish National Team at the World Championships where he put up a goal and two assists in a dozen games.

Tedenby was given significant minutes by MacLean, but he had to earn his ice-time under Lemaire, which in the long run is going to benefit him significantly. Quick, flashy and oozing high-end skill, Tedenby needs to play with players that can compliment his dynamic offensive ability. Just like his fellow countryman Josefson, Tedenby slots into the top-nine this season, but it likely won’t be long until he’s playing in the top-six. With Ilya Kovalchuk and potentially Zach Parise ahead of him long-term at left-wing though, Tedenby’s future may lie at right-wing.

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

In another organization, it’s quite possible that Urbom would be at the top of the defense prospect chain. He was once the top rated defender in the Devils organization, but the addition of Merrill in 2010 and now Larsson has relegated him to the third best blueliner, but still in the top five overall. Urbom started the year in New Jersey, but spent the majority of the season playing big minutes and honing his overall skills in the AHL with Albany. He led all Albany defenseman in scoring with 23 points in 72 games.

Perhaps expectations where a little too high for Urbom coming into the season, but it was a good year of development for the towering Swedish defenseman in the AHL. There doesn’t appear to be much room for him at the NHL level this year, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He is physically ready for the NHL and has a good offensive bent to his game, but he is still a little raw defensively. Another year in the AHL definitely won’t hurt him. By 2012-13, he should be ready to challenge for a full-time NHL job and long-term he should slot in a solid two-way second-pairing rearguard.

6. (8) Nick Palmieri, RW, 7.0B
Drafted 3rd round, 79th overall, 2007

It was a slow start for Palmieri this season in Albany, but once he was re-called to New Jersey at the end of December when Jacques Lemaire took over, his game took off. He played with Kovalchuk and Zajac for most of his time up with the big club and proved to be a nice complimentary player on that line. He used his big body well to create room for himself and provided a good presence in front of the net. He scored six goals and five assists in 26 games with Albany and nine goals and eight assists in 43 games with New Jersey.

After he was re-called to New Jersey, Palmieri was used in a role much better suited to his skills. Blessed with great size and good hands, it looks as though Palmieri has figured things out at the NHL level, and should only get better with more experience. He’s likely not ever going to be a star or a first line talent, but he’s living up to his potential as a top-six power-forward and will be given every opportunity to pick up right where he left off last season.

7. (6) Adam Henrique, C, 6.5B
Drafted 3rd round, 82nd overall, 2008

After a standout junior career, Adam Henrique made a smooth and effortless transition to the pro game. Early injuries to the big club forced him into a more prominent role in Albany and he thrived when given the extra responsibilities. He played on the top line (both on the wing and at center), and finished the year with an impressive 25 goal, 25 assist season in 73 games.

There’s not much left for Henrique to prove at the AHL level. The only problem is that there might not be room for him in New Jersey with the way the depth chart looks at this point in time. However Zajac’s injury could possibly open up a chance for him to start the season with the big club. It definitely won’t hurt him if he has to spend more time on the farm, but his mature and elite two-way play will force New Jersey’s hand sooner rather than later. He oozes character and intangible qualities that can’t be taught and will likely get a chance to play in New Jersey at some point this year and be a lineup regular in 2012-13.

8. (7) Eric Gelinas, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2009

Gelinas got to finish of his junior career with a bang after getting traded to the eventual Memorial Cup Champion Saint John Sea Dogs. He played more of a support role on the Sea Dogs as opposed to shouldering the load while when with Chicoutimi, but the experience Gelinas was able to get playing on a strong team and in such intense games will be invaluable in the future. He ratcheted up his physical play, while also contributing on the score sheet. In 62 regular season games combined with both Chicoutimi and Saint John he recorded 12 goals and 32 assists while in 23 playoff games (Memorial Cup included), he put up five goals and eight assists.

Perhaps no other prospect in the organization has as much boom/bust potential as Gelinas. The size/skill package he has is undeniable, but there is still a bit of rawness to his game, especially in his own end. He’s also still filling out his frame so the Devils still don’t know for sure yet what the finished product is going to look like, though the upside is there to eventually be a second-pairing defenseman. He is definitely in the right organization to fine-tune his skills and after a season or two in the AHL with Albany, the team should have a better idea of where Gelinas fits into the long-term plans.

9. (5) Brandon Burlon, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2008

Burlon’s continued his yo-yo like movement up and down the prospect list, but still maintained his spot amongst the top ten. The fact that Burlon is ranked as the fifth best Devils defense prospect just magnifies how deep the team is at the position. He bounced back in his junior season with the University of Michigan, playing on the second pairing and in all situations. He posted one of the best plus/minus ratings on the team while also recording five goals and 13 assists in 38 games. Unfortunately an illness sidelined Burlon for the majority of the Wolverines march to the Frozen Four.

There was the option for Burlon to return to Michigan for his senior season, but he felt it was in the best interest to take the next step in his career and turn pro. He’s not nearly as flashy as the defenseman ranked ahead of him, but skates well, plays a sound two-way game, and doesn’t make many mistakes. The competition amongst all the defenseman in the system over the next two-to-three years will be fierce and Burlon will be right in the thick of things in that regard.

10. (12) Scott Wedgewood, G, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 84th overall, 2010

Wedgewood is continuing his climb up the prospect ladder and is now the highest ranked goaltender in the system after a glitzy first season as a starter in the OHL with Plymouth. Though he began to slightly fade towards the end of the regular season, he caught a second wind and had a sensational showing in the OHL playoffs almost single-handedly carrying the Whalers to a first-round series win over the Kitchener Rangers. He had a 28-18-1-1 record in the regular season with a 2.99 goals against and .908 save percentage and won four games while posting a .923 save percentage in the post-season.

A bit of surprise at the time when drafted back in the third round of 2010, Wedgewood justified the Devils selection of him with the way he played this past season. He was constantly under-siege in the Plymouth net, but he seemed to be at his best when under pressure and has proven early in his career to be a big-game goaltender capable of carrying a team on his back for stretches. His play also caught the eye of Team Canada’s brass as he was invited to the summer evaluation camp for the U-20 World Junior Team. He still has a long ways to go, but he is on the right development path to eventually become a number one goaltender at the NHL.

11. (13) Matt Taormina, D, 6.5B
Signed as a free agent, 2010

If not for a freak mid-November ankle injury that sidelined Taormina and eventually resulted in season-ending surgery, he’d likely be graduated off this list. The Devils power-play struggled nearly all season, but operated at a very high efficiency when Taormina was manning the point through the first month and a half. In 17 games he scored three goals and two assists, while playing upwards of 20:00 minutes some nights.

Some people may have forgotten about Taormina since he missed nearly three-quarters of the season, but he provided a great puck-moving dimension from the back end that the team sorely missed as the season went on. He is undersized and not the best in his own end, but he is very comfortable with the puck on his stick and can make things happen offensively. He’s not a sure-fire roster lock, but it would be pretty surprising if he didn’t start the season with New Jersey. His ceiling is likely as a fourth/fifth defenseman but his power-play acumen should help allow him to make an impact.

12. (NR) Reid Boucher, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 4th round, 99th overall, 2011

For a guy who wasn’t selected until the fourth round this past summer, it’s quite impressive that he makes his debut as high as he has on the list. Boucher had no problem finding the back of the net all season long. For the USA Under-18 Development Team, he scored 24 goals (many of the clutch variety) to go along with 19 assists in 49 games. At the U-18 World Junior Championship, he continued to snipe with aplomb as he scored eight goals in six games.

One of the youngest draft eligible players, Boucher knows how to find the back of the net with great frequency. He has a lethal release on a laser-like shot and can pick the corner from anywhere in the offensive end. His defensive play is a work-in-progress, but it’s his goal-scoring ability that is going to take him places. His upside is tremendous and he could top out as a second-line sniper after some development time. He was committed to Michigan State for 2012-13, but he recently changed his mind and will now start playing for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL this fall.

13. (16) Mark Fayne, D, 6.5B
Drafted 5th round, 155th overall, 2005

With less than 10 games left until he burns out his eligibility as a prospect on Hockey’s Future, this is likely the list time you will see Fayne on this list. He literally came out of nowhere this season after spending four years playing college hockey for the Providence Friars. There were some bumps in the road, but for a guy who was playing his first year of pro hockey, he fared very well considering the minutes he logged as the season wore on. In 57 games he recorded four goals and 10 assists to go along with a tidy plus-10 rating for New Jersey.

Fayne doesn’t have the upside of the other defense prospects ahead of him on this list, but that is not a slight against him. He took well to the tutelage of the since departed Lemaire and even saw spot duty on the power-play as the season progressed. Fayne won’t have a spot handed to him based on his performance last year, but at this point, it would be surprising if he wasn’t on the team to start the season. He did play top-four minutes last season, but his long-term future lies as a bottom pairing defenseman who can play in the neighbourhood of 15-16 minutes a night. For a fifth round draft pick way back in 2005, Fayne has developed into a pretty solid player.

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

One of only three prospects that didn’t move up or down the top 20, Clermont’s occasionally spectacular performances during the QMJHL playoffs helped him maintain his position in the rankings. He had an off-and-on regular season, posting a sub-par .896 save percentage. He did however post a solid 28-10-1-4 record with a 2.55 goals against average. When the playoffs started, he actually found himself relegated to back-up duty, but once he got a chance to play again, he didn’t disappoint. Clermont caught fire, as he won 11 games, while recording a playoff best .927 save percentage and 2.22 goals against as he almost single-handedly led the Olympiques to an appearance the Memorial Cup.

Clermont recently signed an entry-level contract with New Jersey, and is ready for the challenge that the pro level will present. The athletic and highly competitive goaltender still has consistency issues to work on, but as he showed during the QMJHL playoffs, when he’s on his game, he can be incredibly difficult to beat. He does still have junior eligibility remaining, however it would be in the best interest for him and the Devils to find a spot for him in the pro ranks. The most likely scenario would see him playing in the ECHL this year, though the AHL isn’t out of the question. If Clermont can iron out his consistency, he has a chance to be a starting goaltender at the NHL in the not too distant future.

15. (NR) Keith Kinkaid, G, 7.0C
Signed as a free agent, 2011

The Devils took a few dips into a talented NCAA free-agent pool this year and came away with some players to keep an eye on in the future. The biggest catch however was the 22-year-old Kinkaid, a goaltender who had a phenomenal sophomore season with the Union Dutchmen. Named the top goaltender and to the first team all-Eastern College Athletic Conference, Kinkaid finished with a 25-10-3 record, 1.99 goals against average, .920 save percentage and three shut-outs.

With the departure of minor-league veteran Mike McKenna to the Ottawa Senators organization, there is an opening in Albany for another goaltender. By all indications, that is where Kinkaid will start his pro career, though Clermont will be nipping right at his heels. The mentally tough and technically sound Kinkaid will need some development time in the minors, but there is definitely the potential for him to eventually make the jump to the NHL.

16. (NR) Reece Scarlett, D, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 159th overall, 2011

The fourth and final prospect to make his debut on the list is Reece Scarlett, another 2011 draftee. A highly touted prospect going into the 2010-11 season, Scarlett didn’t have quite the year he hoped and fell all the way to the sixth round of the draft where the Devils gladly scooped him up. He played in all situations for a sub-par Swift Current Broncos team, at times playing nearly 30 minutes a night. He led all Swift Current blueliners in scoring with six goals and 18 assists in 72 games. His minus-37 rating is tough to look at, but that is more a reflection of the team he played on and also shows just how much he was relied upon.

Scarlett has a good set of tools that he often didn’t get to put to good use last year due to the struggles of his team. He skates well, and possesses above-average mobility and puck-skills. In his own end he is positionally sound, though he tends to get physically out-muscled to due his woefully undersized frame. There is a lot of raw projectable upside to like about Scarlett’s game, but he must get stronger and pack on some pounds and muscle if he wants to have a future at the NHL level. He was definitely worth the gamble in the sixth round and could turn out to be a steal as he has the ability to possibly evolve into a multi-purpose mid-pairing defenseman.

17. (11) Jeff Frazee, G, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2005

Once the only goaltending prospect in the organization, Frazee’s star has gradually started to fade and diminish ever since his outstanding freshman AHL season back in 2008-09. While his fall from grace is partly due to the major influx of talent the team has added to the organization the past few years, his inability to stay healthy and get into any kind of rhythm has hurt his stock in a big way. Just when it looks like he’s about to turn the corner again, an injury gets him off course. His numbers in Albany last season were respectable (2.90 goals against average and a .902 save percentage), but he’s only been able to play in 64 games the past two years combined after playing 58 in his rookie pro season.

The Devils still have faith in Frazee’s potential as evidenced by the new two-year deal he signed with the team this summer, but his margin for error is getting slimmer by the minute. He’s the only Devils goaltending prospect with any pro experience, but with Kinkaid and Clermont making the jump this year and Wedgewood to follow suit as early as next year, it’s of the utmost importance that Frazee stays healthy and gets his development back on track. It’s not time to write him off just yet, but his long-term future with the organization is cloudy at best.

18. (9) Matt Corrente, D, 6.5C
Drafted 1st round, 30th overall, 2006

How the mighty have fallen. Once a perennial top-five prospect in the organization, Corrente took the biggest fall on the list, slipping nine spots and almost falling off the list all-together. Much like Frazee, his fall has been due to a major improvement in the organizational talent base, along with his own inability to stay healthy. Corrente had a great opportunity to stake his claim on a full time NHL roster spot last season, but a broken hand and shoulder injury limited him to only 22 games with New Jersey, none of which came after mid-January.

Corrente may have an experience edge over many of the other defensive prospects in the organization, but unfortunately for him, it might be the only edge he has at this point. He has decent puck skills and plays a physical and at times nasty style, so it’s not as though he doesn’t have any talent, but his progress and development as a prospect has stagnated significantly. There are lots of younger, hungry and supremely talented defense prospects that are going to be pushing their way through the system over the course of the next few years so if Corrente wants to fend them off, he must find a way to stay healthy and take his game up a notch.

19. (19) Seth Helgeson, D, 6.0B
Drafted 4th round, 114th overall, 2009

With four new faces on the top 20 list, one would think a guy like Helgeson might have found himself on the outside looking in, but he showed a tremendous amount of improvement from his freshman season to his sophomore year at the University of Minnesota. He saw a significant up-tick in his responsibilities and ice-time, providing a steady and physical presence on the Golden Gophers backend. In 36 games, he scored a goal and six assists to go along with 66 penalty minutes.

Prospects like Helgeson often get lost in the shuffle, but there is a lot to like about his game. He uses his gargantuan and imposing 6’5 frame to his advantage as he is an above average physical presence, and nearly wins all his battles along the boards and in-front of the net. His skating and puck skills are average at best, but he is the type of player that could eventually grow into the role of a steady stay-at-home, physical third-pairing blue liner who can kill penalties. He has two years of college eligibility remaining and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Devils let him use both of them up.

20. (15) Mike Hoeffel, LW, 6.0B
Drafted 2nd round, 57th overall, 2007

Hoeffel was definitely a victim of circumstance this time around as he dropped five spots in the rankings. He actually had a very solid senior season at the University of Minnesota, but the addition of Kinkaid and three prospects from the Devils 2011 draft class pushed him down the list. A model of consistency over his four years with the Golden Gophers, he finished his senior year with 13 goals and 11 assists in 35 games. Hoeffel signed with the Devils shortly after the Golden Gophers season wrapped up and got his feet wet in the AHL as he dressed for 10 games in Albany, recording a pair of goals in the process.

A second-tier type of power-forward, Hoeffel lacks the finesse skills to likely ever emerge as more than a third-line player, but he has the physical skills and aptitude to thrive in a checking role at the next level. He does have decent in-close finishing skills and can be a nuisance around the net, but he won’t ever be known for his offense. His ceiling isn’t very high, so he might not need more than a year or two before he’s challenging for a spot in New Jersey’s bottom six group of forwards.